Kitsch and Catholicism

I met a friend of mine named Kevin on the train from London to Cambridge about a year after becoming a Catholic. He was an Anglo Catholic of the sort who likes to collect fine china and drink lapsang souchong tea and roll his eyes. He said, (as they all do) “Yes, how interesting that you became a Roman Catholic. I think one day I shall take the step too.”

I leaned forward and said to Kevin in a conspiratorial way, “I should warn you that when I became a Catholic and had those hands laid on me a very strange and unexpected miracle took place!”

Kevin said, “Really! What happened?”

“At that moment all good taste I ever had disappeared instantly. So be warned. If you become a Catholic you will no longer care for your china collection or your pre-Raphaelite prints.”

Kevin was not amused. Which brings me to the question of the relationship of taste and Catholic iconography.

Producing a decent Catholic devotional image is more complicated than you think. The image–whether it is a painting or statue–has to look like a real person because a saint is a real person. This rules out abstract art. However, the person also has to look like a saint–in other words–a person who was supernaturally heroically holy. So how do you make it look like an ordinary person and an extraordinary person at the same time?

If you go too far towards the ordinary the picture just becomes mundane and the portrayal of the saint does not prompt devotion or inspire imitation or look like a person transformed by God’s grace. However, if you try to make the image ‘holy’ through some device–like making the image huge or overpowering the saint becomes too godlike and massive. If you try to give the saint a ‘holy’ expression you may well fail and end up making the saint look simpering or super pious or spooky.

When this becomes the criteria (and not just some Western European idea of ‘good taste’) then our judgment on religious iconography shifts. Now we are judging the work on whether it is approachable by the masses by being realistic and ordinary looking and whether, on the other hand, it inspires devotion and prayer. It is possible, for instance, to look at a religious painting or statue and admire it’s craftsmanship and skill and with an educated sense of ‘good taste’ see how fine it is, and yet never once desire to light a candle before the image and kneel down to pray.

If the criteria for sacred art is that it is accessible and ordinary while still communicating the numinous and the sacred, then one of the problems is that so much of our sacred art is in museums and not churches. I remember visiting Venice and seeing Bellini paintings in an art gallery in Florence, and then when I went to Venice and saw a similar painting still in the church that it was created for my experience of the artwork was increased a million times. In the gallery it was a dull museum piece. In the church it became an icon of devotion and love.

The experience of the art gallery for sacred art gets worse. So, for example, one may look at a huge number of fine paintings in museums and look at them as an ‘artistic tourist’ and admire the artwork, but never penetrate to it’s real purpose. Because there are so many exquisite works of art removed from their context and shoved into one big building we get art overload. We simply can’t appreciate that much beauty and reverence and skill in one afternoon. So after a few galleries we yawn and look for the ice cream stand. Even worse, we may visit an art gallery as some sort of degraded celebrity-home tour. “Ooh look! there’s a Rembrandt and there’s a Raphael!” So one even misses the artistic appreciation, focussing more on the nameplate than the painting itself.

If the criteria for sacred art is that it is accessible and yet still imparts the numinous, then our standards of ‘good taste’ are shifted. To appreciate the full range of Catholic art we need a paradigm shift. What Catholic art most successfully accomplishes this purpose? I think Eastern Orthodox icons do, and furthermore, they are descended from the first Christian forms of iconography. They look like ‘real’ people, but their stylized interpretation give them an otherworldly capacity. Along these lines, the art of the Siennese school–just before Giotto began to go more ‘realistic’ keeps the balance between realism and a stylized reflection of the holy. The Romanesque carvings of Ghiselbertius and the master of Autun and the carvings at Chartres, with their elongated forms and flowing, stylized robes and poses, also capture the balance between the realistic and the ‘holy’.

When this becomes the criteria, then there is also room for Catholic art that those with ‘good taste’ would sneer at. The simple hand carved folk art of Central America–where the artist captures the pain and passion of the Lord in what seems a crude form works. So does the vast majority of Catholic statuary bought out of a catalogue. Yes, it’s plaster or plastic and mass produced, but if the criteria is that it is recognizable and real and yet ‘holy’ and it inspires love and devotion, then it works.

