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Why Are We Making Our Children the Victims of Bad Religious Art?

Walking out of church this week, I noticed a pile of free children’s pamphlets/Mass supplements at the door. I was so annoyed by this smushy and blobby cover that I picked it up to see if the inside was just as annoying. It was. And it got worse. (This item will be listed as Nameless from here on.)

Why can’t we have pictures of people with proper faces? The face is the thing children most focus on from birth. The pages of Nameless were full of cartoons and scribbly-style drawings. The message this sends is that everything in this disposable booklet is of no more consequence than Bugs Bunny or Toy Story.

Two pages later, and I was ready to blow a gasket. This was the picture that bothered me so much:

Take a closer look, and you will see that the scruffy dude in the baggy pants has his belly button showing. We are treated here to a complete array of clothing styles: dress and hat, tank top, shorts, and belly shirt! This picture makes them all equal, all equally acceptable for going to Sunday Mass. The message is this: it doesn’t matter what you wear to Mass. It doesn’t matter how you look. All that matters is that you show up. Is there no more to it than that?

Are we really going to give this garbage to our children every Sunday, year in and year out, as their aesthetic nourishment for Mass? I began to wonder how many parishes in the United States subscribe to Nameless. Probably thousands. That means potentially tens of thousands of children looking at the visual equivalent of Twinkies and Pepsi.

What’s more, this is not the only children’s resource like this. I have looked at many children’s Bibles and seen many regrettable Catholic picture books. The majority of them now fall into the trap of aping Pixar, as if the norm for artistic expression is animated big-screen cartoon characters [i]. Thus, I have no intention of singling out Nameless for particular abuse. However, Nameless is especially noteworthy because the company’s products are in so many parishes and because their adult booklet is aesthetically a cut above the usual Catholic offerings.

When my children were very young, we lived in Europe. I came to be fond of the picture books of a popular French children’s illustrator named Maïte Roche. The books were simple, sweet, calm, and earnest. Perhaps not perfect, but far better than most of what I had seen in the USA. At least Jesus came across as a real person, inviting and attractive, instead of being depicted as a cartoon character with no special qualities. Here is a sample from one of Roche’s books:

When my children were a little older, and we were back in the U.S., I found other resources I thought were even better – for example, Moira Farrell’s My First Eucharist coloring book, part of a Montessori-based preparation for First Communion. Using simple line drawings, the artist manages to make the tabernacle and Church obviously some place special, set apart, and even transcendent:

David Clayton’s coloring book God’s Covenant With You has similar qualities.

Then I discovered My Path to Heaven by Geoffry Bliss, S.J., with illustrations by Caryll Houselander. Houselander knew that the combination of a strong overall design with intricate busyness would fascinate a child (yes, a slightly older child), drawing him in and connecting his imagination to the depth of meaning that goes with the text:

When we come to the realm of the liturgy proper, there are several worthy children’s missals available for the usus antiquior. Since the traditional liturgy itself is so full of dignity, order, and beauty, it generally summons forth the same qualities in the work of those who attempt to illustrate it. One example:

The priest here is dignified and reverent. All of the pictures in the missal are focused on the Eucharistic action and its intense sacredness [ii]. In contrast, here is the one and only Eucharistic picture in that issue of Nameless:

Who said a picture is worth a thousand words? This picture is worth a thousand tears.

As a mother and (when time permits) a painter, I know something about children’s psychology and about the messages we send through art – through the beauty of it, or the lack thereof. I also know well a little girl whose first evangelization was through religious art. Raised in a pseudo-Christian cult, my first real catechesis, at the age of four, was with the Little Golden Book version of The Christmas Story by Eloise Wilkin. I spent hours poring over the pictures of Mary in that book.

