Art History Is Integral to Catholic Education

By Hackerman, Dale Artis | National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2011 | Go to article overview

Art History Is Integral to Catholic Education


Hackerman, Dale Artis, National Catholic Reporter


The church's role and support of the arts throughout the development of Western civilization cannot be underestimated. With that in mind, I stress the importance of art history as part of the curriculum of Catholic high schools.

The Roman Catholic church was a major force in the development of Western art and culture. In light of this, and after more than 35 years as a teacher of art history in the Catholic school system, I am convinced that the study of art history is an integral part of a well-defined and superior Catholic high school education.

In many U.S. public high schools, budgets are being cut, especially in the arts. So why mention the importance of a strong curriculum in art history as part of a well-rounded Catholic high school education? Because I believe that when students study art history, they become closer to the church on an intellectual and cultural level that greatly enhances their relationship with God. I have already alluded to the important role that the church had in the development of Western art. Investigating that role in a study of art history, from medieval to modern times, enhances spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. Art history helps the student to understand the mechanisms of culture and society.

Art and religious expression go hand-in-hand, and the importance of art to convey spirituality is ancient. It has existed since the dawn of civilization.

Let us begin with a question that probably has no proven answer: Why was art created in the first place? The scholarly consensus is that the first works of art probably were associated with ancient ceremonial practices. The earliest images created by humans date back to around 30,000 years, the Paleolithic Era. Since they are prehistoric and have no written history, the questions surrounding them go unanswered.

Incredibly beautiful paintings of stylized leaping and running animals have been found in remote caves throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world. Scholars suspect that these fantastic drawings must have had some spiritual meaning surrounding the importance and success of the hunt. Perhaps they were associated with ceremony and prayer. We will never know their exact Purpose, but the likely function of the cave paintings was probably religious.

It is interesting to consider that art up until around 600 years ago had been dominated by religious subject matter. The use of art for art's sake is relatively recent, if you consider how long humans have been creating art.

I am convinced that by the time every Catholic high school student graduates from high school, he or she should understand how when Christianity was legalized, the art of the church had to establish an entirely new identity and appearance distinguishing it from other faiths. …

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