Sacred art inspires through the ages

by Mary Hanbury

“How Catholic Art saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art” by Elizabeth Lev, 2018.

Elizabeth Lev’s new book How Catholic Art saved the Faith will certainly entice art historians for a good read, but it will also captivate those who may not be able to tell the difference between a Michelangelo and a Caravaggio. Elizabeth Lev’s intent is to teach you about the meaning of sacred art and how it relates to us today.

In her book, Lev chooses to discuss many different paintings commissioned during the time of the Counter-Reformation and observes how the struggles the Church faced back then “bear a striking similarity to the ones the faithful face today, while the truths of the Church that artists so deftly displayed half a millennium ago have remained the same.” She also offers ways in which learning about our artistic past can be useful for evangelization, bring clarity to doctrine, and uplift us. Lev points out that people were attracted to art back then just as they are now. “Art provided enticing fodder for the faithful.”

One of the works of art she spends a great deal of time on in the book is the famous fresco The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, which covers the back wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The fresco was unveiled during Vespers of All Saints Day in 1541. It was this same day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle church. She paints for us a backdrop of corruption and the struggle for clarity of truth during this time period within the Church and how Michelangelo’s work responded to it. Lev points out that Michelangelo only depicts the sin of simony, as shown by a figure upside down with keys and a moneybag dangling from his waist. The Church was in the midst of a time of great struggle with those who abused their power by selling relics, indulgences, lucrative Church positions, and even tried to sell grace itself. This is the backdrop all the cardinals see during a Conclave as they vote for a new pope. She points out, this was the visual warning meant for them.

I have been to the Sistine chapel and have gazed at The Last Judgement many times. To me it was just a visual depiction of Jesus saying, “time is up, heaven or hell.” It is hard to make out details from a distance as Michelangelo painted a throng of twisted naked bodies in every which direction. Lev offers clarity and needed background information on this piece which transforms this work for me into a hope of salvation. For example, there are actually more people being saved in the fresco than those condemned. She also points out that there are no women in Michelangelo’s hell, which might show the high regard Michelangelo had for women. There is a friar ministering to the dead as souls leave their bodies, showing the care of the Church for souls. There are many angels fighting for souls as demons try their best to pull them down. There are others, unidentified souls also helping to lift souls into heaven. Lev’s thoughts are perhaps they could represent our loved ones who have gone before us, or souls in Purgatory who received prayers now enlisted to help us get to heaven. One soul is even pulling someone up by a rosary.

At the center of the fresco is Christ with his arm lifted as if to sweep it down on a final judgment, along with Mary at his side. Lev points out insight into Michelangelo’s thought process from his original drawings of the fresco. He had Mary depicted in a few different positions below Christ in the fresco. The final version has her close to his wounded side. She goes on to explain that it shows her as co-mediatrix and intercessor up to the point of judgement. She is under the arm of Christ, just as she is under the arm of God the Father in the Creation panel of the ceiling.

Today, we still like to look and gaze at sacred art, but perhaps it is because we are only drawn to the aesthetic beauty of some pieces. Lev helps us see the deeper meaning behind many works of art in illuminating how these pieces speak to us, just as much as they did to the faithful back then. Sacred art is a powerful tool that can be used to catechize and entice us into a deeper reflection of the truths of the faith. We have to regain the knowledge of the language of sacred art, which Lev attempts to do in this insightful new book.

Mary Hanbury is the Director of Catechesis for the Diocese of Fargo.