Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Xiong Wei/Shutterstock.com)

When movie directors want us to know that a church is Catholic, what do they show?

Art.

The camera scans a row of stained-glass windows depicting the saints — then comes to rest on a statue of the Blessed Virgin crushing the head of a serpent. Hanging over the altar is a crucifix. Painted on the walls nearby are scenes from the life of Christ.

People associate Catholicism with such images. Indeed it’s impossible for us to imagine the Catholic faith apart from its artwork. Art has been integral to Christian devotional life since the Church’s earliest days.

And the Church has given Western Civilization its artistic heritage. If you ask ordinary people to list their favorite works of art, they’re likely to mention works that have Christian themes. They’ll mention Michelangelo’s “David” or Leonardo’s “Last Supper.” If they prefer modern art, they might mention Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross.” If they favor ancient art, they’ll bring up the “Book of Kells.” If they like to let their imagination run wild, they’ll go for the apocalyptic scenes of Hieronymus Bosch.

Few (if anyone outside academia) will include the blasphemous works that have received attention in recent decades — like Chris Ofili’s “Dung Madonna” or Andres Serrano’s more egregiously offensive images. Yet even those works are notable only because they make reference to the Catholic tradition of sacred art.

The tradition runs deep. Walk the corridors of the Roman Catacombs, and you’ll see its beginnings. The walls everywhere bear traces of fresco paintings. Some show biblical scenes. Some portray the martyrdom of saints. Others are allegorical and more difficult to decipher. Even the graffiti, scratched in stone and plaster, bears witness to the iconic value of simple symbols — loaves, fish, grapes, dove, anchor, cross, star.

Christianity makes art. It’s not required by Scripture or canon law. Art is something that happens spontaneously in a healthy society. Cult inevitably makes culture. And the western culture we know is dependent on its Christian roots.

The Church has been the source and place of great artworks for millennia. We’ve already considered Michelangelo and Leonardo, both of whom were believing Catholics. Add to those the names of Giotto, Duccio, Cimabue, Raphael, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Poussin, Millet, Cezanne, Rouault. Nor is this simply a matter of long-ago history. David Jones, widely considered to be the greatest watercolorist of the 20th century, was a convert to the faith, as was the sculptor Frederick Hart. Andy Warhol was a cradle Catholic of the Byzantine Rite, who accompanied his elderly mother to Mass and volunteered at a Catholic soup kitchen.

From these names it’s clear that there is no uniform “Catholic style” or consistent content in the works produced by believing artists. Artists make art. The Church makes Christians, some of whom are artists.

The Church, however, can and does directly affect the creation and production of art. How?

The Church commissions art. When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he did so as an employee of the pope. So many of the great artworks of the last millennium reside not in museums, but rather in churches — because that was their original purpose.

The Church inspires art. Year after year in the liturgy, the Church tells the story of salvation — the story of mankind, the story of Israel, the story of Jesus and the stories of the saints. These stories make up so much of the imagination we hold in common. And this is true even for non-Christian artists. The painter Marc Chagall, a Jew, often included Christian themes (especially the crucifixion) in his scenes.

The Church directly produces art. This is true simply because many artists are Catholic. The Church is not merely or primarily an institution. It is a people. Catholic artists are the Church just as any other baptized person is the Church.

In the Church art is appreciated, and artists produce works that delight, not just for a moment, but for ages.

We are a religion of many words — in Scripture and liturgy and literature — but words are far more effective when accompanied by pictures. For the sake of our salvation, the Eternal Word himself became visible and dwelt among us. Thus the Christian artist imitates God’s way of teaching.

One of the giants of the early Church, St. Basil the Great, wrote: “Both painters of words and painters of pictures illustrate valor in battle; the former by the art of rhetoric; the latter by clever use of the brush, and both encourage everyone to be brave. A spoken account edifies the ear, while a silent picture induces imitation.”

Catholicism is inseparable from its visual imagery. Catholics know this and relish it. Non-Catholics know it and define us by it. The enemies of the faith know it too; and when they seek to destroy Christian culture or morals or traditions, they often begin with art. Such movements are often called iconoclastic, from the Greek word that means “picture-smashing.” Iconoclasts emerged in the seventh century with the rise of Islam. They rose up again with the Protestant Reformation. In both cases, churches were desecrated and irreplaceable artworks defaced or destroyed.

It’s quite possible that we’re now witnessing the beginning of another iconoclastic moment in history. Quite close to home, vandals have damaged images of St. Junípero Serra, and legislators have tried to secure the removal of his statues from public places.

In Father Serra’s homeland, in mid-August, police foiled a terrorist plot to bomb the cathedral in Barcelona. Why? Because it is a great symbol of Christianity and a monument of the tradition of Western art. Known to the world as Sagrada Família, the basilica, still unfinished after more than a century of construction, is the masterpiece of architect Antoni Gaudí.

Not all iconoclasts are criminals. Some wear suits and command respect by our nation’s elites. They claim that their ends are noble, and the destruction of offensive art is a necessary means to those noble ends. But, as the British poet Niall Gooch recently observed: “Iconoclasm is an easy demon to summon and a hard one to banish.”

Art is a great part of our Catholic patrimony. It’s our duty, as heirs, to protect what we’ve received, to use it well and to pass it on to the next generation. It’s our duty also to make sure that we’re imitating our ancestors, not just by revering their art, or by slavishly copying it, but rather by producing new works to inspire and evangelize our contemporaries. 

Mike Aquilina is the author of many books, including “Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols.”