What Catholic doesn’t have a holy card or two tucked between the leaves of a Bible or prayer book somewhere? These little slips of paper or laminated card stock, stamped with reverent portraits of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, are fixtures of Catholic popular culture. Cheap and widely available, they offer convenient doses of spiritual comfort and inspiration, perfect for bookmarks, the wallet, or the dashboard of a car. But when was the last time you looked at one? I mean really looked at one, not as a possibly cherished aid to devotion, but as a work of fine art? I’m guessing for many the answer will be never: Besides being difficult for some eyes to see in detail, they are not meant to be looked at that way. Their purpose is to invite the viewer to contemplation and prayer, not to tickle the eye with an aesthetic experience. It’s a clear case of function trumping form.
Yet they are works of art for all that, with a look so distinctive that it defines a genre. In the light of Church teaching on sacred art, which reminds us that art and spirituality go hand in hand, it’s worth asking if the aesthetic experience holy cards provide is the best we can do.
They Get the Job Done
It’s true that “holy card art” descends directly from the magnificent religious art of the past. It’s also true that antique holy cards of the 18th and 19th centuries can be miniature masterpieces, beautifully printed on intricately cut and embossed paper. But except for cards that reproduce famous paintings, the typical holy card is no match for a Raphael or a Murillo or the work of any other paragon of Catholic art.
This one of the Holy Family, for example, by an unknown artist and from an unknown supplier, is representative of what I’m talking about. It is reasonably competent and has undeniable charm, but it’s hardly great art, is it? Some might even call it Catholic kitsch. Just imagine the howls from the art world if it and its kind ever took over the Louvre or the National Gallery of Art.
Well, that’s just elitism, you’ll say, a subjective opinion about something we agree should not be judged like ordinary fine art. Fair enough—no disrespect to holy cards. Apples don’t have to prove anything to oranges, and holy cards are not competing with fine art to achieve greatness, whether measured in critical acclaim, museum wall space, or dollars and cents. They have a simple job to do, and they do it perfectly well.
But still, having given my opinion—that there’s not much of a case for holy cards as part of the Catholic artistic tradition—you might want to consider the evidence behind it. I’ll admit that the case isn’t cut-and-dried. Almost every point offered against holy cards can be met with a contrary example to muddy the waters: When it comes to establishing solid facts, aesthetics ain’t pretty. But the goal of art appreciation is to see art more clearly, not to enforce agreement on every point. Tastes can be argued, but not proven.
The Case for the Defense
To begin with, and leaving aside the actual image for a moment, a holy card in itself can’t help coming across as a modest thing. Small-scale and printed on a flimsy medium, whatever aesthetic weight it may have is diminished by being a mass-produced, photo-mechanical reproduction that lacks the mystique of an artist’s personal touch. Diminutive, ephemeral, common, and unoriginal—a clear litany of artistic insignificance, wouldn’t you say? No wonder they seem trivial or worthless, just like, um, stamps or baseball cards. See what I mean? As it happens, like those collectable trifles, scarce old holy cards in good condition can fetch hundreds of dollars. That’s no proof of artistic greatness, and nothing like the fortunes routinely thrown at more substantial, original artworks, but it is a point for the defense.
As to “substantial, original artworks,” if the cards themselves don’t qualify, the images printed on them do, or rather, the actual works of art they reproduce do. Somewhere there is or was a finished painting or illustration, commissioned by the printer or publishing house, made from more durable materials and probably significantly larger than the printed version. That sounds more like the kind of art object we are familiar with and to which we attach value. Hung up in a gallery, it would exhibit the same hand-crafted mystique enjoyed by “legitimate” artworks, though it probably wouldn’t get any added legitimacy or status from the artist’s name: Whether by choice or prejudice, the vast majority of commercial artists labor in anonymous, behindthe- scenes roles. Yet quiet anonymity is the rule for iconographers as well, and that doesn’t seem to hurt the stature of their creations.
Lightness or Lifeless?
Fame and originality are not exactly tangible quantities, however much they influence our aesthetic judgments, but style and technique are hard to miss. A glance at our Holy Family image shows it to be cleanly composed and nicely balanced, with a triangle of haloed faces and hands gracefully spaced to guide the eye. The figures are correctly proportioned, and the young Jesus stands out by his central location, light coloration,and front-facing gaze. Nothing amiss—or exceptional—here, except perhaps some inevitable stiffness and the odd absence of feet or ground.
