Catholic New World: Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago

Sacred art: The language of the soul

By Michelle Martin
Assistant editor

From Michelangelo to Rembrandt, from the ancients to the moderns, artists have used their gifts to express the divine.

That tradition has lasted for millennia, and continues into the present. Its legacy is visible in the churches and chapels of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which—while not winning the fame of the Sistine Chapel—offer worshippers an opportunity to enter into the mystery of God and faith with a variety of works.

The reason that art and faith work so well together, said Father Anthony Brankin, is that both are trying to make visible and tangible invisible realities.

Brankin, pastor of St. Odilo Parish in Berwyn, has created many sculptures in the archdiocese, including the guardian angel that stands outside the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls on West Jackson Boulevard and the relief and monument to veterans outside the health care center on the St. Leo Campus for Veterans.

“The church is talking about God and grace and salvation, which we can’t see,” he said. “Art is dealing with the reality of beauty, as well as with God.”

Sister of St. Joseph Mary Southard draws on the history of spiritual art when she works on her sculptures and paintings, including a sculpture of the Holy Family that stands outside St. Linus Church in Oak Lawn.

“Art was used to express the religious and spiritual dimension of the soul from before we even had words as a species,” said Southard, whose studio is in LaGrange. “There are wonderful examples throughout our evolution as humans. The early Christians would have images and symbols in the catacombs.”

The images just became richer over the centuries, Southard said.

“The medieval age was extremely rich,” she said. “This was before the invention of the printing press, before literacy. The cathedrals of the time were literally books in stone. They really carried the message of the church to the people.”

The need for art, for beauty, was evident in the monastic communities, she said.

“They weren’t satisfied with just copying the text of the Scriptures,” she said. “They did these beautiful illuminations. … I think art is the language of the soul.”

Of course, part of the reason there is so much Christian scared art is that the church was a great patron and sponsor of the arts, she said. “That, of course, is no longer true, sadly,” she said.

Iconographer Joseph Malham has found a patron of sorts at St. Gregory the Great Parish. In addition to working on the restoration of the church, Malham and colleague Meltem Aktas of Imago Images are working on murals for a new chapel dedicated to parents who have lost a child. In addition, as “artist in residence” at the parish, Malham has a studio in the attic of the parish center where he can work on other projects. Aktas has completed icon projects for a variety of Catholic institutions, including St. Barnabas Parish, said “I believe that art is a universal response when it touches the human heart. Whenever the artist is deeply inspired he or she is connected to a source bigger than themselves. At this moment, the work transcends the barriers of culture, intellect and language and then puts the viewer in touch with the source of the inspiration, ‘the divine creator.’”

The church at St. Gregory the Great shows what is so important about sacred art, Malham said.

“It’s a symphony,” he said. “Everything works together: the rood beam, the cross, all the hand carving—the wood gives such a warm glow. It’s a question of integration and unity. I love modern spaces if it’s in the modern language.”

But trying to make an older Gothic or Romanesque church into a modern, austere worship space doesn’t work, he said.

“It’s mixing your metaphors. It’s like wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe.”

Malham, who has taught iconography to high school students at St. Gregory as well as to students at College of DuPage, said nearly all of them immediately grasp the meaning of the art—even those studying in secular institutions.

“Through the images, they understand that we as Catholics believe that God took flesh. We are people of the incarnation. We see the image as being an expression of the mirror of divinity. Christ had form, he had flesh, he had weight. We look at the face of Christ and see the human face of God. It all comes from the beautiful fact of the incarnation.”