Wednesday was the feast day of St. Clare of Assisi. At the age of 17, after hearing the preaching of St. Francis of Assisi, she left everything to follow him, becoming the first female member of the fledging Franciscans. She’s buried in a basilica named after her in her hometown. Just around the corner from the basilica, about a thousand feet away, is another church (Santa Maria Maggiore), with the tomb of another Catholic who heard God’s call at a young age: Blessed Carlo Acutis.
Acutis is on track to become the first canonized “Millennial” saint. He was born on May 3, 1991, and his short life (he died of leukemia at age fifteen) was marked by a profound religiosity, and particularly a love of the Eucharist. In fact, he created a website cataloguing Eucharistic miracles from around the world. When he realized he was dying of leukemia, he offered his suffering up for the pope and the Church. Acutis’s life is, by any reasonable Catholic standard, worthy of imitation.
Recently, a stained glass window of Acutis came under fire for its depiction of him. As you might expect of a lay Catholic living from 1991 to 2006, Acutis didn’t wear medieval clothing or a religious habit or a Roman collar. The most famous picture of him is in a track jacket, jeans, and sneakers, and it’s this outfit that the artist chose for him. This choice has been criticized on Twitter.
A popular Catholic speaker named Brian Holdsworth offered a thoughtful critique of the window. He argued on Twitter that “the thing about art depicting the saints, is that it’s supposed to show us what we are aiming to become, divinized and perfected; not what we currently are—fallen and compromised.” He then explained his view at greater length on YouTube. Holdsworth is respectful, saying that “as a piece of art, it’s beautiful, it’s well done,” but that the point of sacred art isn’t to make a saint seem relatable. Instead, “the point is that when we look upon an icon of a saint, we should be seeing our goal, the end of the race, where we are aiming towards, and our hope that God will take us there and bring us to fruition.”
Is that true?
Holdsworth is touching on something true, and worth more thought (particularly for Catholic artists and those who commission sacred art). In a piece on “Iconography and Liturgy,” Archbishop Piero Marini, who served as the chief papal liturgist for nearly twenty years, argued that
the Church keeps watch over the authenticity of her iconography, which is the creation of a spiritual work accompanied by prayer and ascetic self-discipline, not simply the creation of a work of art. The “different” use of perspective, size, the proportions of bodies, buildings and objects, the symbolism of colours, the gilded background and skilful play of light and shadow all make the icon a window onto the world of the Divine. The icon of a saint is never a portrait; its purpose is to propose for contemplation by the faithful “the hidden person of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:4), the image of God concealed in the depths of their being which the saints reveal in their lives.
Plenty of iconographers say the same. Photios Kontoglou, for instance, wrote that “the iconographer, even if he has actually seen a certain saint in life, does not paint him naturalistically, materially, but in a spiritual manner, illumined by divine grace.” From this perspective, the fact that the stained-glass window faithfully represents the photograph of Carlo Acutis isn’t enough: the artist’s task is to reveal the life of God in him. That’s why critics are right to object to the depiction of his clearly branded shoes. Even if that’s what he happened to be wearing, the role of sacred art isn’t to give free advertising to shoe companies.
This is not to say (as Holdsworth seems to suggest) that we can depict the saints only as already in heaven; that’s never been the tradition in either the East or the West. But it does mean we’re looking for more than just realism.
It’s important to make two other distinctions. First, there is sometimes an exaggerated anti-naturalism in modern Eastern iconography—a refusal to use shadow, depict saints in profile, etc. But iconography was never meant to be “anti-naturalistic.” Evan Freeman, in a paper presented to the Fifth International Conference on Orthodox Church Music, convincingly argues that this would be “a fundamentally modern way of seeing icons,” based on modern art-historical theories from people like Kontoglou, and supported by neither “the history of iconography nor the texts written by the Byzantines about their own icons.”
But whether Kontoglou and Holdsworth are accurately describing iconography, the second distinction is that this stained-glass window isn’t an icon and shouldn’t be judged by the standards of iconography (any more than you should judge a novel by how carefully it follows the structure of a haiku). In his Letter to Artists, St. John Paul II, tracing the history of sacred art, observed that “in the East, the art of the icon continued to flourish, obeying theological and aesthetic norms charged with meaning,” but that the West went in a different direction:
What has characterized sacred art more and more, under the impulse of humanism and the Renaissance, and then of successive cultural and scientific trends, is a growing interest in everything human, in the world, and in the reality of history. In itself, such a concern is not at all a danger for Christian faith, centered on the mystery of the Incarnation and therefore on God’s valuing of the human being. . . . Suffice it to think of the way in which Michelangelo represents the beauty of the human body in his painting and sculpture.
One of the mistakes that I think Holdsworth makes is around the five-minute mark in his video, in which he says of the saints: “Maybe at one time they had traits that they shared with us, but now they are sharing in the beatific vision.” But if JPII is right, the job of a Christian artist isn’t to depict an idealized version of the saint (or blessed) apart from “everything human,” or the subject’s world, or the reality of history. It’s the opposite, which is why the pope ends the letter by calling upon Christian artists “to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, ‘awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:19), is redeemed.”
If the stained glass of Carlo Acutis is shocking, it’s because he looks so ordinary, and we’re used to saints looking as though they’re from another planet, or at least from another time and place. There’s a danger there, since it can cause us to forget that sainthood is our calling today. As JPII explained, this is why he canonized so many modern saints:
As the [Second Vatican] Council itself explained, this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. I thank the Lord that in these years he has enabled me to beatify and canonize a large number of Christians, and among them many lay people who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life. The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.
In his video, Holdsworth says the point of depicting the saints “isn’t to identify with them.” But that is one of the purposes of sacred art: to remind us that God has brought people much like ourselves to sainthood, and that he desires to do the same thing for us. It’s why the Church gives us icons of St. Isidore the Farmer at the plow, or St. Joseph at the workbench, or Bl. Carlo Acutis looking for all the world like the modern teenager that he was.
Blessed Carlo Acutis, pray for us!
Image credit: Albo – stock.adobe.com.