Imaging the Sacred

Illustration by Ariel Agemian

(Note: It is only since and through publishing this picture that I discovered the identity of this wonderful artist. For more, please see discussion in comments below.)

To my mind, such images can play a truly healing role in our troubled society. Why? There are two reasons at least.

The first is to do with the cultural invisibility of the true nature of Catholic Church.

As I have said before here, the true nature of the Catholic Church remained invisible to me for nearly thirty-four years, even if I was both drawn to Spiritual Mystery, as well as reasonably well-educated (by the standards of my generation, at least).

If you had asked me before this time, what a Catholic priest was, I suppose I might have answered in terms of a profession. If I were being charitable, I might have supposed at most, a learned profession similar to that of a doctor or psychotherapist.

Or I might have replied in terms redolent of the nature of a Protestant Minister.

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I certainly would not have said that by the understanding of the Church, the Catholic Priest is a man who has been forever transformed in his soul by the power of our Lord, such that he can bring our Lord to the faithful, whether under the species of bread and wine, or through absolution, the bond of marriage, healing unction and so forth.

Or on a lesser level, could furnish us with the sacramentals, such as Holy Water, for example.

It is not that I considered these as ideas to be refuted. It is that I had no idea that such notions even existed!

The Church of Ineffable Mystery was invisible to me.

As I imagine it is, to so many of us moderns, Anglophones in particular. Now this is less so the case I know, in places like Spain or Italy, but it is Anglo-American civilisation that now increasingly dominates our world.

And the true nature of the Catholic Church becomes obscured to so, so many. How many? Tens of millions I should think – at least. More? I imagine yes indeed.

And the post-Vatican II Church often does so little to help. The way it so frequently represents itself in either (very mundane) images or words, only contributes to the cultural invisibility of its true mission, for example by giving rise to the idea that there is little difference between Catholic and Protestant “denominations” or between a minister and a priest.

But an image like the above clearly calls our attention to something very different …

There is then I believe a crying need for the Catholic Church to represent herself differently. And if I can no longer trust many priests and bishops of the Novus Ordo to do that, as a confirmed Catholic layperson, I hope I can justifiably make my own small and humble contribution through this website.

This then, is the first reason, why I am very happy to place this image here. But there is as I say, still a further reason why such images have value I believe.

Human civilisation is awash with imagery as never before. On and in Billboards, newspapers, cinemas, television and computer screens and far, far more. And the vast amount of it is a testimony to materialism. And it is testimony designed to incite materialistic desire, from bottles of Coca Cola, wine and perfume to exposed human bodies …

Awash in materialistic imagery, is it any wonder that our society becomes ever more materialistic? That we are conditioned to orient ourselves ever more deeply to the purely material?

Yes, yes there is a crying need for images, for symbols that point us to the sublime.

Symbols … Now as I was in the very midst of writing this entry, I stumbled upon what I thought to be an unusually perceptive entry in the blogosphere here and I hope the author David Bennett will not mind my quoting him a little:

As I was worshiping yesterday at a Catholic parish in the Cleveland area, I was noticing how purposefully empty the worship space was of symbols. The walls were white, and the crucifix was tiny and barely there. There was one banner that looked like it was out of the 1970s, that had a symbol that was intentionally made to look obscure (was it a candle flame? a sun? a child’s first finger painting creation?).

In other words, if there was a symbol, it was designed to be unconnected to our experience. I remember thinking that in our natural world we are surrounded by symbols that point us to God, yet many of our modern churches purposely take these symbols away from us, perhaps seeing them either as distracting or out-of-date.

But are symbols out of date? The natural human craving for symbols hasn’t gone away, which is why even those traditionally cool to symbols, evangelicals, are discovering their value. My reading on brain waves suggests that non-verbal symbols stimulate alpha waves in the brain, which serve as a bridge to theta waves.

When measuring the waves of individuals in deep meditation and spiritual experiences, theta waves are dominant. Whether you accept the science of brain waves and spirituality, nonetheless, the evidence suggests that words appeal to only one aspect of our brain’s capabilities, while visual, kinesthetic, olfactory, and auditory symbols touch us at a different level.

Yes I felt this post was one of the most insightful I have seen recently and again there is more of real value at the link above if you are interested.

From so many, many different perspectives, there is then a crying, urgent need for the Church of today to stop being coy about showing to the world the Saving Mystery she offers to the world.

The pre-Vatican II Church had no such coyness and to that clarity, vision and boldness we must return, for the sake of a world being consumed in mmaterialism.

I pray thus that this little website can make some contribution along these lines and for that reason, dear Reader, you may well be seeing more imagery appearing here soon.

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14 responses to “Imaging the Sacred”

  1. Edwin Shendelman Avatar
    Edwin Shendelman

    A lovely and profound representation of the Sacrament of Ordination! Thanks for sharing it! I in I in I…

  2. Ron Criss Avatar

    This illustration and many others like it by Armenian artist Ariel Agemian can be found, in the Confraternity of the Precious Blood’s little blue pocket edition of “My Imitation of Christ”. Unfortunately I don’t see an ISBN number. I’d sure like to see the book re-published in a larger edition with the same beautiful illustrations!


  3. roger Avatar

    Edwin, Ron, thank you both warmly for these comments.

    My appreciation for and belief in the importance for such art is deepening and deepening. Thus I am very glad you have named the artist Ron and will definitely be googling what you have shared.

    I assume this art is old and in the public domain. One of my longer term hopes is publishing books in addition to my own through Print on Demand.

    If the book you mention Ron is in the public domain, you have set me to wondering. I am also pondering sharing this kind of beautiful old art in other ways through the site and perhaps on cards again through Print on Demand. Which might help support this site a little.

