Passing through the beautiful city of Flagstaff, Arizona lately, I happened to attend Mass at a fairly new church dedicated to St. Francis. San Francisco de Asis was decorated in a way that was quite intriguing: with prints made of the frescoes in the upper church of St. Francis in Assisi.
I had very mixed feelings about this use of art in a liturgical space. On the one hand, just as other symbols lose their savor when imitated–sampled music, recorded bells, silk flowers–so too art that is copied is always less than the original. In this case, the setting is one of the things very far removed. Rather than a contiguous and integrated cycle, the large prints are hung on the interior walls of the church much as though it were a museum. That important sense of the authentic was missing.
On the other hand, it is such a sincere relief in the American church to find any thoughtful use of the medium of paint that my first feeling was one of joy. Moreover, the paintings themselves are beautiful, important and certainly worth copying, on an subject deeply relevant to the parish, and perhaps the early work of the important proto-Renaissance painter Giotto (although this is contested). The paintings are decidedly not icons, and while their realism is not yet fully effective, yet one can see the beginnings of geometrical shape and other marks of the humanism that would come to represent the art of Rome in the Renaissance.
In other words, the paintings are of a time and a place that truly represent the saint himself, full of freedom and vision. Although they are historical, like museum pieces, they have that originality and freshness that characterize St. Francis.
American churches are full of blank walls. What are we to do with them, particularly in this age when drawing skills are very often lacking, and a curious trade in religious cartoons is for some reason on the rise? Here is one solution that seems to work to a large degree, and perhaps to a degree impossible without the technology that in our day makes such excellent reproduction possible.