Art for the Sake of Grace

I’d like to explore how we can bring about a revival of the arts by coming to understand our own role as patrons – the value of supporting artists, the tradition that our Catholic artists can both maintain and add to, and how to tell a cornball from a Work for the Ages. It underscores the value of a liberal arts education even for those who enter other professions – the responsibility remains to invest some of our wealth in the renewal of the culture.

This series will feature interviews with various Catholic artists, focusing on getting the word out about whatever their current works include and trying to learn how the Internet has helped them to connect with patrons. Are you a Catholic artist? Do you know someone who is? Please sign up and I'll be in touch with you about setting up a blog interview!

Agnus Dei

Image of a young ram prepared for slaughter, by Spanish painter Zurbarán

Image via Wikimedia Commons

We went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston this morning for the first time—they’ve had a traveling exhibition of Spanish painting on loan from the Prado and we’ve been meaning to get there for weeks. The exhibition will only be on view through Sunday, so I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it. I’m quite glad we made it.

This painting, in particular, made an impression—not only because we were viewing it on Good Friday. I’ve actually been to the Prado before, back in the mid-90s, but I must confess that I didn’t even remember the artist, Francisco de Zurbarán.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols A Tiber River Review

Mike Aquilina’s Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols is a quick read that provides a comprehensive foundation for further investigation into Christian symbolism. I was given a review copy of the book before a family trip that included many museums full of medieval art, and I found it to be a helpful overview for me and my older children.

Signs and MysteriesAquilina excels at writing about the early Christians in a way that makes them seem like long-lost relatives. This book is informative without being too academic in tone for a popular audience. As he says in the introduction, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion – an act of piety towards our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived.” I enjoyed the mixture of testimony from Church Fathers, detailed illustrations showing replicas of actual Christian art, and citations from other contemporary sources.

Each chapter is a short overview of a symbol, exploring its roots in Jewish or pagan culture and showing how it was given new meaning by the early Christians. It’s a great way to learn more about the diverse groups of early Christians, including the Copts in Egypt and the earliest Jewish converts. I learned about several symbols I wasn’t aware had Christian meaning, like dolphins and peacocks, and Aquilina includes intriguing details like the hidden meaning of the “Sator Arepo” square.

Books like this one are a great way to start breaking open the central ideas of our faith. Christian symbols can be the “hooks” that draw us into a deeper understanding of a particular teaching, or allow us to see new spiritual insights in familiar images. I think this would be a great component of a course on either art history or the Creed – it’s short enough to be read in one sitting but organized in a way that makes it easy to refer to a specific chapter if you happen upon a symbol in a church window or a painting that is unfamiliar. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about the early Church. My middle schooler found it pretty easy to understand, so I would say it’s appropriate for young adolescents on up, although that’s not to say it wouldn’t be perfect for adults as well.

I wrote this review of Signs and Mysteries for the free Catholic Book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.

Aquinas and More is the largest on-line Catholic bookstore.

I receive free product samples as compensation for writing reviews for Tiber River.

A Transformative Weekend ~ The Maryvale Institute's Diploma on Sacred Art

Before we begin, let us first consider the elements to which the author has applied the descriptor “transformative” in the past seven days:

  • 85% Dark chocolate
  • Evernote
  • Vacuum-seal travel bags
  • Greek yogurt
  • Mint-infused simple syrup as basis for mojito (Y’ALL.)
  • Steam mops
  • Buc-ee’s

Therefore, it could be argued that the description of the diocese of Kansas City’s course on Catholicism and the Arts as “transformative” employs a term deprived of any sense of meaning by its hyperbolic application to any and every new experience enjoyed by the author.

Having accepted this premise…

YOU SHOULD GO. You should go next summer, when they are going to offer the course again, and you should become steeped in the wisdom of the ages.

Look at all this wisdom of the ages:

Taking notes with Evernote


I had expected an immersion in how to understand Christian art – what do the numbers symbolize, what’s that flower in the corner supposed to mean, how come Mary wears blue, that kind of thing. And the course certainly will include discussion of the traditional language of Christian art through various styles. But this class, in particular, does so within a context of how we can rediscover and reestablish a Christian approach to art in the modern world.

So much of the material we discussed is percolating in the back of my mind right now, and this weekend was only the beginning. The weekend seminar I attended was the launch of a year-long distance learning class offered by the diocese of Birmingham (England’s) Maryvale Institute in conjunction with the diocese of Kansas City. Attendees had the option of just coming to the initial weekend to enjoy the classes and conviviality with fellow artists and, uh, appreciators of art (yours truly).

I’ve elected to take the full course, which should take a year to complete. The class is intended to form catechists in understanding how to draw upon our rich heritage of sacred heart for evangelization and for our own devotion. The Maryvale Institute is a Catholic distance learning college offering programs in catechesis, theology, philosophy, and religious education:

Part-time distance learning means that students can follow stimulating and complex courses of study leading to publicly-recognised awards whilst maintaining their existing vocational, family and work commitments. In this way the Institute gives new possibilities of access to formation and to the immeasurable treasures to be discovered in the Christian Tradition and in contemporary Church teaching and thought.

Oh, there’s so much more to say, but for now I’ll just tell you to MARK YOUR CALENDAR for next July, so that you may attend this – yes- transformative event. And great thanks to everyone involved from the Maryvale Institute and the diocese of Kansas City.

