Chalkware Catholicism: The Aims and Art of Catholic Statuary Reconsidered

What does a sacramental imagination make of the religiously mundane?

Sleeping Among the Saints

“Chalkware Catholicism” is a phrase I coined some time ago in my writing on sacred art and architecture to describe an approach to the faith, once widespread among the faithful, that relied heavily on the plaster statuary — or “chalkware” — displayed in parish churches throughout this country prior to the wide-ranging changes in worship initiated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). I use the term with no intent of derision but simply as a way of identifying a form of popular piety that drew as much solace from meditating upon the cast-plaster likenesses of the saints, angels, and other holy persons as from the more abstractly-rendered presence of Christ made available in the Catholic place of worship by word and sacrament. I admit to being a fan of the decidedly old-fashioned art of Catholic statuary myself, in fact, and bear only respect for the unassuming acts of trust it continues to inspire in many believers today, despite having spent a career as a liturgical educator and designer promoting models of place and prayer within the Church some might judge wholly incompatible with such things. I confess, as well, to having made a tidy side-business of repairing statues owned by parish groups and individuals who commend their broken bodies to my care as one might entrust the frame of a cherished family to the hands of a physician. In this latter way, at least, I’ve been able to mimic the life’s work of my paternal grandfather, an Italian-born church painter-decorator, at whose feet I was first introduced to the sculptural possibilities of chalkware, to the appellations unique to each figure in the Church’s long canon of saints, and, generally, to a religious imagination beguiled by the very materiality of this world.

As a young boy I played amidst great companies of saints stored in a back bedroom-studio of the duplex-style home where my own family occupied a flat directly above my grandparents’. On special occasions, I’d sleep there too, fearful always that in the darkness some eyeless figure of St. Lucy or, say, the looming presence of the Immaculate Heart might inch its way closer to my roll-away bed. The place was an “atelier” of a very special sort, part turpentine-scented operating room, part oratory, from which my grandfather’s many Roman-collared customers came and went, bulky statues in hand, like the porters in some great, unending street procession. Those visitors appearing at the door empty-handed, usually left most quickly. On one occasion, for instance, an unsuspecting utility worker discovered half-concealed beneath a drop cloth in a dark corner of the house’s basement what appeared to be the bruised and bloodied corpse of a man, possibly of Middle-Eastern extraction and thirty or thirty-five years of age, both feet of whom had been pinned to a length of wood by a single spike. Terrified by his discovery, the man flew from the scene and summoned the police. Only later did he learn that it was simply an over-sized crucifix awaiting my grandfather’s attention he’d stumbled upon, the artful record of a gruesome crime, to be sure, but not one likely to gain him any notoriety.

“Devotion begets depiction,” I like to say, when pushed to explain the Church’s longstanding reliance on the work of painters, sculptors, and architects.

To a greater or lesser degree, every believer is bound to find something familiar and familial in the images of the saints that remain fixtures in their homes and churches. However, in our electronic age, they’re as likely to emanate from the screens of the PCs and smartphones that prevail in our culture as in the form of cast-plaster. The natural materials from which Catholic devotional objects and sacramentals were once fashioned — wood and metal, paper and felt, lengths of braded palm leaf — have been augmented by those possessing the glow and hum we’ve come to expect from every other part of our modern sphere of possessions. There’s something “icon-producing” and probably laudable about this recent twist in Catholic devotional imagery, however, which is transforming the monitors of the machines we treat as essential windows on the world into nothing short of apertures onto the sacred.

The State of Statues

“Devotion begets depiction,” I like to say, when pushed to explain the Church’s longstanding reliance on the work of painters, sculptors, and architects. Prayer hardened into artistic form gains a sensual-aesthetic dimension that enlarges, enriches, and ultimately preserves its content. In the long tradition of Catholic image-making, one finds the “fossil record” of an organism that crawls, even slithers through its cultural surroundings as often as it strides through them. Some moments in the evolution of the Church’s understanding of itself have brought forth artistic expression of the highest quality. Others are remembered as having produced only mediocrity, aridity, or some degradation of form that signals a malaise within the larger body of Christ. The devotional chalkware known to Catholics in this country is a relatively recent and minor addition to the Church’s vast legacy of artistic achievement, of course. No mass-produced object, regardless its immediate attractiveness, enjoys the stature of one unique in conception and production to its maker. That American Catholics’ love-affair with their statuary persists, however, suggests that it remains a legitimate aid to prayer — for some, even, a sustainer of belief itself amid life’s abundant ugliness — and a source of middle-brow beauty unencumbered by interpretive theories and fancy theologizing.

Certainly, the churches of Europe served as repositories of statues prior to Catholicism’s arrival in this country. Yet, depending on their age and origins, these were usually one-of-a-kind objects carved by hand from stone or wood. In the U.S., where mass-produced furnishings for residential as well as ecclesiastical use became widely available by the mid-19th century, buildings erected by parish communities even of modest means came to be adorned with cast-plaster artworks of various kinds purchasable for a fraction of the cost of their hand-carved counterparts. The thrifty parish priest of the 1860s or 70s and his labor-class flock of Irish or German immigrant-Catholics could obtain a panoply of saints made of nothing but plaster of Paris and still boast of possessing a place of worship as handsomely appointed as any they remembered from their homelands. Each statue ordered from such suppliers of Catholic goods as the Daprato Rigali Studios of Chicago, Milwaukee’s Diederich Schaefer Company or W. and E. Schmidt Company, or numerous smaller businesses scattered throughout the country, reflected a kind of American ingenuity by putting catalogue-quality objects of veneration within reach of the average parish. Entire church buildings, in fact, could be constructed affordably from prefabricated structural components and standardized millwork, their sanctuaries decked out in cast-plaster surrogates for the saints, in a way that combined New World pragmatism with the Church’s most ancient aspirations.

