QUAERITUR: Limit on number of statues permitted in church? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

From a reader:

Is there a limit to number of statues permitted in a church or chapel?

Yes!

The first law that governs the number of statues in a church is the law of physics whereby it is evident that two tangible objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.

The second law that governs this is the law of good taste, by which we understand that too much of a good thing really is too much.

When all the statues were being taken out of churches, it wasn’t because people were clamoring for a simpler space, or falling down and frothing in confusion because of, say, multiple images of Mary or of Our Lord.

No, it was a small number of pointy-headed liberal iconoclasts who ruined our churches.

They spent oodles of money to destroy what the people had contributed.

Those progressivist plunderers who ravaged our churches showed a particular hatred for devotional images, didn’t they?  They accomplished more damage than the Vandals dreamed of causing, and all for ridiculous ideas cooked up by a small group of so-called experts.

In a trice they defaced what several generations of wealthy and poor believers alike scrimped to build.

Think of all the money wasted.  YOUR MONEY WASTED!

The looters probably didn’t believe in the Communion of Saints in the way that true Catholics do.  Or perhaps they don’t really understand what the Council of Trent said about statues and images:

The images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints are kept and honored in churches not because it is believed that there is any divinity or power in these images, or that anything may be asked of them, or any faith put in them. The honor shown to them is really being given to the persons whom they represent. Through these images which we kiss, and before which we bow with bared heads, we worship Christ, and not the saints whose likenesses they display.

You would think that those pillaging thieves were the Mexican troops of President Plutarco Elías Calles.  Remember the scene in For Greater Glory when they sacked a church? You would think they were anti-Catholic protesants with their screwy prevarications about Catholics “worshiping” statues, or fundmentalists who claim that the 2nd Commandment forbids statues and images. (Hint: God commanded the Jews to make decorative, devotional statues – cf. Exodus 25:18–20; Numbers 21:8–91; Chronicles 28:18–19.)

Statues remind us that we are not alone in this earthly slog.  They remind us that we have friends in heaven who are pulling for us and helping us.  They remind us that we too can be holy, even in extraordinary ways.

Liberals even understand that people don’t like or want their stupid ideas.  When they have a fundraising drive, for example, they use images of older churches, with statues and stained-glass and beautiful vessels and vestments, rather than the monstrosities they cobble up.

So, in answer to your question, no, there isn’t a limit prescribed in law concerning the number of statues we can have in a church.  But it is also possible to overdo it.

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36 Responses to QUAERITUR: Limit on number of statues permitted in church? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

  1. Two things I wanted to mention:

    First, Trent was simply reiterating the infallible teaching of a previous Council, Nicaea II, which shows how ancient iconography and statuary in Church really is. In 787, the seventh Ecumenical Council decreed the following:

    “- If anyone does not confess that Christ our God can be represented in his humanity, let him be anathema.

    – If anyone does not accept representation in art of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema.

    – If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and his saints, let him be anathema.

    – If anyone rejects any written or unwritten tradition of the church, let him be anathema.”

    The same Council ordered that those who reject the ecclesiastical tradition of letting images and statuary adorn the Churches of God be excommunicated, and treated them as heretics.

    Iconoclasm is a deadly heresy that in recent times has made a comeback, as heresies are wont to do. It matters little that the motivations for this iconoclasm are different from the one which was ravaging the Church in the eighth century, the action of tearing down images is still the same, and the result of Churches bereft of sacred images is likewise still the same. This is not merely a matter of ‘liberal academics’, this is a heresy which has been perpetrated in the Church once again, and it is of such important that an entire Council was called for it. It’s truly remarkable that this has gone on with so little fanfare among the Hierarchy, this resurgence of the deadly poison of heresy.

    Second, I tend to be partial to the Eastern tradition of iconography, but if we’re considering the Western tradition of statuary, I think that oftentimes the Polish people have it right. St. Stanislaus Church in Milwaukee, for instance, where the Institute of Christ the King says Mass, has a lovely design with marble, gold, delicately painted images, and statuary made of some type of stone and unpainted. It’s simply divine.

  2. Charles E Flynn says:

    What I find distracting are instances in which groupings of statues have vastly different scale. A larger-than-life St. Joseph is next to a four-foot Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima, which is flanked by an Infant of Prague that looks like a midget.

  3. “You would think that those pillaging thieves . . . . were anti-Catholic protesants”

    Actually, they were. No different from the anti-Catholic protestants of the 16th century. The only difference was that after Vatican II, instead of at least having the decency and honesty to leave the Church, they stayed in it to fight the faith from within.

  4. anilwang says:

    Actually, I disagree that there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to statues. [I don’t think you are, in fact, disagreeing.]
    Here’s a picture of local Orthodox Church:

    [Doesn’t look like too much to me.]