Finally, the worst thing for sacred art is for an artist to want to be ‘original’. How boring is that?! When doing sacred art, as in doing liturgy, stay within the tradition. Continue and be faithful to the tradition and do your very best workmanship and guess what, you will be ‘original.’ I have a good example of this in my parish office. We had a plaster St Joseph. Mass produce and spray painted. He was bashed up with a hand missing and the head nearly fallen off. I sent it to Anja Zunkeler in California (who happens to be my sister in law). She repaired the statue and then hand painted it. She worked within the tradition and actually improved on the mass produced plaster statue and it looks better now than the day it came off the assembly line.

Of course, art and architecture which is well done and beautiful is to be preferred. Michaelangelo instead of Thomas Kincade, and there are real criteria for good art and architecture, but that is not today’s topic. Instead I am defending Catholic kitsch.

Finally, what is the role of kitsch? It’s pretty low down on the priorities, but there is also a role for the tacky, plastic devotional items one sees in souvenir stands. They are imitative. The plastic holy water bottle of the Virgin Mary reminds the viewer of more worthy images, and ultimately of the Blessed Virgin. The kitsch also has the advantage of being affordable for people who are often very poor, and if their devotion to God is improved and they love their plastic St Therese and pray more, isn’t that better than snobbishly sniffing and sneering at their ‘bad taste’? Furthermore, kitsch makes Catholicism a bit more fun. There’s a child like fun in having a post card of Jesus which changes into Mary when you move it. There’s a sense of not being quite so serious when you have a glow in the dark rosary and actually use it at night when you can’t sleep.

Here is my recommendation to all converts to Catholicism. Get a statue that you think is ‘absolutely awful’ and live with it. It will help you get Catholicism into your bones a bit more.

When my brother converted I bought him a little plug in Virgin Mary night light and said, “Now you’re really a Catholic.”

More on the Benedict Option
The Rise of Militant Catholic Men
Women Priests and Witches
Big Hearted Francis
  • Peter Brown

    Knights of Columbus regalia can serve the same purpose, by the way. "What's with these (mostly) old guys wearing big fuzzy hats and carrying swords they wouldn't know how to use for real?" "Yes, but so what? These are my brothers."To approach the same thing in geekier language, taste is not a salvific category. Grace is.Vivat Jesus,–Peter

  • Chatto

    Good stuff, Father. Of course, there is a point past banal, bland, and mundane…ugly. Too much of this in our churches at the moment. Not in my parish church, thanks to our holy priest, who's motto is "Our Lord deserves the best!" e.g.: you get that glow-in-the-dark Virgin, though, take a look at this church, the Hidden Gem in Manchester: look at this same church's Stations of the Cross: glow-in-the-dark Virgin doesn't seem so bad now, does it? Bl. Fra Angelico, pray for us!

  • Richard Collins

    An aged convert priest once told me that he knew he had to convert when he reflected on grotty statues and the like. He said: "when you see all that tack you just know you must be in the one true Church!"

  • jedesto

    Fr L, When the anthology of your essays inclusing "Kitsch and Catholiciam" is published, I trust that your editor will remember that "criteria" is plural.

  • flyingvic

    I remember our Lord telling about the discovery of the pearl of great price, and how it was worth the finder selling all that he had in order to acquire it; but I don't remember that he had much to say about cheap imitation pearls, even when turned into a glow-in-the-dark rosary. Generations of Christians have responded to the beauty of churches and their contents where only the best has been good enough. The danger of accepting tacky plastic representations of the BVM or the saints, mass-produced to turn a quick buck by those who appear to have little respect for religion, is surely that we appear to others to be prepared to accept second best – or worse – in the practice of our faith.To talk, sneeringly or otherwise, of 'good taste' is surely to miss the point. I would rather someone who couldn't draw do for themselves an honest drawing of the BVM, or someone who couldn't carve make for themselves an honest carving of a crucifix, than have them spend their cash on some cheap plastic gewgaw. Is not this a better offering, a more personal act of devotion? Does not a parent cherish the first unidentifiable scribblings of a little child far more than a cheap but recognisable mass-produced print?Or would you describe Catholics themselves as being Mass-produced? (!)

