Saturday, March 2, 2013

Graffiti and the Liturgy

Apologies to any non-Catholics reading for this bit of inside baseball...

I know lots of people with a professional and/or obsessive interest in liturgy, architecture, and the relationship between them.  So I mostly would like to open the discussion to these knowledgeable souls about the recent commissioning of graffiti artists to paint the inside of the dome at Santa Eulalia church near Barcelona.

The painting, to my eyes, is stunningly beautiful, and there's no question it draws on specific traditions in sacred art.

My question is about the relationship between making use of a more "popular" medium and style elements in church architecture and the use of more popular musical styles in the liturgy.  Pope Benedict has talked about certain traditional types of music (Gregorian chant and polyphony) as being the "supreme model of sacred music."  I've heard people of a more traditional liturgical bent go so far as to call this "supreme model" the only music that's really appropriate for Mass.

I struggle with this a bit.  Yes, I think music used at Mass should be beautiful and prayerful.  And I have a general preference towards older and more traditional hymns.  But I would have a hard time getting excited about tossing hymns all together, and though I recognize the importance of the universal nature of the Mass, I see value in incorporating the good and the beautiful from local cultures as well.  In fact, I would tend to perceive this as enhancing, rather than detracting from, the universality of the prayer of the Church. 

I would see a parallel between hiring a "graffitero" to paint a church and using a gospel hymn at Mass.

What do people think?


  1. I don't see this as "graffiti." It looks to me like the covers of "Today's Missal" (

    The thing I appreciate about it is that it hearkens to past apse mosaics. The problem is that personally the style is creepy. I'm not a fan of cartoony painting in general.

    Actually, I would put it below gospel music at Mass. Some Gospel music is a cultural expression of worship (though some, I would think, wouldn't be appropriate at Mass, though definitely in other contexts.) The problem I have with this isn't the that it's like gospel music but that it's like really bad David Haas (and there is some decent David Haas out there.)

    I think it's selling our worship short to sing feel-good-about-ourselves-won't-Jesus-be-pleased hymns that seem to deny the very reason that Christ came into the world and that He is the ultimate reality after which we ought to thirst (like a deer panteth after the running water etc...) It is also selling our worship short to paint paintings ing prominent places in our churches that are a) Theologically unsound b) confusing and c) in a style that seems sloppy.

    Of course, I don't think that this apse painting is either of the first two, but I can't help thinking that they wanted a graffiti artist because it would "fit in" with art of the world around it. I don't particularly value that motivation. I can't be sure, so I won't say that it's true, but things like this often are motivated similarly.

    It's not the method that I'm talking about, of course. There are probably really exquisite things you can do with a spray paint can, but I don't see this as exquisite. If you want to use the methods of Graffiti and elevate them so as to be "set apart" for the worship of God, then do so. I just don't see this style as elevated.

    Ok, I'm going to stop now.

  2. I think I missed how we jumped from a discussion about using music other than Gregorian chant to a discussion of "feel-good-about-ourselves-won't-Jesus-be-pleased hymns that seem to deny the very reason Christ came into the world." It seems to hardly bear mentioning that I don't like music at Mass that denies the reason Christ came into the world. Actually, I specifically mentioned music that is beautiful, prayerful, and that incorporates the good and the beautiful from local cultures - which doesn't seem to be quite the same thing.

    Also, why did you bring up art that is theologically unsound and confusing if you don't think this painting is either of those things?

    I'd love to hear a more specific criticism of this painting within an architectural context - since "creepy" is a bit vague.

  3. The jump came when I compared the style of the painting to the style of a lot of that music.

    In talking about theologically unsound and confusing paintings, I was referring to many other modern styles used in sacred art to make it more "relevant" and if this was the purpose of using graffiti, it is open to this same error.

    To me this style brings the sacred down to the level of street art, but it should be precisely the other way. I would like to see graffiti (the technique) elevated so as to be proper to the liturgy. I guess what I'm trying to say is not that graffiti technique is bad for churches but rather that THIS graffiti doesn't look like very graffiti.

    In art, there are styles that should not be employed in the public worship of the church. I would put rock and rap/hip-hop in those categories. I would also put graffiti as it is done now in that category. Its focus is too much on the passions of the people and not on the glory of the Lord, which is what worship is about.

    There is a reason that we admire the more developed apse mosaics of the early church and not the less skillfully made ones. If graffiti can be used to create theologically rich as well as artistically subtle sacred paintings, I am certainly open to it.

  4. I think the clarification that needs to be made is that you are talking about ALL hymns, including what we call "traditional" hymnody (e.g. the metrical hymns) are neither chant nor polyphony in the sense that Benedict was talking about, but rather the high art of a specific culture (northern Europe). Some suggest we should avoid even these.

    One of the reasons some people are negative about them is that they usually REPLACE the proper chants. This is a quasi-universal impoverishment of the liturgy. Fortunately St. A's has started using the chants again, AND the hymns. And, of course, usually metrical, although Lee Erickson has a couple of David Haas tunes in hi repertoire.

  5. Oops. That comment was not by Tim, but by me. Sorry.

  6. Tim - Actually, yes, I understand that distinction. It's part of the question I was asking about chant and polyphony as the "supreme model of sacred music." It is two separate questions, really: whether hymns should be used at all, and if yes, what the parameters are for selecting them. I am raising these questions because I am very interested in hearing the arguments on both sides. So St. A's is restoring the chants but also doing hymns? Do you think that's the way to go? Or do you think hymns should be eliminated altogether?

    Nate - I guess I would have to see the painting in person, but from the picture I think I disagree about its artistic merit. I think it is beautiful and elevating. My only hesitation is that this was painted in an existing church, and since the picture doesn't show the entire church, it's hard to say whether it is appropriate within the context of the church's design as a whole.


    Here is my ultimate response to the painting question.

    About music, I think that whatever music is used, we should try to make it the best we can. We should try to sing the most theologically potent hymns and of course the proper chants if possible. The style of the hymns (and even the "setting" of the chants) can be almost anything, in my opinion, as long as the style does not fight against the meaning of the words in some way (Reggae music for Psalm 22, for instance.) Also I believe there to be a hierarchy of musical styles, so polyphony is simpler AND more complex than rock and roll, which is perfect for being able to express the Reality which is God.

    As to Gospel, I think that if there is a cultural reason for singing Gospel hymns, I don't have a problem with it. When it becomes "Gospel hymns make me feel better than polyphony" then I'm a little worried we're losing the point.

  8. Perhaps the problem is the ability of a given medium to express subtlety. Traditional icons have a subtlety that the cartoony modern stuff doesn't get. Polyphony same vis-a-vis rock.

  9. Although cartoons can be very subtle. Witness Charles Schulz.

  10. I was reminded of Tomie de Paola, whose work I've always found really meaningful:
    Mother and Child

  11. Barbara Nicolosi weighs in.