    Every available space on the wall is filled with icons, layered according to the hierarchy of heaven. During the Divine Liturgy its plain even without catechesis that all heaven is participating.

    IMO the surest way to restore reverence to mass is to bring back the statues, or at least borrow a page from Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox and fill the walls with icons.

  5. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “Those progressivist plunderers who ravaged our churches showed a particular hatred for devotional images, didn’t they? They accomplished more damage than the Vandals dreamed of …”

    Exactly. As I’ve said many times, at least the Vandals did not charge us huge consulting fees for ransacking our churches. [Right!]

    Anywho, because statues are, whatever else they are, works of art, there can indeed be too much of a good thing, and many I’ve seen look fine in isolation, but dopey next to each other. Like something Aunt Milicent assembled for her siting room.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  6. edm says:

    I agree with Henry Edwards.
    That is what happened nearby where the new pastor recently gutted the built-in confessional and place a whole collection of statuary in the wall cavity. Not only is the scale different but so are the styles: a contemporary monochrome carving, a plaster polychromed one, a quasi-baroque one, etc. Plus the interesting juxtaposition of, if I recall correctly, a Sacred Heart and a recumbent Jesus. This was done in a building which is of near cathedral proportions. What was the need for this incongruous collection?

  7. APX says:

    I find that a lot of the statues they do put in churches now don’t even look like actual human beings, let alone whatever saint it’s supposed to be statue of. And then there are the crucifixes…

  8. StWinefride says:

    Dr Edward Peters: and many I’ve seen look fine in isolation, but dopey next to each other.

    Perhaps you haven’t seen the 52 statues of Saints and Angels at the Oxford Oratory, they don’t look dopey at all!! :)

    http://www.oxfordoratory.org.uk/church-tour-sanctuary.php

  9. Trisagion says:

    Hey, Dr Peters, when did Aunt Millicent lose her canon 220 rights?

  10. PhillipE says:

    Is there a limit on the number of banners a church can have? Preferably 0.

  11. Patti Day says:

    I have a picture in my mind of people with sledgehammers smashing statues.

  12. Siculum says:

    Just curious, are we supposed to be able to comment on the other post about hymnals right now?

  13. Angie Mcs says:

    The church I attend is a beautiful, ornate old Polish church which is being lovingly restored. Yesterday we had some chatty tourists sitting behind us. The mother of the little boy pointed to various statues, paintings etc and said ” Look at how gaudy this all is, not like our nice simple suburban church.” There were also comments about women wearing chapel veils ( obviously too much frill for her). Our group did our best to tune them out but found it rather rude that they would criticize someone else’s church while amongst them and that they were so judgmental, let alone unable to see the beauty all around them. I have been in these pared down churches and personally feel there is something missing. One of them had even taken down the Stations of the Cross. They were finally put back when enough people complained. During RCIA I was taught that the Catholic Church believes in using our senses, given to us by God, to enhance the mass, through the visual beauty, gorgeous music and fragrant incense. As far as the old artwork, I like to think of the now nameless artisans, who decades ago, hoisted themselves up incredibly high and sculpted and painted these scenes , using their talent as a means to express their love for the Lord.

  14. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    The Tolkien Arthurian post the other day, and the comments about Holy Grail Quest or not in retellings, got me thinking of John Masefield’s children’s novel, The Midnight Folk… where there are knights, as well as pirates, and witches (and talking animals), no Grail Quest, but what might be in some sense properly described as ‘Hallows’ – things looted from a Cathedral, and long lost –

    [spoiler alert!]

    including statues, which finally are found and returned to active use!

  15. anilwang says:

    APX says: “I find that a lot of the statues they do put in churches now don’t even look like actual human beings”

    Definitely. Just to qualify my last statement that you can’t have too many statues. You can’t have too many statues as long as the arrangement and choice of statue reflects true Catholic theology.

    This Lent, I unfortunately attended a stations of the cross where the beautiful words of Alphonsus Liguori were replaced by abstract pictures of the way of the cross (that looked like photos of a scrap yard) along with “artistic” interpretations of those pictures. The theology of the words and pictures reeked of egoism, elitism, and were completely disconnected from “The Good, The True, and The Beautiful” expressed even on the way to the cross.

    Given the choice between a Protestant “four bare walls and a sermon” church or a church filled with such anti-Catholic abstract art, I’d pick the former since at least I wouldn’t be distracted by constant nausea.

  16. persyn says:

    I can not at this moment think of any words that I like more than “Wherein Fr. Z Rants”. Always a treat.

  17. Precentrix says:

    @Siculum:

    It may be because a lot of people are including links in their comments; Fr. Z moderates links.

  18. Cantor says:

    JonathanCatholic –

    What a shame we can’t rewrite the VII documents that way!

