The Function of Art

Author: Pope Pius XII


Pope Pius XII

An address by His Holiness to a group of Italian artists received in audience on April 8, 1952.

1. With deep satisfaction, beloved sons and daughters, promoters of the figurative arts, We welcome your devout homage and that of your families, by reason of your coming to Us on the occasion of the sixth Roman quadrennial meeting, and We express to you Our pleasure for the remembrance-gift which you are leaving with Us.

2. How delightful your presence is to Us is shown by the tradition itself of the Roman pontificate. As the heir of universal culture it has never ceased to appreciate art, to surround itself with works of art, to make art, within due limits, the collaborator of its divine mission, preserving and elevating its destiny, which is to guide the soul to God.

3. Upon crossing the threshold of this house of the common Father, you felt as though you were in your own world, perceiving yourselves and your ideals in the masterpieces gathered here throughout the centuries. Nothing is lacking therefore to make this meeting mutually delightful between the Successor, though unworthy, of those Pontiffs who shone as generous patrons of the arts, and you who continue the Italian artistic tradition.

4. It is needless to explain to you—who feel it within yourselves, often as a noble torment—one of the essential characteristics of art, which consists in a certain intrinsic 'affinity' of art with religion, which in certain ways renders artists interpreters of the infinite perfections of God, and particularly of the beauty and harmony of God's creation.

5. The function of all art lies in fact in breaking through the narrow and tortuous enclosure of the finite, in which man is immerged while living here below, and in providing a window to the infinite for his hungry soul.

6. Thus it follows that any effort—and it would be a vain one, indeed—aimed at denying or suppressing any relation between art and religion must impair art itself. Whatever artistic beauty one may wish to grasp in the world, in nature and in man, in order to express it in sound, in color, or in plays for the masses, such beauty cannot prescind from God. Whatever exists is bound to Him by an essential relationship. Hence, there is not, neither in life nor in art—be it intended as an expression of the subject or as an interpretation of the object—the exclusively "human," the exclusively "natural" or "immanent."

7. The greater the clarity with which art mirrors the infinite, the divine, the greater will be its possibility for success in striving toward its ideal and true, artistic accomplishment. Thus, the more an artist lives religion, the better prepared he will be to speak the language of art, to understand its harmonies, to communicate its emotions.

8. Naturally, We are far from thinking that in order to be interpreters of God in the sense just mentioned, artists must treat explicitly religious subjects. On the other hand, one cannot question the fact that never, perhaps, has art reached its highest peaks as it has in these subjects.

9. In this manner, the great masters of Christian arts became interpreters, not only of the beauty but also of the goodness of God, the Revealer and Redeemer. Marvelous exchange of services between Christianity and art! From their Faith they drew sublime inspirations. They drew hearts to the Faith when for continuous centuries they communicated and spread the truths contained in the Holy Scriptures, truths inaccessible, at least directly, to the humble people.

10. In truth, artistic masterpieces were known as the "Bible of the people," to mention such noted examples as the windows of Chartres, the door of Ghiberti (by happy expression known as the Door of Paradise), the Roman and Ravenna mosaics and the facade of the Cathedral of Orvieto. These and other masterpieces not only translate into easy reading and universal language the Christian truths, they also communicate the intimate sense and emotion of these truths with an effectiveness, lyricism and ardor that, perhaps, is not contained in even the most fervent preaching.

11. Souls ennobled, elevated and prepared by art, are thus better disposed to receive the religious truths and the grace of Jesus Christ. This is one of the reasons why the Sovereign Pontiffs, and the Church in general, honored and continue to honor art and to offer its works as a tribute of human beings to God's Majesty in His churches, which have always been abodes of art and religion at the same time.

12. Beloved children, crown your artistic ideals with those of religion, which revitalize and integrate them. The artist is of himself a privileged person among men, but the Christian artist is, in a certain sense, a chosen one, because it is proper to those chosen to contemplate, to enjoy and to express God's perfections.

13. Seek God here below in nature and in man, but above all within yourselves. Do not vainly try to give the human without the divine, nor nature without its Creator. Harmonize instead the finite with the infinite, the temporal with the eternal, man with God, and thus you will give the truth of art and the true art.

14. Even without making it a specific aim, endeavor to educate men's hearts—so easily inclined toward materialism—toward kindness and a spiritual feeling; you to whom it is given to speak a language which all peoples can understand. Strive to bring men closer to one another. May the artist's vocation, for which you are indebted to God, lead you to this mission: a mission so noble and worthy that it is sufficient in itself to give to your daily life—often harsh and arduous—its fullness and a courageous faith.

15 In order that these Our wishes may be fulfilled and God glorified in your art, We invoke upon you and your families an abundance of heavenly favors and may the Apostolic Blessing which We impart upon you from the fullness of Our heart be a promise of them.