I distinctly remember looking at these and saying to myself over and over, I want to be like Mary. Why?  No one ever talked to me about Mary. No one told me to be like her. Yet there was nothing else in my entire world like those pictures. I know now that it was because they were modeled on Catholic illumination and fine art. Look at the gold border around Mary’s cloak (which doesn’t show up well in a computer graphic) [iii]. To a child who knew nothing of true Christianity, the art successfully communicated a message to me, without the need of a single word: Mary is special, Mary is noble, Mary is utterly worthy of being imitated and loved.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that the Holy Spirit was at work through that imperfect but sincerely reverent art. How, or what, will the Holy Spirit communicate through the cartoon and blob-style saints and Christs in things like Nameless?

To the objection that children are “not ready” for real art, that they would be overwhelmed by it or bored, the response is simple: children are naturally ordered to becoming adults, and if they are not artificially held back by a diet of childish fare, they will desire to work their way up into the world of adults. There is a reason why we use the phrase “bringing them up.” The child wants to understand what adults are talking about, wants to speak their language, to be treated as an equal. Hence, what parents value is what their children will eventually value. This much is common parenting experience. If we love beautiful things, if we take pains with how we dress, how we speak, the kind of music we listen to, the art we put in our homes and enjoy looking at, and we share regularly with our children why such things matter to us, they will absorb the influences and be on the lookout for the same in their own lives. They will grow into the beautiful, for God created the human soul to rejoice in it and rest in it.

In any case, there is never any excuse for cheapness, pandering to the lowest common denominator, or chasing after the latest fashions. Putting bad art into the eyes, the imagination, and the memory of children deforms them and may place obstacles between them and an encounter with the God, Who is sovereign Beauty. It may even erect subtle psychological barriers to living the fullness of liturgical and sacramental Christianity, for it does not take much intelligence to see that if the Faith is true, it surely cannot express itself in trite, superficial ways. The lamentable fact that the Faith is so often expressed in trite, superficial ways transmits the underlying message that the Faith is not true.

St. John Chrysostom, speaking about icons, says the honor given to the image passes to the original. By extension, if we make images that dishonor Our Lord or Our Lady, isn’t that dishonor also passing to the original?

Look at how Blessed Angelico, whom John Paul II declared the patron of artists, depicts the child Christ:

One might compare the famous Nativity scene painted by Giotto:

Our Lord Jesus Christ is fairer than the sons of men. As God, He is Beauty itself and the source of all created beauty. Of course, this cannot be depicted by poor mortals like us, but there are centuries of fine art in our Catholic tradition that manage to convey something of the mystery of divine beauty. Every children’s book intended for religious use should be drawing heavily upon this immense heritage of beauty, this inexhaustible fund of iconography that is our birthright as Catholics [iv].

At very least, we should have enough respect not to turn God Incarnate into a cartoon character.


[i] To me, this is eerily reminiscent of the society in Farenheit 451, where Jesus is only a character in TV shows.

[ii] Those looking for a basic Tridentine missal illustrated throughout with classic art should consider A Missal for Young Catholics.

[iii] Sadly, this is no longer the cover used with recent editions of Wilkin’s book, probably because it is too Catholic.

[iv] There are such books available. Here are two that use Giotto and Fra Angelico: The Saving Name of the Son of God by Jeanne Sharpe and The Nativity by Geraldine Elschner.

67 thoughts on “Why Are We Making Our Children the Victims of Bad Religious Art?”

  1. Back in the olden days, there was a small book rack in the back of my parish in the 1960s. The children’s books were a dime. My mother would buy them for us. I still remember the cover one book with a beautiful guardian angel swooping down the entire cover to touch a sleeping child.
    The beauty has stayed with me all this time.
    Absolutely spot on. Our children deserve better than lazy line art and colored blobs.

  2. Modern Art, especially modern liturgical art is all about calling the ugly beautiful: in other words it is part of the Heresy of Modernism.
    It’s all about lowering instead of elevating.

  3. Thank you for this. Illustrations/art in non-religious children’s books are terrible now, too. Children’s natural sense of beauty has been subverted in pretty much every area (art, clothing, music, and on and on) and the consequences are starkly horrendous. Most adults neither see nor care.

