Sacred art, by its very nature, is catechetical. The purpose of this art was and continues to be a method of instruction. The Catholic Church, in its Latin and Greek Rites, and the twenty-six Catholic Rites that are in union with Rome, have all produced magnificent sacred calligraphy and art; non-Catholic faiths have done this, too.
Two thousand years ago Christians hiding in Rome inscribed images of Christ, the Blessed Mother and with the Christ child, and other Scriptural images on the walls of the catacombs. That art contributed to the catechesis of the early Christians. Two millennia later, Pope St. John Paul II in paragraph 18 of his Apostolic Exhortation, Catachesi tradendae, speaks of this function: it is “an education in the faith… in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.”
Sacred art, in tandem with scholarship, edifies and makes beautiful the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. One of my favorite forms of sacred art is that of the Coptic Christian Church (historically based in Alexandria, Egypt). Coptic art is presented in an especially down to earth way. It is beautiful and humble at the same time. It is catechetical and colorful. It possesses a fine palette, yet the viewer does not get caught up in the colors to the detriment of catechesis.
The Coptic faith’s icons are simple, yet, profound. They convey theological truths in a way that can be understood by all age groups and are excellent sources of catechesis.
The first image above is a 7th century Coptic icon. It was discovered at the Monastery of Bawit (Egypt) in the early 20th century by two French archaeologists who brought it, and other Monastery artifacts, back to Paris. Currently located in the Byzantine wing of the Louvre it is unique because it presents Jesus affectionately putting his arm around the Monastery’s abbot – Abbot Mena.
The second sacred image is my original composition. It is painted in archival ink, acrylic paint, and the halos are 23 karat gold leaf. My style slightly follows the Coptic in that it portrays figures that are not intimidating, are easily understandable, and act as a teaching tool for children and adults. It does present additional symbolism which further explains key theological truths of our faith.
Symbolism of the second sacred image:
The IC XC is the Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ.
The slightly larger than normal eyes represents holiness, spiritual wisdom, and maturity.
Jesus’ white alb (tunic): purity; King David’s light green alb: hope for spiritual growth and friendship with God.
Jesus’ outer garments consist of two parts: robe and stole which are painted in various shades of royal purple. Royal purple indicates kingly authority. The tassels of His stole are multicolored representing the intersection of purity and kingship. Christ’s lower stole’s has an intersecting weave representing Jesus’ blood and water shed for us on the Holy Cross. Liturgically, deacons, priests, and bishops all wear albs, cinctures (belts), stoles, and outer garments (dalmatic or chasuble). These articles of clothing each symbolize different aspects of Jesus’ Passion and ministry.
Elevated above Jesus’ left hand are the scrolls of the Old (Hebrew) and New (Christian) Testaments. The color symbolism for the Hebrew Scriptures’ scroll: green, which represents hope, expectation of the Messiah, and devotion to God. The Christian Scriptures‘ scroll: red, representing Jesus divine and human energy, love, Redemptive sacrifice, and His mercy and justice.
Jesus’ arm is around David’s shoulder. His gesture to David expresses His love, affection, and mercy which are evident and available to everyone. However, the expression that I put on Jesus’ face, especially His eyes, conveys the severe justice that Jesus’ renders to all non repentant sinners. David committed murder and adultery yet ultimately becomes aware of the enormity of his sins. His Psalms were written to plead for mercy, express sorrow for sins, and give praise and thanksgiving to God (see especially: Psalms: 1, 51, 56, 65, and 117). David’s crimson coat symbolizes human life and energy, it is trimmed in dark green symbolizing his hope for mercy.
Circa 1000 BC, David and his armies captured Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city (1 & 2 Samuel). King David is holding the city of Jerusalem in his right hand; and in his left the book of Psalms. David’s son Solomon built the First Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant (1 & 2 Kings).
Between David and Jesus are a ram and a new born lamb.
The ram refers to the sacrifice by Abram (Abraham) of a ram caught in a thicket in substitution for the sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22). Jesus and David are members of the same genealogical family, stretching all the way back to Abraham and Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob.
The newborn lamb represents Jesus Christ, the “lamb of God” (John 1: 29). He was given in sacrifice by the Holy Trinity for the Redemption of mankind from their sins. That Redemptive act by Our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, instituted the New Covenant which was sealed with His, the Lamb of God’s, blood.
The New Covenant does not replace the Old Covenant God made with the Hebrews. The New Covenant of Christ’s sacrifice (as described in the 27 books of the Christian Scriptures) fulfills the Old Covenant promise of a Savior found within the 45 books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The ram and the lamb provide the visible connection between the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Covenant) and Christian Scriptures (New Covenant).
The New Covenant is continued down through the centuries by the un-bloody sacrifice of Holy Mass. Selections from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are read. The Gospel is proclaimed prior to the priest representing Christ, in Persona Christi, transubstantiating the host and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
In faith and action Catholics consume His Body and Blood toward the end of Holy Mass. This consumption does not transform Him, as simple food, into ourselves. Rather, we (as repentant sinners) are transformed by Him (through Sanctifying Grace) into Himself. He doesn’t become part of us, rather, we become part of Him. This is an article of faith believed by all Catholic Christians of the Western an Eastern Rites of the Church. The reception of Holy Communion by Catholics is not a “right,” it is a privilege given by Jesus Christ to worthy (repentant and Reconciled) recipients (culminating in our giving eternal thanks and praise to Him in Heaven; see Matthew 26: 29).
Therefore, in this non-intimidating sacred image you have a teaching tool that includes elements of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. It is simple grist for any informed catechist’s mill.
UPDATE: If you find this subject interesting I recommend you read my post on Catechesis and Naive Sacred Art: St. Peter – A Lesson Plan, published on January 25, 2022. Thanks!
Copyright © 2011- 2021 by Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint essays and/or my paintings must be obtained from me by, using the comment box and making a comment/request on this post. I will respond to you through answering in the comment box. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of my essays as long as the proper credit and notation are given. Thank you.
4 thoughts on “Catechesis and Catholic Art”
This is the icon you painted for David. I know some of this article was printed on the back of his icon, but I will send him this post. Very beautiful!
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Thanks! I believe he is a subscriber to my blog!
Thank you for sharing your sacred image and the detailed explanation.
Thank you for your comment! I pray that you are well and safe from the virus!