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 Instruction of the Church on Sacred Art
Before Vatican II

Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo

To give our readers more criteria to evaluate the consequences of Vatican II in art, today TIA is posting an instruction on Sacred Art dated June 30, 1952, issued by the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office and signed by its Secretary, Card. Joseph Pizzardo. The complete text follows.
In an allocution in September 1950 to the participants of the International Congress of Christian Art, the Holy Father Pius XII, gloriously reigning, affirmed that art - considered “as the source of a new hope” - must concur to make “the reflection of divine beauty and light smile over mankind … helping man to love everything that is true, pure, just and holy.” Now then, the opposite of this is what is sought by a certain art which calls itself modern and which brings its deformations and teratological figures even into the tranquility of the sanctuaries.

Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo

Card. Giuseppe Pizzardo
This is why in the Encyclical Menti Nostrae of September 23, 1950, Pius XII affirmed that “The age in which we live suffers from a general madness: there are philosophical systems that are born and die without improving the customs in any way; monstrosities of a certain art that even pretends to call itself Christian.” And in an article published in L’Osservatore Romano, Fr. Mariano Cordovani, referring to this increasingly disseminated type of art, affirmed his opinion “that the production of this pathological art is manipulated by a heretical propaganda, whose purpose is to render ridiculous the mysteries of the Faith and Church personages.”

Good taste and artistic sense are not the privilege of any one epoch. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” A true work of art enjoys the perpetuity of the things of the spirit. With more reason does this apply to sacred art, which has the purpose of “expressing sincere Faith and piety,” making “the human mind and spirit awaken to the desire for things the eyes do not see through the transparency of nature.” (1)

Instruction to the Ordinaries on Sacred Art

It is Sacred Art’s function and duty, coming from its very name, to contribute to the beauty of the house of God and to nurture the faith and piety of those who gather in the church to attend the divine offices and plead for celestial gifts. For this reason the Church always gave sacred art that same assiduous solicitude and vigilant attention so that it would conform itself completely to her laws, derived from revealed doctrine and an upright asceticism. Thus does it have the right to claim the name “sacred.”

With reason can we apply to it the words of the Sovereign Pontiff Blessed Pius X when he promulgated the prudent norms on sacred music:

“Therefore, nothing must be found in the church that perturbs or even diminishes the piety and devotion of the faithful, nothing that gives reasonable cause for disgust or scandal; nothing, above all, that offends the decorum and sanctity of the sacred functions and is thus unworthy of the house of prayer and majesty of God.” (2)

For this reason, already in the first centuries of the Church, the Second Council of Nicaea, while condemning the heresy of the Iconoclasts, confirmed the cult of sacred statues, issuing grave penalties for those who would dare “introduce [into the church] some undignified thing opposed to the constitution of the Church.” (3)

And the Council of Trent (session 25) promulgated most prudent laws concerning Christian iconography, ending an important exhortation to the Bishops in this way: “Let the diligence and care of the Bishops be so great in this regard that nothing shocking should appear that is inconvenient, unbecoming, profane or unfitting, as demanded by the sanctity of the house of God” (4)

Modernist Arka Pana Church, Krakow

Arka Pana Church in Krakow, built when Karol Wojtyla was the Archbishop of the city; it was blessed by him
To foster the faithful execution of the directives of the Council of Trent on sacred statues, Pope Urban VIII added: “Let those things presented to the eyes of the faithful be neither disordered nor unusual, but let them generate devotion and piety …” (5)

Finally, the Code of Canon Law [of 1917] summarized the general principles of Church legislation on sacred art (canons 485, 1161, 1162, 1164, 1178, 1261, 1268, 1269 § 1, 1279, 1280, 1385, 1399).

Particularly worthy of mention are the prescriptions of canon 1261, which commands the Ordinaries of the place to take special care “so that, above all in the divine cult, … nothing be admitted contrary to the Faith or unbefitting the tradition of the Church.” And in canon 1399, 12, “The same law forbids … printed images that in any way whatsoever … are opposed to the criteria and decrees of the Church”.

More recently the Holy See reproved extravagant forms of sacred art. The objection of some that sacred art must adapt itself to the demands and conditions of the new times is without value. Because sacred art, born from Christian society, has its own goals which can never change and its own mission to which it must be faithful.

For this reason Pius XI, of venerable memory, speaking on sacred art at the opening of the new Vatican Pinacoteca [Art Gallery], spoke these severe words about the new art: “We have already affirmed this on other occasions to artists and the sacred Shepherds: Our hope, our ardent desire, our will is that that canon law be obeyed, which was also clearly formulated and sanctioned in the Code of Canon Law. In other words, that such art must not be admitted in our churches, and even less should it be used to build them, transform them or decorate them. Instead, let us open the doors and give a warm welcome to everything that represents an upright and gradual development of good and venerable traditions, which through centuries of Christian life in a great diversity of ambiences and social and ethnic environments, have given strong proof of their imperishable capacity to inspire new and beautiful forms, whenever they were consulted, studied or cultivated under the double light of talent and faith.” (6)

