Developing a Canon and Schema of Liturgical Art for the Churches of the Roman Rite, Part 1

This is the first in a series of articles that explore how we might create something that as yet does not exist – a canon of sacred art for churches of the Roman Rite; and a set of principles that will guide us on how to arrange them in a coherent schema that is integrated with worship. I present this in five themes after today’s introduction:

  1. Scripture
  2. The texts of the liturgy and an examination of how the Byzantine liturgies relate their liturgical texts so as to inform the approach taken in the Roman Rite.
  3. Liturgical Action – how we can change the way we worship, in accordance with existing rubrics and Tradition so as to engage with visual imagery more directly.
  4. Catechesis – how we teach congregations to understand what they are seeing so that it they are able to engage with the art naturally during the course of their worship.
  5. Architecture – consideration of how the architecture ought to reflect

(If you wish to see the article in full, go here)


Anyone who has ever read a book on Eastern icons will know that the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Churches have a well established way of arranging the icons in their church. Not only are there clear directions on who or what to paint and what style to paint it in, they also know exactly where they are supposed to put each piece of sacred art in their churches. Furthermore it is clearly understood how each image relates to every other, and how each person ought to engage with each piece of art in the course of the liturgy itself.

So for example when the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington DC put out a call for icon painters, a couple of years ago, they did so in accord with this tradition. In my understanding, the rules are not absolutely rigid; most Eastern Rite churches will conform to this while accomodating some aspects that are particular to the church community – the patron saint of the church for example.

What should we do in the Roman Rite? I know of no established schema with anything like canonical status. The Church’s guidelines, (for example, the GIRM, Canon Law and in the US a booklet produced by the bishops called Built in the Living Stone) offer suggestions as to the broadest principles for choice of art, but aside from asserting the centrality of the crucifixion and images of Our Lady and the saints we are offered by little specific regarding what images particularly are appropriate. I do not quarrel with the single word of these documents, but I do think we need more.

This being so it then it raises the question: what might the ordering principles be for establishing such a schema be? Tradition and the innate sense of what is appropriate would have guided the patrons in the past, and for centuries this worked well. Now things are different. We have had our own iconoclastic period which has left us disconnected from tradition in so many ways and I think that now some analysis of basic principles and a look at past practices would help us to reestablish a proper ordering of the images in our churches,

My hope is not that a set of rigid rules will be drawn up, but rather ore detailed principles and recommendations by which a pattern of art can be drawn up that would be in accord with tradition, would reflect authentic liturgical praxis and would also be particular to the congregation for whom it is primarily intended. I could imagine a whole series of different schema might develop that are all consistent with these principles.

We can take heart in this from the example of the Eastern Church, which did much scholarship in the 20th century to reestablish the iconographic tradition as a living tradition and to present a coherent account of traditional practices. As a result in a relatively short time church architecture and art is flourishing in the Eastern Rite so that in Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Churches today, there is the self confidence and know-how to create churches and art that are as splendid as any in the past. We can do this in the Roman Church as well if we wish to.

Here are the points that occur to me. The following is presented as start not an exhaustive analysis – rather it is a starting point from which I hope a discussion might develop:

First we need a study of scripture so that we understand the Old Testament types and the New Testament basis of the sacraments and the liturgy. This will focus particularly on the Rites of Initition – Baptism and Confirmation – and the Eucharist.

Second is a study of the texts and meanings of the words of the Rites and especially the Mass and, in the context of the Mass, I suggest, the Roman Canon. This is what will create a characteristically Roman template.

Third is to study the example of the Eastern Rites and see how their imagery is connected to the Divine Liturgy with a view to understanding how this can be done well in the West too. While we do not want simply to copy an iconostasis template, there is much to be learned by studying the principles by which it is ordered.

Fourth, in the light of all of the above, we should study the examples of past Roman churches so that we can understand why things were done as they were. This is not always easy as images are moved and replaced over time. Perhaps ancient mosaics and wall paintings are the most reliable indicators of past practice in this regard.

Fifth is liturgical action: we need to re-develop a way of participating in the liturgy that encourages engagement with art in harmony with the highest end to which our worship is directed, so that the art actually influences our Faith through the activity of worshipping God.

Sixth is to explain what we are doing and make any symbolism obvious and easily understood, not obscure. The goal of art is to reveal truth, not to mystify or create mystique unnecessarily.

Seventh is architecture – we should understand how the architecture ought to be in harmony with the church’s role, primarily, as a place for worship; and secondarily and connected to that, to display art that supports that worship.


Next instalment tomorrow….

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