Being a young country, at least as compared to European countries, the United States does not have many layers of artistic strata through which creative types may dig. For Catholics, the vast majority of our pre-modernist churches are revivals of earlier styles, drawing on certain tried-and-tested formulae, particularly as regards art such as painting and sculpture. As a result, the observant eye will often pick up a kind of cookie-cutter quality to the interior of historic parish churches. I have seen the exact same crucifixion group for example, in different color combinations, in historic parish churches in my home town, on Capitol Hill, in New York City, and in Chicago.
The standard explanation as to why these churches have a boring sameness to their interiors is that they were often built by poor immigrants, and mass-produced art from factories in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore was generally the cheap and safe way to go. To my mind this is not, however, a valid justification as to why they are still boring on the inside, many decades or more after they were built. Just because a building is historic, and perhaps even architecturally beautiful, does not mean that one is therefore prevented from criticizing its interior decoration for fear of being branded some sort of po-mo Catholic, who wants felt banners and “Risen Christs” popping out all over the place. What history does tell us is that European parish communities made a point of decorating the interiors of their churches with the same care and attention to detail that they paid to its architecture.
Take, for example, the popularity of Romanesque art in church design in Catalonia. Today the Arts sections of the major Spanish and Catalan newspapers are reporting on the re-opening of the Romanesque galleries at the National Museum of Catalan Art (“MNAC”) in Barcelona, which display what is considered by many to be the finest collection of Romanesque art in the world. What is interesting to note is that in many cases, these works of art came not from cathedrals or palaces, but rather from parish churches, oftentimes in rather poor, remote areas. While there are thematic similarities in what these churches placed on their walls, the diversity of the results proves to be endlessly fascinating to the viewer.
The Romanesque is something of a red-headed stepchild in the world of art and architecture. It is not as popular as the Gothic style which followed it, in part because there is a kind of bulky crudeness to the Romanesque which puts many people off. Romanesque interior spaces could be vast or tiny, but they were usually rather dark, given the limitations of contemporary engineering methods to allow the use of anything more than small windows to admit natural light. Yet the painting and sculpture which survives from this period gives us at least some idea of a magnificent, lost world, closer in feeling to what those of us in the Latin Rite might perceive as vaguely reminiscent of the Eastern Rite or Orthodox churches, rather than what we have come to think of as a standard Latin Rite church.
The experience of being in a Catalan parish church of about 1100, with walls covered in brightly colored frescoes and altars adorned with carved statues of Christ, the saints and angels, all painted in equally vibrant tones and illuminated almost exclusively by candles, must have been overwhelming. For those who stepped into a church in the Romanesque period, there was no question that they were entering the house of God. The kind of hyper-spiritual, indeed mystical style adopted by Western architects and artists during this era reflected a very deep understanding that God is God, and we most certainly are not. And this is the experience which the parish priest and his parishioners wanted, when they came to worship God and receive the Sacraments – that they were in a kind of local branch office of Heaven on Earth.
This brings us back to where we began, and the question of why there are still so many things like mass-produced statues of Our Lady of Grace cluttering our churches, instead of original sculptures of the Blessed Mother. While as an initial matter, I can sympathize with the fact that a parish purchases these sorts of things because it wants to beautify the interior of its church building and may not at first be able to afford an original work of art. However the fact is that in most cases these factory-molded, plaster figures are simply boring, at best, rather than beautiful.
Our ancestors in places like the Catalan Pyrenees – not the most hospitable or wealthy place on the planet circa 1100 A.D. – were mostly poor, illiterate herders and agricultural workers. Yet at the same time, they were deeply devout Catholics who wanted to build a beautiful house for God. They thought it was important to come up with beautiful, original art for the interiors of their churches: surely they were not possessed of better material resources than we are today.
I would challenge those of you who have some influence with your parish to consider the possibility of commissioning original art to replace some of the mass-produced things currently hanging on the walls or standing around the nave in your church. No doubt this will meet with some hefty resistance from certain quarters. Yet we have matured enough as a country, and Catholics have become wealthy enough as a group, that we no longer require cookie-cutter religious art to decorate our sanctuaries. There is no reason why Catholics in America today should not be able to commission beautiful art for their parish churches just as our Catholic forbearers did in Catalonia a thousand years ago.