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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Visco

The Anatomy of Sacred Art: Presence, Witness, and Transcendence

The Anatomy of Sacred Art

Part I: Presence, Witness, and Transcendence

By Anthony Visco

“I was there when he laid the earth’s foundation; I was beside him like an architect. I was his daily source of joy, always in his presence- happy with the world and pleased with the human race.” Prov. In praise of wisdom

As the Old Testament begins with the act of Creation and the New Testament with the Incarnation of Christ, the Judeo Christian world is constantly reminded as to how the act and art of making is so central to our faith. As the act of imitating Creator and creation has been with human kind since the earliest of all recorded forms and images, we as architects and artists, recognize ourselves as the “created” imitating the Creator. It is in and with this faith and imitation that we pay homage to the Creator. But it is also an act to seek and find our selves. At first as separate from the Creator and second and perhaps the greater part is to make in order to seek and find ourselves within the greater communion, the “God-made” whole. Our hopes are that what we make will fuse with what we believe and both process and product will bring all closer to our Maker. Thus to imitate Creation is to celebrate the very entry of the Mystery into Its own Creation.

To make sacred art is to wed one’s faith with one’s esthetics in hopes to bring even closer, “the created” to our Creator, to shorten the real or imagined gap between “the called” with the Caller. When the artist answers, when this invitation is met successfully, a covenant is formed; the work is sanctified. This covenant is then extended from God to artist and from artist to fellow believers and finally, and from both back to God again. It is this covenant that we wish to explore here. As faith and aesthetic works combine, the work in turn is employed to reflect those beliefs. As culture becomes infused with and by our trust and hope in God, sacred art becomes an indeterminate good, a means by which we may come together and witness the meeting of heaven and earth. Thus, sacred art can not ever be the same give and take between artist and society as secular art.

As Catholics in America, since the Sixties we have witnessed the wholesale destruction of beauty, of representational sacred art, in particular classical architecture, statuary, and good figurative painting and sculpture. As a result, the reciprocity between our origins and our beliefs seem all but absent as if a covenant that once was, has been broken or perhaps never existed. This destruction of beauty conscious or unconscious, presents certain and profound questions not only of aesthetics but also faith. They now need to be asked and hopefully answered.

First of all, can and did sacred art produce a covenant? What does covenant mean here? How does it differ from the secular “give and take” between artist and society? Does this covenant exist before the art is ever made? Can there be a covenant without value? Can there be a faith without an aesthetic? Can there be sacred art without a willful belief in beauty? Finally, did Modernism indeed break the covenant?

All these questions need to be and have been asked in one way or another for the last thirty years. Yet before answering such vital questions, perhaps some discussion to the sacred art of our past and present would help. Although the Church does not have or claim an official style, it has always held that its art and architecture should actively participate in its meaning and its message. Our architecture, sculpture, and painting may indeed be external examples of our faith, extensions of a covenant. Thus, they were never intended to be outside of our worship, at least not until Modernism.

All classicism, with its painting, sculpture, drawing, and architecture, has always been and remains a figurative and representational language. If it is not literal it is metaphorical as the language of “embodiment”. Our body’s design, reflected in bilateral architecture thus becomes an extension of body Creation. If the Church has or has yet to choose the classical mode as its official messenger, its preference is clear; in sign and symbol, classical art and architecture have always been corporeal and representative. But more importantly, what is the role of this corporeal sacred art in the Church? Why do we choose the body to reveal the invisible? For the Catholic Church the role and reason of using both the body and its corporeal architecture is triune. Combined, it is when and where the denotation, connotation, and implication join in order to embrace the entire faith.


As Catholics, cross-culturally this triune reason has remained the same for these two millennia; it is presence, witness, and transcendence. As guideposts, they together give the church artist the tools to make works that assist the faithful and guide them to the covenant. Much like its matrix architecture, the function of religious statuary in the church is to provide an experience of presence, give a sense of witness, and lead to a state of transcendence. In order to accomplish this, the classical has continually been employed as the best means.

