Skip to content

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….

James Gillick at Park Walk Gallery, Chelsea, London

Having just closed a critically acclaimed display of new work at the Chelsea Flower Show, Catholic artist James Gillick is about to give a new show at  the Jonathan Cooper gallery in Park Walk, in Chelsea, west London, up until June 14th to June 30th.

Other Catholic artists who are struggling to make it might think about his example and be inspired by his approach. Jim is self taught and his work is evidence that when the art is high quality it sells, and it sells to people who are not educated in art appreciation, or aesthetics and many will not be believing Christians. Nevertheless, Jim is open about his faith and how his Catholicism inspires him to create beautiful work that participates in the beauty of God’s creation and he has chosen the baroque style to this end. Furthermore, he is sensible and practical enough to have thought carefully about the subject matter, composition and style of his paintings so that it will appeal to the market he is aiming for, which he knows can afford to pay a reasonable price. This, as much as the skill and noble qualities of the art itself creates the demand. As a result he is succeeding in cut-throat art world and is able to make a good living to support his large family without compromising his artistic value.

You can see an online catalogue of his new work here.


The Sistine Chapel of the East

Aleteia has a brief article spotlighting the Voronet monastery in Romania. The walls of the chapel are covered inside and out with frescoes from the 15th century.

These frescoes differ from what we would typically find in orthodox iconography in that the background of the paintings is an ethereal blue rather than the gold leaf one would expect. Indeed blue is the dominant color throughout the building.

If you have never heard of Coronet Monastery, you’re in for a treat.

Take a look.


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

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon for the diocese of Sacramento as well as a working artist, he writes on art and faith at 

In Defense of Angels

Art historian Elizabeth Lev continues her review of counter-reformation art. This time she look at the portrayal of angels in sacred art.

“This thread of visualizing the invisible would become a central theme of the Counter-Reformation, in the Church’s efforts to highlight the invisible, efficacious presence of grace all around us.”

Tale a look.


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

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon for the diocese of Sacramento as well as a working artist, he writes on art and faith at 

A Medieval Anomaly

Have you ever heard of the Caligula Troper? No? How about the Cotton Troper?

A troper is a collection of “tropes” or chants for specific feast days of the Church Calendar. The Caligula Troper is unusual because of its decoration and artistic style. Is something completely unexpected for an 11th century manuscript.

The Medieval Manuscript Blog has the details, take a look.


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

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon for the diocese of Sacramento as well as a working artist, he writes on art and faith at 

The Creative Catholic: Fr. George W. Rutler

“The writer, like any artist, is called to bring people closer to God through beauty expressed, truth told, and virtue taught. Simple as that.”

K.V. Turly has another great  interview with a Catholic author over at Catholic World Report. This time with Fr. George Rutler.

Check it out.


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

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon for the diocese of Sacramento as well as a working artist, he writes on art and faith at 

The Book of Eli – How A Great Hollywood Film Could Have Been Even Better with A Knowledge of Thomas Aquinas

I recently attended a talk by Pontifex University Professor, Caleb Brown on the movie starring Denzel Washington called The Book of Eli. This film is also featured in his Pontifex University class, Christian Humanism in Modern Cinema.

It is set in the Western desert of the US, 30 years after some sort of apocalyptic event in which all the institutions and structures of society in the West have been destroyed. Those who remain eke a living in a dangerous and anarchic state by trying to leech what they can from the remnants of what existed before and by preying on each other. It has the feel of a Mad Max type movie – lots of patched together motorized vehicles screeching around the deserted, arid landscape and driven by unkempted, aggressive, and uncultured people. Some of the population have even resorted to cannabalism.

The protagonist, played by Denzel Washington is on a trek, heading West driven by an inner calling; and as he does so confronting various groups and communities (and usually having to defend himself from them).

In his talk, Caleb focussed not just on the plot, but also on the film making style of the directors the Albert and Allen Hughes. It is photographically elegant and beautiful: the cloudscapes were all animated to create the right mood; many scenes were filmed in reduced color through filters, which then contrasted with the full color of the later scenes; and the music was carefully constructed to control our perception of the dramatic progression of the film. These are technical aspects of filmmaking that I knew nothing about beforehand, and Caleb’s description of them is fascinating.

The theme of the plot, which was also discussed by Caleb, is interesting and surprising. In this world, all formal religion has disappeared and in a desire to rid the world of it, Bibles were destroyed as part of a huge ‘bonfire of the vanities’ shortly after the catastrophe. Eli, however, has a Bible which conceals from all others and which he secretly reads daily. He clearly believes and draws solace from it – we see him praying each night.

One day, Eli walks into a small town which is controlled by a man called Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman. Carnegie is in perpetual search for a Bible, sending out parties of bikers to scour the surrounding towns for any books in the hope that they will find one. He wishes to use it, he says, because he believes what it contains will give him greater power to control those around him.

