The Church Protects Art from Neo-Manichaeism – “The New Iconographic Heresy”

Catolicismo, Nº 58 – October 1955 (*)


Celso Cardinal Costantini (1876-1958), who says some modern artists put the “mud of their Satanic heresy on adorable images of Christ, the Virgin and Saints”

In February 1954, His Excellency Celso Cardinal Costantini published an article on modern art titled, “Lord, I Loved the Beauty of Thy House,” which had great impact in artistic and religious circles worldwide.

That impact was due above all to the prelate’s great authority on artistic matters, especially sacred art.

His article is outstanding in its balance and lucidity, and for the sheer timeliness of its content.

Finally, it was carried by a very prestigious magazine, Fede e Arte, published by the Central Papal Commission for Religious Works of Art in Italy and directed by the Most Rev. Giovanni Costantini, titular archbishop of Colosse and president of the same Commission.

While the latter is headquartered at the Palace of the Apostolic Chancery, the magazine is printed at Tipografia Poliglota Vaticana.

Earlier, the illustrious prince of the Church had written about the Instruction of the Holy Office for Sacred Art of June 30, 1952 (reproduced in Catolicismo, no. 21, September 1952). His comments drew the attention of theologians and specialists and were widely published in the press. Catolicismo recently carried two of these articles.

However, it seems to us that His Eminence’s article published in May in the same magazine, Fede e Arte, is drawing even greater attention. It is a grand and extremely rich work abundantly illustrated and documented, which takes up all the magazine’s 31 pages. We would like to publish it in its integrity. But since the nature and size of our journal do not allow it, we want at least to give our readers an overview of this monumental work and make known some excerpts more opportune for Brazil.

*    *    *

“The New Iconographic Heresy”

The magazine, Fede e Arte, did a summary of the article “The New Iconographic Heresy,” which follows:

“The eminent author documents the iconographic horrors of a certain so-called modern art that they want to impose at all costs even though the Magisterium of the Church always has categorically opposed it. In his Motu Proprio, Tra le Sollecitudine, of November 23, 1903, St. Pius X wrote:

‘Nothing should have place, therefore, in the temple calculated to disturb or even merely to diminish the piety and devotion of the faithful, nothing that may give reasonable cause for disgust or scandal, nothing, above all, which directly offends the decorum and sanctity of the sacred functions and is thus unworthy of the House of Prayer and of the Majesty of God.’

“Now then, instead of elevating themselves to God, the source of goodness and beauty, to cast from those heights a luminous ray of beauty and virtue upon creatures, some artists deprave nature, and particularly the human image, making it vile and odious; even worse, these new Manicheans throw the mud of their Satanic heresy on the adorable images of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints.

“Many artists probably act without a conscious knowledge of the Manichean heresy, but in fact they are enmeshed in its net. It is therefore necessary – the prince of the Church insists – that the thesis of ugliness be defeated, that liturgical iconography be respected, that the function and character of sacred art be known and obeyed everywhere, and that scandals in this matter be avoided by curtailing the influence exerted upon artists by certain critics moved by blasphemous or commercial ends.

“The article presents with irrefutable proofs a precise analysis of the causes of this leprous epidemic of modern art, and invites artists not to employ a ridiculously archaic, infantile or barbarous language; indeed, one can be a son of his time while using a lively, fresh, correct and above all comprehensible language. Only thus will the storm which has disturbed and submerged the principles of art fade; and the Church, heir to a universal culture, will not cease to appreciate true art, helping artists and orienting them toward the beauty and harmony of God.”[1]




An Aspect of Paramount Importance

Before reproducing some of the more vibrant passages of the article, we should emphasize that its eminent author guarded it from any note of systematic or indiscriminate hostility against contemporary art.

Instead of opposing everything contemporary because it is contemporary, Cardinal Costantini consistently affirms that authentic artists do exist, even today; he merely laments that they are kept on the sidelines whereas false art is raised to a pedestal of glory.

He shows how the Church has no prejudice or bias against any epoch. On the contrary, she opens her arms and heart far and wide to receive the fruits of the talent of Catholic artists of all times and from all peoples and places.