The Four Attributes of Presence are:

1, Integrity

It must be whole, its members interrelated, nothing incongruous, a self-contained entity

To be whole, a self-contained entity must have its members interrelated. Nothing appears incongruous as its members and their relativity part to whole have an intelligible proportion. This use of proportion takes on a greater role when and where we find it in sacred art. Everything in creation is made in proportion to itself along with a proportion to everything else in the universe. As there is nothing without proportion whether it is matter or void, light or dark, sound or silence, and time, proportion remains an idea in the Mind of Creation.

Alberti speaks to us of “membratura” or the memberdness membrature of a building or body. In representational sculpture and painting, this interrelatedness becomes mandatory. We in it become emblematic of the Mystical Body. We are using the body not only as sign form here but also as symbol.

2. Similitude: It must show a proportionate likeness to what is recognizable, what is knowable about the known. It must have similitude.

Secondly a proportionate likeness to what is recognizable gives reassurance as to what is known and what is knowable about the known. In sacred and secular art likeness or similitude is the desire to have some likeness apparent and that some value it has been assigned to that which is depicted. Sacred art perhaps more than any other art form has for millennia struggled with this concept of likeness and for very good reasons. How do we represent the unseen without making the visible recognizable?

As classical proportion is the desire to know the comparative relationship of one part or member to the whole, and to its other members, in as much as it is resplendent in sacred art and architecture, what better metaphor for the Church itself. How much is this desire of the part to know its whole so like the desire of the faithful to know its part within the “Mystical Body”. Thus, everything good seeks to take on a divine proportion because everything has a divine purpose.

3. Composition

Its poise, position, and the composition of place must appear to be a result of its thought.

This third component, poise, position and the composition of place must appear to be a result of its thought. The placement, arrangement, and composition of sacred art need to reflect their purpose in terms of narrative content and the role of that content in our faith.

Just as our liturgy has an order, so must our art assist the liturgy in that order. Here, the physical place has meaning and through placement, the object helps direct us to the sacred within. St. Ignatius Loyola, (Spiritual Exercises, 1548) “to see with the eye of the imagination the corporeal place where the object one wishes to contemplate is found”. He calls this “composition, seeing the place”. However, when and where composition of place is not combined with purpose, when what we place in the center is not central to our faith, then content and context are no longer and we is comprised the covenant.

Like its secular partner, modernist liturgical art and architecture became overly dependent on place in order to achieve a sense of content. Just as placing sculpture outdoors didn’t make it public art, placing inside a church didn’t make it liturgical. The abandonment of bilateral symmetry discards the body and makes our architecture non-representative; statues cannot be replaced by non-objective works and be considered statues. Their content and placement must assist us in finding the order within the work, the sacred within ourselves.

4. Unity and Variety: It must contain both the average and the ideal

Lastly, all representative painting and sculpture contain both the average and the ideal in varying degrees of proportion one to the other. The Cimabue Crucifix, a Franciscan commission, provided a model for both painters and sculptors alike. This notion of gravity, the sense of human weight, of compound convex forms of its members, reinforced the message of the Poverello in his reminder that one could find the flesh of Christ in his nearest neighbor. But above all, it contained something of the average and the ideal in its form. Commissioned in 1252 by the Franciscans for the church of Santa Croce in Florence, it was a shift not only form the Christus Triumphans of the Medieval model to the Christus Patiens of St. Francis, but also to an anatomical model that opened the door for sculptors as well as painters. Anatomy had remained buried in the antique not to be unveiled and reinvented through Franciscan spirituality.

The need to demonstrate the effect of gravity on body weight, of convex form, of a greater sense of the average and the ideal gave the artists of the Quatrocento a means to depict The Incarnation. For the artist this means seeking and finding the average and the ideal in every portrayal is a human attempt to imitate the union of the human and the divine. We the average, the human, seek unity with the ideal, the divine just as God has revealed the humanity of Christ to all creation.

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