  • Ulick Varange

    Simple solution: The iconography of the East!

  • Marilyn

    My 7-year-old grandson’s mouth would begin to quiver if I were to tell him his Rosary with plastic beads of red, white, yellow and blue was second rate, tacky and mass-produced by someone desiring to make a quick buck. “We really should throw that in the trash, dear child — it’s appearances that count in religion, after all, and we do want to make a good impression on people.” Once again, flyingvic, you make my heart very sad, but one must realize that it is you that has been cheated by heresy.

  • Catholic of Thule

    "Of course, there is a point past banal, bland, and mundane…ugly."Exactly. Now, as Catholics we appreciate representations of the beloved…a constant reminder and focus for prayer. We seek them. We crave them. We want images and representations of Christ, Our Lady and the saints around our necks, in our cars, on the walls, in our pockets, on our keychains, on the mantlepiece and on our special place of prayer! In this sense we are sitting ducks. And there is a certain charm, a proof of love, that this desire is so great that we will take whatever is thrown at us.However, there is kitsch and there is kitsch. I failed to distinguish that properly in my previous comments. There are the mass produced plastic statues of our Lady, or the poor man's deluxe version in plaster (myself being in happy possession of one). There is nothing strange about using cheap materials for devotional items and nothing mysterious about people purchasing them per se. There are simple representations with no distortion but in a cheap material. They do not qualify as fine art, but that was not the point of my objection or bemusement as to kitsch in the first place. I understand how they may work perfectly well for the purpose of being a simple reminder of the beloved and an aid to prayer. What I do not personally understand (but which obviously works perfectly well for some) are the statues of Our lady with little or no consideration as to a fundamental dignity irrespective of and over and above any problems in the material. As I mentioned in my previous example, the state of Our Lady with the Stan Laurel smile, the Mother Teresa with a frightful haunted look. The reason why I am bemused by these are not that they are of cheap materials and not that they are not fine art, but simply that they fundamentally fail to communicate the dignity and holiness of the objects in a simple form when it should be possible to do this. And plastic and painted plaster are materials much less forgiving than unpainted wood. Also the greater problems the material of plastic really does have in this area to begin with would demand that at least one should take some care with the mold to make the form half decent. In this case, less is often more, i.e. the simpler the face, the easier it is to look at the statue as a representatiton of Our Lady because the horror of detail gone wrong does not get in the way as a distinction. Now, I can understand the function of demand meeting bad supply but the demand still being so great that one accepts the poor quality of the supply. I fail to understand when it gets to the point where this no longer becomes any kind of consideration. Now, I accept it, but understand it I do not. I do not think my dislike for such items stem from snobbishness, but from a desire not to see this basic dignity and simplicity discarded without any necessity. Surely, this is not something horrible to be shrugged off. Were I to believe that anyone for which these things did not matter were somehow less holy by that fact, I obviously would have a problem. And perhaps my previous post came across a little too sneering and more so than I had intended. And true it must be that in distinguishing good kitsch from bad kitsch, I may be said to have assimilated somewhat!Now, if you gave me a haunted looking Our Lady with a Stan Laurel smile and a glow which did not even cease in daylight and that was the only devotional item I would ever again have, I'm sure I would learn to love it as my focus and only representation of my Mother…after some weeping and gnashing of teeth…but I'd really rather prefer not to. BTW, father, your blog doesn't seem to accept wordpress IDs at the moment.

