Art in the service of Faith

In a chapel at the north end of the church of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna, stand seven life-sized terracotta figures. In the centre of the tableau lies the lifeless body of Jesus, His head inclined upon a pillow, His mouth open, His eyelids only partly closed. The holes in His hands, feet and side are deep. At His head kneels St Joseph of Arimathea. Holding a hammer in his right hand his head is half turned questioningly toward the viewer giving him a slight air of stoic detachment from the shock and anguish of the scene before us. St John holds his hand beneath his chin in a gesture of internal pain mastered by self-restraint. Visibly aged, Our Lady gazes down upon her son, her hands clasped together tightly, her agonised expression the fulfilment of Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart. Taken together, the visceral reaction of the three remaining figures — Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary the wife of Clopas — form one of the most dramatic depictions of raw emotion to be found anywhere in the history of art. This is the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ by Niccolo dell’Arca (circa 1463).1

Although it is the most famous example of this genre, dell’Arca’s masterpiece is just one of many such works that can still be seen in museums and churches across Italy. What they all have in common is the aim of provoking in the viewer a sincere religious response to the passion and death of Our Lord. Today, the Lamentation by Guido Mazzoni is displayed in the Church of the Gesù in Ferrara. When the work was created, around 1477, it stood in Santa Maria della Rosa, a church which criminals passed as they were led to the scaffold. Just moments before they were to be put to death, the confraternity responsible for the care and burial of condemned men would bring prisoners before Mazzoni’s tableau.2 Confronted with the scene at Calvary, they would be urged to use their final moments to save their souls by receiving absolution from the priest who accompanied them.

Some 33 years later and on the other side of the Alps, the German master, Matthias Grünewald, painted the Isenheim Altarpiece.3 This immensely complex piece of work was commissioned for the chapel of a hospital in Alsace established by the Order of St Antony, named after the desert father. The Antonines offered care and treatment for those suffering from plague, leprosy and “St Antony’s Fire” — a disease caused by eating bread contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Potentially fatal, this disease caused its victims hallucinations and an excruciating burning sensation while spreading gangrene in their limbs.4 At the heart of the altarpiece, Grünewald depicts Our Lord upon the cross, His body still contorted from long hours of torture, covered by the marks of flagellation.5 And although already dead, His blood continues to flow from the wounds on His feet. Neil Macgregor, former director of the National Gallery in London, describes the scene as “perhaps the most terrifying Crucifixion in Western art”.6 Nevertheless, those patients who were capable of it would be brought to the chapel to contemplate the Crucifixion, not, as Macgregor points out, in the expectation of a miracle but rather to help them come to terms with their suffering and possible death. The scene is horrific, but, he writes:

“It is a horror with a purpose — to teach us one understanding of the theology of the Crucifixion. He suffers so much because he loves us so much. The pain Christ endures has to be great enough to redeem the sins of the whole world, past present and future. The conclusion is simple: the more we sin, the more he must suffer in order to save us. […] But there is also consolation here. Christ’s sufferings and ours merge. In the hospital for the afflicted, he joins the afflicted, entering our pain. But we can also enter his, following his steps to Calvary.”7

Works such as those of dell’Arca, Mazzoni and Grünewald contradict the myth that the growth of naturalism in Western religious art represented a decline into the pagan past. Rather the gradual adoption of a more lifelike style of art could be understood as a consequence of the spread of pious practices in the Latin church that emerged in the High Middle Ages. These spiritual developments, such as the Rosary, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and devotion to the Sacred Heart, propelled the Catholic world down a different course to the Christian East. 

Even today, these devotions find no direct equivalent in the Orthodox tradition. Although the Jesus prayer is sometimes compared to the Rosary the two practices are very different. The recitation of the Jesus prayer is a search for divine quietness (or “hésychia” in Greek). It has proved to be a profound benefit to those who can practice it but its origin in the monastic tradition means that it requires a level of detachment beyond the reach of most members of the laity. The Rosary, on the other hand, in its simplicity, is a prayer given especially to the laity. By recalling specific episodes in the Incarnation, Passion and Triumph of Jesus, devotions such as the Rosary encourage the creation of images capable of aiding the imagination in prayer.  

