Giving life to a statement of faith through religious art
In his “Letter to Artists,” St. John Paul II wrote, “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”
During the Middle Ages, most religious art was commissioned by the Catholic Church. Serving a similar purpose of stained-glass windows in churches, other forms of art also served to teach the Catholic faith to many who could not read, illustrating Gospel teachings, the life of Christ and the principal beliefs of Catholicism. They were often called the bibles of the poor.
These teachings of faith have been crafted throughout history into works of art through a variety of media including paint, mosaic, sculpture, tapestry and etchings. They embody St. John Paul II’s observation: “Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.”
It is not surprising, then, that the Nicene Creed, a Christian statement of faith, has been the subject of Church art for more than 1,700 years. As a statement of faith, the Creed is Trinitarian, professing belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and providing a succinct summary of the Gospel and principles for living a Christian life.
Among the expressed articles of faith in the Creed are Jesus’ divinity; His incarnation; His suffering, death, resurrection and ascension; and our salvation — all of which have been the subject of some of the most famous works of art in history.
Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci and Raphael are known worldwide and have influenced millions with their portrayal of Christian religious themes.
Michelangelo’s Pieta, a world-renowned sculpture of Mary holding Jesus in her arms after His suffering and death on the cross, and his famous Sistine Chapel fresco, The Last Judgment, are among his myriad creations representing important articles of Christian faith.
Among those works of art with, perhaps, the fullest image of the Creed is the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, by Raphael. This fresco, located in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, depicts scenes from heaven and Earth, God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Communion of Saints, the Church on Earth and the Holy Eucharist. A monstrance sits on the altar as the Doctors of the Church discuss transubstantiation.
But there are myriad artists, continuing into modern times, who have helped build the bridge between art and spirituality, increasing faith and devotion among those who are drawn to their work.
The 20th century gave birth to a number of influential and inspirational artistic works, including Salvador Dali’s painting, Christ of St. John of the Cross, and the massive statue, Christ the Redeemer, which overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro.
In the Great Upper Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the creed is given special attention in one of its five distinctive domes: the Incarnation Dome, the Redemption Dome, the Trinity Dome, the Sanctification Dome and the Glorification Dome.
During his 2015 visit to the Basilica, Pope Francis blessed the preliminary segment of mosaic created for the Trinity Dome containing the words of the beginning and end of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God” and “Amen.”
Today, the completed Trinity Dome encompasses the great mystery of the Catholic faith, the Most Holy Trinity, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels and saints, encircled by the Nicene Creed.
In considering the significance of religious art, one artist stands out— Fra Angelico, a 15th century Dominican friar beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982, and declared as patron saint of Catholic artists two years later.
As a young friar he illuminated missals and manuscripts but eventually created magnificent frescoes of Christ, Madonna and Child, the Last Judgement and the saints inspired by his faith in God. This simple and holy man is considered one of the most influential artists of his time, because his paintings drew people in, leading them to encounter Jesus and Mary and to reflect on the tenets and mysteries of faith.
“In him,” said Pope John Paul II, “art becomes prayer.”
— Originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.