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Beauty Will Save the World—But How? Part V: Liturgical Iconography

June 15, 2021


Continuing our look at how we identify and understand beauty in all its forms, we feature Denis McNamara, the Director of Benedictine College’s Center for Beauty and Culture. In Part IV, McNamara discussed the importance of liturgical music as a reflection of Christ’s own song to the Father. His conversation with Robert Mixa, the Word on Fire Institute’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Fellow for Catholic Education, follows that up with liturgical iconography and why it matters. 

Robert Mixa: Earlier, you mentioned Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whenever I think of Arnoldand we’re talking about the liturgy hereI think about Michelangelo’s Christ and the Sistine Chapel. I may be a little provocative in going down this route, but I’ve always been attracted to the icons of the East. I can imagine many Eastern Orthodox iconographers having heart attacks from sheer horror upon seeing Michelangelo’s art in the Sistine Chapel. There’s a very sharp divergence between the icons of the East and the art of the West. But, just as in liturgical music, is there a form of art that is proper to the liturgy?

Dr. Denis McNamara: Yes. It’s called liturgical art. Just like liturgical music, which is proper to the liturgy and has liturgical character, so liturgical art, by definition, is art that expresses the reality of the nature of the liturgy. So if you took a little paper cup and used it for the chalice, it would not be revealing the nature of the liturgy because the chalice is supposed to not only recall the Last Supper, it also fulfills the golden chalices at the temple of Solomon and anticipates the chalice, so to speak, of the cup of the heavenly banqueting feast of heaven. So a beautiful chalice has to be more than functional; it has to reveal what is true. A liturgical vessel has a sacramental role in addition to a practical role and historical source. It must reach into the heavenly future and show us what the feast of heaven would be like. In order to do this, a chalice must be made of elevated and precious materials and be finely crafted in order to make that reality knowable.

Then when you expand the vision of liturgical art, to say, the wall of a church behind the altar, you have to ask, “Who’s receiving the worship of the Mystical Body of Christ? What is the telos, or final end of the liturgy?” Of course, the answer is the glorification of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So it becomes logical to design a great mural that shows the persons of the Trinity. But God is not alone in heaven, since he is receiving the worship of the saints and angels—and even the worship of the souls in Purgatory, who are on the “edge” of glory but praising God nonetheless. So properly speaking, a great liturgical mural is not just a pious picture of a bunch of holy people. It actually shows the participants of the heavenly liturgy with whom we are worshiping on earth, something we could not see otherwise. 

This is where the Eastern theology of the icon can teach us something important. Logically, we ask about the nature of those heavenly beings. Would they still show the effects of the fall, or are they glorified and perfected because they share in the glory of Christ’s Resurrection? We learn from the Eastern iconographic tradition that saints—because they are in heaven—are shown in their heavenly condition where all the effects of the fall are removed, and their intellects, bodies, and desires are glorified. So in a sense, icons “distort” the human attributes to make sure that people know these are beings who are looking at the face of God and now share in the same glory that Christ showed at the Transfiguration. So you never see an icon of people being drunk, greedy, or fighting with each other. They’re always in supreme harmony and peace, and their expressions, gestures, and even their clothing show it.

But Eastern theology is also true for those of us in Western churches. When we want to show a saint in their liturgical condition, as distinguished from their historical lifetime, they’re not so much in the moment of their martyrdom, but on the other side of their martyrdom where they look at the face of God, delighting in Him, and singing “Holy, holy, holy” around the throne of God forever. So, by definition, a liturgical image will show saints in their liturgical act and their liturgical condition. It’s a great thing to make a painting of a saint in their lifetime, but then it becomes a historical image rather than a liturgical image. Again, both are good, but each has a distinct character.

If you just paint a person dressed up in a saint costume, then you’re making a portrait of someone on Halloween. That’s different from showing a saint as they exist in heaven—and that’s the key idea. It is also why they are beautiful, because they’re revealing their ontological reality. An iconic representation of a saint is a more beautiful rendition of a more beautiful person. A person’s full ontological reality is not to be fallen; it is to be glorified, because evil is an absence of good. Similarly, fallenness is an absence of full existence. So an artist who shows the saint in their glorified state is actually making something more beautiful because they are revealing a more beautiful reality.

Sometimes people say something like “We’re going to have a retreat, and we’ll learn how to be more fully ourselves and more fully human.” And the first thought might be that it sounds like some kind of goofy, undefinable fluff. But there’s something to that idea. Saints are more fully human and more fully themselves as God wants them to be, since being fallen means being less than you ought to be. When you’re more yourself in the ontological sense, you’re more ontologically perfect, more glorified, more conformed to the image of Christ, and then you’re actually more beautiful. And a liturgical image—what we might call an iconic image—captures that heavenly reality and brings it to earth for us to encounter. So by means of sacramentality, we actually see an angel, a saint, or even the face of Christ in art. This is the true vocation of a liturgical artist, and it is both a demanding call and an amazing opportunity.