Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Liturgical Beauty

THERE SEEMS TO BE a common idea floating around that the rites of the church, and church buildings themselves, ought to be plain and simple, that the opulent art of the Church somehow goes against the teachings of Christ. This is sometimes followed by the idea that the Church ought to sell her art in order to feed the poor.

But the Old Testament clearly shows that the Tabernacle — the tent of meeting which held the Ark of the Covenant — was extremely elaborate, and that God Himself dictated how it was to be designed.

Also beautiful was the Temple in Jerusalem, which in Our Lord’s time was the largest and likely most elaborate religious structure in the entire Empire. Psalms praise the beauty of the Temple, as a place better than anywhere else. It was there that Christ frequently taught, and which was so holy that He drove out the moneychangers from it. Early Christians worshipped at the Temple until its destruction. Consider that Our Lord foretold that its destruction would be such a traumatic event that people would beg to be killed. Is it not fitting that with the New Testament, we now have a new Temple in every city of the world? And that these symbolic New Jerusalems are likewise elaborate and fitting for God’s glory?

Synagogues, where early Christians also worshiped, according to archaeological evidence, were highly ornate, as well as were the house churches in Rome. So were the catacombs.

One of the laws of Judaism is the ‘hiddur mitzvah’, which commands that the rites must be ornamented with extra effort and beauty in honor of the glory of God. Simply doing the bare minimum, taking a utilitarian view of the sacramental life, or only doing what is essential, ultimately may show a meanness of spirit. Clearly the idea of hiddur mitzvah was inherited by the early Christians, and this principle seems to be strongly rejected in our current utilitarian age.

If the Church sells off her art to feed the poor, wouldn’t the buyers of the art be in a far better position to feed the poor, since apparently they must have a great excess of disposable income to buy what is for them merely an aesthetic object, devoid of authentic spiritual value? Consider that the Church bought the art relatively inexpensively by hiring people to make it, and it has great value now merely due to great age. How about the rich simply giving the Church the money, so that she can feed the poor, as she has always done? Anyone can see church art simply by visiting churches: consider the spiritual harm that can come if that art is decontextualized and secularized — which, I suspect, is what a lot of folks actually want.

The Church has declared that iconoclasm is a heresy, that our churches are to be decorated ‘as a bride for her wedding’, as can be found in the Second Council of Nicaea and the Council of Trent. The Second Vatican Council affirms this:
“Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.”
The calls for plainness and nullity in the rites and buildings of the Church does not come from within the mind of the Church.


  1. Art also had a function as well in Churches. Up until recently, the majority of people could not read or read well. Church art was a way to pass on tenets of the Faith. Stained glass windows depicted Bible scenes. It was common on one side of the Church (or in the same window frame) to have the Old Testament Scene with the New Testament Scene directly opposite that was the foreshadowing or the typological thing. It drives me batty when I see a stained glass window in a Church and I have no idea what it is representing. I don't know if it is because I'm not familiar with the symbolism or if it is just too abstract. And if it is too abstract, doesn't that defeat the purpose? Or at least the purpose of it being in a Church. I'm thinking of one particular example in a local Church. It's a beanstalk. A stained glass beanstalk. I have no clue as to what this represents. At least if the Church is beautiful, it gives you something to look at during the Liturgy of Announcements.

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  3. The Church does need more simplicity, but not in the sense of making its churches or its liturgy less beautiful. For the truly poor, the Church may be the only place they can experience beauty in an otherwise drab and ugly existence.

    Where I would like to see more 'simplicity' -- and I believe this is a big part of the simplicity that Pope Francis is preaching -- is in making the Church and its sacraments, and Catholic education, more accessible to the poor and working classes, which are rapidly becoming more and more "unchurched".

    In my experience, most Catholic parishes and their sacramental preparation programs seem to be designed with intact, middle or upper class families in mind. For example, if you want to take instructions to join the Church you have to commit to attending 6 or 7 months of weekly RCIA classes, usually on a weekday evening. That's not a problem if you keep 9 to 5 work hours and have a spouse at home to watch your children while you attend, but what if you are a single parent working irregular shifts, or must rely on public transportation because you do not have a car? How would they be accomodated?

    Or take the large, sometimes hundreds of dollars, fees that architecturally popular and beautiful parishes charge for non-parishioner couples seeking to be married there. I understand the idea that the couple should be contributing something to the support of the parish; and $100 or even $500 may not seem like too much to ask of an affluent couple already planning to spend $10,000 or more on their wedding. But imposing this condition on a poor or working class couple might convince them that they "can't afford" to marry in the Church at all, so they resort to a non-Catholic or civil wedding only, thereby denying themselves the grace of the sacrament and quite possibly placing themselves in a state of serious sin. Now I know some will argue that a couple who does this is deficient in their faith and should not marry in the Church anyway; but it seems to me that a prime opportunity for evangelizing the couple and bringing them and any children they have into the Church has been lost. You can probably think of other examples.


  4. Elaine you have hit it square on! Look also at how CCD kids have been treated traditionally in parishes with schools, they are considered second class Catholics. We have a large Hispanic population in our Parish but a proportionally small number of Hispanic children attending our school. The school has become an enclave of the affluent and drives the parish further into debt with the diocese with its administration and Parents Group that spends wildly on these affluent kids, and yet the number of "scholarships" are far to few for those who need assistance to send their children to this school. I see few Christian behaviors in this?

    1. Kestral, not enough “workers for the harvest”, as well as too much concern for middle-class issues.

      Regarding liturgical beauty, I’ve seen some new huge suburban parish churches, which are made excessively expensive by having large elaborate gathering spaces, conference rooms, administration offices, etc., while neglecting the beauty of the church itself. What is most important is: the tabernacle, the altar, the sanctuary, the baptistery, and the nave. Everything else is of minor importance.

      On a more humous note, there is a chain of grocery stores called ‘Schnucks’ hereabouts, whose stores have a distinctive architecture. A friend of mine has taken to calling some of the new parish churches ‘Our Lady of Schnucks’ because of the similarity of architectural design. Well, I looked it up, and yes, they were designed by the same architect.

      Evangelization though beauty is something that has been lost lately.

  5. Mark, I agree not enough "workers for the harvest" but I prefer not to characterize the rest as "middle class" issues, the middle class is too maligned already, I prefer to characterize it as consumerism/materialism run wild, fed by the desire to "live like the 1%" Which the 1% has no intention of permitting, they are simply carrot and sticking us!