He captures Eli and when he discover that he has a bible he tries to take his Bible from him. Eventually he succeeds but Eli escapes with a young girl, Solara, played by Mila Kunis who wants to find a new life free of the drudgery of her present existence. She is not a believer herself until Eli makes a great gesture of sacrifice to save her. By this his faith is transmitted to her. It is not the words of the book, but the life that embodies them that attracts her. He reluctantly takes her with him. Carnegie, meanwhile is frustrated in his desire to get hold of the text. Although he has the book, he discovers that it is in brail (at this point we realise that Eli is blind).

Eventually Eli and Solar reach a new land on the Western fringes of this desert in which vegetation is beginning to grow again. He rows them across, the new River Jordan – the San Francisco Bay – to Alcatraz where a community is living in peace, security and harmony and welcomes him. They have a printing press and Eli, who has memorized the book, dictates to them what was to become the Alcatraz Press King James Bible to the leader of the community. This community have been hoping for a bible and now this man, coming from the East, brings it to them. We see the final version of the book in conventional print placed on a shelf next to the Koran. Eli dies shortly after this, having completed his mission; while Solaris sets off, East, on her own pilgrimage. Here the film ends.

What is as interesting as the film itself is the story of the film. The screenplay is by an Englishman called Gary Whitta who says he is an atheist. Nevertheless this a film about faith and Whitta clearly knows his bible. It was a big budget movie – with a budget of just under $90M. During the making of the film the directors tried, from time to time to play down the religious and scriptural content. Denzel Washington whose father was a pastor and I understand is a Christian insisted on keeping the biblical content in the dialogue.

When Warner Brothers saw the completed movie, they didn’t know what to do with it and, feeling uncomfortable with the scripture, didn’t push a lot of effort behind publicity when it was released. It was presented as a futuristic post apocalypse movie and marketed to the same market as might watch the Mad Max series. It didn’t succeed with this market but began to gain ground in what Caleb described as the ‘Red states’ in the US. Believing Christians and especially protestant Christians started to watch it and eventually it made a clear profit with box-office takings of about $157M.

The story of the making of the film says to me that well-made films with intelligently incorporated themes of faith will succeed at the box office. What dismays me, however is that it didn’t have a Catholic theme as distinct from a broadly Christian theme. There is no direct reference to the Church but one might, perhaps equate, the villainous intentions of Carnegie, the Gary Oldman character, with an erroneous protestant view the Roman church as an organ of control of the state that was a move away from the Church that Christ established.

A more Catholic version of this film, perhaps, would see the persistence of the Church in such a way that the Apostolic succession would be unbroken. Through this, as faith spread, so would the Faith and with it the desire to worship God as a natural inclination of any man who as faith.

And this is where the ideas of St Thomas come into the picture. St Thomas describes what he calls the ‘virtue of religion’. He describes how it is natural to man, when he reflects upon his faith, to want to worship God. The assumption here is that the event that these people survived, though widespread and destructive to civilation and in this sense ‘apocalyptic’ was not the final end. It was not the Apocalypse of the Book of the Apocalypse. If it was then redemption would be on hand through the second coming of Christ and this would be a film about the bodily ressurection of all Christians.

So if any screenplay writers out there wish to think about this and how a Church might be rejuvinated in such a drama, then here is a short series of videos in which St Thomas’s ideas about the viture of religion are described. They are produced by two Dominican friars of the Western Province in the US.

Follow the link to see them all eight videos on vimeo: St Thomas on the Virtue of Religion.

Or you can watch the first video below:





Death Comes for the War Poets

Opening this Thursday at the Sheen Center in New York.

This “‘Dramatic Verse Tapestry’ grapples with the horror of trench warfare as experienced by two of the greatest poets of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Featuring the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, the drama asks: How does one cope with the horror of war? Is there room for hope? And what of the Spirit of Death? Can Death itself be changed?

For more details, click here.


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

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon for the diocese of Sacramento as well as a working artist, he writes on art and faith at 

Work by Pontifex University Student

Here is work by Fr Neil Chatfield who has just completed this painting for my online class A Study of Artistic Method for Patrons and Artists.

All students work on an illumination in egg tempera as part of the class and I instruct them on how to draw and paint it with recorded lessons. To my knoweldge this is the first painting done by Fr Neil in an iconic style in egg tempera.

He is a priest of the Anglican Ordinariate and I am especially pleased at his interest in the style of the School of St Albans upon which this is based. It has always seemed to me that given the common connections in so many ways in the Church of medieval England, this late Romanesque/Early Gothic style might be the starting point of a distinctive but traditional artistic style for today’s Ordinariate.

Time will tell!

Tombstones of the Knights of Malta


Take a look at this slideshow, showing some of the marble tombstones of the Knights of Malta that cover the floor of St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta


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

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon for the diocese of Sacramento as well as a working artist, he writes on art and faith at