Fine Arts Column: Christian art and evangelization


For all its variance and vacillation of creed and custom, humanity nevertheless continues to hold the fine arts in high regard. At worst, they are esteemed as a harmless endeavor, perhaps unimportant but nice in their own way. At best, they are hailed as a hallmark of culture, an endeavor of aesthetic, intellectual and historical significance.

Much debate could be made about the quality of any work of art, but what is more simply assessed is the quantity of works in any given genre. I reflect on this because of a curious habit that some outside the Church have when they assess contemporary culture. It is a foible for which they may be forgiven – they are not Christian and understandably fail to see why there should be anything Christian about the world around them unless they should choose to engage in it as such. The Church, so the thinking goes, has something to offer, but it is something which is only of value to its members, not to anyone else.

This simply cannot be true, and in large part this is because of the Church’s undying patronage of the arts, which has produced so many works now regarded as masterpieces. Without the Church, our artistic heritage would be a great deal more impoverished.

Barely any time is needed to demonstrate this effectively. Casually namedrop the Sistine Chapel, Lord of the Rings and Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and you no less fail to exhaust the sheer breadth of the art born of faith than you succeed in calling to mind countless other similar works of beauty. Austen, Dickens, O’Connor, Giotto, Brahms, Liszt, Dickinson, Palestrina: all of these were inspired by their faith in their art. Even artists who perhaps struggled with their faith or didn’t practice any religion have been nonetheless formed by great religious works before them and have written, painted, composed their own Masses, Crucifixion scenes, theocentric novels.

This last point is particularly of note. If a soul who may be unmoved by a verse from St. Paul may still be brought to tears by the Reqiuem of Maurice Duruflé, it falls upon us to ponder how we may reach out to non-Christians by means of our art.

Clearly, there is something universal about the language art speaks, because it speaks to what is true, good and beautiful. Moreover, we have the capability through art to indicate when something or someone is so out of this world as to command the lost virtue of reverence.

When we enter a Catholic church, its interior should suggest Whom it houses. (Thankfully, more often than not, this is the case.) When we evangelize, ought we not to bring others to Christ through our joy, through “the peace which surpasses all understanding” in a world which knows so little peace? Ought not a passing soul, when encountering Christian art in the liturgy, in a book, in a painting, anywhere and in anything, be moved enough to wonder at it and to desire to find out more?

The world in which we live is beset by deep wounds, and the Church, who is in the world, feels these wounds no less. Where art allows us to give voice to this common suffering and our fullness in Christ, we have a unique opportunity to bring wholeness to a broken world.