    Okay, Bishops… any questions?

  19. Sandra_in_Severn says:

    Patti Day wrote: I have a picture in my mind of people with sledgehammers smashing statues.

    You are not far off, my maternal grandparents’ parish, Holy Name, was done in the French Style, the walls painted in blues, and white marble statuary, similar to the basilica in Lourdes. In 1969 the interior was gutted and the statuary tossed in a trash truck in broken pieces.

    My grandfather wept, it was only months after my grandmother had died and the broken statue was one that they and their neighbors purchased for the church in 1950.

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Over the years, I have read of more than one good soul, lay or in orders, in different parts of the world, who have rescued cast out holy statues and housed them, even making them, more formally or less, accessible to others.

    Does anyone know if someone out there is publicly keeping track of such collections, on- or off-line?

  21. Stephen McMullen says:

    Hey! That church in the article is the church where I play the organ: St. John Nepomuk, St. Louis, Mo. It is a beautiful church.

  22. Vecchio di Londra says:

    Anyone coming to London and wanting to see Catholic church statues, visit St Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place http://www.stetheldreda.com/
    http://www.stetheldreda.com/index.php/history-of-st-etheldredas/
    Statues all long the walls, in every niche, by every window. The Forty English and Welsh Martyrs, men and women, are strongly represented
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Line
    (Btw, First Friday of the month, TLM at 6.30pm.)

    The church, built in 1290, and of course turned into a Protestant church at the Reformation, and stripped of its statues, furnishings, Latin liturgy and plainchant, was miraculously returned to the Catholic faith (auctioned and sold to the Rosminian Order) in 1873.
    It also has beautiful, intricate stained glass. The (more modern) West Window depicts the 1535 martyrdom of the Carthusian monks from neighbouring Charterhouse who would not acknowledge Henry VIII’s claim to be Head of the Church in England, and who were sentenced to death, dragged through the street to the gallows at Tyburn, hung until unconscious, then eviscerated and beheaded. One of the statues on the north and south walls is of the brave Prior of Charterhouse, St John Houghton. (Ora pro nobis.)

    Also, for baroque statues visit the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington http://www.bromptonoratory.com/Oratory_Home.html
    – every chapel has an altar statue of the saint to whom it is dedicated, including the recently canonised St John Henry Newman. In the nave is the famous statue of St Peter (a copy of the statue in St Peter’s Rome) and the twelve Apostle statues carved in Carrara marble in the late 17c by Mazzuoli, a pupil of Bernini, for Siena Cathedral. They are a masterpiece of baroque extravagant expression, well worth contemplating.

    Also recommended: The Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Mayfair W1
    http://www.farmstreet.org.uk/tour.php

    and St James’s Spanish Place
    http://www.sjrcc.org.uk/
    http://www.sjrcc.org.uk/page8/churchtour.html

  23. JKnott says:

    Is there any limit to the number of statues on the facade?

    Magnificent Chartres
    http://funkystock.photoshelter.com/gallery-slideshow/G0000mwRcl_wqUQA/C0000pDRcOaIqj8E?start=

  24. I like the statues. The more the better. As a layperson and father to 7 children, we simple folk, untrained in seminary formation and lacking in theological doctorates need these things. We need these along with stained glass windows, soul-stirring sacred music, and edifying architecture. These things spiritually transport us from the common day-to-day that we are already immersed in and into the heavenly realm that God is calling us for. They are signs of hope. Signs of better things to come. We need these things and lots of them.

    A stripped down church to us reminds us of purgatory. It is too austere, cold, and lifeless. Laypeople, whether we realize it or not, are inspired by the sacred treasury of our Church. They foster a curiosity and longing for the lush gardens of heaven. By curiosity I mean the questions I hear from my children and the ones I myself asked at their age: ‘why is St. Anthony holding Jesus?’ . . . ‘Is that a snake under Mary’s feet?’ . . . ‘why is St. John’s image a snake in a cup?’ . . . etc.

    They inspire, they edify, and most importantly, they give us laymen hope.

  25. John Pepino says:

    Hello Fr. Z.,

    First, thank you for calling me to order the other day: reapse asinus eram germanus.

    Secondly, I offer an anecdote regarding progressivist (if that’s a word) vandalism. Please believe that I am not making any of this up:

    At the time of this story (roughly twenty years ago) I shared a house with a Sister of the Most Precious Blood. She was a dear, though wrong-headed.
    One night one of her consoeurs stopped for a layover on her way to a S.H.E.N. conference in Scotland (“what is S.H.E.N.?” I asked; she replied: “Self-Healing Energy Nexus” . . . ).
    By the demeanor of the two Sisters one got the impression that the traveler belonged to the “in” crowd in the congregation.

