Thirty-one Thoughts on Sacred Art and Modernism

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, my favorite rendering of the Blessed Virgin.

I wrote this post in response to Brian Holdsworth’s recent video, “The Idolatry of Modernism.” Please watch the video (roughly nine minutes in length) before reading my thirty-one thoughts. For those who don’t know, Holdsworth is a traditionalist Catholic graphic designer from Edmonton, Alberta whose videos on theological, aesthetic, and ethical questions are quite popular. He generally has very conservative taste in art. He has posted videos in the past decrying modern architecture, contemporary worship music, and the badness of contemporary art and design.

In his most recent video, Holdsworth takes aim at the whole of what he calls “modernism” in art. In making his argument, he relies on certain premises and reveals certain biases—some good, others not so much—which I want to unpack in a series of thirty-one thoughts.

As I said, go watch the video and then come back and read my thoughts.

  1. One of the features of Eastern Orthodoxy that attracted me was that, unlike so much of Catholicism and Protestantism, it has not embraced modern architecture or modern art. Unlike Catholicism—which (contrary to the implications of Holdsworth’s video) hasn’t merely embraced twentieth-century “modernism” in art and architecture but has embraced new, innovative modes of sacred representation throughout its history (Michelangelo was the cutting edge of the sixteenth century)—Orthodoxy has continually hewed backward in its priorities for church architecture and sacred iconography. Its aesthetics are aggressively conservative. There is a tradition within the Church that the first icon of Mary was written by St. Luke—written, not painted, after the Russian писать (pisat), which can mean both “to write” and “to paint.” Thus, the customs and grammar of the Orthodox iconographic tradition go back to the very beginning, and most visual components of Orthodox panel iconography have changed little from the earliest surviving examples of the sixth century. Orthodoxy preserves more eagerly than it progresses.
    1. The whole notion of “sacred art” seems alien to the Orthodox tradition. This might seem like a strange claim, given how much “art” appears in Orthodox churches, but for the faithful, all these visual representations of Christ, Mary, and the saints are not really “art.” Father Maximums of Mt. Athos, a former professor at the Harvard Divinity School, forcefully argued in a much-viewed 60 Minutes piece that icons are not considered “art” in the traditional sense by Orthodox Christians. (Jump to 23:26 in the linked video.) “They are devotional objects and they’re part of the living, liturgical life of the church,” he said. “We don’t have any art and we’re not a museum…to put it starkly.” The interviewer seems incredulous.
    2. One way I explain the above concept to non-Orthodox Christians is to invite them to consider the grammar of the phrase “sacred art.” The sacramental nature of sacred art is adjectival, while its status as art is ontological, rendered as a noun. Michelangelo created sacred art on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; it represents sacred subjects, but its functions and exists primarily as art. Icons exist in another category. Think of how conservative Protestants might bristle at the phrase “sacred literature” to describe the Bible. For the majority of Christians, the Bible isn’t merely literature; for the devout, it functions and exists as something altogether different from the rest of literature. It’s Scripture. Icons operate in a similar way. Consider the many centuries during which most Christians were illiterate and had no access to the Bible (Bibles were not common until the post-Gutenberg era in the West, and much later in places like Greece that were occupied by the Ottomans). Icons were essentially visual Scripture. Everything about their production and use differs from the production and use of sacred art in the West. The greatest iconographers, such as Andrei Rublev, are considered saints.
    3. This is not to diminish the importance of sacred art to Western Christians. I only mean to point out the difference between sacred art and Orthodox iconography.
  2. Atheists and agnostics have been producing sacred art for centuries in the West. (Few atheist or agnostic Orthodox iconographers exist; this would be akin to having an atheist or agnostic priest.) This isn’t to say, of course, that the aesthetic movements that animated the sacred art of Michelangelo’s time were inherently atheistic, just that atheists and agnostics were involved. With what Holdsworth calls “modernism,” on the other hand, there is often an agnostic tendency, a philosophical underpinning that assumes a purely material or otherwise God-free universe and a post-Christian audience.
