Making sacred art with “theologically appropriate” techniques

There is a very interesting post at NLM today by David Clayton about the interplay of painting technique and theology in the creation (or should that be “subcreation”) of sacred art.

In sum, the writer brings in the point that one technique of painting (yes, I know people say “writing”) icons is to apply first the darker layers and proceed with increasingly brighter layers to demonstrate a theological point: light over comes darkness.

But there’s more to it than that.  Apparently that is not how earlier icons were painted.

Questions arise.

Do those who make vestments have to stitch theologically?  Is it enough, or even necessary, to pray while making them?   How about making Hosts for Mass?  Should musicians bang, blow and scrape theologically?   Is there a theological bowing technique?  Should members of a schola cantorum breathe in a more theologically appropriate way?

Mind you, there could be a difference between theological and prayerful.

Does the process matter?

In the final analysis, do I care if the workers who build my church prayed, or raised the walls brick by brick, in a way that was theologically apt for the wall?

Check out the NLM article.

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  1. OurLadysRabbit says:

    I am a student who is attending college for a Degree in Fine Art and is planning on doing many religious paintings. With Icons, I have encountered many people who desire to have them painted in a strict manner, that is in style and with layers of paint. I think it is very hard on artists when they are forced into a specific box of “you can only do it this way”. While the subject and representation should be theologically appropriate, I religious artists should be allowed a little freedom when creating art for the glory of God.

  2. chcrix says:

    A splendid post on NLM. I think those who frequent WDTPRS combine a sense of the aesthetic with the sacred.

    Whether the worker who built the church prayed as he positioned the bricks, or the tailor prayed as he stitched the vestments is probably more important to the worker and the tailor respectively than it is to those who use the resulting product.

    And that is the final point – the product is more important than the process. I would rather contemplate something done by a Leonardo with a hangover and whose heart was not overflowing with charity than some of the liturgical art produced since the sixties no matter how prayerful the executants.

  3. jeffreyquick says:

    As a musician…no, there are no theological ways of making music. There are compositional techniques that are more apt for creating music fit for the Church. But that is an expressive restriction, not a theological one.

  4. Choirmaster says:

    For the sacred musician, specifically the schola and director, yes, Father, prayer is indeed necessary as part of the normal creative process. That is, for a schola of sacred music, the rehearsal and clerical (i.e. mundane) preparations for Mass must be done while praying, much like you had suggested for the stitching of vestments or the baking of hosts.

    It is important to start a rehearsal with a prayer; not only a few Hail Mary’s, but often times a short litany of saints with some other pre-composed prayer. The St. Michael prayer is a very good one. Also recommended is the singing of hymns, but not the singing of hymns to practice for the upcoming Mass, singing hymns to pray those hymns and to accustom the schola to the concept of song as prayer.

    Moreover, before work on a specific piece, it is equally important to review the translation (especially if you’re developing a true sacred music program in the midst of a mainstream parish). But not just a review of the translation, a voicing of those words as a prayer in and of themselves. One good example is the Pange Lingua where I went down the line and each chorister (in the vernacular) prayed one verse while the rest listened.

    It’s also important to close the rehearsals (and/or collaborative meetings) with group prayer. This is good to give a finality to the rehearsal time and dismiss everyone in a comfortable and appropriate manner, and also to reinforce the prayerful nature of the work.

    I’m not saying this method guarantees any sort of technical success in executing the music, but what it does do is imbue the liturgical performance (for lack of a better word coming to mind) with a spirit of genuine prayer. It guarantees that, outside of a catastrophic technical disaster, the music contributes to the reverence of the ceremonies, fulfills the liturgical obligations of the schola, and nevertheless edifies the people.

  5. Alice says:

    I’m a musician and on the surface I disagree with Jeffreyquick. (I say on the surface because if he expanded his point, I might discover that I do agree with him.) J.S. Bach, Anton Heiller, and Olivier Messiaen all come to mind as composers who composed in a theological way in their sacred works. If I were a composer, I could write a piece of meditative music and dedicate it to the Trinity, but Bach did better. His meditation on the Trinity becomes a fugue with three different sections, each dedicated to one of the Persons and painting a musical picture of His Being. As an organist, I may play that piece as a coherent and aesthetically pleasing collection of notes or I can pray it. As a Christian, I prefer to do the latter.

  6. Alice says:

    I commented on music and it went into moderation.

  7. A major Orthodox complaint about the West is that we farm out our artistic commissions to whoever we think is best from a technical perspective, and there’s little prayer or theology involved. You see this today especially with the building of churches. Usually some local firm is hired, the architects of which may or may not be Catholic or Christian and which usually don’t have any real understanding of the theology or semiotics of proper architecture.

  8. Oneros says:

    This is the question of the fine balance of tradition and organic development vs. arbitrary discontinuous innovation.

    There have always been “theological” interpretations imposed on architecture or art or music, yes even the process of making (this is true for when Gothic arose as much as Iconography, etc).

