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April 2014
Vol. XX, No. 2

Sacred Art Points Catholic School Students to Deeper Reality

by Alexandra Theis

For 2,000 years sacred art in the form of paintings, sculpture, and stained glass has brought the truths of the Church to life by providing the faithful with a visual means of deeper devotion and understanding.

This historic emphasis on art is still evident in Catholic school education across the Archdiocese of Anchorage. From a detailed mural replicate of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” that welcomes those entering Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage to the bronze statuary and detailed stained glass in the newly renovated St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Elementary School, sacred imagery fills the hallways and colors the imaginations of hundreds of Catholic school students in Anchorage, Kodiak, and the Mat-Su Valley.

The role of sacred art in education is similar to its purposes through the centuries in churches across Europe and elsewhere, when it served as a means by which countless Christians gained a thorough education of Scripture, Church doctrine, and the lives of the saints.

Speaking at an Anchorage Theology & Brew event in January, local artist and art historian Dr. Laura Walters said sacred art offers the faithful a “bare” and “emotional” connection to the faith through “dramatic scenes that people can really identify with.”

It is in this sense that several local Catholic schools continue to immerse students in the Church’s rich tradition by being patrons, guardians, and devotees of the arts. But sacred art is not merely beautiful to behold. Several area Catholic schools place a high priority on incorporating art seamlessly into the schools’ culture, curriculum, and worship.

Art in schools

On Kodiak Island, St. Mary’s School Principal Brian Cleary noted that children’s natural attraction to art creates an easy connection to the history of sacred art in the church.

“If it is done correctly, they can see the connection between (art) and our faith,” he said, adding that art is essential to his school’s mission to “educate the whole child: body, mind, and spirit.”

Holy Rosary Academy Principal Catherine Neumayr observed that the sensory nature of art can be a powerful tool of formation — both to virtue when approached properly or to vice if misused.

The school recently received a replica of Sassoferrato’s 19th-century painting “Madonna of the Rosary with St. Dominic and St. Catherine.” The ornately framed painting is prominently displayed in the main lobby and reflects the school’s devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Neumayr said her school has decorated nearly every wall with sacred imagery.
“When the art that the children see is harmonious, is truth-telling, and also beautiful in terms of colors and of visual representation, it feeds their souls … in terms of their imagination being engaged, and their ability to ponder and think about something deeper, more important and bigger than themselves,” Neumayr explained. “And that is what we do when we pray — a similar activity.”

She described students’ reactions to art as imaginative soul-work, which allows their spiritual life to grow in proportion to their physical and intellectual advancement. This, Neumayr believes, is complementary to the work of academic education, and it “echoes everything that goes on in theology class and enlivens and brings to life all that they see in the drama of the liturgy.”

Across town, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Anchorage recently commissioned several pieces of sacred art — sculpture, stained glass, and mural wall paintings. The high-quality art is part of the school’s building renovation and reflects a commitment to immersing children in sacred beauty.

Near the front doors of the school, a life-sized bronze statue of Christ with children welcomes those entering the building. Christ’s open arms regularly draw in young children, who often sit on the figure’s lap or touch His outstretched hands.

At Our Lady of the Valley School in Wasilla, students encounter weekly one of the more dramatic sacred sculptures in the state. A larger-than-life, hand-carved crucifix looms large as students attend weekly Mass at the adjacent Sacred Heart Church. There in the sanctuary, the lifelike sculpted and painted wounds adorn the bodily form of Christ hanging overhead.

In an interview with the Catholic Anchor, Walters said that this kind of sacred art has long been a tool for assisting the faithful “in understanding that which defies understanding, but also as a very clear expression of faith for the artist and patron.”

***

Alexandra Theis writes for the Catholic Anchor (catholicanchor.org), the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska. This story is reprinted here with permission of the editor, Joel Davidson.

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