    • Growing up in an anti-Catholic Church of Christ home, comic books were everywhere. One was the “Life of Christ”. It was the drawn in the typical, realistic 1950s comic book style. I tried reading it a 4 years old and since I could not read what was in the bubbles, asked my mother to read it to me. It must have been a Catholic comic book because my mother especially told me that Our Lady was not actually so prominent since the Bible did not mention some of the things mentioned. I thought OK. When she read about Jesus dying on the cross, I was heartbroken. I could not think of anything else. I went to bed and cried all night for poor Jesus. Since becoming Catholic, I have sought a copy of this comic or a reprint for my children, but found only ugly, sappy booklets, terribly drawn and abstract. So my experience shows the power of realistic drawing,as opposed to the abstract, for conveying the Gospel..

    • Not to sound harsh, because you mean well, but art like that drives me insane. It is the beginning of Christ without a Cross art where angels are fat and naked and no is lead to pray or be more pious because of it. Go to Rome and you’ll see it on full display.

      If you want to see real Catholic art try medieval art and my favorite art is the crypt of Assisi. If you look at it you’ll want to pray.

      • Baroque expresses the exuberance of the faith! I love it. The prettiest church is Neumann’s Vierzhenheiligen (14 Holy Helpers) in Bavaria. It is wonderful! Medieval art is also. Each period has a different emphasis. Take an art history course.
        Visit some baroque churches.

        • THANK YOU, thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!

          For those others scared of little chubby angel-babies, OMG. Innocence is the symbolism. What, do you think this is a sexual or modesty matter? God save me from most traditionalists. Can we get a course in the symbolism of art and maybe a full course in Art History in here?

      • I knew someone was going to say that. But I think you are much too harsh. The first time I saw this painting (a few weeks ago) I was in awe and I thanked God for inspiring a work of such beauty, When I pray the first joyous mystery, I often like to look at this painting. So yes, I concede your point on the fat naked angels, but they remind me of my fat little babies and its nice to imagine them in the painting as angels. Also I just noticed there are no halos and that would also be nice.

          • The entire scene is holy, pure, good and beautiful. You resound with it. WHY then would you dump it? Please reconsider being so blunt as to reject truly beautiful and reverent art because it does not include one of the many, many artifacts illustrated in art which speaks holiness and highly spiritual purpose.

          • Hi Julia, I almost deleted that sentence last night because I thought I hadn’t worded it well. I wouldn’t dump/reject the picture. I had thought of changing it because I prefer pictures with halos.

            ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds ‘ is a beautiful painting! You can tell this is no ordinary child. Instead of a halo the Christ Child radiates light, He literally lights up the darkness. The Christ Child and His Blessed Mother are the focal point in this picture, and then St. Joseph and the Shepherds look on in adoration. The stillness, the peace, the joy! You can almost imagine you are there. It must be an amazing picture to see! Perhaps one day! 🙂 But I love halos, and as I use this myself (the online Rosary) thought, hmmm, I might change it to one with a halo instead.

            I’m glad you like it! I love looking at holy pictures! We actually rotate the pictures we have on display in our home according to the season because I collect so many. I have found them very helpful for prayer. I started collecting them for the children and then realised how they were changing me!

            I would like to learn lots more about art/art history. Halos are very interesting. As art has developed halos have presented a challenge for certain scenes and so other methods have been used to denote holiness instead. But there was also a conscious choice by some as rationalism started to take hold to stop using halos and this has played its part in where we are today. As I said, I would love to learn more.
            I totally agree with your statement above or below (often shifts around doesn’t it) ‘Can we get a course in Art History here?’ Wouldn’t it be great!!

            Glad to meet a fellow lover of beautiful holy art! God bless you Julia!

