Pictorial Art as an Opportunity for Liturgical Design

St. Ambrose of Milan, ink drawing on calfskin (detail)

I am an artist whose medium of choice is ink drawing at a small scale; almost all of my work is religious in subject. The artistic tradition to which I try to be faithful is ancient and disciplined, corroborated by the exegesis of the church fathers and by the sacred liturgy.

Despite that, most of my work is not (strictly speaking) liturgical, displayed in churches or used during the celebration of the sacraments or the divine office. My medium of choice is one reason for this. Another is that I do not actively seek commissions that preclude me from making the best work of art that I am able. Unfortunately, many commissions that come from ecclesiastical institutions are of this kind.

I have observed other artists spend a large part of their creative energy fighting for permission to make the best work of art possible. Liturgical designers and architects, who depend almost entirely on institutional patronage, are especially impeded this way. Why? Money is one reason, obviously. But another is the sad fact that in most churches, any strikingly traditional, beautiful or interesting work of liturgical art will provoke a hostile reaction. The patrons are aware of this; a pastor who wants to commission a truly excellent new tabernacle or chalice or chasuble knows that he might be attacked for it from any direction: from his hierarchical superiors, from other priests or from petty, vindictive parishioners.

A few are willing to brave this for the greater glory of God; others have a stronger instinct for self-preservation. What emerges then is a sort of just-traditional-enough and just-beautiful-enough liturgical art. Its shape and materials satisfy the requirements of law and tradition. It is not ugly or weird; rather, it is plain and unremarkable. It avoids provoking a hostile reaction simply by being easy to ignore.

Now I do not pass judgment against patrons of this sort of art; a tabernacle or chalice or chasuble that is just good enough is incomparably better than one that is bad. Under conditions where it is the best thing possible, it deserves to be celebrated. Neither do I pass judgment against the artists, who are doing what they are asked to do. Still, it seems truly regrettable that the best work that so many artists are able to make remains in their imaginations. How much of it will be forgotten altogether before better conditions for patronage arrive? It also seems nearly impossible to build a desire for great liturgical art among the general population of churchgoers if they are never shown anything especially memorable.

Certainly, I do not know how to bring about a world in which liturgical designers are regularly asked and paid to make things like the Basilewsky Situla or the Eltenberg Tabernacle or the Gozbert Censer, or architects are regularly asked and paid to build things like the stave church at Borgund or the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. But I do think that pictorial art - drawing and painting - may have an important role to play in preserving the traditions and furthering the arts of sacred architecture, metalwork and vestment-making in the present day.

St. Hugh of Lincoln, ink drawing on calfskin (detail)

A drawing or painting of a priest celebrating Mass is an opportunity for an artist to design a chasuble, a chalice and paten, an altar and a church interior. Saints who were priests, deacons, bishops or abbots are traditionally depicted in liturgical vestments. A commission to draw St. Thomas of Canterbury or St. Benedict is an opportunity for an artist to design a cope, morse, miter, chalice and crosier - and to do better than just-good-enough, or at least to try.

An especially interesting crosier is more readily tolerated in a drawing or a painting than in the hands of a bishop or abbot. If I want to elaborate traditional bestiary symbolism by designing a crosier with an ivory-carved newt for its head, snails for crockets, marble spheres for knops and a narwhal tusk for its terminal shaft, I can do that. I don’t even need to ask permission. And who knows? Perhaps some day my drawing of St. Hugh of Lincoln will inspire an artisan to make an actual crosier like this (presumably substituting carved wood for the ivory parts).

I have, over the past two or three years, come to find a special enjoyment in the design work that is ancillary to pictorial art. I want nothing in my drawings to be perfunctory or unoriginal; I design tile patterns and carpets for floors, tracery and stained-glass windows for walls, damask patterns for curtains and vestments. I design capitals and bases for columns, sanctuary knockers for doors, alphabets for inscriptions. I advise all illustrators and painters of religious art not to neglect this aspect of their pictures. We have, perhaps, fewer constraints on our creativity and traditionalism than artists working in any other medium.

St. Francis of Assisi, ink drawing on calfskin (detail)

Not being a liturgical designer or an architect, I am hesitant to advise them on their own business. But I do wonder how many have considered using drawing or painting as a way to present their best ideas. If they have been frustrated again and again by instructions to tone down their designs, or by a lack of funding, or by a lack of interest, why not put those ideas to paper or panel and sell the results as works of art in their own right?

Architectural drawings can be things of great beauty, especially if done with decorative borders and calligraphed descriptions. I would love to see the ecclesiastical equivalent of an Achilles Rizzoli design an entire city full of ideal churches in various styles. I would want to own prints of these. I would love to see an architect follow the work that the young Eugène Viollet-le-Duc did to illustrate Baron Taylor’s Voyages Pittoresques et Romantiques, building decorative borders for the pages of books out of architectural forms.

And there is only a small difference between architectural drawings and art drawings in which buildings are prominent. A trained architect may be the artist best suited to making a cycle of illustrations of Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple. Were he to paint a panel of St. Jerome holding a miniature church, this traditional attribute would undoubtedly be interesting. Other saints might best be depicted by a trained goldsmith, or a maker of vestments; certainly most artists working in these media can draw well, or can learn to draw well.

And if, perhaps, they are inept at pictorial composition or figurative art, they might entrust that part to an illustrator or painter. Conversely, illustrators or painters who have no talent to design fabric or clothing or metalwork or architecture might ask a liturgical designer or architect to do this for them. I wonder if a sort of religious artist collective might be possible, in which artists and artisans in various media regularly contribute to each others’ pictures.

Mass of St. Gregory, ink drawing on calfskin (detail)

Now the point of liturgical art is, obviously, not to look good in pictures, but to be used for the sacred liturgy. But in difficult times, it is better that it survive (and profit its designers) as an adjunct to pictorial art than disappear entirely for want of willing patronage. Drawings and paintings have many more potential buyers than church buildings and liturgical objects, including the entire population of laymen and laywomen. Most of them do not need to worry about the reaction to their commssioning a work of art in the way that a pastor does!

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.