Not long ago, Pius XII, auspiciously reigning, in the Encyclical On the Sacred Liturgy, published on November 20, 1947, expounded the duties of Christian art with precision and clarity: “The art of our times should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the Church and the sacred rites, so that it can join its voice to the admirable choir of praise that the great artists of the past sang in honor of the Catholic Faith. … Nevertheless, in keeping with the duty of Our office, we cannot help deploring and condemning those statues and works of art recently introduced by some, which seem to be a distortion and perversion of true art, and which at times openly shock Christian décor, modesty and piety, and lamentably offend the true religious sense. These must be completely banned from our churches, like ‘anything else that is not in keeping with the sanctity of the place’ (can. 1178).” (7)

Attentively considering all these things, this Supreme Congregation, seriously concerned about conserving the faith and piety of the Christian people by means of sacred art, has decided to remind all the Ordinaries of the world of the following norms, so that the forms and procedures of sacred art correspond perfectly to the décor and sanctity of the house of God.


Sacred architecture, even when it takes new forms, cannot in any way resemble profane edifices, but must always perform its own task, which is to build the house of God and a house of prayer. In the construction of churches, the comfort of the faithful should be satisfied so that they can participate of the divine offices with clearer sight and better disposition of spirit. Also a new church should shine in the simplicity of its lines, eschewing indecorous ornamentation; anything that speaks of negligence in its conception and execution should be avoided.

Church of the Holy Trinity, Fatima

New Church of Fatima; its first stone was blessed and donated by Karol Wojtyla when he was Pope...
Canon 1162 §1 asserts: “Let no church be built without the express consent of the Ordinary given in writing, and not by the General Vicar except by a special mandate.”

Canon 1164 §1: “When constructing and repairing churches, the Ordinary should seek to maintain the structures already consecrated by Christian tradition and the laws of sacred art, having recourse, if necessary, to the counsel of experts.”

This Supreme Congregation rigorously commands that the prescripts of canons 1268 §2 and 1269 §1 be fulfilled with exactitude: “The Most Holy Eucharist must be conserved in the most visible and dignified part of the church, ordinarily at the main altar, unless another place is considered more appropriate and convenient for the veneration and cult of this great Sacrament … The Most Holy Eucharist must be kept in an unmovable place set at the middle of the altar”.

Figurative art
  1. According to the prescriptions of canon 1279: “No one should be permitted to place or command to be placed in churches, even exempt churches, or other sacred places any unusual statue without it being approved by the Ordinary of the place” (§1).

  2. Further, “The Ordinary should not approve sacred statues that conflict with the authorized use of the Church to be exposed for the public veneration of the faithful” (§2).

  3. “The Ordinary must never allow the exposition in churches and other sacred places of statues that express some false dogma or lack proper decency and decorum, or could influence the ignorant to fall into a dangerous error” (§3).

  4. In the absence of specialists on diocesan commissions, the Ordinaries of the place should consult the metropolitan commissions or the Roman Commission on Sacred Art.

  5. According to the norms of canons 485 and 1178, the Ordinaries should remove from sacred buildings anything that is opposed in any way to the sanctity and reverence due the house of God; also, they must strongly forbid that a profusion of cheap statues and images, usually mass produced, be exposed in a disorderly way for the veneration of the faithful either on the altars or on the walls close to the altars.

  6. Bishops and Religious Superiors must deny permission for publishing books, newspapers or brochures in which images contrary to the thinking and decrees of the Church are printed (cf. canons 1385 and 1399).

So that the Ordinaries of the place can more securely ask and receive counsels from the Diocesan Commission of Sacred Art that are in full conformance with the prescriptions of the Apostolic See and the actual end of sacred art, they should specifically enlist in this commission men who not only are specialists in art, but also firmly adhere to the Christian Faith, live a life of piety and willingly follow the norms established by the ecclesiastical authority.

Works of painting, sculpture and architecture must only be commissioned from men known for their competence and able to express a sincere faith and piety, which is the aim of any sacred art.

Finally, aspirants to Holy Orders should be instructed, in a way appropriate to their age and intelligence, in classes of philosophy and theology on sacred art and its meaning, taught by instructors who respect the traditions of past masters and obey the prescriptions of the Holy See.

Issued in Rome, in the Palace of the Holy Office, on the 30th day of June of 1952.

Cardinal Joseph Pizzardo - Secretary
1. Allocution of Pius XII to the International Congress of Christian Art, September 1950;
2. Pius X, Motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini, November 3, 1903, Acta Pii X, vol. 1, p. 73);
3. Actio 7 et ultima definition Synodi II, Mansi, Sacr. Conc. 13, col. 730;
4. Sess. 25, De invocatione, vener. et Reliquiis Sanct. Et sacris Imaginibus;
5. Urban VIII, Sacrosancta Tridentina, § 1, 15 mensis martii 1642, Turin: Bullarium Romanum, vol. 15, p. 171;
6. Pius XI, Sermon of October 27, 1932, A.A.S., 24, 1932, p. 356;
7. Pius XII, A.A.S. 39, 1947, pp. 590-591).


Blason de Charlemagne
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Translated by TIA desk
From Catolicismo, September 1952
Posted June 20, 2012

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