Sacred Arts: Beginning a Conversation
The essays you will find on this site encompass a wide variety of topics from general to specific, covering a span of the arts from sacred to secular, high culture to popular. They are united by a focus on human creativity as it relates to holiness, to sacredness.
The following are a few preliminary ideas on the sacred arts from a theological perspective. They are offered for reflection, expansion, critique. -Peter Bouteneff
“Sacred Arts” is two words.
- “Sacred” (hieros) is related to “holy” (hagios) which means “of God” or “set apart for God.”
- “Arts” (techne) are objects of creative skill and imagination.
Considered together, the two words contain something of each other.
- Sacred things are created, fashioned, crafted. By God and/or by us.
- Our creative capacity is a mirror of the creative act of God.
Art and Creation
Creation is God’s art, God’s poem (poîema).
Creation and creativity are also aspects of the divine image in the human person. Every human creative act is potentially a divine-human work.
The creation of the cosmos is a self-revelation of God. The human creative act can likewise be one of revelation: of self, of truth, of God.
Sacred: Universal and Particular
The whole cosmos is holy. It is created by and for God.
Why then must parts of the creation be set apart
as holy and for God?
Psalm 24 reminds us that the earth is the Lord’s.
For he has created it.
Yet there is a holy place, on the hill.
What about the other places? What about the rest of the world? If the cosmos is holy,
Why is a place set apart as sacred,
for those of clean hands and pure of heart?
Because the world, sacred-but-broken, needs to be
called back by God, to its genuine holiness.
It is the same for human beings: we are created holy, for God. What else can be meant by our being his images, his icons (Gen 1:26-7)? Only after creating humanity does God call the cosmos “very good” (1:31).
Yet humans too are broken, constantly being called back to that
holiness, to the vocation of divine likeness (1:26).
There is, then:
Universal sacredness—given to the whole world, to the whole of humanity.
Particular sacredness—places, persons, things, works of creativity, that are called out from a broken world, called back for God, for appropriateness to God, for the glorification of God.
Which of the following is true?
- All is holy. The world and all that is in it.
- Some are holy. The people, places and things set apart.
- One alone is holy. God.
All are true.
The arts are one area where we may reflect on the incarnational character of the Christian faith. God, who is not of the world, is embedded in the world.
God is incarnate in the Person of his Son/Word, Jesus Christ. In the physical and spiritual dimension of his humanity.
The divine incarnation entails the transfiguration of all of humanity, and through humanity, the whole world.
The incarnation is often hailed as the sanctification of matter. That is important because of the tendency—accompanying most of human history—to think dualistically, to see physicality, materiality, as inherently bad.
God is in the entirety of the world, in its physical and spiritual character.
The arts involve matter. Not just the “plastic arts” but all that involve the movement of the body, and music/sound as the movement of air, and words as embodied expression.
Incarnation: Divine and Human
For something to be “sacred,” it requires God. But in a manner of speaking, it also requires humanity.
Nothing is called “sacred” until it has been manipulated or experienced by human beings.
God can inhere in things apart from human involvement. But they are not called “sacred” without human involvement.
To fashion art, God and humans work together (never apart from each other), with and in the material world (always with and in the material world).
May it thus be said that nothing is sacred without humanity? All that is sacred is either created by God as sacred-for-us, and/or created by us as sacred-for-God. Never one without the other.
Sacred Arts and Liturgy
The Liturgy is a pinnacle of the human glorification of the divine, the human response to the divine.
The Liturgy, as meeting place of visual, sensual, spatial, olfactory, auditory, and verbal arts, reveals not only the purpose of sacred arts, but their coherence.
In the Liturgy, the sacred arts co-inhere, and cohere, in the praise of God.
Sacredness, Intention, and Use
Thinking about the sacred as the set-apart, sacred arts have to do with intention: Sacred arts are the human fashioning of material things and words, with the intention of invoking, revealing, and especially glorifying the sacred.
A piece of music or a painting can bring someone into divine encounter, even apart from the artist’s intention. But it is not formally considered “sacred art” unless it was created expressly for sacred use/experience.
The sacredness of an object has to do with its function and use. Does it have everything to do with its function? Is sacredness inherent or conditional?
Consider churches that, under atheistic régimes, were converted to granaries, factories, or worse. Did they cease being sacred during that time? Did they require re-consecration when they were returned to the Church? Or was the prayer and use, by the people who returned to the churches, enough?
St. John of Damascus says: “When two sticks are bound together in the form of a cross, I venerate them as the symbol of my salvation. But when broken apart, I toss them on the wood pile as kindling to be burned.”
Once God has sanctified the cross, or a church, or a place, it is up to the human person, in his creative work and in his act of worship, to respond. Sacredness is lodged within that creative response.
Creativity ⇋ Holiness
Some fear the word “creativity” because of the apprehension of deviating from fixed, authoritative norms.
The question of normativity and tradition in the sacred arts is a separate one. But creativity, a feature of the divine image, is an indispensable part of the human response to God’s creation and revelation in the world.
And so, reflection on the sacred arts is an immersion into the intersection between creativity and holiness.