"God saw all that He had made, and it was very good" (Gn 1:31)
The artist, image of God the Creator
can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that
you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of
creation looked upon the work of His hands. A glimmer of that feeling has
shone so often in your eyes when -- like the artists of every age --
captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colors and shapes, you
have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the
mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has
wished in some way to associate you.
That is why it seems to me that there are no better words than the text of
Genesis with which to begin my Letter to you, to whom I feel closely
linked by experiences reaching far back in time and which have indelibly
marked my life. In writing this Letter, I intend to follow the path of the
fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists which has gone on
unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the
threshold of the Third Millennium, offers rich promise for the future.
fact, this dialogue is not dictated merely by historical accident or
practical need, but is rooted in the very essence of both religious
experience and artistic creativity. The opening page of the Bible presents
God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human
craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator. This relationship is
particularly clear in the Polish language because of the lexical link
between the words stwórca (creator) and twórca (craftsman).
What is the difference between "creator" and "craftsman"? The one who
creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing ex
nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it and this, in the strict
sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The
craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he
gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as
made in the image of God. In fact, after saying that God created man and
woman "in His image" (cf. Gn 1:27), the Bible adds that He entrusted to
them the task of dominating the earth (cf. Gn 1:28). This was the last day
of creation (cf. Gn 1:28-31). On the previous days, marking as it were the
rhythm of the birth of the cosmos, YHVH had created the universe. Finally
He created the human being, the noblest fruit of His design, to whom He
subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness
might assert itself.
therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman's
task. Through his "artistic creativity" man appears more than ever "in the
image of God", and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the
wondrous "material" of his own humanity and then exercising creative
dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the
divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing
wisdom, calling him to share in His creative power. Obviously, this is a
sharing which leaves intact the infinite distance between the Creator and
the creature, as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa made clear: "Creative art,
which it is the soul's good fortune to entertain, is not to be identified
with that essential art which is God Himself, but is only a communication
of it and a share in it".1
That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their "gift", are led
all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to
contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is
the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their
vocation and their mission.
Art and the mystery of the Word made flesh
Law of the Old Testament explicitly forbids representation of the
invisible and ineffable God by means of "graven or molten image" (Dt
27:15), because God transcends every material representation: "I am who I
am" (Ex 3:14). Yet in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God
becomes visible in person: "When the fullness of time had come, God sent
forth His Son born of woman" (Gal 4:4). God became man in Jesus Christ,
who thus becomes "the central point of reference for an understanding of
the enigma of human existence, the created world and God himself".6
This prime epiphany of "God who is Mystery" is both an encouragement and a
challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it
has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the
mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced
into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good,
and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the
Gospel message is filled to the brim.
Sacred Scripture has thus become a sort of "immense vocabulary" (Paul
Claudel) and "iconographic atlas" (Marc Chagall), from which both
Christian culture and art have drawn. The Old Testament, read in the light
of the New, has provided endless streams of inspiration. From the stories
of the Creation and sin, the Flood, the cycle of the Patriarchs, the
events of the Exodus to so many other episodes and characters in the
history of salvation, the biblical text has fired the imagination of
painters, poets, musicians, playwrights and film-makers. A figure like
Job, to take but one example, with his searing and ever relevant question
of suffering, still arouses an interest which is not just philosophical
but literary and artistic as well. And what should we say of the New
Testament? From the Nativity to Golgotha, from the Transfiguration to the
Resurrection, from the miracles to the teachings of Christ, and on to the
events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles or foreseen by the Apocalypse
in an eschatological key, on countless occasions the biblical word has
become image, music and poetry, evoking the mystery of "the Word made
flesh" in the language of art.
the history of human culture, all of this is a rich chapter of faith and
beauty. Believers above all have gained from it in their experience of
prayer and Christian living. Indeed for many of them, in times when few
could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of
catechesis.7 But for everyone, believers or not, the works of art inspired
by Scripture remain a reflection of the unfathomable mystery which engulfs
and inhabits the world.
A fruitful alliance between the Gospel and art
Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and,
reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden
mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul,
where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the
fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. All
artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of
their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of
the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage
to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more
than a glimmer of the splendor which flared for a moment before the eyes
of their spirit.
Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a
momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring
in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit
overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply? True artists
above all are ready to acknowledge their limits and to make their own the
words of the Apostle Paul, according to whom "God does not dwell in
shrines made by human hands" so that "we ought not to think that the Deity
is like gold or silver or stone, a representation by human art and
imagination" (Acts 17:24, 29). If the intimate reality of things is always
"beyond" the powers of human perception, how much more so is God in the
depths of his unfathomable mystery!
knowledge conferred by faith is of a different kind: it presupposes a
personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Yet this knowledge too can be
enriched by artistic intuition. An eloquent example of aesthetic
contemplation sublimated in faith are, for example, the works of Fra
Angelico. No less notable in this regard is the ecstatic lauda, which
Saint Francis of Assisi
twice repeats in the chartula which he composed after receiving the
stigmata of Christ on the mountain of La Verna: "You are beauty.... You
are beauty!".8 Saint Bonaventure comments: "In things of beauty, he
contemplated the One who is supremely beautiful, and, led by the
footprints he found in creatures, he followed the Beloved everywhere".9
corresponding approach is found in Eastern spirituality where Christ is
described as "the supremely Beautiful, possessed of a beauty above all the
children of earth".10 Macarius the Great speaks of the transfiguring and
liberating beauty of the Risen Lord in these terms: "The soul which has
been fully illumined by the unspeakable beauty of the glory shining on the
countenance of Christ overflows with the Holy Spirit ... it is all eye,
all light, all countenance".11
Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of
man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm
of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why
the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the
interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every
"epiphany" of the inner beauty of things.
[Here the Holy Father traces the history of the fruitful collaboration
between Christianity and the various arts.]
Toward a renewed dialogue
is true nevertheless that, in the modern era, alongside this Christian
humanism which has continued to produce important works of culture and
art, another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by
opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself. Such an atmosphere has
sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith,
at least in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in
know, however, that the Church has not ceased to nurture great
appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically
religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of
faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far
apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as
it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the
everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when
they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects
of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for
is clear, therefore, why the Church is especially concerned for the
dialogue with art and is keen that in our own time there be a new alliance
with artists, as called for by my revered predecessor Paul VI in his
vibrant speech to artists during a special meeting he had with them in the
Sistine Chapel on May 7, 1964.17 From such cooperation the Church hopes
for a renewed "epiphany" of beauty in our time and apt responses to the
particular needs of the Christian community.
In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council
The Second Vatican Council laid the foundation for a renewed relationship
between the Church and culture, with immediate implications for the world
of art. This is a relationship offered in friendship, openness and
dialogue. In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Fathers
of the Council stressed "the great importance" of literature and the arts
in human life: "They seek to probe the true nature of man, his problems
and experiences, as he strives to know and perfect himself and the world,
to discover his place in history and the universe, to portray his miseries
and joys, his needs and strengths, with a view to a better future".18
this basis, at the end of the Council the Fathers addressed a greeting and
an appeal to artists: "This world", they said, "in which we live needs
beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy
to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of
time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in
admiration!".19 In this spirit of profound respect for beauty, the
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
recalled the historic friendliness of the Church toward art and, referring
more specifically to sacred art, the "summit" of religious art, did not
hesitate to consider artists as having "a noble ministry" when their works
reflect in some way the infinite beauty of God and raise people's minds to
Him.20 Thanks also to the help of artists "the knowledge of God can be
better revealed and the preaching of the Gospel can become clearer to the
human mind".21 In this light, it comes as no surprise when Father Marie
Dominique Chenu claims that the work of the historian of theology would be
incomplete if he failed to give due attention to works of art, both
literary and figurative, which are in their own way "not only aesthetic
representations, but genuine 'sources' of theology".22
The Church needs art
order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church
needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive,
the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore
translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has
a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate
it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who
look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its
transcendent value and its aura of mystery.
Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and
figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their
symbolic force. Christ Himself made extensive use of images in His
preaching, fully in keeping with His willingness to become, in the
Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.
Church also needs musicians. How many sacred works have been composed
through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of the
mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies
flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the
liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is
experienced as vibrant joy, love, and confident expectation of the saving
intervention of God.
Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian
people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation. After the
terrible destruction of the last World War and the growth of great cities,
a new generation of architects showed themselves adept at responding to
the exigencies of Christian worship, confirming that the religious theme
can still inspire architectural design in our own day. Not infrequently
these architects have constructed churches which are both places of prayer
and true works of art.
