Liturgical Art and Liturgical Man

When we talk about art that is appropriate to the liturgy, that is the visual arts of murals, frescos, icons, etc., we refer to the art that serves the liturgy. It may be the paintings and stained glass that help us direct our hearts and minds to the contemplation of heavenly things, or it may be the illustrations that adorn our liturgical books. To help us determine what is appropriate for these settings we frequently refer to Pope Benedict's (Joseph Ratzinger) "Spirit of the Liturgy." In this book Benedict refers to three styles or types of art that are appropriately liturgical, the Iconographic, the Gothic, and the Baroque.


Each of these styles speaks to a different state of our existence, a different way of understanding our place in creation. The Iconographic form, for example, shows us man glorified and in Heaven, surrounded by the "uncreated light." To borrow from Pope Saint John Paul II's "Theology of the Body," the Iconographic form shows us Eschatological Man.

Baroque imagery, on the other hand, shows us Historical Man. Man in the here and now struggling against the darkness brought on by the fall of Original Sin.

The Gothic falls somewhere in between. Gothic art can be thought of as man on his pilgrimage back to God.

The River of Time

It might be helpful here to look at salvation history a little more as God sees it rather than as humans do. Think of time as a slow-moving river. The past is upstream and the future is downstream. Each of us spends our lives in a small section of the river as a current that overlaps others. What happened in the past, upstream, we are only dimly aware of as events have been passed down to us. What will happen in the future, downstream, we have yet to encounter.

But God is not in the river. God stands outside the stream on the river bank surveying all of creation. To God, outside of the human notions of time and space, everything is happening at the same time. So for a moment try to see a little more like God sees. Forget the historical sequence of events and consider that Baroque art shows man after he has fallen. His life is a constant battle to escape from the darkness and find his way into the light.

Gothic art, then, is man well on his way, his eyes fixed firmly on the light of Heaven, journeying home.

Iconographic art shows man at the end of his journey, reconciled with God and restored to the grace he was always meant to enjoy.

Each of these three forms spoke to us at a different time in our history. Baroque art, for example, developed as a response to the darkness of the period of the Reformation. Gothic art was at its most popular when the mission of the Church, preaching the Gospel and saving souls, influenced nearly every aspect of Western culture. Today these forms still speak to us, but more often than not, on a personal level rather than as a people or a nation.

Liturgical Man

Consciously or not, sacred artists of today are on a quest to find the sacred artform that will carry us through the third millennium. What is the form that will speak to us today and withstand the test of time and continue to speak to future generations? Is it some derivation of the Iconographic, Gothic, or Baroque? Or will it be something new that has grown organically from the past forms?

A good place to begin would be to examine what we need as a people of God; a need that art can respond to, help us make sense of, and keep us on the path as we journey home. With the current crisis the Church is going through, how can art, the language of Beauty, help? The scandal reminds us that the Church, which Christ established, will always be a persecuted Church, even if that persecution comes from within. Many of us feel helpless as we look to the very people that caused the crisis, to resolve it.

What we can do is look to our own vocation and the work each one of us is called to do. Discern the gifts God has given you, the work He is calling you to, and focus on that. We do not put our faith in bishops or priests or deacons, we put our faith in Christ Jesus. And I think this is where art can help.

We need to begin to see ourselves as a liturgical people.

Man is a liturgical creature, as a race, we are a liturgical people. What I mean by this is that the very purpose of man here on on earth is twofold, to sanctify himself and to glorify God. We express this purpose most clearly in our liturgies.

The word liturgy means “a public work,” that is, “a work of the people.” In a Christian context, liturgy is the public prayer of the people. But we need to expand our understanding of the word. Liturgy is more than just the rites and sacraments of the Church. Everything we do, every action we take, should serve that twofold purpose, to glorify God, and to sanctify man.

To  Serve and to Protect

In the Book of Genesis, man is given a mission, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Genesis 2:15

These words, to till and to keep are translations of the Hebrew words,“abad,”and“shamar.” “Abad “means to work, to do work for another. In this context Adam (man) is working the land, not for his own sake, but for God's. In other words, "abad"means “to serve.”

"Shamar,"means to keep or to guard, to preserve and to protect. Man therefore is put into Creation to serve and to protect. When we serve God by serving his creation, we sanctify ourselves. When we protect what He has given us, we glorify Him.

God made all of creation Good and True and Beautiful. When we interact with the world God created, we find ourselves in a liturgical relationship. Liturgy is a relationship between God, man, and all of Creation. Everything is liturgy. The old Baltimore Catechism taught that the purpose of Man is to know God, to love Him, and to serve Him. The current catechism says the same thing, it just uses a lot more words to do so. By loving God, we glorify Him. By serving God, we sanctify ourselves. Everything we do should fulfill our dual purpose, to glorify God and sanctify man. Everything is liturgy.

A Question

So I offer an open question. Let's get a discussion going. What should the art that represents "Liturgical man" look like? What are its attributes? From studying the forms of the past we can deduce some generalities about liturgical art.

  • Its subject matter is Christ, the saints, and events from the Bible or Christian history.

  • Liturgical art draws us beyond the image to the Truth the image conveys.

  • The way light is handled further informs us.

  • And finally liturgical art is a balance between naturalism and stylization, it is not hyper-realistic, nor is it so abstract that what is being depicted is no longer recognizable.

I do not expect we will arrive at an answer, at least not a clear one. Part of the equation is that the art will still resonate with the faithful centuries from now, long after each of us have gone to glory. But that does not mean that sacred artists should not give any thought to what they do or how their art speaks to the needs of the people of God.

I welcome all thoughts, opinions, observations and suggestions.

Pax vobiscum, peace be with you.

this article originally appeared at


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