Thursday, 21 January 2016

Art and Prayer, by Sr Mary Charles-Murray

Sr Mary Chares-Murray, Art and Prayer: Perspectives on the Christian Life, 2010 Catholic Truth Society

A booklet published by the Catholic Truth Society which explores how art reflects the human condition before God, particularly in prayer.

I was going to give this booklet a reasonably positive review. However, I became outraged by it towards the end when the author brought up the subject of the mass-produced 'holy cards' that were introduced among the laity in the 19th century. She describes the typical artwork of these cards as a form of 'kitsch.' She argues that such artwork is sentimental and undemanding; it generates no deeper reflection. It is unacceptable as it is 'Beauty without truth.' I found the author's comments deeply hurtful, as I love holy cards.

There is something troubling about dismissing images of our Lord and His blessed Mother as 'kitsch,' even though they are adored by countless faithful Catholics. If Sister Mary Charles-Murray despises the picture in the holy card, it is tempting to wonder if she also despises the prayer on the back of the card too. There is an horrible elitist tendency in some modern Catholic literature which despises the piety and devotional practices of faithful lay people. It's that same tendency that came in after Vatican II (not that I have any problem with the Vatican II documents themselves) which wanted to hide away all the rosaries and statues of saints.

I do not at all accept the idea that traditional Catholic iconography is 'beauty without truth.' The images are of true things, for we believe in the Lord Jesus and Mary and all the saints. The images are not necessarily realistic depictions, for they use the pictorial grammar of symbols. I am sure our author knows this. It's hard too see how he criticisms might not be applied to any of the great works of Catholic art from the past, such as those of Perugino and Raphael, traditions that the mass-produced holy cards draw upon.

This idea that art must always be challenging is an abominable one, for it leads to the repudiation of beauty in art and the dominance of works of ugliness. In the Church, we see this in some of the architectural monstrosities that have been forced upon Catholics to serve as churches. Why is it wrong to just love nice pictures? Can we not celebrate an artist like Bouguereau who just liked drawing pretty things and did that with inimitable brilliance?

Sister Charles-Murray does say some good and insightful things in this booklet, but I really can't get past her awful comments on holy cards. I suspect some of the editors in the Catholic Truth Society take a similar view of Catholic art. One thing I have noticed is that nearly every image of Mary on the covers of CTS publications is an Eastern Orthodox icon. Eastern icons seem to be more acceptable to the elitist sensibilities than traditional western images.


  1. In my school days I once plucked a holy card of S.Lucy from a puddle into which it had fallen. I placed the soppy thing on a radiator in the back of a classroom, and forgot about it. A day later I found in dried out and in great condition. It was a baroque type section with an Italian prayer with a little Latin on the back.

    This little card ignited an interest in things Italian and Latin, and I still have the card.

    So much for Sister's theories!

    Thank you for your comments!