Part 4 of 9 of the Lecture Heavenly Outlook, which I recently delivered to the Catholic Art Guild on 12 August 2017.
Christian tradition is based on memories of real events, on things that Jesus Christ said and did and revealed. Some of these memories were, with divine inspiration, recorded in the books and letters of the New Testament. Some were carried forward through the centuries by liturgical and exegetical traditions, and even by iconographic formulæ and plainchant melodies. Gothic art, despite its sudden appearance in the twelfth century and its rapid technical advancement, is nonetheless fully traditional; its makers did not predicate their originality on a rejection of the past.
Just as the composers of medieval polyphony continued to base their music on ancient plainchant melodies, Gothic artists working in new media - whether stained glass windows and monumental sculptures in the twelfth century, or oil paintings and woodcut prints in the fifteenth - continued to place the good thief to Christ’s right hand and the bad thief to His left. They understood iconographic formulæ to be bonds of memory to the apostolic age.
It is an all-too-common error for the faithful in the present day to confuse tradition itself with its legal enforcement by ecclesiastical authority - as though tradition were nothing more than a stack of documents bearing the correct signatures. This is an epistemological absurdity; the bishops who are tasked with writing these documents need to know what they know somehow!
My second advice to anybody who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is to be guided by holy writ and by tradition itself: liturgical prayer, the writings of the church fathers and the art of the past. Do not make the mistake of thinking that tradition only counts once it has been expressed in an official document. Do not wait for somebody to give you permission to stand fast and hold to it.
As a practical example, consider the task of painting or drawing the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. True arrangement and disposition of the picture requires an artist to do more than read Munificentissimus Deus. I do not have the liberty to paint or draw whatever I please, just so long as I do not contradict the official document. The truth of the Virgin’s bodily assumption into Heaven did not spring spontaneously out of Pius XII’s infallibility in 1950; it existed from the time that the event actually happened. It was known in 1950 because the memory of the event was perpetuated in the liturgical tradition and the writings of the church fathers.
These give a narrative of what occurred: the Apostles were miraculously gathered to the Virgin’s bedside; she died a painless death; a burial place was prepared in the Valley of Josaphat; as the Virgin’s body was taken there, it was assumed into Heaven and reunited to her soul. To reject this narrative altogether, to paint or draw something else, is to consider the memory of the event untrustworthy - the memory upon which knowledge of the event entirely depends.