Sacred Art and Modernism

Pieta, Michelangelo, marble, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome, 1499. 

Sacred Art and Modernism

Cornelius Sullivan

Presented at Honors Colloquium, Perspectives on Modern Art,

March 19, 2014, Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, FL​ 

How did we get from Renaissance Art, faith embodied, to Abstract Art, art without recognizable content, and to Conceptual Art, art which is completely disembodied?  

The Renaissance

As you enter Saint Peter’s Basilica the first chapel on the right is graced by Michelangelo’s marble Pieta. There is always a small crowd, and the silence there rises above the distant din. No-one speaks.  Pilgrims are not disappointed, they will remember seeing something that looked like a vision. 

The artist in the Renaissance began training with a master in a guild at age twelve because talent was seen as a gift from God. They learned by copying, as their masters had done before them. Unlike in Modern Art, there was no pressure to always do the newest thing or to shock. 

Authority in art went from the guild to the university, from those who do, to the experts who judge. For example, in the United States, with its Puritanical beginnings, Harvard University has always deemed that the study of making art is not a suitable occupation for a gentleman, whereas the study of art history has been acceptable. 

Those who critique rule. Those who make, still make, but at the margins of society.  

Artists from another time had a significant place in society, Columbia Art Historian James Beck said, “The most remarkable meeting of Renaissance artists ever recorded, and arguably the most extraordinary encounter of its kind in history, occurred on January 25, 1504, (in Florence) when some two dozen painters, sculptors, artisans, and architects were convened to take up the question of the appropriate location for Michelangelo’s all but finished marble David.”-1. 

The group included; the painters, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, the architect Guilano da Sangallo, the sculptor, Andrea della Robbia, and more artists and artisans.

A group of two dozen and no theorists, no critics, no politicians, no lawyers, no lobbyists, only those who do, those who make. 

David, Michelangelo, marble, 1504, Academia, Florence. 

” Seen by itself the David’s body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we look at the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world never knew. I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not part of most people’s idea of civilization. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilized life. It is the enemy of happiness. And yet we recognize that to despise material obstacles, and even to despise the blind forces of fate, is man’s supreme achievement; and since, in the end, civilization depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man.” -2.  

David, detail, Michelangelo, marble, 1504, Academia, Florence. 

Protestants may insist that the faith is about the word and that the fact that Christianity began in the Hellenistic Greek cultural world is not important. Pope Benedict said that the wisdom of Athens, along with the wisdom of Jerusalem, must be considered in understanding the early church. Greek sculptors made the gods as beautiful men with bodies. Then God became man, not as an idea, not as a theory, but with a body. 

Pope Blessed John Paul II has privileged representational figurative art in his “Letter to Artists of 1999”.

“The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.” 3.

Christ on the Cross, Michelangelo, black chalk, 1541, British Museum, London. 

Modern Art and Modernism

How did we get to Abstract Art? In 1619 rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes split body and spirit. Then Immanuel Kant with a new kind of subjectivity laid the foundation for Modern aesthetics, in his “Critique of Judgment”, where human consciousness sets the terms for reality itself. -4. 

Modern Art is a product of Modernism the philosophy, the world view, that influenced all aspects of life and culture and still holds sway today.  

The characteristics of Modernism that come into play with regard to art are: 1. Subjectivism, (everyone is an artist) 2. Rationalism, science is prized over artistic knowledge, 3. Dualism, privilege of mind over body, separation of mind and body 4. Anti-Traditionalism, lets tear it down and start over. 

Art is both form and content. In Late Modern Art, form and content were split asunder, in a way similar to the way that Descartes split body and spirit, and it was like Reformation Iconoclasm taking the body off of the cross.  Content alone, Conceptual Art, devolved into trite jokes. Form alone, Abstract Art, a painting about paint, is as inane as a poem being solely about the alphabet.  

When form and content were partners vying for supremacy in Early Modern Art, exciting things happened. The push and pull of form and content, the interaction, is what can give art depth. Eventually, the forces, some theoretical and some financial, to separate form and content prevailed. The energy of the Early Modern era faded after a while.  

Note how form and content worked together in Early Modern Art:


Monet’s Impression Sunrise, from which Impressionism gets its name. 

Van Gogh’s Starry Night, We believe the sky is sky and yet we know it is paint.


Rodin has understood Michelangelo’s Neo-Platonist idea of the figure in the marble block. We are aware of the “uncovering” process. 

In Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky we recognize the Modern composer but we also see how the line asserts itself. There is a good tug of war between form and content. 

Descartes’ attack on the body and taking the body off of the cross led to disembodied art. The contrast is between what is real and what is a mere symbol. It reminds me of what Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor said at a distinguished literary dinner, at which she remained too shy to speak, until a woman, knowing Flannery was Catholic, said, “The Eucharist, what a nice symbol.” O’Connor said, “Well if it’s a symbol, then, the hell with it”.

Critique of Modernism, ink, 1982, by the author 

Theory Rules the Art World (from marble to drips)

Tom Wolfe says in his book The Painted Word, from 1975, that he realized that “Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”-5.

Finally Wolfe proposes that the museum of the future will have, taking up a whole wall, in large block letters, Critic Clement Greenberg’s “Theory of Flatness”. Flanking it will be a postcard size image of a Jackson Pollock painting illustrating the theory.  

.   Number 8, Jackson Pollock , paint, 1949. 

Kant’s subjectivity has caused the art educational system to fail. “Everyone is an artist, just express yourself.” With no God, the concept of God given ability went away. Billy brings home scribbles from the first grade and they are stuck on the refrigerator and he is patted in the back for the sake of his self-esteem. Billy, that ….. learn how to draw. 

And we can see how modern philosophy rejected the knowledge of natures, and thus, was able to make up a false nature for man, one that prized intellect over the body, and separated the two.

Kant’s Modernist Aesthetics resulted in the phenomenon of viewers looking at a work of art and waiting, indeed hoping, for a personal aesthetic experience. Don’t worry the cognoscenti, the experts, will tell you what to feel. Because of Kant this is a subjective experience. John Saward has said that, “In the heresy of Modernism we find a vague “mysticism” and a cult of subjective experience.” 6. Remarkably some cling, even though “Modern Art” ended decades ago, to the idea that the artist possesses a special internal spiritual knowledge and that that is what is presented, then the viewer must try to get it, to be enlightened by it. Theory was like theology for Greenberg and he had the zeal of a Savonarola. Kandinsky tried, in his writing about art, to make of it a pseudo religion.

How free floating, strained, and artificial this is, and how different from the contextual aesthetic experience that one may have before a work of art that has content, and may be in situ, in the place that it was made for.

The Calling of Saint Matthew, detail, Caravaggio, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, 1600.

From Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles, American writer Francine Prose says something special happens to viewers in front of a Caravaggio painting. She describes a tour guide explaining to students The Calling of Saint Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. “There is nothing she is telling them that they absolutely need to hear, and the power of the paintings is drowning out her voice.” And, “… it is possible to understand this painting without knowing much about art history, or Caravaggio, or even, perhaps, about the New Testament.” -7.

The only thing worthy of becoming the flesh of Conceptual Art, is “theory”. And for all the other isms before Conceptual Art it was all about the theory. Those who have it, or invent it, spew it with authority, and tell us that we do not need to know what art is, because they will tell us what it is, and they will also tell us what is good.

There is a vast financial structure ensuring that the abstract paintings in the cellar of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, that no-one wants to look at now, are still valuable. John D. Rockefeller and his money created that financial structure, the idea for MOMA was hatched in his living room.

As art was becoming just theory strange things began to happen. Dadaists thrust mild obscenities and visual puns at viewers and began to call any object a work of art. Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal turned upside down and called it Fountain for an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The artists rejected it from the show, but it lives on in the lore of art as a joke on everyone. 

Fountain', Marcel Duchamp, 1917, replica 1964 | Tate

Fountain, Duchamp, 1917.

Maurizio Cattelan «La Nona Ora» (The Ninth Hour) 1999. | Φrbit ...

   Maurizio Cattelan, La Nona Ora, 1999

This expensive joke is a plastic Pope John Paul II being crushed by a meteorite (exhibited at Royal Academy, London, sold at Christies for three million dollars). I am not sure what it means, but assuredly, it is a joke on Catholics.

And Abstract Art like Robert Ryman’s painting White on White is a joke and complicit in it is New York Times Art Critic Michael Kimmelman who says in his videos, “Only experts are allowed to tell you what art is or not.” And “We want to be told what to think.” and “All art is Conceptual.” He says that Ryman’s painting is a “conversation within art” that “pushes the conversation forward.” I suspect that that conversation goes on in the cellar of MOMA between all the abstract paintings in exile down there. 

