Sr. Louise Zdunich

October 22, 2012

QuestionYou mentioned the creative arts in a previous response, what does Scripture say and what has been the Church's history in relation to the creative arts?


AnswerBy arts, we refer to any one of painting, music, drama, architecture, poetry, prose, dance, manuscript illustration, stained glass and fabric. One can define art as the aesthetic expression of beauty and emotion through colour and form. Although Scripture doesn't use the word "arts," the Church has a long history favouring the creative arts.

The whole of the Bible is a great drama of the history of creation. The Old Testament frequently praises the beauty of God (Psalm 27.4), nature (Psalm 47.12) and Israel "the branch of the Lord" (Psalm 4.2).

Jesus extols the beauty of the lilies -- "even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these" (Luke 12.27). St. Peter exhorts "Let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit which is very precious in God's sight" (1 Peter 3.4).

Jesus paints word pictures with the parables which convey his teachings. There is drama in Jesus' healing the sick, the blind and the lame. When he healed a blind man, he performed a gradual restoration of the man's sight or used soil and spittle. When Lazarus was ill, Jesus waited until Lazarus was in the tomb, then dramatically raised him from the dead.


So, it was logical that Christian artists would paint Gospel stories and produce biblical morality plays to teach and edify. In this way, people were initiated into the faith through all their senses not just through words.

Early Christians used symbols, reminding them of God, on the tombs of martyrs and on the walls of the catacombs.

An image of a fish depicted Christ since the first letters of the Greek for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour" spell out the word "fish." This was a sign for Christians to recognize one another without giving away their identity to their persecutors.

The importance of the arts in the continued history and development of the church is without question. During the medieval period, the "age of cathedrals," the arts were nourished by the Church.

All forms of art continued to grow. Art was created for the greater glory of God and was interpreted by Thomas Aquinas as a "handmaiden of theology." This period reflects the most complete integration of the arts to produce aesthetic settings which provided for religious experience.


With the 15th-century Renaissance, the emphasis turned toward the human person. Some of the greatest works such as Michelangelo's David and the Sistine Chapel were about the beauty of the human body.

Many commentators and poets: Augustine, Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others acclaimed the beauty of God and of art.

However, all was not rosy. The Protestant reformers who emphasized humanity's sinfulness believed images hindered devotion directly to God. Therefore, they destroyed artworks, as did the eighth and ninth century iconoclasts in the Christian East.

The 16th century Council of Trent defended the use of images for teaching. Only in the mid-20th century was the conversation revived. Pius XII's 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei urged a qualified acceptance of modern art while Vatican II's 1965 The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (n. 62) opened the door for modern art. This was followed by a 1978 series of guidelines showing a receptive attitude towards contemporary art.

Unless one knows something about the Bible and Christianity, one has a limited understanding and appreciation of the masterpieces tourists travel to see.

Unless one knows something about Christ's passion, death and resurrection, one cannot fully appreciate the beauty of The Messiah we hear performed every Christmas. The same applies to much of poetry, literature, painting and architecture.

All art has a spiritual dimension. Millions find delight and inspiration listening to classical music. Others find it through literature, poetry, theatre and opera.


Art can calm the overwhelmed or suffering person, provide strength and consolation and give depth to understanding in difficult times. Art touches the soul and moves the person, sometimes in a life-changing way.

The story is told of Bernard Gimbel, head of Gimbel Brothers stores in the U.S., who upon seeing a play was so moved that he said henceforth no one would be fired from his stores because of age.

For many, the arts are the most important feature of their lives and provide meaning in our fast-paced world.

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