A Catholic Taste in Art

Irish News Column
Irish News July 2000

On my way to Connemara recently I stopped briefly in Knock. I had never visited Lourdes or any Marian shrine before so I was ill prepared for the shock. It was the kind of day one should never be in Mayo; rain, wind and unseasonable cold. Signs directed me into the car park. It was bleak, empty and expansive; momentarily I thought that I had driven into the great, unused, Knock airport itself. Leaving the Car park I encountered a group of shanty-like, wooden stalls selling a mish-mash of souvenirs and religious objects; a shabby introduction, I thought, to this sacred site: but the real shock was the village itself. Its only street comprised, almost exclusively, “Religious Shops” selling the popular, art accompaniment to the Catholic religion. I have never seen such a concentration of bad taste, but it did make me think about art and religion. Historically, the Christian Church has been the single most important patron of the visual arts; from Michelangelo to Matisse and even up to Bill Viola’s present day video installation in Durham Cathedral. So how come art of quality hasn’t impinged on the popular, religious artefact?
Here are just some of the items the “Holy” shops of Knock offer the visiting pilgrim; Water-filled plastic domes containing cut-out figures of the Virgin, St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. When shaken a cloud of glitter fills the dome simulating the mystical glow which apparently bathed the Knock Apparition. Various holographic images; a Padre Pio which metamorphoses into an image of Christ on the cross, a face of Christ whose eyes open and close, luminous plastic statues of the Virgin and miscellaneous saints, plastic car stickers bearing the legend; “ I LOVE OUR LADY OF KNOCK” with a red heart in place of the word LOVE.
This crass commercialism is a debasement of both religion and art. Its one saving feature, however, is its unintentional humour. The holographic images never fail to make people smile. I heard a child call to its mother;
“ Mammy look at the blinking Christ”. The manufacturers of this kitsch must have some very funny board meetings;
“ This looks like a good idea. It’s a plastic St. Patrick. You lift up his mitre and snakes pop up from the base”.
“ Yes that sounds good. What about the Cure of Ars wrestling with devils? There might be possibilities there. Look into it.”

The second Vatican Council in 1962 decreed that Sacred Art;
“ Should have dignity and beauty” and that,
“Bishops and others responsible for churches and holy places should remove from those places all objects which lack true artistic value, or which may be out of keeping with divine worship.”

What a pity that the bishops can’t influence the “holy” shops and their suppliers. Perhaps I am being too harsh. I am sure that there are people who gain spiritual satisfaction from these tasteless items. On the otherhand if these artefacts had some artistic value, people would not only gain spiritual satisfaction, but their visual sensitivity might be extended as well.
In the 1940’s and 50’s every catholic home had images of the Sacred Heart and the Virgin. They were always either cloyingly sentimental or just downright silly looking; but when compared to the merchandise now on sale in Knock they appear to be high art.
In the early sixties artists applauded the Vatican decree reinforcing aesthetic values in the church; but its local implementation proved to be disturbing; St. Philomena was the first to go. Apparently she never existed. One church placed a blanket over her statue until a new less sacred place was found for her. Its shrouded presence, Christo-like, was one of the more interesting pieces of art in that church. But the real scandal of the sixties was the inappropriate implementation of the Vatican’s decree. Churches were vandalised in a mistaken attempt to accommodate the new order. Older churches had to sacrifice central features of their ornate interiors, leaving them wounded and incomplete. Thankfully St. Patrick’s Church in Donegall St. didn’t lose its majestic, high altar, created by Patraic Pearse’s father, but it did lose its beautiful, ornate pulpit. This was demolished and I am told, is now part of the foundations of the M2 motorway. The altar to St. Joseph, the exquisite wooden altar rail, and even the special altar designed by Sir Edward Lutyens to display Lavery’s triptych;- all were victims to this strange artistic purge.
One puzzling fact remains. The local Hierarchy, at this time, created an Arts Committee to insure that only work of “true artistic value” would remain in the church. Like all insurance policies it failed to live up to its claim.

Joseph Mc Williams July 2000©