Roger Homan laments the dislocation of religious art

LOVERS OF SACRED music have in recent years broadly welcomed the opportunity to listen to it all times of the day and night and in all circumstances. They can tune into the radio station Classic FM while doing the ironing or driving up the motorway. They can have Gregorian plain chant while they work at the desk and allow it to intrude neither more nor less than their wallpaper. If they have friends coming for dinner, they can switch on Classic FM and have them arrive to the accompaniment of a Requiem Mass.

One of the effects of the dislocation of the sacred is that sight is lost of its provenance and meaning: so on Classsic FM we hear ‘That was the beautiful song Nearer my God to Thee from the film Titanic’: the hymn is thought of as a song and its setting is not a place of worship, but Hollywood. As the playing of Crimond fades the unctuous voice of the announcer comes in with the words ‘smooth night-time classics’: indeed it is, but not in the literal sense which the presenter intends.

The function of this way of thinking is to disengage the beautiful from the holy. The approach to the sacred here characterised by reference to Classic FM but widely found elsewhere is to encourage the view that in worship beauty is an optional extra: just as one can have ‘the world’s most beautiful music without taking on the religious context, so we are invited to think that worship is possible without beauty. It is said that beauty is a luxury, even that it might get in the way, that it is an obstacle to pure worship. So it is, of course, if it is redefined by relocation in an inappropriate context as in the playing of Christmas carols in supermarkets to promote particular seasonal dispositions toward consumption. Allegri’s Miserere was not composed, nor is it ideally experienced, as the prelude to the announcement of somebody’s freephone number or a plea to make immediate contact with one’s nearest Volvo dealer. In the 1930s the writings of the Roman Catholic artist and sculptor touched exactly on the nature of this dislocation:

The history of music during the last 400 years is the history of the progressive divorce of music from occasion … The devotees of the concert… ‘have no use for music – they only want to enjoy it’ (Gill 1937: 129)


Sacred art, too, has suffered by being removed from its proper context and relocated. In particular, works commissioned and produced for devotional purposes become collected, grouped with others of their kind and subjected to comparative study. Collections of devotional objects turn up in unlikely places, none more unlikely than the Cloisters Museum in New York where there is an extensive gathering of medieval images of the enthroned Madonna from Spain and Italy, accommodated in contemporary buildings which have also been brought in from Europe. Sections of fresco from the upper reaches of medieval churches are cut away and brought down to eye level at which they were never intended to be viewed. Ikons from Russia and Greece, which are to be understood as much as prayers as paintings, have been the subject of two London exhibitions this summer, at the Royal Academy and at the Hellenic Centre respectively: the title of the Greek exhibition, Conversations With God, nicely reminds us that in viewing we are eavesdropping.

The public exhibition of such devotional objects as altarpieces affords some curious academic exercises. In the spring of 1998, for example, the National Gallery in London staged a small exhibition of works by the Flemish primitive painter Jan van Eyck. Among the works brought to London were two very similar paintings of St Francis receiving the stigmata, one from Philadelphia and the other from Turin. These two paintings were the subject of a public lecture in the gallery of which the focus was the problem of authenticity. Were both paintings by van Eyck or neither? Which came first? Was one of them in some sense ‘the original’? A method known as dendrochronology – literally, the dating of trees – was deployed to study the growth rings in the planks of wood on which each of these paintings was mounted and from this it was concluded that both pieces of wood came from the same tree; it was therefore likely that both paintings came from the same workshop. Ingenious though this exercise is, van Eyck and his colleagues may well have thought that modern students of their paintings were missing the point. Here are two depictions of St Francis in a supreme mystical moment and all we can do, it might seem, is turn them over and study the woodwork. Van Eyck would be entitled to feel aggrieved. The modern appreciation of his work seldom dwells upon its spiritual qualities. The great Ghent altarpiece is no longer on altar but is preserved in a room at the back of St Bavo’s cathedral where people queue and pay to see it. His Virgin and Child in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges is surely about the contrast between the sacred and mystical nature of the Madonna and the frailty of Canon van der Paele who comes to worship: but van Eyck is applauded as a technician and not as a theologian, as the supposed pioneer of oil painting.

That the practice and study of art have lost touch with their original purpose and become in various ways introspective are not new complaints. Art for art’s sake, signified by the foundation of art schools and galleries, has in the nineteenth century been deplored by John Ruskin and William Morris and in this century by Eric Gill. Beauty, which Gill regards as ‘the abstract name for that which pleases us… by means of and through the senses’ (1937: 128) has to be experienced in situ and by participants, not by leisurely spectators; nor is art something upon which a monetary value can be fixed:

I would abolish the fine arts altogether. Music – let us sing in church, and at work, and at harvest festivals, and wedding parties, and all such times and places… But let us abolish the concert hall. Painting and sculpture – let us paint and carve our houses, and churches, and townhalls, and places of business. .. But let us abolish art galleries, and royal academics, and picture dealers (Gill 1937: 87-88).

We can only ponder what might have been Gill’s response to the opportunity we now have to purchase an umbrella based on the design of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.