    I say “imposed” only because this all came after-the-fact as a way of giving deeper meaning to what was already in place. Likewise various elements of the Mass. The various “meanings” given for all the vestments are clearly an after-the-fact interpretation and the original functions practical, etc

    However, that doesn’t mean that these traditional meanings that accrue should just be discarded either in favor of “the best” outcome from a technical perspective. Things can be altered gradually, perhaps, in a manner that adds a new meaning even while keeping the old (and then, in the NEXT iteration, the old may finally largely disappear), but if there is not this continuity, even in these “non-essentials”…we really do, then, have a hermeneutic of rupture.

    The Orthodox would probably be inclined to say that it started with scholasticism’s focus on the “bare minimum” for things like Sacraments rather than on looking at a holistic context like this.

  9. digdigby says:

    I would recommend the movie Alexei Rublev – at least watch the final section ‘The Bell”. The presumptions audacity of the religious artist must come from God. All artists are ‘fakes’ like young Boriska and all are ‘winging it’ . In fact all of us human beings are fakes and winging it (with a lot of help).

    “Why are you crying? You made the people happy, they are having a feast day and you’re crying. We’ll travel together, you will cast the bells and I will paint the icons. “

  10. digdigby says:

    Sorry that’s ANDREI RUBLEV name of movie.

  11. In early medieval Irish law (and by custom down to recent times), everybody starting work was supposed to ask God to bless the work, and anybody encountering somebody else working had to ask God to bless the work. Not blessing the work made you subject to fines.

    (And of course, if you didn’t audibly bless the work, you might well be cursing it under your breath, saying spells against it, or just being inexcusably rude to the worker. Irish law was much concerned with keeping everybody’s feelings soothed in order to keep the peace and prevent feuds; so the duties and rights were very interesting.)

  12. Elizabeth D says:

    I quit the schola I was in recently, on the recommendation of two priests, because of frustration that was causing me to lose my charity, due to the director making it difficult or impossible to sing the chant in a sincere spirit of prayer. At practice and sometimes even at Mass he was often irreverent, angry, or made inappropriate jokes etc, and although he seems to be a faithful Catholic and a very experienced organist and choir director, seemed to have no sympathy for the idea that chant is meant to be sung prayerfully and that we should be truly reverent. Other schola members had the same concern and another one quit after I did. I LOVED singing chant and hope to do so in the future, hopefully under circumstances where there is a positive attitude toward praying the chant.

  13. AnAmericanMother says:


    Well! Now I understand something that Donn Byrne said in his “Foreword for Foreigners” in Hangman’s House – “And that Mister Synge, who gained so many plaudits abroad some years past, had never a ‘God bless the work!’ from home because he would not, or could not, write an Irish play for Irish men.”

    Thanks! Learn something every day.

    It’s a pretty good book, too, although Destiny Bay is better.

  14. Anchorite says:

    Well. I hope I do not sound too harsh, but Mr. Clayton’s assertions are very often without factual merit. Whether it is his “theological” interpretations of chiaroscuro technique of Carravaggisti or this recent “dogmatic” posts about technique of icon painting – none exhibit the understanding and breath that the secular classical Art History in interpreting the ecclesiastical art.
    The diversity of vernacular icon-painting techniques across just Eastern and Southern Europe is a proof that “prayerful” icons were and are created using DIVERSE techniques.
    Mr. Clayton’s recent post on “Geometric” Orthodox art featured 19th and 20th century ornamentation stenciled on the walls of churches built under Czar Nicolas II – a rather sad example of state-sanctioned academic Eclecticism.
    It is really hard to appreciate the prayerfulness of “theologically-correct” art when it is painted by a Bouguereau wannabe.

  15. PaterAugustinus says:

    In the Orthodox Church, there are many customs and even canons, which direct the proper techniques of iconography. More than just moving from dark to light layers, the Tradition tells us what kinds of materials are preferred, how they should be prepared, what proportions should be used in depicting the figures (even regulating the position of facial features, hands, objects), what figures can and cannot (and should and should not) be depicted, etc. We strive to apply this sensibility to all the arts: Church architecture should follow certain schemata with deliberate arrangements of iconography, cantors should strive for a certain style of singing and pronunciation, etc. All of this is done with a thought to the sacramental quality of everything done in God’s Temple, and how everything we do – but, most of all, what we do in Church – should be a sign of the Kingdom’s presence here and now.

    In the West, secular and sacred art met in the Renaissance; thereafter, Catholicism followed the fads of secular art as they developed, and “good taste” became the barometer of suitable sacred art. When Western art nose-dived into puerile vanity, and “good taste” became “subjective” in Western society, Catholicism was assaulted by wholly de-sacralized styles of ecclesiastical art, music, architecture, etc.

