Contemporary sacred art, a “culture of encounter”?

Paul VI addressed this message to artists, at the closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, on December 8, 1965: “Beauty, like truth, is what brings joy to the hearts of men, it is that precious fruit which resists the passage of time, which unites generations and makes them communicate in admiration. And this thanks to your hands…”, a message that is still current and constantly recalled by his successors…

Almost half a century after the Second Vatican Council, the encyclical Lumen fidei of June 29, 2013 will constitute a real relay passed between two popes, Benoit XVI and Francis, and will also come to underline the luminous character of faith and thereby the place occupied by art. Faced with the relativism multiplied by the force of international communication often leading to uncertainty and confusion between good and evil, faith participates in this light and sacred art can constitute one of its vectors. Listen to the word of God and try to see the reflection of his image respond to the wish of the Old Testament, which the encyclical underlines:

“The Old Testament reconciled the two types of knowledge, because listening to the Word of God unites the desire to see his face. In this way, it was possible to develop a dialogue with Hellenic culture, a dialogue which is at the heart of Scripture. Hearing attests to personal calling and obedience, and also to the fact that truth is revealed in time; the view offers the full vision of the whole journey and allows us to situate ourselves in the great plan of God; without this vision we would only have isolated fragments of an unknown whole. (Encyclical Lumen fidei not. 29)

Thus, the “great plan of God” can be perceived thanks to this force of vision conveyed by art. This idea which animates the artists of the contemporary sacred art joins theoculata fides of the Apostles recalled by Saint Thomas Aquinas, a faith which sees the Risen One.

A faith that sees an invisible God…

This visible Word is born from this idea that Christianity — contrary to the too often widespread idea — is not a “religion of the Book” unlike Islam, but rather faith in the Word incarnate in Jesus. As the great art historian Msgr. Timothy Verdon points out, the Incarnate Word thus becomes “visible” as it emerges from the Gospel of John: “And the Word was made flesh, he dwelt among us , and we have seen his glory, the glory which he has from his Father as an only begotten Son, full of grace and truth. » (Jn 1, 14). With regard to this embodied word, art proves to be one of the most visible mediums.

The perception of this art which renewed the canons of classicism in matters of sacred art poses the eternal question of the ancients and the moderns, of the supporters of tradition and novelty.

However, at the same time, the very idea of ​​the image of an invisible God in the sense understood by Paul in his letter to the Colossians – “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn, before any creature”, (Col 1, 15) can lead to multiple interpretations by contemporary artists, sometimes leading to misunderstanding. Such was the case with the Christ produced in 1950 by the artist Germaine Richier for the chapel on the Plateau d’Assy, arousing opposition and mistrust for an art deemed “semi-decadent”… The perception of this art which renewed the canons of classicism in matters of sacred art poses the eternal question of the ancients and the moderns, of the supporters of tradition and novelty. Since that time, the audacity of contemporary artists in fields other than that of the sacred have accustomed public opinion to approaches other than those delivered by tradition.

Church of Our Lady of All Grace in Plateau d’Assy (Haute-Savoie).

Fred de Noyelle / Godong

Sacred art, an encounter…

The very idea of ​​encounter that any work of art arouses implies on the part of the faithful who discovers a work of sacred art a certain availability and a dialogue between the work and his inner being. It is in this sense that at the end of 2021, a first permanent exhibition of contemporary art was inaugurated within the Vatican itself in the Apostolic Library. This event, intended to “support the culture of encounter” in the words of Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, opened the doors to an installation by the Italian artist Pietro Ruffo. The work entitled ” Tutti. Umanità in cammino » is directly inspired by the encyclical « Fratelli Tutti of Pope Francis with this idea of ​​a humanity on the move, a fraternity leading to “social friendship” in reference to the thought of Saint Francis of Assisi.


Contemporary sacred art, a “culture of encounter”?