  • David Werling

    This is the Western Church, not the Eastern Church. Eastern icons have their place, and that place is not the sanctuary of a Latin church!Seriously? Are you suggesting that we jettison centuries of masterworks because they have been ripped out of churches and placed in museums? "Art overload"? Rather, there is a starvation for art because those masterworks haven't been put back where they belong by utilizing good faux.There's nothing wrong with faux when it is done well and by capable artists. Faux gives us the chance to take back these masterworks. There is a faux Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Velázquez in the half dome above the sanctuary in a local church that is absolutely stunning and iconic in the manner of the Westerns. I'm sure an art historian could nitpick it to death, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it is a worthy work in its own right.While I certainly have an appreciation for Guido Da Siena, Giotto and Cimabue and to ignore the art of the Tridentine Reform, the Baroque and the Rococo would be a terrible loss for the Roman Church. At any rate, the art of Giotto's era may have been influenced by the Byzantine of southern Italy, it was already a far departure from the Byzantine. It was a formidable representative of a blossoming medieval artistic and faith expression in the West, and to relate it so closely to Byzantine iconography doesn't do it the justice it deserves.As far as kitsch is concerned? Please, no twinkling lights around the statues in the sanctuary… and if needs inflated, don't put it in the church. Other than that… one man's kitsch is another man's masterwork.

  • David Werling

    Visit St. Louis to see Western church art at its best. After spending a couple of weeks in St. Louis, I doubt you will retain your opinion of introducing Byzantine iconagraphy as a solution to the Western church's art crisis.The solution is in a return to traditional Catholicism.

  • Catholic of Thule

    "As far as kitsch is concerned? Please, no twinkling lights around the statues in the sanctuary… and if needs inflated, don't put it in the church. Other than that… one man's kitsch is another man's masterwork."And preferably no artificial 'candles' at the various devotional altars! From my own comment:"i.e. the simpler the face, the easier it is to look at the statue as a representatiton of Our Lady because the horror of detail gone wrong does not get in the way as a distinction." I meant distraction….

  • flyingvic

    Marilyn – then don't tell him, even if it happens to be true! And perhaps you might give him a 'better' one: I'm sure that there are whole orders of religious within Roman Catholicism who support themselves and their work by making holy artefacts of great beauty from within a life of devotion – choose one of those and let him see the difference for himself.And – to be fair – I didn't advise you or anyone else to throw the 'trash' away; nor did I suggest that appearances and impressions should be our prime motivation in the Christian life; nor do I advocate patronising those we disagree with.

  • Denita

    I'm an artist on a fixed income, and thus can't always afford the "nicer" statues and paintings. I often buy the "kitsch" statues at the dollar stores or Ross department stores (yes, they have them). As for the paintings, I often make my own. Check out my blog. Your comment on the folk carvings in Latin America brings to mind the santos and bultos made in New Mexico.

  • kkollwitz

    "Or would you describe Catholics themselves as being Mass-produced?"Owww! What punnishment! I'm going to use this in my catechism class.

  • Jane

    Good to know I'm a real Catholic! I've had a plastic Sacred Heart nightlight for years. The dollar store near our house had tons of them, and of BVM ones as well, and my mother bought half a dozen of each. The extras have since made their way into the houses of friends, and one is in a parish sacristy (I won't repeat what the pastor of said parish muttered under his breath when he saw it, but he did leave it where it was).

