Church Statuary: Moving Beyond "Art de Saint-Sulpice"

Statuary is something which I sometimes find myself wishing there was less of -- not because I am against statuary but rather because there is now so much modern statuary out there that is so very lack lustre. Much of this has to do with mass production and the sentimentalism that came out of the 19th century -- what is often termed "Art de Saint-Sulpice."  If you are not certain what this refers to by name, you are quite likely familiar with it at least by sight because it is extraordinarily common and considered by many -- regretfully -- to be "traditional" Catholic art (which is really isn't):

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Outside of statuary, it often turns up in forms such as these:


In addition to its rather sentimentalist qualities, it has the further strike against it of also being rather cheaply made. In the realm of statuary, of course, these are not proper carvings of wood or stone but  hollow moulds of plaster and resin. This would be at least more tolerable if the visual language were better. Is it the worst thing in the world? No, but neither is it anything near the best we can offer and in many instances it approaches kitsch. Surely "making do" is no more sufficient here than it is with polyester vestments or electric votive candles?

Price point is often a justification of course, but it would seem better to have a smaller number of beautiful and qualitative objects of sacred art, worthy of the Church and her liturgy, than a legion of the lack lustre. Where poverty is a legitimate issue this is an entirely different matter, but very often it seems as though this argument is based upon the false necessity of quantity, which quality is thereby sacrificed to.

Very often too the decline in sacred art in our churches today is blamed upon iconoclastic motivations within the liturgical reformers. While there was indeed a kind of iconoclasm at work in the mid-20th century on the part of some liturgical reformers, not every instance of this activity was iconoclastic. It seems that one of the underlying motivation's which influenced some of the developments in 20th century liturgical art was a desire to rise above this sort of mass-produced, rather sentimentalist art. Whatever one might think of some of the designs used during this period, which were often needlessly minimalist and/or primitivist, they often at least employed real materials. For example, altars were often made of stone or marble; statues, while often rather primitivist in form, were carved and made out of wood or stone. Instead of plaster reliefs with electric lighting on altars, we often saw mosaic work. In short, there was an apparent emphasis on a certain authenticity and quality of material and there were also some proper instincts at work here, but what is unfortunate is they were often executed in a spirit of rupture rather than continuity. (We would also see other areas where there was an inverse regression away from the authentic and noble, such as moving away from silk vestments to less noble materials.)

Turning back to the 19th century, notable exceptions could be found within this period that had escaped this sentimentalism. I am specifically thinking here of the English gothic revivalists; men such as AWN Pugin, Sir Ninian Comper and George Frederick Bodley.  A side by side comparison of these with the previous examples is truly striking.

Here are some examples of what statuary could be -- and arguably should be:

Statue of the Virgin Mary, Farm Street, London.
Photo credit: Lawrence Lew, OP

Statue by Sir Ninian Comper, St. Wilfrid's Cantley, South Yorkshire
Photo credit: Dr. Allan Barton
Statue by Sir Ninian Comper, St. Wilfrid's Cantley, South Yorkshire
Photo credit: Dr. Allan Barton
Derby Cathedral.
Photo credit: Patrick Garrington Photography
St. Sebastian, Downside Abbey, by Sir Ninian Comper
Photo credit: Lawrence Lew, OP
St. James, Spanish Place, London
These are just a few examples of some particularly fine church statuary. Some may, of course, suggest that this is merely idealism and that the "art de Saint Suplice" is 'good enough.' To that idea I would ask, is it idealism to seek after qualitative vestments made of noble materials rather than those made of cheap materials? Is it idealism to reject the notion of electric votive candles instead of proper wax candles?

These arts, like all the liturgical arts, by our desire to put our very best into them -- or not -- speaks volumes. Lest we forget, sacred art, like the liturgy itself, teaches.  We would do well to ensure that our sacred arts teach what we intend through their beauty and quality.
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