The Church has of 20th century saints something incredibly new and interesting: photographs. Until the resurrection of the body, we won’t know what St. Agnes or St. Paul or St. Augustine exactly looked like, but now our holy cards can feature a picture taken with a camera instead of just a painting! While this innovation might bring closer to home the realization that these saints were “real people,” the prominence of photographs has caused the area of sacred art for these saints to be largely unexplored. If you google “artwork of Saint John Paul 2,” you will find mostly paintings and drawings that are merely copies of already existing photographs.
In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) makes an interesting claim about this subject. He says that “the image of Christ and the images of the saints are not photographs. Their whole point is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible in the visible.” True sacred art acts sacramentally, using the stuff of the earth to not only move our hearts by beauty but our very souls to understand salvation in Christ lived out by the saints. To understand why sacred images should have this quality, we first need to understand why sacred art and images are used in worship and the liturgy in the first place.
Sacred images have both a scriptural and historical basis in Judaism and early Christianity. The most obvious use of sacred images from the Old Testament which Ratzinger points out are the two cherubim that adorn the ark of the covenant. From the time of transition from the old covenant to the new, we have discovered ancient synagogues with biblical art and catacombs with early depictions of Christ. Because the Jews and Christians contemporary to Christ and the apostles incorporated sacred art and images in worship, we see that even during these early days, the commandment from the Decalogue that “you shall not make a graven image” did not include this sort of sacramental use.
But the most important proof for the legitimacy of sacred images comes from the fact that God himself has allowed human eyes to look upon his Image in the flesh. I still remember very distinctly from my very first theology class at the University of St. Thomas Professor Harmon teaching us, “The ultimate affirmation of the use of images is the Incarnation.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he got that directly from Ratzinger, for he writes this in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
The Incarnation is aimed at man’s transformation through the Cross and to the new corporeality of the Resurrection. God seeks us where we are, not so that we may stay there, but so that we may come to be where he is, so that we may get beyond ourselves…The Incarnation is rightly understood only when it is seen within the broad context of creation, history, and the new world. Only then does it become clear that the senses belong to faith, that the new seeing does not abolish them, but leads them to their original purpose.
Through the Incarnation, our eyes are retrained to see meaning again in our world, and to see our salvation through the cross and resurrection of the Image of God. Our own sacred images and icons enter into the same method of teaching with images that God uses. They move our hearts and minds to see more clearly the transcendental properties of truth, goodness, and beauty. In a fascinating reflection on the use of icons, Ratzinger says that a icon “delivers a man from that closure of the senses which perceives only the externals, the material surface of things, and is blind to the transparency of the spirit, the transparency of the Logos.” Rather, “it leads the man who contemplates it to the point, where, through the interior vision that the icon embodies, he beholds in the sensible that which, though above the sensible, has entered into the sphere of the senses.” As Christ appeared and showed us the Father through his body, sacred art shows us the mystery of redemption through the material gifts of this world.
How is saint artwork incorporated into this theology? Ratzinger says that artwork of saints is also included as a sacramental reality by the very fact that the saints are incorporated into the Body of Christ. They also can show through their lives the salvation of the cross and resurrection, and therefore images of the saints can also help us to develop our eyes for the supernatural.
The incredible saints of the 20th century haven’t gotten this sort of attention from the world of Catholic art. It would be fascinating to see beautifully symbolic images of Blessed Giorgio Frassati or Saint John Paul the Great. I did find as an example from the Salt and Light website an icon of St. Gianna Molla written by Ted Harasti:
Let’s not forget that that although the saints were “real people,” they do have a capacity to show us the glory of the Resurrection. Consider this a call to Catholic artists to prayerfully consider a representation of our newer saints in a form of sacred art.
P.S. If you want to learn more about sacred images, check out The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger. I got most of my information from the chapter called “The Question of Images.”