  • glennbcnu

    David Werling said:"This is the Western Church, not the Eastern Church. Eastern icons have their place, and that place is not the sanctuary of a Latin church!"I would not be too quick to dismiss the influence that the Eastern Church has had upon the Western Church. These influences are wide spread and deeply rooted within the Western Church. Even throughout the “dark ages” in the east, there was considerable influence on the west with regards to art, discipline and the liturgy. From the time of Justinian forward, the Byzantine (East Roman) church structures and mosaics were constructed and used on the shores of the Adriatic, Italy, North Africa and Gaul. Often the churches and baptisteries were circular, domed and had mosaics present. Some of the octagonal churches had circular domes and domes were also present on the basilican churches. In Rome there are many Byzantine remnants of Justinian's time. The choir enclosures of San Clemente, the chapel in Milan with apsidal recesses and mosaics (one of which pictures Christ and the 12 apostles), Ravenna has a large group of Byzantine buildings, churches, baptisteries and mosaics, Lyons and Arles also had Byzantine buildings. Byzantine art was brought to Northumbria from Rome by Benedict Biscop in 674 to adorn the church there. The art that he brought with him depicted scenes from the gospels and the apocalypse, so that: “all who entered the church, even if ignorant of letters, whichever way they turned, might either contemplate the ever-lovely aspect of Christ and his saints, though only in a picture, or with watchful mind revere the grace of the Lord's incarnation, or else, having as it were the trial of the last judgement before their eyes, they might remember to examine themselves the more strictly. (“A History of the Medieval Church” M. Deanesly, 1965, p.70)” The paintings of the time can be observed on the walls of St. Maria Antiqua, done by Greek artists in the Byzantine form. By the second half of the seventh century, Rome had almost completely become Byzantinised. To remove all of the influences that the East has had upon the West would be neigh on impossible (I have not even touched on the spiritual, educational, liturgical and many other aspects of influence that the East has had on the West), to attempt this, would leave the Western Church unrecognisable. You also wrote: “I doubt you will retain your opinion if introducing Byzantine iconagraphy as a solution to the Western church's art crisis. The solution is in a return to traditional Catholicism.” At what point in history do you want to return to? For what you may consider “tradition” another may consider modern/liberal.

  • Saint Kitsch

    And to not mention yours truly in this discussion? I have more plastic mary's and glow in the dark rosaries than you can shake a pink crucifix at over at my blog.

  • Marilyn

    I am oftentimes saddened and impatient with both Protestants and Catholics with their sometimes not-so-nice sarcasm directed back and forth. I don’t mean good-humored sarcasm, which is mostly healthy, but mockery which cuts to the core of one’s heart. Quite a few years ago, a Catholic blog site featured a photo of a boxy, white, clapboard Baptist Church with rusty pickup trucks parked on the front lawn and the ensuing belittling remarks troubled me as much as the ridicule of Catholic kitsch. Shouldn’t we set our sights on things above, that which endures, rather than focus on the lack of good taste in a religious group or object? And mightn’t it be much more humbling to pray with or use as a means of devotion cheap kitsch than more expensive, but tasteful objects? Everything beautiful and tasteful AND everything kitsch, quickly passes away. We might should set our sights on things above, that which endures. And flyingvic, a 7-year-old boy. whether using a kitsch or "tasteful" object as a prayer aid, shall surely receive the light of God when mouthing the names of Mary and Jesus and meditating on the life of the Holy Family.

  • flyingvic

    Marilyn – I think that I was the first in this series of blogs and comments to use the word 'kitsch', and I did so as I remembered the dismay that I felt when I visited Lourdes and found rows of souvenir stalls filled with what I felt to be cheap, nasty and sentimental plastic bits and pieces. I've seen the same kind of stalls selling the same kind of cheap and nasty souvenirs to day-trippers at the sea-side; and I felt that at Lourdes they served only to cheapen the whole experience. Lourdes is a holy place and these things,I felt, were wholly unworthy of it. That is all.At the level of individual devotion it really doesn't matter what we use provided that we are helped by it in our awareness of God. At the level of principle and mature decision-making we each have to decide where we stand in the spectrum between "Anything will do" and "Only the best is good enough".

  • kkollwitz

    St. Louis isn't called the Rome of the West for nothing.Someday my wife & I hope to visit churches in Cincinnati, then drive down the Ohio to St. Louis & see the churches there.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Perhaps the great paintings and statues were sent to museums because that is where they belong – as works of art rather than works of piety. Go to a church in a small town of Italy or Spain or Mexico and you will find walls covered with what you call kitsch. Cardinal Dulles attributes much of his conversion to the gimcrack statues and sentimental stained glass windows found in catholic churches. He was not converted by aesthetics but by what the images are meant to represent, however badly. Who is the parent who would exchange their child's drawing for one by Rembrandt?