It has not helped the crusade for decency and order in worship that traditional language, music and imagery are regarded as elitist. Schools are largely responsible for this view by reserving Chaucer, Milton and Wordsworth for the later stages of school life to be enjoyed only by those who at age sixteen elect English Literature as an option. The idea is that there is a high culture marked by tastes for Shakespeare and Mozart and a popular culture in which the churches. fearful since Vatican II of going above anybody’s head, formulate their worship. It is of course to the credit of Classic FM that it endeavours at least to address this perception.

The prevailing notion is that the time-honoured forms of religious expression are accessible only to an educated and privileged elite whereas the modem is classless and available to all: but this must be examined more closely. We may think as an example of the beatific Fra Angelico, working on the frescoes in each of the cells of the convent of San Marco in Florence not for public exhibition but for private devotion. This ‘saintly father’, as Vasari calls him, shunned all worldly intrigues and used to say that true wealth consists of being content with just a little. It was said that he would never take up his brushes without a prayer and when he painted the Crucifixion the tears would stream down his cheeks. Far from seeking power and influence he declined the Pope’s offer of the archbishopric of Florence, commanding instead Fra – later Saint Antoninus.

The search for a modern contrast to Fra Angelico can begin and end at the Tate Gallery where we will be spoilt for choice. If Fra Anglelico distinguishes the Italian fifteenth century, Barry Flanagan distinguishes the British twentieth; and if the convent of San Marco is a typical environment for the primitive, the Tate is a typical repository for the modern. On the floor of the Tate there has lain for twenty years a length of heavy-duty rope, meandering like a python across a circle of linoleum called Ringl. The rope is labelled Rope and is by Barry Flanagan, produced in 1967 and purchased [sic] in 1976. The Tate catalogue lists over 130 acquisitions by this artist. The caption on the wall tells us that this piece of rope and this circle of green linoleum may be regarded as the ‘culmination’ of Barry Flanagan’s work. So we may ask a number or pertinent questions about the changing role of the artist, about spirituality and art and about the intelligibility of ancient and modem expressions. We may ask which is the more esoteric. We may enquire whether Fra Angelico or Barry Flanagan has enjoyed the greater personal acclaim. Which of them made the more profit by his work? Which of them more effectively exercised the soul or directed the human spirit to an higher level? Which conveyed an eternal truth and which more successfully reflected the mood and aspiration of its day?

Similar contrasts can be drawn between ancient and modem in architecture and in religious language. It is an extraordinary thing that our medieval cathedrals were designed by monks as acts of devotion and we seldom know their names; in our own time, by contrast, architects are celebrated and knighted for works with which they would be better advised to dissociate themselves – Centre Point, the South Bank Complex, the Department of Trade building in Victoria Street and the University of East Anglia. What is rather less surprising is that the name of Cranmer should be remembered for the Book of Common Prayer while the authors of Rite A in the 1980 Alternative Service Book are rumoured to have gone into hiding. There is a phrase which is the key to the attitude to worship, music, art and architecture which prevailed in the medieval period and it was much used by Abbot Suger who supervised the building of St Denis: these were endeavours ‘to the glory of God’. What we see in modem art and music is the glorification of the artist or the performer. The Word is put at the disposal of those who minister, to make of it what they will, for their own purposes and in accordance with their perception of the moment. If there is any glorification here, it is not of God.

Such is the tendency of the modern church. The modern world outside it recognises the beauty of holiness but cannot express it in sacred terms. It therefore deploys its own vocabulary of superlatives to identify the mystical beauty which the churches have surrendered. The appreciation of sacred music by the presenters of Classic FM is expressed in such accolades as ‘stunning’, ‘breathtaking’, ‘the world’s most beautiful music’ and ‘music to suit your midnight mood’. Pieces are gathered with more secular compositions into collections which are given names like boxes of chocolates, such as ‘Enchantment’. Classic FM introduces dimensions of competition and superiority: there is a ‘Classic Top Ten’ and a ‘Hall of Fame’

The beautification of the sacred follows in the tradition of Independent Television’s erstwhile alternative to Songs of Praise, the notorious Stars on Sunday, which presented actors and actresses in evening dress to deliver Bible readings alongside a flickering candelabrum and a flower arrangement: the manner of presentation evoked not so much the second lesson at Evensong as the Queen’s Christmas Day broadcast. Stars on Sunday was likened in one review to a re-enactment of the Crucifixion with Danny La Rue in the part of Mary Magdalene and the massed bands of the Scottish Armed Guards playing ‘Will ye no come back again’. If this habit has abated in religious broadcasting, it has broken out elsewhere in the gift wrapping of prayers to be found on the shelves of SPCK and other booksellers: these volumes are visually engaging and even tactile but they are produced more for the coffee table than for the prayer desk.


The beautiful, then, has been removed as though it were icing on a cake and our forms of worship are reduced to what is regarded – albeit mistakenly- as ‘plain language’. It bears with it the critical markers of the spiritual. That we are spiritual beings, that we have souls as well as bodies is lost in translation. So:

The Lord be with you.

And with thy spirit.