Goin’ to Kansas City ~ The Maryvale Institute's Diploma on Sacred Art and Beauty for Artists

Catholicism and the ArtsI’m heading to Kansas City this weekend for the start of a year-long course on Catholicism and the Arts, led by David Clayton of The Way of Beauty.

The opening residential weeked for their course, Art, Inspiration and Beauty in a Catholic Perspective takes place in Kansas in July is intended both for working artists and those interested in art (with the thought that you might become the future knowledgable patrons of the art). The weekend is run by course director Dr Caroline Farey with whom I worked closely in Birmingham when the course was first launched and I will teach too. Maryvale’s mission is to deliver degree level education to working, mature students.

And, just so’s we’re clear, I fall under the following categories:

  • “those interested in art”, and
  • “mature students.” (hoping this is clue for “older than 22.”)

I’m so excited to begin this course. I took an art history class in college and loved it, but that’s about it as far as my actual knowledge of art, and given how long ago college was, and how dark the classroom was early in the morning…well, let’s just say I could benefit from a refresher.

So, stay tuned as I blog my way through the class, and consider enrolling yourself next summer!

This is my first experience with taking a Honest to Goodness Real Class post-college; have you done anything along those lines? Was it for professional development, personal enrichment, or escaping small children? (Oh, I shouldn’t have said that – my sweet son just said “I hope you have a good time on your trip, Mama.” He’s excited to get to spend the weekend at Grandma’s, and not just because she has a Wii.)

Art For the Sake of Grace

I’ve been reading up on Christian patronage of the arts throughout, you know, the sands of time. I’m trying to go roughly in chronological order, and to understand the stories of the people who funded the incredible treasury of Christian art through the ages – whether we are talking about small congregations who commissioned a fresco or super-wealthy-kinda-sketchy bankers who funded a Renaissance. Here’s one snippet that struck me:

The Via Salaria Sarcophagus…provides a frieze of images that can be, but do not have to be, read as Christian. At this date, we can be sure, most artists or craftsmen did not work exclusively for clients of one religion…nor does it seem to be inconceivable that it was made for a husband and wife only one of whom (in such cases usually the wife) was Christian.

John Lowden, Early Christian & Byzantine Art (emphasis mine)

Emily Stimpson has a terrific article posted at OSV right now on the need for Catholic art to be transcendent and beautiful on its own merits, not just because it’s created by Catholics. I was particularly intrigued by Dr. Eugene Gan’s remark that “Despite the great message and intentions of its creators, media that’s not skillfully made inadvertently communicates that perhaps the message is not the best, that there are “better” truths elsewhere, and that we don’t have what it takes to make a great case for truth.” There’s a healthy debate going on in the comments over the merits of There Be Dragons, in particular, and the question of whether this demand for excellence in Catholic media is beneficial or creates a cultural divide that can hurt up-and-coming artists. I really encourage you to check it out, and also to enjoy Simcha Fisher’s response to the article – “when you tell a better story, people listen to what you have to say.”

Out with the Frying Pan; Kindle a Fire*

This idea of creating images that can be, but do not have to be, read as Christian – it’s counter to much of the current approach Christians take to creating works of art. Rather, we end up with works that are a heaping helping of catechesis with less concern for the narrative itself.

And yet I’m not willing to say we should always sneak our Catholic Message in through a side door and hope nobody notices while the crowd goes wild over our fantastic film/statue/film about a statue. It’s just that we need to cut back on the “hit viewers over the head with the frying pan of TRUTH!” approach to the arts, and focus on good storytelling, whatever the medium.

Over at Korrektiv, we talk about Catholicism and the arts almost as often as we make obscure inside jokes under assumed names. We’ve been having quite the conversation sparked by the OSV article, and I loved Barbara Nicolosi’s comment that “we need to see ourselves as bequeathing beautiful things to the future, not just swatting back at liberal gnats in the present.” We can focus with tremendous intensity on avoiding media that offends or mocks us, but we don’t do much to nurture the artists in our midst.

Cultivating Patrons

I’d like to explore how we can bring about a revival of the arts by coming to understand our own role as patrons – the value of supporting artists, the tradition that our Catholic artists can both maintain and add to, and how to tell a cornball from a Work for the Ages. It underscores the value of a liberal arts education even for those who enter other professions – the responsibility remains to invest some of our wealth in the renewal of the culture.

I’m going to be featuring interviews with various Catholic artists over the next several weeks, focusing on getting the word out about whatever their current works include and trying to learn how the Internet has helped them to connect with patrons. I know all this talk of patrons sounds like I mean Decorating Daddy Warbucks’ Home with Catholic Fountains (doesn’t it?). But really, $20 can cover a donation to an independent film, a graphic novel, a St. Patrick print (perfect for his upcoming feast day!), or…salad, pasta, and a drink at one of America’s many fine interchangeable restaurants. It doesn’t have to take One Special Patron for an artist to succeed, and I want to encourage us all to reclaim that responsibility.


Spread the Word


Are you an artist? Do you play one on TV? Do you know a Catholic artist, one who would be interested in answering a few questions for me? Put your name and email address right here so that I can contact you:

And can you help pass this along to others who might be interested?

*Winner, “Blogosphere’s Corniest Punchline,” 2012