To do that, she places only one condition: that they are truly Catholic and real artists. What she cannot accept is to support works that are neither Catholic nor artistic as if they were Catholic works of art and genuine expressions of the Christian spirit.

In the Brazilian ambience there is not the least danger that public opinion will allow itself to be carried away by systematic hostility toward all things modern. Our fault lies precisely in the opposite extreme.

We are always moved by a tendency to naively adore all things modern merely because they are modern. We have been affected by this evil for much longer than a hundred years now. Historians say that one of the factors that precipitated the fall of King Pedro I was the news that the French had just overthrown King Charles X.

If at the fulcrum of modernity they overthrew a King, we could not be outdone and thus had to overthrow an Emperor. From then on, our political, social and economic institutions, ideas, tastes, habits and everything have been affected by this real spell of modernity.

One could almost say that at least from 1822 to this day, no good or bad transformation took place in Brazil without being inspired, to a certain degree, by the great argument: “we need to change to become more modern.”

As a result, a people as intelligent as ours, endowed with a robust sense of the ridiculous and keen to appreciate all things harmonious, are gradually led to accept and become used to the brutal, cacophonic and monstrous manifestations of so-called modern art. Thus, we believe it is high time to open the eyes of our people to its true meaning.

Accordingly, we will translate below some excerpts of the article by His Eminence Cardinal Costantini.

Horresco referens

That is how the article is titled. In its introduction, the author says:

“It pains me to deface your magazine’s serene and limpid pages by reproducing, if only in part and summarily, the iconographic horrors of a purportedly modernist art. But it is necessary to document aspects of this most recent iconographic heresy so that no one can say that I speak quasi aerem verberans [not as one beating the air] (1Cor. 9:26). I dealt with this matter in fascicle II of Fede e Arte of February 1954 under the title, “Lord, I Loved the Beauty of Thy House.” But just as the ancient heresies were obstinately recalcitrant, the deformation of sacred images continuous to grow with a furor.

“That is why it appears necessary and even urgent for us to take up the whip with which Jesus Christ Our Lord cast out the profaners from the Temple.”

Negation of the divinity of Christ

This is how the article defines the “newest heresy”:

“Considered only from its objective aspect (for the subjective one belongs in the realm of morals), heresy is defined as follows: A doctrine that directly opposes a truth revealed by God and proposed as such by the Church to the faithful. This definition reveals the two essential notes of heresy: a) opposition to a revealed truth: b) opposition to a definition of the Ecclesiastical Magisterium (Parente, Piolanti, Garofalo: Dizionario di Teologia Dommatica, Studium, p. 86).

“Attacks by Leo Isauricus and other Byzantine emperors against veneration of sacred images were called the iconoclastic heresy, which became famous in Church history.

“While today veneration of sacred images is not denied in theory, from a certain standpoint they do something worse through the figurative heresy by denying the divinity of Christ and of his Church.”

Communism, Free Masonry and the New Heresy

On this important aspect of the matter, the illustrious prelate affirms:

“Some religious and many artists certainly are in good faith and it is well to enlighten them by dissipating the fetishism of modernity. But some artists, affiliated with parties atheistic or inimical to Religion, have developed a subtle and perfidious offensive against Religion, in parallel with the one carried out by a certain media, by making sacred iconography, and therefore Christian worship, despicable and repugnant. The blasphemous cartoons disseminated in Russia and China are notorious in this regard.

“We well know that, according to the theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin etc. religion is an unscientific superstition, the opiate of the people, and must be combated as such by every means in order to establish a people’s dictatorship. To these paladins of materialism, art is also linked to class struggle; and so-called bourgeois art must participate in this struggle, particularly against sacred art. It appears that Communist art is affirmed where the crumbling of bourgeois art, and particularly of Christian art, begins.

“Sculptor P. Canonica told me: God gave artists the gift of understanding and reproducing beauty. Now, instead, they are deforming the beauty created by God. We are in the presence of the anti -Christ, who drags so many artists, consciously or not, to dishonor Church art. There is also instigation by Masonry. We need to react untiringly against the work of the anti-Christ entering into churches and hiding behind sacred vestments to deceive the faithful. This is not only a question of art but of defending Religion, and Priests ought to be concerned about it.

