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 fraangelicoinstitute.com, 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

Images:

Christ-Pantocrator.-Andrei-Rublev.-1410-1420s.-The-central-part-of-the-iconographic-Deesis-of-Zvenigorod.-Moscow-The-State-Tretyakov-Gallery

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

 

Masaccio_Holy_Trinity

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

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

 

The Feast of St. Lawrence – Deacon and Martyr

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon and third century martyr. St. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome who ministered to the people and acted as the Pope’s administrators.

Lawrence died in the year 258, four days after four other deacons (their names were Januarius, Vincent, Magnus, and Stephen) and Pope Sixtus II were martyred as a result of celebrating the eucharist (Holy Mass). Their arrest occurred in the cemetery of Callistus. On the same day, by the order of the emperor Valerian, they were beheaded.

There is little historical evidence remaining on St. Lawrence. His Acts had been lost by the time of St. Augustine in the 4th century. The tradition of the Church states that he was a native of northern Spain and was ordained by Pope St. Sixtus around the year 257. The Pope made him responsible for the distribution of the Church’s alms.

Carl Brandon Strehlke mentions (in his contribution to Lawrence Kanter and Pia Palladino’s magnificent collection of essays and images on the life and works of Fra Angelico) that controvery with the story ensues at this point – the date of his martyrdom. Some accounts state that  Lawrence was martyred under the emperor Decius (AD 249 – 251) and others insist that it was under the reign of Valerian (253 – 260). Regardless, the Church’s tradition states that Lawrence was martyred soon after the emperor Valerian issued an edict in early August of 257, requiring all bishops, priests, and deacons to be denied a trial and immediately be put to death. Valerian’s  command was carried out.  Lawrence is purported to have said, as the Pope and the deacons were being led to torture, “Where are you going, Holy Father, without your son? Where, O Bishop, without your archdeacon? Before you never approached the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you are going without me?”  Pope St. Sixtus was said to have commented that he would soon follow them.

The emperor Valerian’s administrators came to St. Lawrence and demanded access to the wealth of the Church. Lawrence asked for a few days to assemble it; but, ever resourceful, between the 6th and the 9th of August, St. Lawrence distributed much of the treasury to the poor. On the third day, when he was supposed to hand over the monies, he presented himself to the prefect, and then led them to a room in the Vatican. There he presented the blind, the poor, the sick and maimed, and with the force of  a saint declared:  “Behold the jewels of the Church!”

Valerian ordered that Lawrence be taken out and martyred – slowly – in payment for his cheeky behavior toward imperial dignity. On August 10, 257, St. Lawrence refused to renounce our holy Faith, and subsequently was roasted on a gridiron used for beef cattle. Legend says that he was of good humor to the very end – instead of giving in and releasing information on the whereabouts of the remaining two deacons and the additional monies, he simply said to the Roman executioners: “I’m done on this side! You can turn me over now!”

You can understand that this story of faith and heroism had to be proclaimed and visualized. And close to 1200 years after the event, one of the finest painters in the Western tradition – Fra Angelico – was called to complete the task. The good Dominican friar was selected by Pope Nicholas V in 1447 to decorate a Vatican chapel dedicated to the two most famous archdeacons of the Church – the first century martyr St. Stephen of Jerusalem, and the 3rd century martyr – St. Lawrence of Rome.

Fra Angelico successfully completed the task the Pope set for him. He linked the narratives of their stories together so that they convincingly expressed the main elements of each saint’s life. They are true catechesis as well as beautiful art. I have included one of my favorite images from Fra Angelico’s rendition – it portrays St. Lawrence in an exquisite rose colored dalmatic (the garment which signifies the deacon’s service and loyalty to his bishop – in this case the bishop is Pope Sixtus II). It shows him distributing the Church’s monies to those in need. It was painted (fresco) between 1447 – 1449 and is approximately 9 by 7 feet.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Fra Angelico and Your Mission as a Sacred Artist

The following is a homily that I gave during the Inaugural Mass of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts which occurred on Friday October 28, 2011 at St. Francis of Assisi Church (Diocese of Providence) in Wakefield, Rhode Island USA. The Institute can be contacted at frainstitute@cox.net  for membership information. We are on Facebook at Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts.