    1. I won’t spend time defining “modernism.” I believe we all know what Holdsworth is talking about, and it’s a cluster of different movements and tendencies in art history that we all recognize when we watch his video. Some of these movements are tied to philosophical schools that are clearly more humanist and secular than traditionally Christian: take Impressionism, for example. Other movements associated with modernism are tied to aggressively anti-Christian political and philosophical schools: Futurism, for example. Other movements just don’t seem to relate to religion one way or the other: I can’t for the life of me determine the theological stance inherent in my personal favorite, Pop Art, except to say that it seems pretty innocently agnostic to me.
  3. Concerning Pope Pius X’s declaration that modernism constituted “the synthesis of all heresies”: PPX was talking about a very specific set of ideas, associated with very specific philosophical, theological, political, literary, and (yes) aesthetic movements. So Holdsworth’s general lumping together of all modern art under the umbrella term “modernism,” which in general doesn’t bother me, won’t do in the specific case of PPX. If you’re going to drop the Encyclical on the Doctrines of the Modernists, you need to engage with PPX’s specific definition of modernism. I can see how one could stretch that document’s argument in order to condemn, say, Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock, but it’s definitely a stretch.
  4. The emphasis on “new and innovative” aesthetics is not unique to modernism. The Catholic Church has embraced new and innovative art since the beginning. One need only visit the Vatican museums (or, if one prefers, follow the comet in the title sequence of The Young Pope) to witness a vast and beautiful timeline of always new, always changing aesthetic principles.
    1. Holdsworth isn’t against newness and innovation, of course. He’s against the apparent modernist tendency to discard the past, which leads me to my fifth thought…
  5. Modernism does not “discard what came before it and hold it very emphatically in contempt,” as Holdsworth claims. If modernist aesthetics has one unified credo (and it doesn’t), it might be Ezra Pound’s dictum, “Make it new.” Note that the it he refers to is aesthetic tradition. Modernism is all about revitalizing and refreshing the past. Poets like Pound and T.S. Eliot very reverently and enthusiastically embraced tradition and built their literary edifices upon it. Picasso and Duchamp look forward and outward, yes, but they also look backward with care.
    1. I cannot deny that modernism does make a fetish of newness. Nor can I deny that some modernist movements, such as Futurism and dada, advocate the smashing of tradition. But to ascribe this tendency to all of modernism simply ignores too much of modernism itself.
  6. Innovation and renovation have been part of Western civilization since Sumerian times. Innovation and renovation are part of every culture and society. If you take a longer view than, say, the past five hundred years, you’ll be impressed (and saddened) by art’s impermanence. If humans don’t renovate over the masterpieces of the past, time and age surely will. The Sistine Chapel we enjoy today is decidedly not the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo.
  7. All art lacks universal appeal. No artistic movement or art object in history has appealed to humankind universally.
  8. Almost any human artifact can be said to “violently clash with its surroundings.” The great medieval cathedrals, in all their glory and magnificence, were transformative works of modern technology that clashed with the surrounding architecture and natural world. That was part of their purpose: to startle people out of complacency and into the realm of the divine.
  9. Iconoclasm and sacred art are not mutually exclusive or even incompatible. Consider Islamic art and the way Islam has historically applied their interpretation of the second commandment (what Holdsworth and other Catholics call the first commandment) in their own art history. Judaism has many moments of iconoclasm in its history as well. A devout Muslim or devout Jew can discover the sacred in abstract and anti-representational imagery. I believe this is possible within Christianity. A sacramental tradition does not require exclusively mimetic or representational art.
  10. “Imagery can and should be used in the context of religious piety,” says Holdsworth. I agree
  11. Holdsworth continues: “We should be extremely cautious when we use imagery like this because there is a risk of idolatry.” I agree.
