Church Documents on Art and Beauty

Eccumenical Councils

From popes to small parishes, the Church has long supported sacred arts through commissions. With this organic relationship, less needed to be laid down in official documents in the early Church.

Yet even in the year 787, the proclamations of the Council of Nicea II had to clarify the importance and validity of the iconography of sacred art as seen throughout the council document including:

…Just as those heretics removed the sight of venerable icons from the church, they also abandoned other customs, which should now be renewed and which should be in vigour in virtue of both written and unwritten legislation. Therefore we decree that in venerable churches consecrated without relics of the holy martyrs, the installation of relics should take place along with the usual prayers. And if in future any bishop is found out consecrating a church without relics, let him be deposed as someone who has flouted the ecclesiastical traditions.

Canon 7

… Those who adopt this heresy not only heap insults on representational art, but also reject all forms of reverence and make a mockery of those who live pious and holy lives, thus fulfilling in their own regard that saying of scripture, For the sinner piety is an abomination. So if persons are found who make fun of those who wear simple and respectful clothing, they should be corrected with punishment…

Canon 16

Later, in response to the divisions of Protestantism, the Council of Trent proclaimed in its concluding session in 1563, the need for Sacred Art to teach truth and encourage prayer and devotion.

The images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honour and veneration are to be given them; not that any divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped; or that anything is to be asked of them; or, that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles who placed their hope in idols; but because the honour which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ; and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear: as, by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicaea, has been defined against the opponents of images.

And the bishops shall carefully teach this,-that, by means of the histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in (the habit of) remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith; as also that great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety. But if any one shall teach, or entertain sentiments, contrary to these decrees; let him be anathema.

…In fine, let so great care and diligence be used herein by bishops, as that there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.

The Twenty-Fifth Session of Trent

Yet in modern history, as the schools and studios closed and commissions faded, the Church has felt the need to vocalize this more, encouraging future generations of artists and patrons.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council

The first document of the Council, this Constitution on the Liturgy, concludes with chapters dedicated to sacred music and sacred art. Pope Paul VI continued this theme in a homily given on May 7, 1964.

Letter to Artists, Pope Saint John Paul II

One of the most encouraging letters written from a pope to artists. This essential read is also complimented by an earlier retreat given now listed as God is Beauty: A Retreat on the Gospel and Art.

The Way of Beauty, Pope Benedict XVI

This document, along with many other audiences and liturgical works of Pope Benedict XVI, lays out some of the most practical ways each of us can walk with others along the way of beauty.

Audience, Pope Francis

The encouragement of sacred art continues to grow in the Church from the Holy Father to local guidelines such as Built of Living Stones, USCCB.