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What Has Art to Do with Apologetics?

Saint Luke Evangelist by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopulos). ca. 1605-1619. Cathedral, Toledo, Spain

The short answer today would probably be “not much.” Art (that is, visual art—painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.) is, of course, visual, whereas the practice of apologetics is essentially verbal. You can’t make logical arguments very easily with images—they can be ambiguous or require interpretation—and clearly expressed reasoning with words shouldn’t need illustration. It would seem that the apologist could get along fine with words alone.

But as is well known, for many centuries—from the beginnings of Christianity in the catacombs, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to at least the Counter-Reformation—art played an indispensable role in the faith formation and life of the average believer. Art was the “Bible of the illiterate.” It was by looking at mosaics, icons, paintings, frescos, stained glass, and sculptures that people who could not read, long the majority of the population, learned about the life of Christ, of Mary and the Saints, and the basic tenets of Christianity.

Truth Made Visible

Through most of Christian history, visual signs and symbols, like the fish, anchor, and cross, were used to establish Christian identity. Stories from the Old and New Testaments were brought to life in narrative illustrations filled with graceful shapes and beautiful colors. Even the physical form of the church building was used to instruct the unlettered faithful: the cruciform plan was a reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the upward sweep of the columns and arches directed one’s eyes and thoughts heavenward, trefoils admirably distilled the essence of Trinitarian doctrine. Everywhere one looked there was a visible, material reminder of a fundamental Christian truth, communicated without words.

However, esteeming art exclusively as the illiterates’ Bible may lead to some unfortunate perceptions about it and its function in the life of the Church.

First, it suggests that art is simply a concession to ignorance, a second-rate account of the faith that is, in the end, expendable. Art is only needed in the Church because people are illiterate. Once they are able to read and enjoy “direct” contact with the Bible, their need for art should whither away. The presumption is that reading is superior to seeing, and that images cannot communicate as effectively as words can.

This was part of the Reformers’ critique of the Catholic Church. Protestants accused the Church of willfully keeping the faithful in ignorance so as to deny them access to the Scriptures. Being unable to read the Bible for themselves, simple Christians could not discover the true message of the Gospel, nor could they see how far the Church had departed from it. Clearly, since Catholics believed non-Biblical and superstitious falsehoods, the pretty pictures in Catholic churches were not doing the work of instilling a “saving faith” in the believer; only reading the Scriptures could accomplish that. At best, art might be a distraction, but in reality, it was a cheat and a subterfuge.

But worse still, in the Reformers’ eyes, art in the Church was the object of disgraceful and illicit worship: Catholic veneration of images and statues had become Popish idolatry, to be rooted out in iconoclastic fury. Statues were pulled down, windows smashed, paintings whitewashed, leaving a legacy of denuded churches and a dematerialized Christianity. The faith could be read about, but not seen. (In recent years, this repudiation of images, or at least an inordinate suspicion of them, has spread even to some segments of Catholicism.)

Beauty Must be Seen

Another unfortunate consequence of emphasizing the didactic function of art is the implication that that is its primary or only function. For some, art is valuable only in so far as it can be used to teach or edify (or to fill up an empty space in a flyer); questions of aesthetics or any sort of non-verbal knowledge are irrelevant. The stained-glass windows of Chartres are simply the felt banners or clip art of a former time. But this is a limitation, indeed an affront, to art. Whatever apologetical value it has, a work of art cannot be reduced to its meaning. If it were possible to do so, there would never be any need to actually see it; you could just read a description of it.

This is because beauty, one of the transcendent qualities of God, cannot be put into words; it must be seen. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, talking about truth, beauty, and sacred art, admits that while “truth in words . . . is necessary to man,” it “can also find other complementary forms of human expression, above all when it is a matter of evoking what is beyond words: the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God” (CCC 2500). A purely verbal apologetics will find that some of the profoundest mysteries of the faith are forever beyond its reach.

Here we can begin to understand the inescapable and irreducible relevance of art to apologetics. Images are necessary to improve our understanding of God. But in fact, the reality about art is perhaps more radical and shocking than most Catholics, let alone non-Catholics, might suspect. The Catechism, with remarkable brevity and understatement, puts it simply: “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other” (CCC 1160).

Art Reveals God

Take some time to let this statement sink in, for it is truly astonishing. Images express the same Gospel revelation that words do. Art (or at least some kinds of art—sacred art or icons) is as much a part of God’s revelation as Scripture is. It’s possible that this idea will actually sound heretical to some, but this is simply a demonstration of how far words—or the Word—have prevailed over images—or the Image—in our (Western) theology. The Eastern Churches have never forgotten the power of images, but the Western churches, Catholic and Protestant alike, contending with iconoclasm, Modernism, and the secularization of culture, among other forces, have seen images deprived of their rightful role in the divine economy. Thus, while we aren’t surprised that a writer would begin his account of Jesus’ life by proclaiming, “In the beginning was the Word,” we must acknowledge that an artist could have asserted with equal force and validity, “In the beginning was the Image, and the Image was with God, and the Image was God.” Jesus is the Word and the Image of God, and it is this truth that establishes the place of art as an equal partner with words in our faith and in apologetics.

A beautifully simple depiction of this harmonious relationship can be seen in a painting of St. Luke made by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopolous) between 1605 and 1610. Tradition says that Luke, besides being the author of the Gospel that bears his name, was an artist. Who better to appreciate the equality of words and images? Here he holds a book in one hand, and a brush—or is it a pen?—in the other. The book is open to reveal a page of text, presumably his Gospel, which so vividly describes in words the Annunciation and Nativity of Christ; on the facing page, there is a painted representation of the Madonna and Child. “Word and image illuminate each other.” Luke himself is portrayed against a dark backdrop, with slightly diverging eyes that lend him an air of reverie or abstraction; perhaps he is contemplating the word with one eye and the image with another. Overall, El Greco’s sensuous, expressive technique reminds us of the physical, sacramental quality of art.

Catholics today would do well to reclaim and recover art for the faith, and apologists should embrace it as an essentially Catholic means of explaining it. To do so will require some education, since so much of the visual tradition of the Church has been forgotten or ignored in recent centuries. Thus, while everyone who is reading this article is verbally literate, perhaps not all are visually literate.

This column hopes in some small way to foster visual literacy and respect for the place of art in the Church. In future articles we will expand on some of the ideas discussed here, and consider the apologetical content both of specific works of art and art in general, while exploring some of the elements of the visual language and grammar of art.

What does art have to do with apologetics? Everything.

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