    At dinner she related to us with palpable glee the day that she and a few of the bolder sisters took sledge hammers to the plaster statuary in their convent chapel. “It was so much fun!” she exclaimed.
    At this point Father Mark Kirby (now OSB in Ireland but at the time a Cistercian working on an STL in liturgy), the other guest at dinner, looked down into his soup and murmured “Mais c’est diabolique!” I silently agreed, but I think we were both too stunned by the enormity of what she had said, and the way in which she said it, to respond aloud.

    Before the changes her name in religion had been Sr. David Ignatius; please keep her in your prayers.

    -JP

  26. John of Chicago says:

    Music worthy of the liturgy must be beautiful and inspire. The same should be true of the visual arts that grace our churches. One great Mass setting is worth far more than a dozen hymnals full of bad music. On the other hand, bad music has one big advantage over bad visual art–once a cheesy hymn sounds it’s last note it’s over and done but cheesy church art tends to afflict yet unborn generations.

  27. jflare says:

    “Or perhaps they don’t really understand what the Council of Trent said about statues and images:”…

    You’re assuming, of course, that they bothered with remembering that Trent was a legitimate Council of the Church. Given the zaniness of many ideas I’ve come across, I doubt most of these “experts” have studied Vatican II, never mind Trent!

  28. jflare says:

    “I have a picture in my mind of people with sledgehammers smashing statues.”

    I simply cannot fathom how anyone could stand doing this.
    Honestly, the idea makes me cringe.

  29. cajuncath says:

    It certainly doesn’t sound like we have a problem right now with too many statutes.

  30. The Egyptian says:

    Ah memories, we were inflicted with a new Priest in the 70’s, fresh from the recovation (and I mean destruction) of a beautiful church near by, he ranted and raved about how the altars had to go, the statues and choir loft were to be removed and if possible the stained glass was to be replaced with frosted “modern” glass,spirit of VII and all that crap. Eight weeks after his installation we had confirmation, the Archbishop sat up front and in his sermon announced how wonderful it was to be in a church that had such wonderful stained glass and beautiful old statues and altars, and how the choir sounded so good up there in the loft and how the sound traveled so good from up there. Total rout, Father sat there and got shorter and shorter. Years later i found out about the little trip and talk several of our parishioners took to Cincinnati, had a nice conversation with the powers that be, and I heard greased some palms. Father NEVER brought up renovating again.

    one year later at morning mass the old ladies that were in attendance every time, noticed the stations were gone, all hell broke loose, by noon the parish council was at his door plus quite a few others, he finally explained he had sent the stations out to be epoxy coated because they were starting to flake badly. They stayed pearl white till he left then the ladies auxiliary painted them, look beautiful now.

    we survived Vat 2, Barely

  31. The Masked Chicken says:

    “The first law that governs the number of statues in a church is the law of physics whereby it is evident that two tangible objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”

    We, really, have to work on getting that law repealed.

    The Chicken

  32. Suburbanbanshee says:

    St. John Damascene made the beautiful argument that the spoken words of the Bible are images in sound of God’s Word, and written words of the Bible are images written in pen of the same sound of God’s Word. So fighting against images means fighting against all literature.

    (Which was also a hit against Islamic iconoclasm, of course, since they believe the Koran is God’s word and yet they write and speak and decorate buildings with images of the words of the Koran.)

    In much the same way, pictures and statues of Jesus are also images of God’s Word, and the saints’ pictures and statues are images of how they became more fully “in God’s image and likeness” through doing His will and being part of the Body of Christ.

  33. St Donatus says:

    We have a beautiful church in Wisconsin. It barely made it through. The problem is, with a new priests every 4 or 5 years, one is bound to try to destroy the church. They did move the tabernacle into a side room and added a entry next to the alter so when coming in, people must cross the sanctuary (not a good setup). It appears that the reason for this was so they didn’t have to ruin some of the original architectural asthetics of the church while allowing for the elderly and handicapped to worship. (There are about 8 to 10 steps to get to the main entrance.) Sadly the new work sticks out like a sore thumb but they saved the beauty of the church. Now if they could restore the beauty of the Mass there it would be perfect. When I was there, the church was was half full (when I was a child, it was standing room only), but the Mass was not reverent or beautiful. The ‘altar girls’ were pretty (no boys for the priesthood coming soon) but the Mass didn’t feel right. I felt no connection to God but the priest did a good job of making it feel like a ‘community gathering around the table’. After mass, I spent time in prayer and was able to get that connection to God I needed for the coming week with the help of the beauty of the heaven envisaged in that old church.

    This shows that a

  34. RobW says:

    Ive never once been in or seen a picture of a church that was “overdone” with statues but have been in a lot of churches that could definitely use a few more,

  35. jesusthroughmary says:

    It sounds like the Roman Church would benefit from the adoption of the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

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