          • Hi, Sharyn, and thank you for this lovely response! I love halos too, and as you say they are interesting. And probably the simplest and easiest and most beautiful way to show holiness, too! Different epochs of art If I had one thing to study for the pure JOY of it, it would be Art History. I studied it in college, as an almost-minor and along with a couple of courses on ancient mythology I was in my glory. The halo far, far predates Christian art. It is one more indication of how smart the ancients were to appropriate symbology that was deeply etched into the hearts and minds of spiritually oriented persons and then to re-form it towards Christ. Here is an art-history blog I like, followed by a piece absolutely loaded with intra-links to follow. Art History is sublime. HAVE FUN!! 🙂

            And thank you again, God bless!




        • They are meant to remind you of fat little babies……as in innocence and joy. I would not concede the point. There’s a difference between realism and bluntness. You get what the entire symbolism means. Trust your gut. Be happy!

          • I got it? if only my art history teacher could see me now 🙂 . I think I’ll start my own art critique blog. I take back my point Mr. Young! 🙂 But in all seriousness, I could stare at this picture for hours. It’s the wall paper on my phone and many times in the day I take it out and just look at it.

          • Your teacher would be proud of you! 🙂 🙂 I agree on staring at this picture for hours, I have some like that. One is the wallpaper on my computer. It never fails to bring me back to what is really important in the midst of all the work things we “have to do.” Have a very blessed day, you and your family.

          • HI, again, AGH! 🙂

            Please see the long post to Sharyn a few down, with the links on halos. I wanted you to see it all too but it would look strange to post exactly the same post 2x.

            I love this stuff, and think you might enjoy it all too.

            God’s blessings on your joy,


          • Also, I showed it to my wife and she said to me, “That’s how it felt when I found out I was pregnant.” How can I not love this picture?

    • I’m disgusted with it, not bored. Post-mediaeval art in the Latin church, beginning with “renaissance” art is one of the contributing causes to the secularisation of the liturgy, but most traditionalists either don’t know this, or don’t want to admit it.

    • When I was young my family had a book that contained Carl Block paintings showing the life of Jesus. The paintings were so amazing in the realism as well as capturing so much detail including emotional expressions. To this day they are for me the apex of christian art. I would open the book often and spend much time on each picture looking over details, wondering about that moment when it happened. Now we have cartoon versions that miss so much. Good christian art available to the young and very young leaves a lasting impression more so than this current form. Some people believe that listening to Mozart or Bach while pregnant is good for their baby, but fail to see the impact art has as well.

      I would propose that the current state of art in the world being less classical/realism, as well as limited access to classical artists for meaningful christian art is also a contributing factor. The one dimensional offerings today lack a soul, lack relevance, inspiration, even reverence to a point. Who these days can’t draw folksy art which is what all this is. Next we’ll be seeing logo-like art with emoji’s. Oh and don’t forget to like it on FB (gag).

  4. Great article. Centuries in the future the schlock art that has been foisted on Catholics since the mid 60s is going to be a source of shock and repulsion for Catholic scholars. Dissertations will be written about the depth of the degradation. I can think of one future treatise: Touchdown Jesus: How the “Pop” depiction of Christ Mirrored the Squalor in Catholic Higher Education in the USA in 20th Century.

  5. This silly critique is an example of not seeing the forest for the trees. I don’t see anything wrong with the cover art. The depiction of the family walking to Mass was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, “MagnifiKid” (yes, I’ll name the publication — published by the same publisher as “Magnificat”) is an excellent, faithful weekly Mass guide for children. Not only does the weekly publication provide all the texts for the Mass, it defines difficult words in the readings or prayers and offers very helpful and faithful reflections and lessons based on the Mass texts. If the author of the review had bothered to read the publication instead of glancing only at the pictures hoping to find something to gripe about, she might have realized that the publication provides a valuable service to the Church and to parents who want to help their children participate actively in the Mass and learn from and about the Mass. Really, this is the sort of article that makes neo-Trad Catholics look stupidly arrogant and counterproductive. MagnifiKid is a blessing for parents. It would be extremely difficult to have art masterpieces in every issue because not every painting would scale well, and depending on the length of that Sunday’s Mass texts there might not be enough room for a masterpiece. The art isn’t what’s important about the publication, anyway; what’s valuable about MagnifiKid is that it provides a faithful Mass guide that is attractive and easy for children to follow and understand. The colorful layout of the publication heightens children’s interest, and for that purpose streamlined, simplified illustrations are entirely acceptable. A book about outstanding art for children can be published; but that’s not the purpose of MagnifiKid. Don’t criticize the publication for something that is a very minor aspect of its intended use or purpose.

