Twelve Ethical Principles of a Christian Sacred Artist

My friends and fellow sacred artists, allow me to present to you my expression of twelve ethical principles that I have developed for members of the Fra Angelico Institute of Sacred Arts. These principles may be valuable to colleagues in other Rites and Denominations in fostering dialogue about these ideas. I write this as a preface to a series to follow at, on the spiritual and artistic values of Beato Fra Angelico. I perceive Fra Angelico as being one of the last artists of the Gothic Period in Western sacred art that was true to the tradition that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks of in his book Spirit of the Liturgy. Please see the Explanatory Notes that follow these twelve principles. They further reveal my understanding of these points. Upon further discussion with you, these Principles may be edited to reflect your contributions. Thank you.

                        Twelve Ethical Principles of a Christian Sacred Artist

1) A Christian sacred artist’s work is wed to a Christ centered spirituality of service and tradition (with both a small “t” and a capital “T”).

2) A Christian sacred artist bases his or her work on prayer.

3) A Christian sacred artist’s spirituality has its roots firmly planted in Sacred Scripture and Church history.

4) A Christian sacred artist’s spirituality is enlivened when he or she prayerfully unites their inner senses (common sense, imagination, cognition, and sense-memory) fortified by faith, to their creativity.

5) Christian sacred artists recognize that the main work of the Church is threefold: spreading the good news of Christ’s Gospel message, prayer, and for the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church providing the Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) to the faithful.

6) Christian sacred artists are a critical part of the liturgical work and prayer of the Church. They produce sacred arts that are sacramentals if they conform to the aesthetic, semantic, and theological principles of the faith.

7) Christian sacred artists believe that the grace of God compliments and strengthens their technical expertise.

8) Christian sacred artists believe that the act of making their work, and the finished product, is not just art; it is communion with the great mystery of God made visible in Christ and His saints.

9) Christian sacred artists who are members of the Western and Eastern Rites recognize that the creation of sacred art may be viewed as a liturgical act.

10) Christian sacred artists produce art that clearly teaches and preaches the lessons of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and the Creeds of the Church, thus allowing their artistic message to contribute toward individual and congregational transformation in Christ.

11) Christian sacred artists are aware of the teachings of the 7th Ecumenical Council (2nd Council of Nicaea, AD 787) as it applies to icons and the role that the contributions of St. John of Damascus played in its debates.

12) Western and Eastern Rite sacred artists are aware of, and subscribe to, the principles that apply to sacred art within the writings of their spiritual leaders.

Explanatory notes – the numbers below correspond to the number of the specific Principle above:

 1) The small “t” relates to cultural norms of a specific Rite or denomination. The capital “T” refers to Church Tradition as specified by Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church, and the many hierarchical pronouncements proclaimed by Popes, Patriarchs, and Bishops of the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church.

2) Christian sacred artists undertake a great spiritual responsibility. This responsibility requires that the artist be firmly rooted in faith, grace, and prayer for they are promoting the truth, goodness, and beauty of Almighty God, His angels, and saints. Sacred artists are assisted in this by understanding that certain artistic schools or methods, an example being abstract expressionism, have no place in the sacred art of the Church.

3) This unity allows a sacred artist, through prayer, to walk the various paths of Holy Scripture and experience the moment that the Scripture, or story of the saints, presents to the soul. This experience feeds and transforms the sacred artist by affecting the clarity, line, and color of their art. This is how Beato Fra Angelico experienced the Crucifixion, and according to Vasari, as he painted it wept over the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice. In this process Fra Angelico prefigures Ignatius of Loyola by about 100 years in the ability to experience the words of Holy Scripture within his imagination. The use of the word – “imagination” – does not mean or imply “fantasy,” nor does the person at prayer “make-up” images not found in the Gospels or Church history. St. Andrei Rublev, Beato Fra Angelico, St. Ignatius of Loyola and others utilized this type of prayer experience to affect their work.