  12. “This is tricky for Christians because our faith is a sacramental faith in which invisible spiritual realities are communicated to us through our senses, through space and time, through sound and matter. This is no better exemplified than by the incarnation of God through the person of Jesus Christ, who became flesh, who became matter, so we could encounter him face to face, so we could hear his voice and know him in the same way that we know other things through out sensory experience.”
  13. One should not confuse questions of proper Christian aesthetics with questions of soteriology, with matters of salvation. Holdsworth comes close to doing this. Improperly sacred art may be unsuitable for the purposes of worship, but it does not immediately lead to idolatry.
  14. Once Holdsworth begins including images of good sacred art in his video, we begin to see that he means something very narrow and specific by “sacred art.” These images do not necessarily represent, as Holdsworth seems to believe, the respectful accumulation of the Christian sacred art tradition. Instead, they appear at a specific moment (or sequence of moments) in art history, one which decidedly breaks with the past. Holdsworth shows us images from the last five hundred years: that is, images from modernity (modernity modernism, though the two are not unrelated). His conception of proper sacred art seems to include only art of the late Medieval period and the Early Modern period, art that is part of what Arthur C. Danto called “the Albertian tradition,” named for Renaissance artist and critic Leon Battista Alberti.
    1. Danto defines this tradition as follows: “there should be no visual difference between looking at a painting or looking out a window at what the painting shows” (What Art Is 1). This tradition is generally traced back to the painter Giotto, who lived in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries. For historians of Western art, there is generally big line dividing pre-Giotto artistic representation from post-Giotto artistic representation. For our purposes, I will call this tradition “realism.”
    2. I am using “realism” as a very general term, much as Holdsworth uses the term “modernism.” I am not strictly speaking of the eighteenth- and ninteenth-cenury Realists, although they are certainly part of post-Giotto realism.
  15. Orthodox icons are not realistic. They contain visual components that are heavily stylized, highly abstract, and deliberately anti-realist in order to make specific theological points and have specific sacramental effects. They represent a tradition—from Late Antiquity through the High Middle Ages—with which Giotto and others broke.
  16. The majority of sacred art in the history of Christianity has not been realistic. It has attempted to render God in order to make Him seem less remote, which is what Holdsworth says sacred art should do, but it has not always done so in what Holdsworth calls “an explicitly visible” way, by which he seems to mean with Albertian or realistic representation.
  17. God is “more real than anything we can see or touch or taste or hear.” I agree. (As an Orthodox Christian, I am obligated to include “smell.”)
  18. God is both personal and abstract. Abstraction can be represented visually in art, including sacred art.
  19. Abstraction is at once older and more traditional than Albertian realism and an inherent feature of modernism.
  20. God’s approach has not always been “to make Himself more explicitly available and revealed to us.” God does reveal Himself explicitly to us through Christ. But in both Scripture and Tradition, God and Christ frequently appear mysterious, obscurantist, unclear, vague, and imprecise. He sometimes speaks in parables and refuses to explain them; He hardens hearts and makes Himself deliberately unavailable. This is not His only or His ultimate approach, but it is one approach He uses.
    1. Sacred art can, must, and traditionally has reflected the ambiguous (or, if you prefer, mysterious) qualities of the Divine. Its function is not simply to make “spiritual realities…less ambiguous.”
  21. Christians have always used “representative imagery to enhance our prayer life,” but have not exclusively used representative imagery. The history of sacred art includes abstraction, calligraphy, conceptual elements, fantastic elements, impressionistic renderings, &c.
  22. Much of sacred art is “abstract, strange, foreign, and novel,” qualities that Holdsworth ascribes to modernism. Many of these elements are found in Orthodox iconography and pre-Giotto sacred art.
  23. Abstraction is not the opposite of revelation.
    1. Hendrik Grise’s bloody 1982 crucifixion painting or Marc Chagall’s gloriously fantastical 1938 White Crucifixion reveal aspects of Calvary that are not captured, or are simply not included, in Renaissance representational art such as Matthias Grünewald’s horrific but moving crucifixions. Grünewald, by the way, embraced neo-Gothic aesthetics and rejected the more realistic sacred art of Renaissance Italy as too much of a departure from tradition.