“Yes, we have the right and duty to react, supporting ourselves on the Magisterium of the Church. Forgive me if I insist on some principles and documents quoted in the article in the February 1954 issue of Fede e Arte.”

The New Heresy and Manichaeism

His Eminence emphasizes that the aberrations of modern art resurrect Manichaeism:

“Art is also returning to the Manichean heresy, which manifested itself in the 2nd century after Jesus Christ and thrived in the sect of the Cathars in the 12th century. It is known that Manichaeism preached dualism between matter and spirit, light and darkness, good and evil, God and Satan.

“Now then, instead of soaring up to God, the source of good and beauty, to make a ray from Him reflect upon creatures, some artists deform nature, and particularly the human person, making it abject and odious; even worse, these new Manicheans hurl the mud of their Satanic heresy on the adorable images of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints.

“Many artists probably act unawares of the Manichaean heresy. But in fact they are caught in the net of this heresy. What the Manicheans used to preach in word and writing, these latecomers do through a horrible catechism of images. Quae autem conventio Christi ad Belial? (2 Cor. 6:14). Certain diabolical masks call to mind what Minutius Felix wrote roughly a century after Christ: The devils, impure spirits, hide behind consecrated images and through their emanations produce the impression that an evil divinity is present (Octavius XVII).

“Dear artists, it is high time for you to wake up. Let [men] Religious, who know theology and Manichaeism well, be on the alert against the spread of a heresy condemned by the Church and particularly by Innocence III. If many artists can be forgiven by ignorance, this is hardly the case with Religious who sponsor the renaissance of Manichaeism in art. In the profession of faith one reads: Firmiter assero imagines Christi ac Dei parae semper Virginis aliorumque Sanctorum habendas et retinendas esse atque eis debitum honorem ac venerationem impertiendam.” [I most firmly assert that images of Christ and of the Virgin Mother of God, as well as of all other Saints, ought to be made and maintained in such a way as to be given due honor and veneration.][2]

The Authority of the Church

The article goes on to mention decisions by the Council of Trent, the Instruction of Urban VIII, articles from the Code of Canon Law, texts by St. Pius X, Pope Pius XI, and Pius XII, gloriously reigning, and on the Instruction of the Holy Office of June 30, 1952 to affirm that the Church is entitled to make pronouncements on this matter. And he concludes:

“It was again necessary to call people’s attention to these clear and stern warnings, because there are attempts to ignore, distort or diminish the value of the Ecclesiastical Magisterium also on the part of Christian Religious and artists. As for the rest, nil sub sole novi: [nothing new under the sun] the present iconographic heresy has extremely remote precedents that bring to light the linear thinking of the Church and her decisive victories. This is what we will see in the next chapter.”

Ancient Iconographic Heresies

The eminent writer then recalls ancient iconographic heresies recorded in ecclesiastical history. After referring to the hesitations of some faithful in the early Church regarding the veneration of images, he mentions the Monophysite heresy, opposed to representations of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He also refers to anti-Christian caricatures of the first century and shows how the Church finally prevailed in regards to the veneration of sacred images.

The article then presents interesting historic notes on the iconography of Our Lord Jesus Christ and gives the history of the iconographic heresy of the Emperors of Byzantium, as well as the iconographic heresy of the Protestants.

The Role and Characteristics of Sacred Art

On the “role and characteristics of sacred art” Cardinal Costantini quotes an excerpt from the allocution of Holy Father Pius XII of April 8, 1952 to the artists of the Roman Quadrennial. It is so profound, rich and enlightening that we cannot pass up the pleasure of transcribing it here:

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.’

“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.

“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.

“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.





“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. 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.

“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. 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.