4) What is prayer? The saints tell us that prayer is the turning of the heart toward Our Lord God and allowing the mind and heart to sincerely speak words of love to Him. It is the connection, the sharing, of rational mind and free will to conversational intimacy with Our Lord, His angels and saints. The sacred artist enters into communion with God through prayer and this communion comforts and assists the sacred artist in their work.

5) The Western and Eastern Rites go a step further and affirm that preaching the Gospel message and delivering the Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) is critical for the spiritual health and salvation of God’s people.

6) An icon is a sacred image (confer John 1:14). An iconographer follows specific traditions of craftsmanship and specific elements of Theological (Scriptural and dogmatic content), Semantic (the visual language of the icon, appropriate perspective, the use of light, line, and color to create form, and correct use of signs and symbols within the icon), and Aesthetic principles (the quality of beauty with the icon itself). These three principles are based upon the sacred Tradition of the Church. The history of the Western and Eastern Rites illustrates that the sacred artist has continually moved through different artistic periods and technical understanding. As it relates to sacred art, the Western Rite of the Church moved out of an Iconographic period into the Gothic period, and then onto the Baroque period. The Eastern Rite stayed within the period of Iconography that developed out of the early centuries of the Church. Cultural conditions, access to earth pigments, and artistic differences affected the Iconographic period within the Eastern Rite of the Church. It is important to note that within the Western Rite a sacred image is an image that is created of a historical holy person or religious scene; however, the artist allows their full creativity and personal interpretation to enter into the craftsmanship and artistic process. Personal creativity and technique, while present within Iconography, is not seen as an important issue. An example of an icon is St. Andrei Rublev’s image of Christ, or his icon of the Holy Trinity. An example of a sacred image is Pietro Annigoni’s image of St. Joseph and the child Jesus in Joseph’s workshop, or Masaccio’s Holy Trinity. I am indebted to one of my teachers of iconography, Marek Czarnecki (whose teacher was Ksenia Pokrovsky), for clarifying the elements of theological, semantic, and aesthetic tradition for me.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI provides a wonderful overview of the three periods of sacred art within the Western Rite in his book Spirit of the Liturgy. You will notice that he does not include the Renaissance within the three traditions. Historical research has shown that Renaissance artists were not inspired so much by prayer in the production of their art; rather, they were motivated by the desire to please themselves, their patrons, or the profit motive. Some of the Renaissance sacred images do have spiritual value and can motivate the viewer to prayer and communion with God.

Icons, sacred images, woodcarvings, calligraphy and other sacred arts if based on the Holy Gospels and Church Tradition spread the good news of the Gospel. The sacred arts are sacramentals when they point the way to God. Sacramentals are blessings. The seven Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) provide the grace that interiorly heal and nourish us. Sacramentals, however, assist us in the exterior visualization of Our Lord Jesus who made that process possible through His Incarnation. It also assists us in the visualization of His angels and especially His saints, who modeled Jesus in their own lives. To picture this one has only to view an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, and remember his words that “A true hope seeks only the Kingdom of God…the heart can have no peace until it obtains such a hope. This hope pacifies the heart and produces joy within it.” Christian sacred artists are “hope filled” people.

7) Within the Western Rite, it is believed that “Our justification comes from the grace of God which was merited for us by the Passion of Christ. Grace is a participation in the life of God. Justification is conferred through the Sacramental grace of Baptism. Grace is the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to His call to become children of God, adoptive sons and daughters, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life” (confer John 1:12-18; 17:3; Romans 8: 14-17; 2 Peter 1:3-4). As the Council of Trent teaches – grace is known by faith – and as Our Lord teaches in Matthew 7: 20 “You will know them by their fruits” (confer Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, paragraphs 1987 through 2005).

8) Contemporary Greek artist and iconographer, Dr. George Kordis, writes of this principle in his book Icon As Communion.

