Art is incarnational, and it takes a vision of the world and puts flesh on it.
I used to dream of being the next Van Gogh. I would sit in my room for hours drawing and painting, trying in my own work to capture the intensity of beauty that shone through his paintings. In a Van Gogh painting, the whole world becomes sacred and positively hums with grace. He painted everything he saw with tender love, and love allowed him to see deeply into the truth of the universe. By the time I went to college, I had decided against pursuing a career in art, but I still loved painting enough to take a degree in studio art because I wanted to keep improving.
I never rose anywhere near the heights of a Van Gogh in my artistic abilities, but I still like to get out the pencils occasionally and try my hand at producing something nice. For years now, I’ve been making works of art for my children. Specifically, I make a picture of the saint for whom they were named. For the first three children, I still had the time, energy, and studio space to make an oil painting. For the subsequent three I’ve made pencil drawings.
As our family got bigger and my responsibilities took up more of my time, I lagged behind on the drawings for the younger children, but one day my four-year old daughter turned her big brown eyes on me and with the sort of innocence that melts a father’s heart asked when I was going to make her saint picture. I got started right away and, when that picture of St. Edith Stein was framed and took its place on the wall, her eyes lit up with excitement. Finally, she had her picture. I hadn’t realized how much this gift meant to the children.
Many Catholic families have an image of the Sacred Heart in a prominent place in their home. The image is an icon of blessing over their family, an expression of love in the heart of their home. I’ve also been in many homes where a crucifix is placed near the door as a visible reminder to all who exit through that door to take the love of Christ with them wherever they go. And if we’re talking about sacred art associated with a Catholic home, we can’t leave out the statue of Mary in the yard. The placement of Our Lady outside is a public expression of faith and is also a sweet way of expressing that Our Lady loves the flowers of the field. The beauty all around us in the created world is a reflection of the beauty of her son. It’s sort of like God’s painting that he has put his heart and soul into — the quieter we are and the deeper we look, the more depth is revealed. This is why Mary loves all beautiful things and wants us also to experience and love beautiful things.
I suppose it would be easy to mentally remind myself each time I left my house that I want to act in a virtuous Christ-like manner. It’s a reminder I desperately need. Such a reminder, however, is far more poignant when I actually see the family crucifix. I see with my own eyes what it means to dedicate myself to loving my neighbor and that concept becomes more real. It would also be easy to remind myself that I’ve given my heart to my wife and have committed to sacrifice anything on behalf of my family, but such a thought strikes far closer to home when I look at our Sacred Heart picture. A pierced and broken heart might be the cost of love, but that cost is absolutely worth it because love is stronger than any force arrayed against it.
I took for granted that my children would each have a connection to the saint for whom they were named, but my daughter responded with great joy at actually seeing the picture of the saint. Suddenly, she had a face to put with her shared name. This was the real, flesh-and-blood woman — Edith Stein — who is now her traveling companion through life.
Art is incarnational, meaning it takes a vision of the world and puts flesh on it. Art communicates through the senses – we look at painting, we listen to music, and it enters into our imagination. This is why having art in our homes is so important, especially sacred art. Faith is not an idea, it is a living, breathing reality with physicality. Our Lord walked this earth. The saints, people with unique personalities who lived in concrete circumstances, are members of our family. What better way than through sacred art is there to enlarge our own individual families and open up our homes to the embrace of a such a vast, loving, spiritual family?