Does art need the Church?
The Church therefore needs art. But can it also be said that art needs the
Church? The question may seem like a provocation. Yet, rightly understood,
it is both legitimate and profound. Artists are constantly in search of
the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in
expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a
great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the
soul that is religion? Is it not perhaps within the realm of religion that
the most vital personal questions are posed, and answers both concrete and
definitive are sought?
fact, the religious theme has been among those most frequently treated by
artists in every age. The Church has always appealed to their creative
powers in interpreting the Gospel message and discerning its precise
application in the life of the Christian community. This partnership has
been a source of mutual spiritual enrichment. Ultimately, it has been a
great boon for an understanding of man, of the authentic image and truth
of the person. The special bond between art and Christian revelation has
also become evident. This does not mean that human genius has not found
inspiration in other religious contexts. It is enough to recall the art of
the ancient world, especially Greek and Roman art, or the art which still
flourishes in the very ancient civilizations of the East. It remains true,
however, that because of its central doctrine of the Incarnation of the
Word of God, Christianity offers artists a horizon especially rich in
inspiration. What an impoverishment it would be for art to abandon the
inexhaustible mine of the Gospel!
An appeal to artists
With this Letter, I turn to you, the artists of the world, to assure you
of my esteem and to help consolidate a more constructive partnership
between art and the Church. Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth
of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in
its noblest forms in every age. It is with this in mind that I appeal to
you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of
the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of
communication. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to
remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close
alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you
are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the
mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.
Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ
not only reveals God, but "fully reveals man to man".23 In Christ, God has
reconciled the world to Himself. All believers are called to bear witness
to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to
art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the
world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is
redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, "awaits
impatiently the revelation of the children of God" (Rom 8:19), is
redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also
through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even
today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.
The "Beauty" that saves
16. On the threshold of the Third Millennium, my hope for all of you
who are artists is that you will have an especially intense experience of
creative inspiration. May the beauty which you pass on to generations
still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the
sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the
universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude....
Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be
able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense
it has been said with profound insight that "beauty will save the
Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an
invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the
beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden
nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like
could express in incomparable terms: "Late have I loved you, beauty so old
and so new: late have I loved you!".26
Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that
infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration,
you be guided and inspired by the mystery of the Risen Christ, whom the
Church in these days contemplates with joy.
the Blessed Virgin Mary be with you always: she is the "tota pulchra"
portrayed by countless artists, whom Dante contemplates among the
splendours of Paradise as "beauty that was joy in the eyes of all the
"From chaos there rises the world of the spirit". These words of Adam
Mickiewicz, written at a time of great hardship for his Polish homeland28,
prompt my hope for you: may your art help to affirm that true beauty
which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening
the human soul to the sense of the eternal.
With my heartfelt good wishes!
John Paul II
From the Vatican, April 4, 1999, Easter Sunday.
1. Dialogus de Ludo Globi, lib. II: Philosophisch-Theologische
Schriften, Vienna 1967, III, p. 332.
. . .
6. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (September 14,
1998), 80: AAS 91 (1999), 67.
7. This pedagogical principle was given authoritative formulation by Saint
Gregory the Great in a letter of 599 to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles:
"Painting is employed in churches so that those who cannot read or write
may at least read on the walls what they cannot decipher on the page",
Epistulae, IX, 209: CCL 140A, 1714.
8. Lodi di Dio Altissimo, vv. 7 and 10: Fonti Francescane,
No. 261, Padua 1982, p. 177.
9. Legenda Maior, IX, 1: Fonti Francesane, No. 1162, loc. cit., p. 911.
10. Enkomia of the Orthós of the Holy and Great Saturday.
11. Homily I, 2: PG 34, 451.
. . .
17. Cf. AAS 56 (1964), 438-444.
18. No. 62.
19. Message to Artists, December 8, 1965: AAS 58 (1966), 13.
20. Cf. No. 122.
21. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes,
22. La teologia nel XII secolo, Milan 1992, p.9.
23. Gaudium et Spes, 22.
. . .
25. F. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot, Part III, ch. 5.
26. "Sero te amavi! Pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova, sero te amavi!":
Confessions, 10, 27: CCL 27, 251.
27. Paradiso XXXI, 134-135.
28. Oda do mlodosci, v. 69: Wybór poezji, Wroclaw 1986, vol. 1, p.