    We Orthodox hope to point Catholicism back to the principle of a specific and unique sacred art. Great art on the human level can ennoble us in our humanity and cause a desire for spiritual things, since the experience of sehnsucht can point us to our capacity for divine eros, which only God can sate. But this is the merest beginning, and it would be dangerous to confuse the sentimentality of art – even good art – with authentically spiritual movements. The Orthodox icon does not seek to provoke our sehnsucht; it seeks to make the Kingdom immediately present, and to produce a very clean and dispassionate movement in the soul. This dispassionate movement of the soul is full of truly divine eros, which occurs amidst a strange peace that stills baser emotions. An icon, then, seeks to provide something very different from the more terrestrial movement of even the best human art. As much as I like Tintoretto’s painting of my Patron healing the lame, and as much as it moves me to think of my Patron and his power and love, the only suitable place for this is in my office or cell. I would never use it in Church unless I could find no proper iconography.

    P.S. – the word graphein is used for both painting and writing in Greek. All of the normal, well-adjusted Greek clergy I know, speak of *painting,* not writing, icons. To call it icon-*writing,* is in fact a pretentious affectation, introduced by wide-eyed wannabes in order to seem savvy. I know many people use the term in good faith now, because they honestly thought that was the right way to translate it. It’s not, though. Good on you for avoiding the rather unnatural term.

  16. Elizabeth D says:

    I just noticed digdigby’s mention of a movie “Andrei Rublev”. Hopefully that is a good film; there is also a film that I think is titled “The Passion of Andrei Rublev” by an artistically acclaimed Soviet Communist filmmaker that was shown for free locally and I went to see it thinking obviously that it was going to be about Andrei Rublev… there was a character by that name that was ostensibly him, but it was actually by an order of magnitude the most foul, violent, and horrifically sacreligious movie I have ever seen. Do not see it, there is a lot of evil in this film that is very obviously real evil acts, it will burn extremely disturbing images into your brain and that was probably the intent and perhaps meant to attract Russian Christians who venerate Rublev and then bombard them with 3 hours of vicious filth. I sat through most of it only because I was with friends who invited me (who had no idea the movie was going to be like that), before I walked out. Absolutely woke me up about what the Russian Communists were like.

  17. digdigby says:

    Vatican’s Great Films #01: Andrei Rublev (1966, USSR)
    For the 100th anniversary of cinema in 1995, the Vatican created a list of “Great Films.” The 45 films are separated into three categories: “Religion”, “Values” and “Art”, each containing 15 diverse films.

  18. BLB Oregon says:

    Sometimes the sign and the reality are the same thing, but just because it is true at the most important times does not mean it is that way in everything having to do with the sacred.

    It is one thing to say the materials must not have been produced via slavery or procured by exploitation, or to say that the artist must pay attention to their interior disposition when they work. These are real factors, real truths about the art produced. It does not matter that there isn’t a scientific way to detect the slavery in the materials or the sinful disposition of the artist when the piece was being produced. The truth about the origin of the art piece would remain.

    It is another thing to say that artists who are left-handed have to work with their right hand when doing sacred art because there is something “sinister” about the left hand. While there may be actions in the rubrics that require the right hand or the left, while the distinction between the right hand and the left might have real ritual significance, this doesn’t extend automatically extend to everything in the realm of the sacred.

  19. Elizabeth D says:

    digdigby, that seems to be the same movie I saw, but it was completely horrific. It still disturbs me greatly if some of the scenes come into my mind. It is not at all a Christian movie as far as I could tell, I kept watching and watching and trying to find some redeeming value or good intention in it, but it just kept getting worse, I felt violated by this film. Why would it be on a Vatican film list?

  20. digdigby says:

    Elizabeth D-
    Do you know that ‘The Passion of Christ’ is a cult film among gay fans of Sadomasochism?
    Do you know that in movie after movie Mr. Mel Gibson has had a VERY strange predilection for showing handsome naked young men being hideously tortured in close up? Mr. Zillionaire Potty-Mouth Gibson is perhaps by some arcane ‘accounting system’ more ‘Christian’ than Mr. Tarkovsky but I don’t care to make the judgment. And as for his private life its none of my business at ALL. But if traditional catholics can’t distinguish sadomasochistic porn from art, who is missing out? But don’t go by me! I think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a far more Catholic film than ‘The Passion” and certainly more edifying (with its emphasis on the redemptive craving for the ‘child’ and the sacredness of marriage) than Jeffrey Hunter’s ‘tastefully shaved armpits’ in King of Kings.

    Yes there are horrific scenes in Andrei Rublev, particularly the Tatar invasions. Tarkovsky was actually a very gentle and moral man and was at pains to make it known that the cow on fire and the injured horses in this film were elaborately clever tricks and that the animals weren’t hurt at all. What can I say? The movie is edifying to me but that edification doesn’t come easy. As for why it is number one of all time on a Vatican film list – you’ll have to ponder the film and try to figure it out for yourself.

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    I wouldn’t judge anything by what mentally ill people make of it. Especially those who want to claim everything as “theirs” – from King David forward.
    Gay sadomasochists also made a pornographic “stations of the cross”. It’s pretty horrific, and has nothing to do with Gibson. THAT predilection was established long before his movie came along.
    As for Gibson, to judge an artist’s work either by his personal life or by what other people make of his work is sort of the secular equivalent of Donatism. After all, Wagner’s adultery and the adoption of his music by the Nazis are irrelevant to his music (which I don’t care for, but lots of people do.)

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