Toward a Sacred Art
I have been interested for some time in trying to imagine a new kind of sacred art for the Catholic Church; these images represent my first forays into that task. I have published below my notes about a series of paintings designed to serve the basic liturgical functions required by images in a small chapel: there are a set of stations of the cross (especially for lenten devotions), a crucifix designed to go above the main altar, and paintings for Our Lady and St. Joseph to flank the main altar (often there are either small side altars or votive candles in front of images of these saints).
PAINTINGS FOR A SMALL CHAPEL
When I set out to make these paintings, I knew two things: (1) that I wanted to make paintings that explicitly served a liturgical function and (2) that representation, for me, almost certainly wasn’t the answer. I remained open to the possibility of recognizable imagery—and of course in the crucifix it is clearly there—but I did not want to deal with the finer points of facial expressions, quantities of blood or the color of cheeks. Nor did I wish to engage the twin problems of the distancing effect of historical dress or the disorienting effect of depicting sacred events with modern clothing. I was much more interested in creating paintings that spoke to the fact that the events happened, and the manifold decisions confronting a representational account of how the events happened seemed really beside the point for me.
It is one of my primary responsibilities as an artist to know what possibilities are closed off for me. And expressive figuration within the context of liturgical forms is one of them. I actually suspect that it is much easier for an atheist or skeptic to adopt motifs and forms like the crucifixion or the Madonna and child because for them these works exist as artistic topes and formal devices that convey emotions or deep human feeling, but they are not burdened with the responsibility of making the spiritual reality present for the believer. The crucifixes of Julian Schnabel or Marlene Dumas, for instance, are meant to be experienced as art, and that is importantly not what I wanted for these paintings.
The idea of the icon as an alternative to the expressive figuration of the west is compelling precisely because it seems to escape the dilemmas posed by western painting since the Renaissance: there are clear and fixed rules of composition, one learns to “write” icons through a self-denying apprenticeship, and the images are fixed in form and reserved in expression. It sounds like an answer to the dilemmas facing sacred art in the modern age—the only problem is that I have yet to see a modern icon that is also a good painting.
If pressed about what an art for what Pope Francis has called “the church that is poor and for the poor” would look like, this is my best answer: it is an art that stands witness to the truths of the faith directly, without indulgence or embellishment, in a way that respects the dignity of the believer and the non-believer alike. A sacred art for the poor in spirit demands neither saccharine religious feeling nor over-developed aesthetic sensibility, but opens a space wherein it is possible to silently encounter one’s God.
The idea for the series began with the Stations. I had in mind Barnett Newman’s Stations, Mark Rothko’s austere chapel paintings and Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977, in which he re-painted documentary photographs of a charged historical event. I thought about early Christians praying the stations in Jerusalem, going from spot to spot along the via dolorosa to pray at the precise place that the events we now depict in the stations occurred. “What happened here?” It is the ground that makes the place holy; the acknowledgment that this particular thing happened opens up the space for the contemplation of the event. This is the experience I was aiming for with my Stations: not a tableau where we are either drawn in or repulsed by the expression on Christ’s face, but a statement of the reason for marking out this spot as holy, as a place for reflection.
For the Crucifix, I knew that I needed an image of the event but again wanted to spare the details. I knew that words alone would not be sufficient. I thought a great deal about a photograph of a crucifix that was carved into the wall in one of the buildings at Auschwitz – I was so surprised by it the first time I encountered that image: its simplicity, its incompleteness, the urgency with which it must have been made. The photograph of that crucifix was as moving to me as a painting of Christ by Titian that I knew and loved. It helped me to be less afraid of my limitations as an artist, and to make the painting as I could make it at this time, in this place.
I live in a place with many tall trees, which transform into a tracery of black lines as the light fades and low-lying clouds reflect the city’s light pollution. It is winter, and the doubling white of the snow picks out the trees against the ground as well. I took one brush for black paint, and one for white paint, and painted the crucifix in a night. It is the simplest image that I could conjure—really no more than a sketch or artistic shorthand for the content of the painting, but it seemed fitting for this particular series of images.
Paintings for Our Lady and Saint Joseph
The most compelling images of Our Lady have miraculous origins: Our Lady of Guadeloupe was a gift to Juan Diego; the Black Madonna was painted from life by St. Luke, etc. On the one hand I want to look to these kinds of images as guides for the depictions of Our Lady and Saint Joseph; on the other hand they aren’t much help—I can’t count on a miracle to finish this set of paintings. So when I began the saints’ paintings to flank the crucifix, I started to think of them as paintings for Our Lady and Saint Joseph instead of paintings of them—I wanted to make the paintings a kind of offering, thanksgiving for their intercession on our behalf. The paintings went through a number of stages but ended up very simple: I ask Our Lady and Saint Joseph to pray for us, and draw a quatrefoil underneath. Our Lady’s painting is blue; Saint Joseph’s is rose.
I first started experimenting with the quatrefoil form after taking a class on Gothic art, and have since learned that it has been related to the idea of a portal—a passageway between two worlds—in a number of cultures even outside of the West. I liked the idea of my paintings for Our Lady and Joseph being “portals” that would sit beside the crucifix, as they are themselves a kind of opening where grace flows into the world—or, perhaps, they are other doors through which we can approach Christ. In any event, there is the cross—and then there are these two openings on either side of it.
There are some ways in which these paintings are not images in the traditional sense—they do not depict faces, hands and arms; a museum docent does not have a story to tell about how this is John the Baptist and that is the child Jesus. But in another way these are every bit as much images as Gothic panels or Renaissance frescoes: they are surfaces covered in color; each brush stroke is considered and (I hope) expressive. They are visual things, and one can as easily get lost in the experience of the paint as one can with the paint creating a recognizable face. But they are not just aesthetic objects: I think they are also capable of doing the work needed for the liturgy. My hope for them is that they open up a space around them in which one is inclined to ask the deeper questions, to seek the deeper answers, and to confront the living truth that we encounter because of that great moment when the eternal punctured time, forever changing our history and our human possibilities.
Brian Prugh, February 5, 2015
This series of paintings has its genesis in the work that became the 2012 show After Julian, exhibited at Art Gallery West in Iowa City, IA.
Brian Prugh has given lectures on the intersection of art and Catholicism at The Newman Center in Iowa City and St. Theodore Guerin High School in Indianapolis. He has also written a series of art historical papers considering some aspects of the development of sacred art that are collected in Part II his MFA thesis: The Ocean Is What I Meant By / Theory for Art. One of these papers, "Caravaggio's Reserve: The Self-Portrait as Witness to Sacred History" was presented at the Jakobson Conference in Iowa City in 2013.