  • Catholic of Thule

    I think this discussion is, perhaps somewhat unavoidably, marred by a confusion or differing definitions and ideas as to what is considered kitsch or the awful kind of kitsch. I do, however, think it incredibly strange by any standards that anyone should imply that works that qualify as fine art should almost automatically be somehow unsuited to express the holy in a manner which inspires piety. I would also like to say yet again that my own idea of what is kitsch in that awful I-just-cannot-grasp-it kind of sense does in no way encompass that large group of items that may not qualify as fine art and even less everything that would qualify as sentimental (which is the case with many works of art as well). It doesn't even encompass everything that fulfills both criteria of not qualifying as art and not suited to inspire devotion in me personally. There are plenty of things I personally do not really respond to which I would not put in this category.

  • Sue

    When one objectively compares the New Mass to the Traditional Latin Mass, the New Mass qualifies more as kitsch than any ordinary version of the TLM.

  • Elizabeth

    In one of the Aged Care Facilities in which I work , there is a phalanx of statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, each left behind by some person who has moved a step closer to God. They line up on the window-sill of the Quiet Room, in quantities that appear more intimidating than inspiring to prayer! Even as a cradle Catholic I struggle with these statues, but we have now have an understanding that some of them can remain on view and the rest must hide behind the curtains. Needless to say , the residnets dont even notice them!

  • Marilyn

    Elizabeth,I applaud you for working in an Aged Care Facility and bringing comfort to the old and dying where all too often they are abandoned by their families. Since you have an abundance of statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and to not abandon or hide Him behind curtains, would it be feasible to make certain that each resident in the facilities or affiliated hospital has a statue in his room in order that he might focus and identify with Jesus’ sufferings? For truly He also was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, and one of those from whom men hide their faces.

  • Bender

    If it is about how you produce beautiful sacred art, then the effort is likely to fall short. Like many other endeavors, for really great and inspired sacred art, the artist needs a little help, a little bit of grace from the Holy Spirit.As for properly capturing the subject of the piece, St. Bernadette was never fully satisfied with the attempts that artists made at Our Lady of Lourdes. And she was very much opposed to the practice of selling kitsch art at Lourdes (and perhaps elsewhere).As for me, I'm partial to Fra Angelico and Botticelli myself. And I have found very few representations of an adult Jesus that I like. The more famous ones that many people have in their homes doesn't do it for me.

  • Bender

    It should be noted that art — real art — must be the work of human hands, not the work of machines.Perhaps prints are an exception, perhaps not, but most definitely there is a qualitiative and transcendental and spiritual difference between a hand-made wooden-bead rosary and one stamped out by a machine by the thousands. Human-made items impart a bit of the maker into that item.

  • David Werling

    glennbcnu,Apparently you misunderstood my comment. I'm not contending that Eastern iconography did not influence Western art for all the reasons that you highlighted. That would be incredibly naive of me to believe.The point of my comment was that even as early as the age of Giotto Western art had already significantly diverged from Eastern iconography, and was well on its way to fashioning a unique artistic quality and expression, and this began the road to the development of that Western art that is the unique heritage of the Latin Church.That is the heritage that we need in our Roman Catholic sanctuaries. Not the heritage of the Byzantines, no matter what merit Byzantine iconography has in its own right. No matter how you look at it, to replace the artistic heritage of the Latin Church with that of the Byzantine does no service to either.

  • Disgusted in DC

    Fr. I eagerly await you wearing your polyster tie-dye chasuble at the next EF mass you celebrate – - facing the people, natch, with the Missa Luba being sung by middle-aged white women with burnt-over hippies playing the tamborines and bongo drums.

  • Bill

    As a converted Anglo-Catholic, I know exactly what you mean. I can't explain it — somewhere during RCIA, I stopped becoming an aesthete. A Virgin Mary night light? I have to get one of those.Bill