    • I also notice that the author of the article is described as enjoying painting in her spare time. Why doesn’t she post some samples of her work so we can judge their quality? I suspect that not a little jealously and feelings of inferiority are at the root of this uncharitable and rash critique of MagnifiKid’s incidental artwork.

    • I disagree. Art is also one of the means to convey the Gospel, especially to young children who usually cannot read yet or that well. Art touches out soul like music does. Why should we have beautiful churches? Shouldn’t an old shack be sufficient? That is a protestant-gnostic mentality. Churches of Christ buildings were bare and plain. Beauty is a reflection of God. Do we love God? Since we do, we want everything around and about Him to reflect beauty as well as truth. Also, is He is worthy to have the best that man can offer?

      • Is every meal that you cook a gourmet meal? No. Sometimes mediocrity suffices. Do you expect your church’s Sunday bulletin’s artwork to consist only of masterpieces? No, because the point of a bulletin isn’t to feature great works of art; clip art suffices. Same principle applies to MagnifiKid, which is a weekly, mass-produced, disposable children’s educational guide to a particular Sunday’s Mass readings, propers and ordinaries. I agree with you that churches should be beautiful, but those are permanent fixtures intended for all ages whereas the article is talking about a mass-produced, single-use booklet aimed at kids. Different standards are appropriate, and as the examples I gave at the beginning of this post demonstrate, excellence is not required in all endeavors or products. Don’t make the perfect or the best be the enemy of the good.

        • The author could have hired an artist who actually knew how to draw well! I mean, do we use bad grammar in the Sunday bulletin and just put it down to, ‘oh, that’s all we able to do, we just write English poorly’. Proper English is necessary to communicate well. The same holds for art or any simple drawings. Many in our culture consider art to be unimportant because of the lack of exposure to beautiful art and even an indifference to it. We are taught to be indifferent to it and to prefer the ugly.

    • Yes, nice artwork, but that book is a general guide to the ordinaries of the Mass only. MagnifiKid is a weekly periodical that supplies not only the Mass ordinaries but the text for all the propers of the day as well as the readings. Try producing such booklets for 52 Sundays plus all the holy days of obligation each year and see whether you can only include masterpieces of art as illustrations.

      • Masterpieces could be used for the front (though I don’t think anyone said they had to be masterpieces). That surely wouldn’t be too hard to do. And beautiful clipart for the inside.
        It is worth doing little things well. They can amount to more than we realise. Sometimes it’s the little things which have the biggest impact.

      • Oh puleease. They produce daily meditation Missals for adults and find plenty of lovely artwork for them. It’s out there and in the public domain to boot!, it doesn’t cost a dime. And so what if there’s a repeat? They repeat the readings every 3 years anyway

  6. The publisher of “nameless” also produces Christmas books for children – stories and “prayers” – and they are equally disappointing.

  7. I had God’s Covenant With You (didn’t remember the name until now) or something very similar when I was a kid. Loved it.

  8. Good art is like good food and good music; only feed your children the best you can afford. As a mother, many a times have I taken a fussy baby to a foyer that had beautiful paintings and statues to calm him or her down. Already at a tender age of months was the Holy Spirit working in their souls through beautiful art. One time my baby, old enough, but still small enough that I still had to old him, threw himself at a lifesize statue of Pieta hugging Jesus as if he were a real live person before him. He would finger the wounds and kiss them. Enough said, as a mother knowing I hadn’t taught him to do that knew that a church without edifying and inspiring artwork was not one for us.