9) In the Western Rite, liturgy as defined in the New Testament, “refers not only to the celebration of divine worship but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity” (confer Luke 1:23; Acts 13:2; Romans 15:16, 27; 2 Corinthians 9:12; Philippians 2: 14-17, 25, 30. Confer Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition, and paragraphs 1066 through 1209). The work of a sacred artist (this of course includes all the sacred arts) can be viewed as a liturgical act because it provides a service to our neighbor, in that the sacred art elucidates the reality of the truth, goodness, and beauty of God by providing a means for the individual to hear or visualize that reality. The sacred artist assists the Church in making the reality of Christ present within the community of believers. Sacred artists, by providing this service, are participants in active charity. They aid in providing a “visible sign of communion in Christ between God and men” (confer paragraph 1071, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition).

10) Transformation in Christ is a spiritual process. Writers within both the Latin and Greek Rites of the Church and the various Protestant denominations have extensively written about it. The Holy Bible, the Philokalia, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and many other writers provide very helpful advice on this topic.

11) Christian sacred artists, as they study iconography and the various manifestations of sacred art need to also be aware of the significant contributions of Leonid Ouspensky, George Kordis, Aidan Hart, David Clayton, Jonathan Pageau, and the Monk Patrick Doolan. There is enough wisdom in their words and works to advance the studies of any serious Christian sacred artist.

12) Some of the Popes have expressed valuable artistic insights, which will assist the Western sacred artist in their comprehension of their task. A few examples of this are: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, and Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei. The encyclical Mediator Dei explains in paragraph 187, that “Three characteristics of which our predecessor Pope Pius Xth spoke should adorn all liturgical services: sacredness, which abhors any profane influence; nobility, which true and genuine arts should serve and foster; and universality, which, while safeguarding local and legitimate custom, reveals the catholic unity of the Church” (Pius XII referenced this from an Apostolic Letter of Pope Pius X of November 1903). These three principles, when united with the principles of aesthetic, semantic, and theological truth, provide the Christian sacred artist with a firm foundation on which to build their creative work.

Thank you for reading this and I look forward to your comments, Deacon Paul O. Iacono.

Copyright © 2011- 2017 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved



St. Andrei Rublev’s Christ (completed 1410, above) and his The Trinity (1411, or 1425-27)trinity-rublev-1410



Masaccio’s Holy Trinity (completed 1428, above) and

Annigoni’s St. Joseph the Worker (altarpiece, completed 1963, below)annigoni, st joseph


7 thoughts on “Twelve Ethical Principles of a Christian Sacred Artist

  1. Deacon Paul,

    Thank you so very much for this wonderful and insightful synopsis about the Christian Sacred Artist. It is going to be a great help for me as I periodically re-read this to assess if I am being faithful to the call form Christ. It is my friend Michael D O’Brien, the Catholic author and painter who has assisted me with such generosity in coming to understand in a deeper way just what I have been called to. For so many years, I painted and it brought me great joy. Spiritual themes were often part of the works but as time passed I began to paint what inspired me through the reading of scripture or other spiritual reading. It was only after conversing much with Michael that I began to grow in understanding of what God has given me, even with all of my technical limitations. I have read St. John Paul’s Letter to artists and Catherine Doherty’s as well. I hope you do not mind that I send you my website to view the works of late. I think you can see the change from the early days to today, which is also a road map of my journey into and with God.

    God bless you Deacon Paul. I am so pleased to have found Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts! I did not realize for a long time that even with primitives or naïve style that I could be considered an artist. God calls us to paint with who we are, with what He has given us. Praise God in the Highest Heavens!

    Christine Oskirko

    Barry’s Bay, Ontario



    The Art of Christine Oskirko is a website dedicated to the sacred art of Christine Oskirko. A gallery of original paintings for sale.


    • Mrs. Oskirko,
      Thank you so very much for your kind and much appreciated comments.
      I wish you well in all your work and may the Lord Bless you and your family.
      May you continue to have a prayer filled Lenten season and a joyous Easter!

