“Jesus Dies on the Cross, Station XII,” mosaic, by Louisa Jenkins, 1953, in the seminarian’s private chapel at Mount Angel Abbey. Jenkins, who grew up in Seattle, was awarded an honorary degree from St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame for her sacred artwork. Paula Hamilton, director of the Sanctuary for Sacred Arts, describes the mosaic stations as remarkable, pointing out how the artist’s use of green in this station evokes Christ’s agony on the cross. (Courtesy Mount Angel Abbey)
“Jesus Dies on the Cross, Station XII,” mosaic, by Louisa Jenkins, 1953, in the seminarian’s private chapel at Mount Angel Abbey. Jenkins, who grew up in Seattle, was awarded an honorary degree from St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame for her sacred artwork. Paula Hamilton, director of the Sanctuary for Sacred Arts, describes the mosaic stations as remarkable, pointing out how the artist’s use of green in this station evokes Christ’s agony on the cross. (Courtesy Mount Angel Abbey)
The stained-glass window at Holy Rosary Church in Northeast Portland shows Mary covering the baby Jesus in the straw-filled manger, an ox looking over her shoulder and a Dalmatian puppy peeking out from underneath.

Wait.

A Dalmatian?

At Holy Cross Church in North Portland, it’s a rabbi in a fringed shawl, a menorah behind him and a boy wearing a tallit before him. They’re gazing at a Torah scroll, a six-pointed Star of David at their side just in case anyone missed the point that they are Jewish.

Travel south, and at Sacred Heart Church in Medford the stained-glass windows in the nave include images of a snake in a chalice, money purses and a flaying knife nestled into a book.

This sacred art — and the art in many other churches in the archdiocese — is designed to make us stop and think or pray on the stories they tell. They’re part of the rich tradition of meaningful and symbolic art in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church.

The Dalmatians in the windows at Holy Rosary are there because it’s a Dominican parish, and the Dominicans are “Domini canis,” hounds of the Lord. St. Dominic’s first biographer, his contemporary, Blessed Jordon of Saxony, wrote, “Before his mother conceived him, she saw in a vision that she would bear in her womb a dog who, with a burning torch in his mouth and leaping from her womb, seemed to set the whole earth on fire.”

That is why images of St. Dominic so often put a dog — often a Dalmatian — at his side.

“By the mystery of the Incarnation itself, we use sacred images for God,” explained Father Ken Sampson, pastor of Sacred Heart.

He explained that in the Old Testament, to see God was to die. “God only showed himself in obscure images.”

That changed with Christ. “God has a name and a face,” said Father Sampson. As humans, our creation of art, if done properly, is to do something sacred. “Theologically, God is the original artist.”

Sometimes we need refresher courses on the meanings of what we’re seeing, however.

“I think you could make the case that some of the symbolism has been lost,” admitted Father Sampson.

At Sacred Heart, one of the windows in the nave shows a chalice with snakes. The image comes from the legend in which St. John the Evangelist (who is the same as St. John the Apostle) drank without harm from a cup of poisoned wine. It illustrates several lessons, including how our faith, represented by the chalice, saves us from death, represented by the snake.

“That’s a symbol that’s slipped away,” said Father Sampson, adding that once people understand its meaning it might again be a spiritual aid — although effective symbols can sometimes be understood without knowing its details.

Father Sampson offers four staples of art in Catholic churches: first, the crucifix, “for us, a postcard of what love looks like, of total self-sacrifice”; second, the Holy Family, models of how we are all called to form family; third, art showing saints and martyrs, reminders of how they gave their testimony; and fourth, Stations of the Cross.

While these are universal, artists bring them to life in unique ways — ways that can speak to us if we slow down to take in the artist’s message. Sometimes we also need to open ourselves to look beyond our own preferences for what sacred art should look like.

Often a single image tells many stories. That’s the case of the window at Holy Cross Church, showing the boy and the rabbi. Jesus was known for his love of learning in the temple, and the image evokes that. But it’s also the more recent story of Father Thomas Jackson, pastor of Holy Cross, whose Orthodox Jewish family disowned him when he converted to Catholicism. It’s about the kinship Catholicism has with Judaism, about respect for holy Scripture and our elders.

At St. Clare Parish in Southwest Portland, parishioner Paula Hamilton said she appreciates how, every now and then, there’s a description in the bulletin explaining a piece of art.

Hamilton, a Benedictine oblate with a master’s degree in theology, is executive director of the Sanctuary for Sacred Arts, also in Southwest Portland.

Hamilton loves to visit churches and take in the works of art that tell stories. “Those images of the saints can teach us about who these people were — common people, like ourselves, but who did amazing things.”

She prefers art that challenges the viewer, but beauty is primary. “Beauty opens us up to God,” she said.

Hamilton especially loves two installations of Stations of the Cross that few Catholics see. The first is at Mount Angel Abbey, in a chapel for seminarians that is not open to the public. The stations there are mosaic art, created in the 1950s by the painter and mosaic artist Louisa Jenkins. In the 12th station, Jesus dies on the cross, the face of Christ is outlined on one side with green tile. “It speaks of agony,” Hamilton said. “It’s very powerful.”

She encourages viewers to think about why artists chose to show their stories the way they did. “Ask yourself, ‘Why is the art like this?’”

Another Station of the Cross installation that Hamilton praises is the Scriptural Stations of the Cross, sculpted by Lynn Kiefer Kobylecky, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Carlton.

Kiefer was on the flight that crash landed at East Burnside and 157th in East Portland in 1978. She wrote, explaining her sacred art in a showing, that she prayed to God as the plane was going down: “I did not know who God was at the time, but he heard my prayer anyway.”

She has created sacred art ever since, in thanks to God.

The stations at the abbey are three-dimensional clay bas-reliefs, incorporating Bible verses. “I was motivated to create them after I began connecting Bible verses, verses that are so powerful, with the stations,” Kobylecky said.

“They have so much empathy,” Hamilton said of the stations. “You have to stare at them in wonder.”