These are “in jokes” with political and financial motivations. That makes them so obvious, and thus, so boring.  


White, Robert Ryman, 2003. 

Pope Saint Pius X attacked Modernism in his encyclical of 1907, “Dominici Gregis Pascendi, Feeding the Lord’s Flock”, in which he characterized Modernism as ” the synthesis of all heresies”.

He begins, “Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching

human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to

say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognizing His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject.”-8. 

“The Agnosticism of our time is perfectly expressed by the blank, bureaucratic facades on Park Avenue in New York. And Charles Jencks in The Language of Post Modern Architecture also says, “Art, ornament and symbolism have been essential to architecture because they heighten its meaning, make it clearer, and give it greater resonance. All cultures, except the Modern one, have valued these essential truths and have taken them for granted.”- 9.  

And John Saward in his book, The Beauty of Holiness and The Holiness of Beauty, says about the ideologies of modernity,

“When the Virgin Mother is not venerated, the Son’s self-emptying is soon forgotten, and men dream of Progress, Superman, and the Will to Power.”  If man is to soar upwards to self-fulfillment, then, at all costs, God’s descent to a lowly womb must be denied.” – 10. Nietzsche-Zarathustra’s demands deicide. “To you, Higher Men, this God was your greatest danger. Only when the humble God is dead can the Superman arise.”- 11. 

The Theology of the Body and Sacred Art

The study of Art History is about the study of “style”. The study of Christian Art History is about the study of “meaning”. Some parts of Art History need to be re-written from a Catholic point of view.

“The Theology of the Body” and a revival of Sacred Art are the answers to the errors of Modernism, Descartes’ attack on the body, and the vacancy of abstract art. 

From his “Theology of the Body” Pope Blessed John Paul II said, 

“The body can never be reduced to mere matter; It is a spiritualized body, just as man’s spirit is so closely united to the body that it can be described as an embodied spirit.” -12.

Dr. Michael Waldstein in his book, the translation of the TOB continues,

“The ancient Gnostics found themselves in a demonic, anti-divine universe. Matter was evil. Yet, the truly bottomless pit is opened only by the Cartesian universe with its complete indifference to meaning. Matter is “mere matter”, sheer externality. It is value- free. The reason for this indifference of matter to meaning lies in the rigorous reconstruction of knowledge under the guidance of the ambition for power over nature.” -13.

What does the  Catholic Church have to say about this. It understands the real in a special way. Art can say something about how the Incarnation has materially changed the universe. The Church can have Sacred Art. The art of the Renaissance and the Counter Reformation Baroque in large part define Catholic Art. A case can be made, that the Virgin’s connection with the art was not just coincidental, that without her, and without a vital female element in the culture, art would not have thrived. 

To conclude, it is worth looking at the pieta concept once again, because Pope Benedict XVI has explained how Renaissance Art has changed the art of Antiquity to engage the theological,  

“The languages into which the Gospel entered when it came to the pagan world did not have such modes of expression. But the image of the pieta, the Mother grieving for her son, became the vivid translation of this word. In her God’s maternal affliction is open to view. In her we can behold it and touch it. She is the compasio of God, displayed in a human being who has let herself be drawn wholly into God’s mystery.” – 14.

He has said that through art, not just from the written word alone, we can understand more about God, in this case, more about the female aspect of his love, “his maternal affliction”, and his “compasio”. 


Pieta 2006, Virgin Mary, detail, marble, life size, by the author. 

1. Three Worlds of Michelangelo , James Beck, 1999, p.123-131

2. Civilization, Kenneth Clark, 1969, p. 123.

3. “Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, 1999.”

4. “Critique of Judgement”, Immanuel Kant, 1790.

5. The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe, 1975, p.3

6. The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, John Saward,     Ignatius, 1997, p. 24.

7.  Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles, Francine Prose, 2005, p. 8.

8. The Encyclical Dominici Gregis Pascendi ,Pope Saint Pius X, 1907.

9. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Charles Jencks, 1987, Rizzoli, p.7.

10. Saward, 148

11. Also Sprach Zarauthustra, Freidrich Nietzsche, 1883.

12. Man and Women He Created Them, A Theology of the Body,

    Pope Blessed John Paul II, Translated by Michael Waldstein, 2006. p. 96    

13. Ibid, p. 95

14. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Mary, The Church at the Source,1997. p. 78.