The colors, however, have that “pastelly” look characteristic of so many holy cards—light and not too saturated, and limited to basic primaries and secondaries: red, yellow, and blue, with purple and some touches of green. No deep shadows add solidity to the figures, nor is there any strong indication of a light source from the vignetted baby-blue background. Any number of worthy medieval and later pieces display exactly similar coloration and lighting. So do any number of simplistic children’s book illustrations. The effect here is light and sweet like cotton-candy, a sweetness mirrored in the figures’ calm gestures and mild (or are they bland?) expressions. Meant to convey timeless serenity and pious concern, they come across as generic and lacking vitality.
They are in fact highly idealized—but to a fault. In the right hands (think Greek sculptors or Italian Renaissance masters), idealization connects art to all that is noble, universal, and perfect, just the thing for sacred art; in lesser hands, or when pushed too far, it becomes unnatural, remote, feeble, and colorless. In this case, with all their physical flaws and blemishes smoothed away together with any fine details that would add realism, and with no brushstrokes as evidence of the vaunted artist’s touch, what’s left lacks sparkle or passion. The piece looks airbrushed, and not in a good way. Just compare it with Caravaggio’s dramatic chiaroscuro or Rembrandt’s vigorously brushed and piled-on paint.
A degree of idealization or generalizing, especially in faces, may be desirable (as well as unavoidable) when dealing with biblical figures. No one knows what Jesus, Mary, and Joseph really looked like, so, short of using name tags, artists have recourse to a standard repertoire of visual symbols and stock characters: A young woman robed in red and blue is Mary, an older man standing with her is likely to be Joseph, and so on. All religious art does this to some extent. The advantage for the figures is that they are easily identifiable without being distractingly individualized as specific people (as happens with actors too well-known or notorious to disappear into the characters they’re portraying); the downside for the artist is that they must avoid crossing over the fine line separating living symbols from dead stereotypes.
Unfortunately, over time, even the best and most worthwhile traditions in art or religion can harden into sterile convention. From masters with their workshop apprentices to studio designers and illustrators of holy ards, art-making may become less a matter of aspiring to new heights of creativity and innovation than one of doing the same old thing over and over again, of meeting deadlines and clients’ expectations. We expect a certain comfortable style from holy cards, but we may actually get anemic second- and third-generation imitations of other peoples’ creativity.
Creative Bare Minimum
There’s nothing wrong with competent work delivered on time and within budget. When we think of artistic greatness, though, we think of work that surpasses expectations, that surprises and delights, that challenges and inspires, work that, ironically enough, adds something new to old traditions. The great artists usually find ways to express themselves even when their commission limits their creativity; lesser ones possibly possess neither the vision nor the ambition to try.
Those hired to illustrate holy cards may have few creative options, but then neither do iconographers, who though forbidden to add anything new or of themselves to their strictly regulated visual tradition, show that it is possible for art to be both great and unoriginal. No doubt their efforts are blessed by the profoundly expressive style they have inherited, which almost guarantees artistic success even when they are repeating 500-year-old compositions. Western art has its traditions, too, and while our Holy Family is not a copy of any existing painting, it humbly and faithfully replicates a familiar mood and style. But in the context of art history, it can only be a cliché. With its simplistic color scheme, unambiguous composition, and conventional characters, it is incapable of the mystery or depth or complexity that makes art great. Like an immature wine, it meets the minimal requirements of the form, but displays no marks of inspiration or genius.
Is Good Enough, Enough?
Of course, a good wine is any wine you like. No one should be ashamed about using even the most modest or poorly executed holy card if it enriches their prayer life. I am critiquing the form, not the content. Still, the love and devotion we feel toward the Holy Family or any saint shouldn’t excuse the aesthetic shortcomings of their painted representations, even if we are prepared to overlook those shortcomings in our prayerful practice.
The larger question is: Would our religious exercises benefit from the addition of artistic greatness? Should our holy cards be reproductions of icons and Raphaels and Murillos? I said the case was not cut-and-dried. We know that beauty is a pathway to God, but beauty comes in many forms, and too much of it can be distracting. There is a place for ordinary, everyday wine, and we don’t want prayer to be like watching one of those intrusive, too-visible actors—I’m looking at a Raphael now, not the image of my Savior. Perhaps holy-card art ought to be the least in the artistic kingdom of God. But perhaps the best thing is to ask ourselves whether in art or in prayer, we should be satisfied with mediocrity.