The Church and Sacred Art

“Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.” 


In examining the specific directives of the Church when it comes to art, we should remember that art, like the music and architecture, is not just something we add to our houses of worship. The three sacred arts (art, architecture, music) form an integrated whole that brings Beauty into our liturgy.

Sacrosanct Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy tells us that the Church has never defined a specific style of art to be used in our churches, rather it is concerned that the art shows due reverence and honor to the Holy rites.

“The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; … provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor;” Sacrosanctum Concillium 123

However, the Constitution does say that the art created by artists should “edify the faithful, foster their piety, and their religious formation.

“All artists ... should ever bear in mind that they are engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator, and are concerned with works destined to be used in Catholic worship, to edify the faithful, and to foster their piety and their religious formation.” SC 127

"Built of Living Stones" (BLS) is the document from the USCCB that offers us guidelines for art and architecture. Like "Sing to the Lord," it is advisory in nature rather than binding. But even so, it represents how the bishops of the United States interpret and expand upon Sacrosanctum Concilium.

 “Art chosen for the place of worship is not simply something pretty or well made, an addition to make the ordinary more pleasant. Nor is the place of worship a museum to house artistic masterpieces or artistic models. Rather, artworks truly belong in the church when they are worthy of the place of worship and when they enhance the liturgical, devotional, and contemplative prayer they are inspired to serve.” BLS ch. 3

Built of Living Stone reminds us that the purpose of sacred art is not to draw attention to itself but to draw us beyond itself to the sacred realities the arts point to.

“Art or architecture that draws more attention to its own shape, form, texture, or color than to the sacred realities it seeks to disclose is unworthy of the church building.” BLS 5

Although there is no preferred style, the Bishop's conference of the United States does encourage us to look to the great store of Christian art so that new forms may grow organically from traditional forms.

“In choosing images and devotional art, parishes should be respectful of traditional iconography when it comes to the way sacred images are recognized and venerated by the faithful.” BLS ch. 2

“the patrimony of sacred art and architecture provides a standard by which a parish can judge the worthiness of contemporary forms and styles.” BLS ch. 3

Similar to discerning music," Built of Living Stones" suggests applying two judgments in evaluating sacred art.

Quality -

“Quality is evident in the honesty and genuineness of the materials that are used, the nobility of the form embodied in them, the love and care that goes into the creation of a work of art, and the personal stamp of the artist whose special gift produces a harmonious whole, a well crafted work.” BLS ch. 3

and appropriateness -

“appropriateness is demonstrated by the work's ability to bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder that the liturgical action expresses and by the way it serves and does not interrupt the ritual actions which have their own structure, rhythm and movement.” BLS ch. 3

All of the sacred arts serve the liturgy, they should not shock us or distract us with the artist's personal vision.

And finally the Bishops tell us

“The integrity and energy of a piece of art, produced individually by the labor of an artist, is always to be preferred above objects that are mass- produced.” BLS ch. 3

So we are encouraged here in the U.S. to patronize and work with talented individuals, rather than just picking something out of a catalog that “looks pretty.”

For help in how to apply these principles we can look to Pope Benedict XVI. In his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” Pope Benedict identified three styles of art that he felt were most appropriate to be used in the liturgy, the Iconographic, the Gothic, and the Baroque.

The Iconographic and Gothic are actually very similar. In many ways the Gothic style is a more naturalistic form of the Iconographic. But the Baroque is an entirely different form.

So what is similar between these three forms that Pope Benedict felt that they typified art that was appropriately liturgical? First, there is the subject matter. Sacred art has as its subject God, His saints, and events from scripture and christian history. All three forms have a common goal, the contemplation of heavenly things.

The way light is handled and depicted is also important in all three forms. In the iconographic we see the light of Heaven. There are no deep cast shadows, everything is bathed in the light of the divine. In the gothic form we see the light of Heaven frequently contrasted with the secular, earthly light. And in the baroque, light is used as a symbol or our fight against the darkness of sin and death. 

Liturgical art of any type should point beyond itself, beyond the surface and aesthetic appeal, to a greater Truth.

And finally all liturgical art involves a balance between the natural and the ideal, between realism and symbolism or stylization. We do not look for distracting hyper realism nor do we want abstraction that is so extreme that the casual viewer can no longer  make sense of the image. 

The Church gives the artist or craftsman a great deal of freedom in creating work for our liturgical spaces. But we should be mindful when creating, or commissioning these works, of the purpose of sacred art.

“Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 2502

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Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at