“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.”[3]




All Art Has a Religious Meaning

The article complements this quotation with a likewise elevated excerpt from a speech by the Holy Father Pius XII of April 20, 1955 at the inauguration of an exposition of works by Fra Angelico at the Vatican:

“It is true that no explicitly ethic or religious mission is required of art for it to be art. When art, the aesthetic language of the human mind, mirrors the latter in its whole truth or at least does not positively deform it, art as such is already sacred and religious as an interpreter of God’s work; but if its contents and goal are those that Angelico chose for his own art, then it assumes the dignity of a quasi minister of God by reflecting a greater number of His perfections. We wanted to comment here on this lofty capacity of art before the pleiad of artists whom We love so much. For if, on the contrary, artistic language was shaped in words and rhythms according to false, empty and murky spirits opposed to the designs of the Creator; if, instead of elevating minds and hearts to noble sentiments it were to excite most vulgar passions, perhaps it would be welcomed and appreciated by some, even if only for the sake of novelty, which is not always a value, and of the scarce substance of reality that every language contains; but such an art would degrade itself by denying its primordial and essential aspect and would not be as universal and perennial as the human spirit, that it addresses.

“Therefore, on paying homage to that consummate artist, and on inviting Our beloved children to welcome the religious message of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole as disposed by divine Providence, Our thought cannot eschew an anxious consideration about the present world in which we live, so different from the one described in these admirable paintings, in which one finds the highest and truest aspirations of man sealed with most delicate art.

“Let U, thus fervently wish, that the breeze of Christian goodness, serenity and harmony of life that flows from the work of the Angelico may penetrate the hearts of all.” [4]

Catholic Art by Non-Catholic Artists

Is it possible for non-Catholic artists to generate Catholic art? This problem has been very much discussed. The illustrious prelate writes:

Animalis homo —Saint Paul said — non percipit ea quae sunt spiritus (1Cor. 15:44). Thus, one cannot read without great pain what L. Montano writes in the Corriere d’informazione (alias Corriere della Sera) of February 21-22, 1955: The most famous modern church was built by a man who did not believe in God.

Last year, Fray Couturier, also a deceased Dominican who fervently fought against decadence in religious art, maintained that minor artists can suffice for the needs of the Church in places where tradition is still alive; on the contrary, in order to resurrect tradition where it is already dead it is better to resort to a genius without faith than to a mediocre artist with faith. This priest is said to have been the one who encouraged Matisse to build the Rosary chapel: it is the translation, into action, of that proposal of his…

Indeed, Matisse was absolutely not a believer and insisted in showing that his offer in no way meant any change in his convictions, which he kept until the end. He showed up neither for the inauguration or the consecration of his work.

“I want to hope that the light of truth illuminated the painter’s mind at the last minute and that his soul turned to God’s infinite mercy. That said I have all possible reservations about the chapel and mentality of the author, of which I will speak at greater length in the next chapter.

“I do not deny that non believers can understand the fascination of the religious idea; but they will forever remain simply technical and exterior interpreters devoid of that note and fire that only feeling and sincerity can give. They are like someone who listens to the music of a song but does not understand the lyrics.

“Christian art is first of all the art of thinking; non-believers can possess the knack of it to an admirable degree but are inherently incapable of expressing the thinking of the Church with sincerity. Knowing vocabulary is not enough to write an eloquent page; it is necessary to have the thought and intimate fire that sparks eloquence.

“When it comes to art, there often occurs the strange episode of the pagan diviner Balaam, called by King Moab to curse Israel, who was obliged instead to bless it three times.

“In the story of Balaam, the Bible also tells about a donkey that spoke (Num. 22:23).”

Purify Sacred Art from Commercial Influences

The egregious author continues:

“I agree with Fr. Regamey and L. Venturi about some general principles – not about all. They want a resurgence of sacred art; that churches be rid of industrial junk; and that a more conscientious and cordial understanding and collaboration between artists and clergy be attained. All right, we all want that. But allow me to recall that at the end of 1913 I founded the magazine, Arte Cristiana (today published by Milan’s Beato Angelico School) and the Society of Friends of Christian Art precisely to enhance the beauty of art and worship and to improve contacts between clergy and artists, as well as establish a better communion between pastor and faithful. But now I am not considering good and laudable intentions but the present exploits and experiments with sacred art, which cannot in any way convince me, as they are absolutely unfit to attain their end.

“That extremely high end was consecrated by a history almost two thousand years old and was admirably well defined in the speeches of Holy Father Pius XII quoted above.