    Finally since I last commented here this site has gone through a redesign by my friend Mark. No way I could have done it! I love the redesign but am slightly concerned that Mark has put the comments into too small a font. The whole result is elegant indeed, but I wonder how commenters feel about this new display.

    Again thank you both!. All comments here are greatly appreciated.

  4. Edwin Shendelman Avatar
    Edwin Shendelman

    I wonder if anybody knows a source that looks at Agemian’s collective works and biography. I just found scattered pieces on the Net.

    1. annig agemian raley Avatar

      In answer to your question about the artist, Ariel Agemian, I am his daughter and I have detailed information that I would be pleased to share.
      annig agemian raley

      1. harry mardirossian Avatar
        harry mardirossian

        Dear Annig
        Mekhitarist Alumni Association of Toronto promotes the works and legacy of its founder Abbot Mekhitar. In February of 2012 we are celebrating our annual event whereby we are honouring three ex alumni, featuring their biographies. I am an ex seminarian from San Lazzaro, Venice where I believe your dad has attended. Knowing his extraordinary stature in the art world, I suggested his name be featured. Through my search, and thanks to the web I came across to your name for contact. Although there are numerous other sources, but it would be more than an honour to obtain info about your father through his very own daughter. Kindly respond to [email protected]

  5. Ron Criss Avatar

    Roger, I would contact the Confraternity to see if they hold copyright of the art. According to my copy the imprimatur was issued in 1954. Their website seems to have been suspended, but I found the following info:

    Confraternity of the Precious Blood
    (718) 436-1120
    5300 Fort Hamilton Pkwy,
    Brooklyn, NY 11219

  6. […] Bounty of God that so much of the Church is now tragically all too coy about (as I recently said here). This entry was posted in Webbursts and tagged Catholic Mystery. Bookmark the permalink. Post a […]

  7. roger Avatar

    Edwin and Ron, all too slowly I am responding, and slowly I am further discovering this world that you have served to elucidate Ron. It is important and I am grateful for all your comments. With too many things on the front burner right now, this needs to be on the back burner for now. But that does not mean I willl forget!

    I think there is something so important with these beautiful illustrations and I am definitely interested in bringing such imagery more to the light in our closed, materialistic age.

    Finally I found a little bit about Ariel Agemian´s biography here here

    1. annig agemian raley Avatar

      I am the daughter of Ariel Agemian. You can contact me.
      annig agemian raley

  8. dean Avatar

    I have a kunzli freres print i am dying to backtrack can someone help?

  9. roger Avatar

    Dean, Annig …

    First Dean, I am sorry to say I can do no more than wish you luck with your search. I do not know if the readership here can help – though I guess there must be wider forums which might, and which you may be of course, trying already.

    Annig – thank you. Amidst pressures pulling me in different directions, the matter of your father’s beautiful work is something I would like to pursue at some point. For I find his work not only very beautiful, but as I have indicated, also very healing for our troubled culture.

    As I suggest often here, including above and also in my latest post, I believe our culture is plagued by frequent attempts to reduce and minimise the Mysteries of the Church to purely psychological explanations. Testimony is needed to the Mystery. Unambiguous, unashamed, non-prevaricating testimony.

    What I have seen of your father’s beautiful work renders such testimony very, very ELOQUENTLY. It seems to me it is aspiring to something vitally needed today. And when I get time I must look further in his direction, in what he was trying to do.

    It would be very good to know more of his inspiration. Again I thank you – and plese forgive me that even this little acknowledgment has taken so long.

  10. Disciple Avatar

    I know what you mean about the way Mr. Agemian’s artwork touched you, Roger. I was working in a Catholic bookstore back in the 90’s (and Buddhist at the time!) when a friend gave me a copy of the Confraternity’s beautiful My Daily Psalm Book. I treasured that book then and now and have given away many copies of it, as well as their other titles. And it was the marvelous images by Mr. Agemian that took hold of my heart and mind and would not let go. I carry my CPB book, My Imitation of Christ, with me everywhere I go. Mr. Agemian’s illustrations make the words come alive! Much fruit for prayer and meditation with these precious books to help you.

    Thank you, Roger, for posting this. And in answer to the question you posed in your post: No, symbols are not out of date. Symbols and images (especially ones like Ariel Agemian’s) speak to the soul, as does music. I’ve often heard it said that sacred art was intended to educate the ignorant and illiterate masses. Puh-lease! Sacred art (as with sacred music and ritual) has always been intended to reach down deep inside us, all of us, everyone of us; to open us to hear the voice of God together with all the choirs of angels and saints…

    Peace be with you, Roger. May God bless you on your journey. (I’m a convert, too, and also spent much time in New Age studies, Buddhism, etc. When I was 40 years old, God called me home to His Church and I am so grateful that He did. For there was the Truth I had long sought in vain!)

    Disciple 🙂

  11. roger Avatar

    Disciple, thank you so much for this.

    Different Responses:

    I think I said something above to the effect of needing to put the beauty of Ariel Agemian on the back burner a bit while I pursue other pressing things. Thank you for reminding me once more! Is something nudging me here to return it to the front burner I wonder?

    Whatever the case I very much appreciate your public testimony to the the way you say:

    “the marvelous images by Mr. Agemian that took hold of my heart and mind and would not let go.”

    Myself I have not yet seen these images in the book. Only on the web as yet, I regret.

    But I register what you testify with deep interest, also regarding sacred art and the JOY of your conversion – from pastures perhaps similar to my own past.

    I also clicked on your name and spent awhile at your site, where I was also moved by – among other things, – the joy of the Faith you express.

    It is very important such expression I think and you have inspired me to saying more to this theme in my next blog.