Tonight’s inaugural Mass of the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts falls on the feast day of two Apostles – Saints Simon and Jude Thaddeus. The Gospel for today’s feast, speaks of how Jesus called the disciples together and selected twelve of them to be Apostles. They traveled with Jesus during His ministry, received the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and were sent to preach the Good News of the truth, goodness, and beauty of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Saints Simon and Jude Thaddeus, along with the other Apostles, had the courage, and the fervor, to lead people to the faith and to support them in their understanding of its meaning for their lives. Their witness cries out to us“Continue our mission.”

When my wife Jackie and I founded the Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts in 2009 we knew it would be a missionary effort; and that as a lay apostolate of the Church, with a cleric – myself – as its director, it exercises a specific ministry through the permission and blessing of His Excellency Bishop Thomas Tobin, our pastor Monsignor Paul Theroux, and our chaplain Father Joseph Upton.

The document entitled Apostolic Activity, the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, defines the mission of all adult Catholics to “lead non-believers to the faith and to instruct, strengthen, and encourage the faithful to a more fervent life; [so that they may understand that] God’s plan for the world is that men [and women] work together to renew and constantly perfect the temporal order.”  The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts was formed primarily to contribute to accomplishing these goals.

But how do we do that?

Our mission is to deepen the prayer life of all our participants by evangelizing the truth, goodness, and beauty of God through the understanding and creation of sacred art.  I emphasize creation of sacred art because, as artists, novice or veteran, we have been given the grace to appreciate, care for and the desire to create sacred art in all it’s various forms.  Our Institute has twelve Guilds within it and each Guild is a specific branch of art in which the artists produce sacred art at their own pace, with complete freedom, and with the understanding that their final product should reflect and promote faith in the truth, goodness, and beauty of God as taught by the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

We cannot help but reflect that the Florentine artist whose name graces the title of our Institute – Fra Angelico – and whose actual name in religious life was Brother John of Fiesole  – Fra Giovanni – as he was known by his fellow friars, quietly worked as a Dominican in and around the city of

Florence during the early and mid 15th century, painting and illuminating masterpieces whose beauty haunts us to this day. His art radiates stunning simplicity and has a profound ability to preach the truth, beauty and goodness of God, His angels and His saints.

A Third Order Dominican – Eleanor Carlo has written:

               “Preaching and religious art are related in that each is concerned with communicating truth and beauty. Since Dominicans are called to preach the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith, not only by word and example, but also in every possible way; it follows that if one happens to be an artist in the Dominican Family, he [or she] will endeavor to lead others to God through [their] art.   As St. Catherine of Siena relates in her Dialogues there are many roads and ways that God uses through His love to lead people to Him. [Sacred] Art is the way of beauty, a road that leads directly to Him, if we are so blessed as to be led along this road.   Because their inspiration comes from God, the preacher and the artist communicate with a sense of mission. Mission implies the giving of self – and the motive of the mission is Love.  [Sacred] artists are ardent preachers who have been inspired by God and have been given gifts for interpreting the Gospel and spiritual reality.  Fra Angelico is among those who point out things we often fail to see without their help.” (Ms. Carlo’s remarks were taken from part of an address given in March 1978 at Providence College entitled Creative Preaching Through Art: The Dominican Contribution)

Yet , as foundation stones of this Apostolate, it is our belief that this mission is not just for artists within the Dominican Order. All Catholic artists – ordained, professed religious, or laypersons have the ability to reach deep within the human mind and soul and restore the fires of faith and love for God. Like Saints Simon and Jude – we have been called to continue the mission of the Apostles in a special way. Catholic artists, in the state of grace and creating art for the sake of evangelization – their own and others – have the power to change the perspective and habits of the most hardened soul, and that is the hope of this Institute: to study, pray, and produce art that inspires others to a greater love for God and His Kingdom.

May God bless you for your sincere interest and participation in this Institute; and may saints Simon and Jude Thaddeus, and Blessed Fra Angelico, pray for us.

The painting above of the infant Jesus is by Fra Angelico and it is a close-up of the painting entitled Madonna delle ombre (Madonna of the Shadows), painted around 1450. It is a fresco painted in egg tempera. It is located in the Museo di San Marco in Florence. 

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved