Maltese artist Manuel Farrugia shows we shouldn't write off Catholic art just yet

The quality of religious art has long been a matter of concern to this magazine. Once the art of the Catholic Church – and that includes sculpture, painting, architecture and music – was the best in the world; nowadays, not so much. Indeed, remembering that this is the Church of Bernini, Michelangelo and Palestrina, it is only right that we should lament the poor quality of much contemporary art that has found its way into the Catholic milieu and ask ourselves, how did it come to this?

One answer, which is hardly a comfortable one, goes like this: art requires inspiration. The artists of the Counter-Reformation period were deeply inspired by their faith in God and their faith in the mission of the Church; hence they produced great works. In our own period, religion has failed to inspire, with a few exceptions. So, it is not that there is no talent around, it is rather that the talent there is is not drawn to religion. So, we religious people need to get out there and stir up some religious fervour.

Another answer that is sometimes given is that there is good art out there, but we are too blinded by the glories of the past to see it. In other words, because we are wedded to the past, we want contemporary artists who produce works like Bernini’s, that is to say, we want pastiche, we do not want modern, challenging and contemporary works.

I am by no means sure about this argument, though I think that refuting it might take a book rather than a short article like this one. But the truth seems to me to be as follows: artists such as Tracey Emin tend to work in a direction that has nothing to do with religion, simply because they are not drawn to communicating beauty. There is nothing wrong with this per se, and I think Emin is an important social commentator; it is just that she has nothing to say about God, but rather speaks of a world without God. The same goes for many of her contemporaries.

But why can’t contemporary artists express beauty in the way that the Catholic tradition did, without falling into the dreaded pastiche? Perhaps I betray my absolute ignorance here, but there seems to me no reason why contemporary artists shouldn’t produce something as good as the work of, let us say, Guido Reni. Some years ago, I wrote about John Nava’s tapestries in the Cathedral of Los Angeles which struck me as being in the great tradition of Guido. Much to my surprise, this drew a furious response from one reader who dismissed any reverence for Guido and asserted that instead, we should all be painting icons – in other words, we should turn to any tradition but our own. However, I still think Guido the best and I still think the Los Angeles tapestries are wonderful.

I was recently reminded on my visit to Malta that there is no reason to write off the Catholic tradition just yet. This altar piece was painted just a few years ago. [see below] It is the work of a young Maltese artist called Manuel Farrugia and can be found in the parish church of Marsaxlokk. There are other pictures of his in the parish Church of Paola, also in Malta. Mr Farrugia does not seem to have a website, but you can look at some of his pictures via his Facebook profile. I love them, and I think they prove that academic painting is not dead, and should not be dismissed as pastiche.

Two last points which are of vital importance. As in Los Angeles with John Nava’s tapestries, so on a smaller scale in Malta – the clergy have got to commission such works and be free to do so. And finally, as Mr Farrugia himself says: “I believe that if I was not a religious person, I would not have put so much dedication in this work.”

Only great religious fervour will produce great religious art.