The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

This summer I observed the extension of this trend in a Roman Catholic church in New England:

Priest: The mass is ended. Have a nice weekend everybody.
People: And you, Father.
Priest: (waving his arm) Thanks.

The problem is that ‘plain English’ is inherently secular. Gone is the notion of soul or spirit and gone is the sense of Christian mission which traditionally closes the Eucharist, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. The reason for valuing traditional forms of worship is not that they are more ornamental but that there is an inherent spirituality which we would not want to surrender. In Aristotelian terms, beauty is not the accident but the substance of Christian worship.

A most instructive interview was recently given to the late-night television programme Holy Smoke which covers religious issues in a manner designed to appeal to young people. The interviewee, Malcolm Maclaren, was closely associated with the rise of the now obsolete generational subculture called ‘punk’ which was distinguished by its dress and with a musical ensemble by the name ‘Sex Pistols’: with such a pedigree, he may be little known to members of the Prayer Book Society but his shrewd perceptions on church life will resonate a chord. The Church, he contended, once offered excitement in the form of mystery or magic. Its atmosphere, its language, its setting took people out of themselves and such a ministry had been attractive to him. But now, he pointed out, it had tried to communicate in the language of the street and there was no purpose going to church only to speak and behave as one would outside. Malcolm Maclaren extended his thesis in an interesting way: he suggested that because magic is no longer available in church we have to seek it elsewhere and this is why the Archbishop of Canterbury goes to football matches.

This is a telling critique by one who would be thought much more a modem folk hero rather than a traditionalist. It evokes the remark by W. H. Auden ‘Why spit on your luck?’ And we may observe that the reduction of colour and grandeur to an all-time in 1980, at which level it has been more or less held, it is so utterly out of harmony with all other trends in western life.

The stripping down of religious language, ritual, art, atmosphere and music is argued in terms of simplicity. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the case is made that traditional language is not understood by common people. The modem churches are inclined to reject as grandeur not only the language of Cranmer but Hymns Ancient and Modern and even the traditional dress of ministering clergy. The visual symbols and motifs of the Christian faith, the pointed arch, the candle stand, the decorated font, have given way to an internal arrangement that is, as Betjeman observed, ‘easy to dust’. The sweeping aside of the customary trappings of worship, however, allows – even promotes – a new social order within the church. The function of robes is to suppress the personality of the minister and stress the role he or she exercise: the wearing of everyday clothes advertises the personality. The choral or congregational singing of the liturgy, of hymns, canticles or anthems is a collective act which demonstrates assent but does not feature individual performance. Script and robe have a humbling effect upon those who lead worship and those who are led by it: the removal of these principles leaves the centre of worship vacant for charisma, for the exercise of personal skills. Formality is where the text of worship is secure and informality is where performing individuals take over. This may go some way to explain the modern taste for minimalism in architectural setting and liturgical structure


Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, reject those things. Surrender them to Classic FM. Such is the implicit rationality of much liturgical change.

It is ironic that it should take the manager of the Sex Pistols to point the Church of England and its companions to the plain fact that people are not attracted into the worshipping community by the language which the Liturgical Commission thinks they speak on the street. In its fossilised modernity, the Church has failed to notice the trends in nearly every other department of modern life which are to recover both the spirit and the complexion of lost or dormant forms. The Department of Trade building is pass‚ : the Sainsbury Wing succeeds while it evokes motifs and proportions of nobler architectural styles. Those who really know their beer go not for canned lager but for real ale. Laura Ashley and Past Times appeal to a nostalgia which larger chains have missed. The streamlined heavy duty vehicles of the 1970s are being succeeded by more muscular designs of a noble vintage. In an age of revivals, the sterile 1980s liturgy of the Church of England stands like Centrepoint, stranded, without much hope of appealing to new occupants, conspicuous, conceding nothing to the beautiful and outmoded.



GILL, Erie (1937) Work and Property &c. London: Dent.

SUGER, ABBOT (1979) On the Abbey Church o St.Denis and its Art Treasures 2nd edition Trans. Edwin Panofsky. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

VASARI, Giorgio (1 97 1) Lives of the Artists Trans. George Bull. Penguin (First published in Florence 1568)

Works of art

EYCK, Jan van, Adoration of the Lamb. 1432 (St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent)
St Francis receiving the stigmata (Turin and Phildadelphia)
Virgin and Child with Saints and Canon van der Paele. 1436 (Groeninge Museum, Bruges)

FIELDING, Ronald Department of Trade and Industry Building 1959-64 (London, Victorian Street)

FLANAGAN, Barry Ringl 1’67. 1967 (Tate Gallery, London)
Rope (Gr 2sp 60) 6’67.1967(Tate Gallery London)

FRA ANGELICO Annunciation. c. 1440 (Florence, S. Marco)

LASDUN, Sir Denys National Theatre 1 969- 76 (London, South Bank)

SEIFERT, Richard Centre Point 1962-66 (London, Tottenham Court Road)

Roger Homan is a Professor at the University of Brighton. This article was delivered as a lecture at the Prayer Book Society Annual Conference in 1998.