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.