But the contrast between East and West is perhaps most clearly seen in the devotion to the Sacred Heart. While little has been said about a devotion that does not exist in the Eastern tradition, some Orthodox theologians argue that when the principles that underpin it are taken to their logical conclusions they result in “Christological oddities at best, and Nestorianism at worst”.8 However, neither of these objections can be taken seriously. Accusations of “oddities” are so nebulous that they defy all attempts to refute them. Nestorianism, however, is defined as the denial of the unity of Christ’s divine and human natures. On the contrary, it is because of His unity as both God and Man, that Catholics can express devotion to His Heart, not as separate from Him but as “symbolising the love He bears for us as God and as Man”.9

The trajectories of the Greek and Latin worlds had diverged long before the Great Schism in 1054. In fact, this began when Diocletian cut the Roman world in two at the end of the third century. Of all his attempts to deal with the problems facing the empire, the most significant was the institution of the tetrarchy that partitioned it into Eastern and Western halves. This administrative boundary was to give rise to a cultural and religious divide that would eventually deepen into a geopolitical fault line. After the emperor in the West was deposed, the Latin Church gained a higher degree of freedom than was ever permitted by the Byzantine Empire or the other temporal powers that reigned over Orthodox lands — the Ottomans, the Tzars or the Soviets. 

The early experience of iconoclasm also ensured that church art was much more conservative in the East than in the West. The iconoclasm of the Protestant revolt had a somewhat similar effect on art during the Counter-Reformation but to nowhere near the same degree. Indeed, in Orthodoxy, the iconographer and the icon became so closely identified with the Divine Liturgy that the veneration of icons often takes on a role, which in the Catholic world is usually reserved for the Blessed Sacrament. In The Meaning of Icons, Leonid Ouspensky notes:

“Just as the priest can neither alter liturgical text at his discretion nor bring into their readings any emotions, such as may impress upon the faithful his personal state or perception, so also an iconographer must conform to the image consecrated by the Church, introducing no personal or emotional content, but placing all those who pray before one and the same reality and leaving each person free to react to the extent of his possibilities and in accordance with his character…”10

In Orthodox spirituality, an icon is first and foremost a window on eternity intended to help the viewer raise the mind to God. As an aid to devotion, an icon does not evoke the sentiments of the viewer in the way Catholic religious art aims to do. As Ouspensky explains: 

“The icon never strives to stir up the emotions of the faithful. Its task is not to provoke in them one or another natural human emotion, but to guide every emotion as well as the reason as all human faculties of human nature on the way towards transfiguration.”11

Ouspensky argues (with some justification) that the egotism of artists infected Western art. He is wrong, however, to claim that this, in turn, infects its viewers.12 To draw another parallel with the liturgy, just as a faithless priest can validly confect the Eucharist, so the works of an egotistical artist can still raise men’s minds to God. This can be illustrated by a story told by the American novelist and ardent Protestant James Fenimore Cooper (1789 –1851) who visiting St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was moved to tears: “I turned away impressed with the truth that if ever the hand of man had indeed raised a structure to the Deity in the least worthy to his majesty, it was this!”13

Although the High Renaissance was fuelled by patronage from the likes of the Medici, Sforza or the d’Este families, who sought to revive the classical culture of the ancient past, the early progress of naturalistic painting and sculpture emerged at a time when the Church was still by far the most important patron and popular new devotions requiring a different style of art were spreading among the laity. Those both in the East and the West who regard the religious art of the Renaissance as decadent or even blasphemous fail to recognise the distinction between liturgical art, with its sacramental purpose, and the religious art that serves the devotional needs of the laity. Moreover, it would be irrational to suggest that the Latin Church which has produced so many great saints over centuries did so while its art lacked any spiritual merit. Arguably, it was Catholic art’s ability to make the suffering of Christ manifest in this world that inspired such saints to found hospitals, schools and universities and to sacrifice themselves in His Name. It may also explain why the Catholic laity have always been at the forefront of the pro-life movement on a global scale. 


1. Niccolò dell’Arca’s, Lamentation Over the Dead Christ. https://factumfoundation.org/our-projects/3d-sculpting/archive-analysis-and-recording-of-cultural-heritage-in-venice/niccolo-dellarcas-lamentation-over-the-dead-christ/
2. Guido Mazzoni, Lamentation in Ferrara. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/early-renaissance1/venice-early-ren/a/guido-mazzoni-lamentation-in-ferrara
3. Mathis Grünewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece. https://www.musee-unterlinden.com/en/oeuvres/the-isenheim-altarpiece/
4. Neil Macgregor and Erika Langmuir, Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art, (BBC, 2000), p 129. 
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid, p 129.
7. Ibid, p 137.
8. David Erhan, “An Orthodox Analysis of the ‘Sacred Heart’ Worship”, Patristic Faith, 21 June 2022 www.patristicfaith.com
9. Michael Sheen DD, PM Joseph (ed), Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, (Baronius Press, 2009), p 394.
10. Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (trans) GEH Palmer and E Kadlobovsky, (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), p 43.
11. Ouspensky and Lossky, p 39.
12. Ibid, footnote 5, p 42.
13. James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: Italy (1838) (Suny Press, 1981), p 192, Letter 20 cited by Amy Oatis, “The Best Soil of Their Hearts”: Protestant Explorations of Catholic Spirituality in Cooper, Longfellow and Hawthorne, (University of Arkansas, 2016), p 84.