      Deacon Paul

  2. Dear Deacon Iacono,As a research scholar and iconographer who has written about the function and meaning of one of the greatest paintings of the early Renaissance, I think you may be interested in my book The Epiphany Altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano: Liturgical, Patristic, and Apocryphal Sources, painted in 1422-23. Having come from a neutral, scientific approach, you may be reluctant to take a look, especially since I had to study the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and popular legends through the eyes of a former Protestant, for which reason I may have made a multiplicity of errors. If you read most art historical analyses of this work, neither the altarpiece nor their interpretations would meet your twelve standards. If you read my interpretation, it does. However, I would like to suggest that art that is not “sacred” such as that which you dismiss as Abstract Expressionism as a kind of hedonist work in which the artist as only having a concern with money or fame, I think you might inquire further as the whole of AE is an unconscious response to the mind-numbing reality of nuclear weapons as I discussed in my book Art After the Bomb. To force one’s self to think only within a rigid structured conformity to an illusion of a wider truth is to sacrifice all “rationality,” the rational you otherwise seem to profess.Best wishes and with human kindness, Darrell D. Davisson, Ph.D.

    From: Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts To: Sent: Sunday, March 26, 2017 2:25 PM Subject: [New post] Twelve Ethical Principles of a Christian Sacred Artist | |

  3. Dear Doctor,
    Thank you for your comments.
    I acknowledge the ability of Abstract Expressionism to express the perceptions of 20th century artists and the horrors of wars, social and psychological confusion, and angst over potential nuclear destruction of the planet, yet, I feel it has no place in a Western or Eastern Rite liturgical setting. Why? Because it potentially sows confusion, lack of clarity, multiple interpretations in meaning, and it directs people away from the clear message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    Men, women, and children are in great need of sacred spaces that allows them to connect with God who is the source of all truth and beauty.
    Yes, at times, Scriptural truth can be paradoxical. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI quotes St. Augustine in an essay (“The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” 2002) that truth and beauty are sometimes like “the contrasting blasts of two trumpets.” He goes on to explain that the Liturgy of the Hours, during the Season of Lent, has Jesus being presented as “the fairest of the children of men and grace is poured upon your lips,” (Psalm 44) and then during Holy Week, the Liturgy of the Hours presents an image of Jesus (after being beaten, scourged, and maltreated by the Romans) as having “neither beauty, no majesty, nothing to attract our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him” (Isaiah 53, 2). So, yes, I am aware of these paradoxes, and the contrast, not contradiction, that is inherent within them. We have faith that the average Western and Eastern Rite person can understand this complexity, too.
    The Western and Eastern Rites of the Church have a very specific Truth with which to evangelize men and women – and that is the Truth of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior.
    Jesus showed us that the “beauty of truth also embraces offense, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it” (Benedict XVI, 2002). This embrace, in light of Jesus’ Truth, is what needs to be presented in liturgical spaces. Fra Angelico, and many others, were brilliant at presenting exactly that in an extraordinarily beautiful way.
    I do not dismiss Abstract Expressionism. I merely refuse to say that it is appropriate for liturgical use. Sacred artists have the responsibility to make sure that the art they craft to be used in a liturgical setting – whether personal or communal – leads to the Beauty and Truth which is Jesus Christ Himself.
    Thanks again for taking the time to respond to my post. I look forward to reading your books.

    Deacon Paul Iacono

  4. Thank you, Deacon Paul for your thoughtful post and openness to further discussion. Expressing or defining a contemporary Iconographic perspective is challenging, and I think you have made a very good beginning. I look forward to more posts in the future.
    Christine Hales

    • Hello, thank you for responding to my post. Yes, I look forward to hearing from others before I amend the “12 Ethical Principles.” I have already received a valuable insight from David Clayton.
      Discussion is paramount and contributions critical if the “12 Ethical Principles for a Sacred Artist” is to be accepted and used by the sacred art community.
      Deacon Paul Iacono

  5. Pingback: Seeking God – American Association of Iconographers

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