    2. If the full reality of Calvary could be revealed in perfect full realism, there would be no need for multiple representations by multiple realist painters. If the fullness of Christ could be represented in perfect literary realism, there would be no need for four Gospels.
  24. God chooses to reveal Himself as both corporeal and incorporeal throughout Judeo-Christian history.
  25. What counts as realism and representation differs from culture to culture. This is not a crudely relativist statement—one can easily find elements of realism in Japanese drawing that nevertheless differ substantially from the elements of realism in Renaissance painting. Both are “realistic”; neither are photorealistic (photorealism, by the way, is a movement that does not appear until after modernism, and is arguably part of modernism).
  26. If a Christian culture produces an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary according to the art historical traditions of that culture, we should accept that the image represents the Blessed Virgin Mary.
    1. This does not necessarily make every image of Mary sacred (one need not imagine a deliberately sacrilegious representation of Mary—many exist). But sacred art will vary greatly from culture to culture. One does not need to accept ontological, cultural, or metaphysical relativism to admit that aesthetic standards and practices do indeed differ from culture to culture. Consequently, sacred art can take many forms that seem strange from a Western perspective. One need only consider the vast differences between Dutch Renaissance sacred painting and Russian iconography to admit this fact.
  27. “The fact that nobody knew what [the Amazonian figures of Mary] were” is not a good indication that they were “completely inappropriate for prayer and devotion.” First, it is not true that “nobody knew” what they were: the local creators and worshippers could tell us whether or not they represented the Blessed Virgin. Further, instruction in the standards and practices of Amazonian art might reveal to an outsider whether or not the statues represented the Blessed Virgin. A Japanese Christian of the sixteenth century (yes, they existed) might “not know” that a Raphael Madonna represents the Blessed Virgin until he was instructed in the iconography, practices, and standards of sixteenth-century Italian art. Even a sixteenth-century Russian Orthodox Christian might not have recognized Raphael’s Madonnas, because they would appear far too naturalized to his Russian eye.
  28. Myth was a central preoccupation of modernism.
  29. Our Christian faith is “a myth that actually took place in history.” As literary history attests, mythology is a mode of storytelling that differs greatly from the post-Cervantes tradition of realist representation. Christianity can contain both mythic and historical elements at the same time because it is so catholic and all-encompassing. Holdsworth seems to undervalue the mythic qualities of Christianity, favoring its historical nature.
  30. “Mary is an actual person who lived in an actual place at an actual time.” But in the overwhelming majority of the sacred art Holdsworth praises, she is portrayed in (then) modern European settings, dress, appearance, &c. Sacred art has traditionally set representations of Christian history in wildly varied times and contexts. Renaissance art is famous for this. Renaissance artists absolutely created Mary in their own image, according to their own preferences.
  31. Traditionally, idolatry requires the specificity of an image. Hence the second commandment, hence the Orthodox iconoclasts, hence the Protestant aversion to representational sacred art. Abstraction, impression, expression, and the visual disarray we associate with modernism can be an antidote to potentially idolatrous specificity of a narrowly representative realism.


  1. […] Holdsworth fundamentally misunderstands modernism, conflating Pope Piux X’s definition of modernism, which refers to theological modernism of the nineteenth century, with later uses of the term “modernism” that we associate with literature, art, etc. He connects theological modernism to modernist art and modernist architecture or, more broadly, capital-M Modernism: the cultural, aesthetic, and political movements of the 1890s through the 1960s and beyond. He uses Pius X’s invective against theological modernism to justify his personal distaste for High Modernism and preference for Renaissance figural art and the Albertian tradition (think Michelangelo or Giotto). I’ve written about Holdsworth’s attitude toward modernist art in the past. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.