  9. Modern art and architecture is vile and grotesque. Look at the buildings of the last 40 years masquerading as churches. There is nothing majestic or glorious about them that inspires one to ponder the glory of our Lord.

  10. The modernist mindset for religious art seems to be that, if it’s new, it must be better (which is rarely the case). I think the decline in quality of religious illustrations began in the 70’s. Thankfully, I was able to purchase some booklets by Fr. Lawrence Lovasik for our children. They’re now available to view online at — Search for “Lawrence Lovasik” and many books will come up. A new high quality resource is a coloring book on the Rosary, printed on thick paper; it’s suitable for children or adults and can be purchased from Amazon: “Twenty Mysteries of the Rosary Coloring Book: with Illustrations of Art Masterpieces and Bible Stories for Catholic/Christian Child” by Kathryn Marcellino. There are many lovely Catholic coloring pages that can be printed for free from this website: French artist James Tissot illustrated numerous Bible stories; his work is in the public domain and can be downloaded from

  11. I agree with the author. Ugly art is just as bad as sloppy writing. There are so many artists out there who can create beautiful drawings and illustrations, including many amateur artists. This is done deliberately. You have to read a lot of good literature to develop an “ear” for good language. You need to see good art to develop an eye for beauty. I for one do not want to see an illustration of Scooby Doo and friends going to mass in my grandchild’s missal. The above referenced missal has beautiful art and excellent writing in the adult version. Do the children not deserve the same?

  12. Yes, this nonsense began much before VC2.

    The linked video below is worth watching. It’s one of the best (brief) take downs of modern art. So much so YouTube banned it for a time – pressured by (who else) the Travistock Institute in London. The “planners” there saw it as an effective threat. Shows up not only their sway and power but their fear – that their reconstruction of humanity as fault lines they cannot staunch.

    Now, be warned, Mr. Watson can be rough at times. He’s not taking on Modernism from a Catholic angle. Though an unbeliever he griefs the damage and loss which Modernism (especially its “Post” phase) has imposed the Western (Latin) sense of time & space (in short, the redeemed imagination).

    Enjoy (with caution, maybe):

  13. Another contemporary source for children’s religious stories is Tomie DePaola. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the range of Catholic characters he covers: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patrick, The Holy Twins (St Benedict & St Scholastica), St Francis, St Christopher, Mary the Mother of God. His illustrations are not on a par with Giotto & Angelico, but are delightful in their own right. There are also lovely legends that are based on Catholic belief: The Legend of the Pointsettia, Old Befana, The Night of the Posada…And Bible stories, Parables of Jesus….you can’t go wrong. He also writes secular children’s stories that are recommended for their innocence and lack of pc infiltration.

  14. Replication of bad art, in the church, is a product of a long time lack of educating the people in the pews about art. When there is no support for the arts at the diocese, none by the local parish Rector, none in the schools, then there will be none from parishioners. Vatican II did not invent bad church art, though it has accelerated it with the notion that all parishioners can be artists no matter their training, with an emphasis on no training being best.
    The low mass only, which is found in most churches, most of the time, has evolved into a 4 hymn sandwich. The desire for trite music and the lack of musical support from the leaders is the reason. Commercialized pop culture has filled the void left by the once important church artists.
    The warehouses has been the norm for church design, these past 50 years. Many catholic churches, esp in the wealthy suburbs, show the schizophrenic mindset of iconoclastic reform and the fervent embrace of kitschy art. Too many church buildings designed by architects with no historical hind sight no understanding of the architectural concept of “truth to materials”.
    I think that all this has much to do with an anger and feeling of inferiority that the Irish dominated American church has inculcated a stripped down church model, and a nearly puritanical mindset of intellectualism, and discouragement of its parishioners to embrace the role of art.
    In the DC diocese there has been a history of quelling any musical program which aspires to high art, and a banishing of pastors to the art deserts for any pastor who attempts to build art and arts programs into their parish. This type of dystopian mindset will only continue the slide into banality.


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