In our time, invention and exaltation describe well the duties of a religious artist. Invention here has the older definition of the word; it does not mean creating from nothing, but rather finding. If the artistic traditions have been buried, his task is to discover them; if they have been stolen, his task is to retake them. Once they are found or retaken, his task is to bring them to their proper place and give them honor as high as his abilities make possible; that is, to exalt them. This is like carrying the stolen relics back to Jerusalem, as Heraclius once did.
The Golden Legend recounts:
Heraclius rode down the Mount of Olives, mounted on his royal palfrey and arrayed in imperial regalia, intending to enter the city by the gate through which Christ had passed on His way to Crucifixion. But suddenly the stones of the gateway fell down and locked together, forming an unbroken wall. To the amazement of everyone, an angel of the Lord, carrying a cross in his hands, appeared above the wall and said: When the King of heaven passed through this gate to suffer death, there was no royal pomp; he rode a lowly ass, to leave an example of humility to his worshippers.... With those words the angel vanished. The emperor shed tears, took off his boots and stripped down to his shirt, received the cross of the Lord into his hands, and humbly carried it toward the gate. The hardness of the stones felt the force of a command from heaven, and the gateway raised itself from the ground and opened wide to allow passage to those entering.Here is a lesson for those who seek, as I do, to reintroduce the traditions; no project, even a righteous one, will meet divine favor unless it is undertaken with humility. It is not the artist that is to be arrayed, celebrated and exalted. God would rather brick him out of the Holy City than admit him to the ruin of his soul.
I often quote the fathers of the Second Council of Nicea, which was convoked in the year 787 to end the first iconoclast crisis. They said: The tradition does not belong to the painter; the art alone is his. True arrangement and disposition belong to the holy fathers. I consider the arrangement and disposition that belong to the fathers to be something like a relic, and the art that belongs to the painter to be something like the making of a reliquary. Artistry without tradition is like an empty reliquary; beautiful perhaps, but unworthy of veneration. Tradition without artistry is like a relic kept in a cardboard box; worthy of veneration, but deserving of better treatment.
I believe that the traditions of sacred art deserve exaltation for the very same reason the relics of Our Lord’s Passion deserve it - because they touched God.
Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, (Princeton University Press, 1993).