“Referring to the early centuries, H. Leclerq writes: If in the course of three centuries of struggle, miseries and persecutions Christianity took so much care to adorn and decorate people’s tombs, this proves that being mindful of beauty is part of its essence; it demonstrates that the alliance between Christianity and art is not only legitimate but natural, intimate, almost necessary” (H. Leclerq, Dictionnaire d’Archicteture Chrétienne et de Liturgie: Images).

“It is also a joy to recall that in the year 1642, after the Council of Trent, Urban VIII wrote the well-known letter on the ends of sacred art: That which is presented to the faithful must not appear disorderly or odd but must contribute to rekindle devotion and piety: quae oculis fidelium subiiciuntur non inordinata, nec insolita appareant, sed devotionem pariant et pietatem.”

A ‘Christ’ with Gorilla Face

His Eminence concludes:

“Art, and especially sacred art, must reflect the light of God and not the darkness of the devil; a ray of beauty that God, speciei generator (Wis. 13:3), spread in the universe and especially in man, made to His image (imaginem Dei circunferimus, said St. Clement of Alexandria) — not the sacrilegious attacks of those who mutaverunt gloriam incorruptibilis Dei, in similitudinem imaginis corruptibilis homnis, et volucrum, et serpentium (Rom.1:23).

“A gentleman writes me, indignant for having seen, in an exposition of modern sacred art, a Christ depicted with the head of a gorilla…

“As for the rest, it seems that Fr. Regamey himself, in practice, has remained faithful to the good tradition. Indeed, his book, Les plus beaux textes sur la Vierge Marie, is illustrated with reproductions from works of our great masters.”

Religious Architecture

After pointing out with reservations that in its fundamental elements profane architecture has seen a rather positive evolution of late, the article shows that the requirements of religious architecture are greater:

“Ecclesiastical architecture requires something more than the merely hedonistic functionality of life. A church is the mysterious dwelling of God, the refuge of souls; as in the cathedrals of old, its architectural structure, light and shadows must envelop the individual faithful with a suggestion of mystery that elevates him to God: ascensiones in corde suo disposuit (Ps. 83:6).

“The Church is not a machine for praying as Le Corbusier believes. It is a bridge between the infinite and the finite; it is the mystic ship that embarks men on the margins of the temple to deliver them at their destination in eternity.

“We accept, for churches, neither the ‘serial’-type effect of modern homes nor the nudity of Protestant halls. Everything in the Church is alive and functional: liturgical drama, oratory, chant, figurative art and ornamental decorum.

“The Holy Office Instruction on Sacred Art clearly says: Even when it takes on new forms, sacred architecture must always fulfill its end, which is to build the house of God, house of prayer, that can never be mistaken for a profane building.

Let it be mindful, therefore, of the comfort of the faithful by making it easy for them to follow unfolding sacred ceremonies with their minds and eyes; let it be also mindful of the beauty of the building’s lines and refrain from straying from simplicity to take pleasure in empty artifices; and above all, let it strive to avoid anything that could show negligence in making that work of art.

Regarding Brazil

His Eminence then makes a timely reference to Brazil:

“Unfortunately, there are engineers and architects that ignore the Instruction of the Holy Office by inserting and developing in church architecture the most arbitrary building extravagances, making churches appear like warehouses for exhibiting industrial samples, beach shelters of anything but a church.

“I have just received issue no. 33 of the magazine, Arquitetura e Engenharia do Brasil, which contains extravagant plans for several churches. An indignant architect writes me: Ever since a low level materialism has invaded the field of art in this country, and especially architecture, I have been waging a struggle without quarter against so-called ‘modern art’, this existentialist manifestation in plastic arts which, helped by a powerful international organization is causing enormous harm to the artistic formation of youths all over the world.”

The Right of the Hierarchy

The article concludes,

“The Instruction of the Holy Office opportunely recalls that, according to canon 1162 of the Code of Canon Law one cannot erect a church without written permission from the Ordinary. The Instruction is addressed precisely to the bishops, who have the right and duty to impose their own judgment also regarding churches entrusted to [men and women] Religious, when open to the public.”

In the next issue we will conclude this overall view of this most important work by His Eminence Cardinal Celso Costantini.

(*) From American Needs Fatima.


[2] Our translation.


[4] Our translation.