Prayer hardened into artistic form gains a sensual-aesthetic dimension that enlarges, enriches, and ultimately preserves its content.

In the half-century since the Second Vatican Council, as part of the movement to redirect the attention of lay participants in sacred liturgy from what’s sometimes denigrated as “statue worship” to the mysteries emanating from altar and ambo, many pastors have chosen to strip their churches of statuary altogether, or at least to reduce the number of sculpted objects that adorn their interiors. With recent advancements in large-screen digital projection technologies, wall-mounted Jumbotron screens similar to those first popularized in Evangelical churches have replaced the painted or photo-mechanically reproduced images of great holy men and women Catholics have traditionally been moved to venerate by touch as much as sight. Should the sanctuaries or ancillary spaces of buildings be adorned nowadays with three-dimensional depictions of the saints at all, these are apt to be made of vacuum-molded plastic of one kind or another as opposed to the more fragile plaster of Paris. Though far less breakable than their predecessors, they are generally less detailed, and not nearly as colorful. To call them “hand-painted” would be misleading. The truth is that the teams of skilled artisans once employed by manufacturers of Catholic devotional goods — men and women armed with the fine-tipped brushes and palettes full of the kinds of colors required of their craft — have been replaced by skilled airbrush artists who churn out statues with assembly line speed. Gone is the customary “color coding” of the saints with which artists in service to the Church once complied, more or less consistently. A likeness of St. Joseph, for example — a perennial favorite among Catholic and non-Catholic realtors alike for all the wrong reasons — can no longer be expected to feature the earth-toned robes and belts in brown or umber or burnt sienna that iconographic convention once prescribed for them. If the decorative base on which the saint stands is sprayed jet black with no hint of modelling, so likewise will be the lily-crowned staff he carries along with his beard and hair — part of an “editing down” of colors that reduces for the sake of productivity the number of times finish artists are required to change out the color cups of their airbrushes. (Figures of St. Patrick offer a rare exception to this trend, it seems, as even believers least savvy about the art of the Church would regard a mantle or miter finished in anything but some shade of green an obvious mistake.)

Looking Beneath the Plaster

American Catholics generally lament the “flattening out” of the physical setting for the Mass that has occurred in recent decades, a process resulting as much from changes in the way sacred buildings are actually constructed nowadays as from any of the Church’s official directives on sacred art and architecture promulgated in the wake of Vatican II. It may be argued that the place of Catholic worship has lost a measure of the three-dimensionality it historically possessed. The sturdy wall masses that defined the interior perimeters of older churches, thickened by base boards, wainscoting and crown molding — not to mention both floor and ceiling planes finished in masonry veneers — have given way to a cardboard-thin confection of drywall all around. What’s changed as well is the decorative treatment of the sanctuary, which, before Vatican II, was typically thrown into high relief by the assorted shapes within a sculptural backdrop meant to engage the eyes and silent intentions of the Chalkware Catholic consigned to the nave. Stripped of such objects, the sanctuary has regained its role as a place where the saving action of Christ alone, ritually enacted at altar, ambo, and chair, claims the exclusive attention of an assembly praying as one. Directives on the display of devotional objects in churches found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in fact, insist that “their number not be increased indiscriminately” and that by their placement they not draw attention “to themselves and away from the [liturgical] celebration” (GIRM, 318). Pastors in the US are likewise reminded by Built of Living Stones, the instruction on sacred art and architecture promulgated in 2000 by the then National Conference of Catholic Bishops, of the supremacy of liturgical prayer, corporate by nature, in the place of Catholic church building, which may necessitate that objects previously adorning the sanctuary be removed to some fitting “alcove” set aside for “statues or icons” (BLS, 136).

That American Catholics’ love-affair with their statuary persists, however, suggests that it remains a legitimate aid to prayer — for some, even, a sustainer of belief itself amid life’s abundant ugliness — and a source of middle-brow beauty unencumbered by interpretive theories and fancy theologizing.

Pastors and parish liturgy committees with discerning eyes will likely find many alternative locations within a church that may house statues, and their presence need not offend those they serve who boast of possessing the most elevated sensibilities or a manner of worship that tends toward the cerebral. Even for the liturgical purist or the Catholic intellectual, the sculpted surrogate of a saint or some similar object can hold something of value. This may seem surprising in an age when pixels enjoy greater currency than plaster, that our thoroughly naturalized church in the U.S. might wish to disassociate itself from the “peasant art and piety” of its immigrant past. The external expressions of Chalkware Catholicism need not be seen as vitiating the work of liturgical renewal that parishes have undertaken over the last fifty years, however. Properly applied in our churches, statuary art can embody an element of “sacred objecthood” that underlies all Catholic sacramentality, from its highest to its lowest forms, along with what I’ve come to call “sacred mimesis.” To the objects of bread and wine-turned-divine flesh and blood, the Church lends its attention when engaged in its supreme act of prayer, the liturgy of the Eucharist. To objects that emulate flesh and blood through artful slight-of-hand, the Church turns when involved in the lesser prayer-form of devotion. In either case, the Church finds reflections of its true identity, invitations to delve even deeper into the mystery of its salvation, and reason to persist in believing that even the commonest of earthly matter can serve as an entrée to celestial realities.

About Michael E. DeSanctis

Michael E. DeSanctis is Professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its honors program. He serves as a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of places of worship and has written for a number of publications, including Emmanuel.