Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Beauty in Church? Why Art?

Interior of St. Jean Baptiste, New York, NY
During a recent concert
Nicholas Serracino, Italian, 1910-1914
Altar 1925-1930
Photo:  New York Times

A roundabout series of links from another blog (The Deacon's Bench) brought me to a recent article about the return of a number of Catholic churches in the United States to a more traditional "church" look following a period of time in which they had been stripped of all ornament and imagery.  You can read the article here:

That all too many churches were nearly destroyed in this way is a sad fact of recent history, though it has happened before.  Historically, the idea behind it has come from those who feel that there is no room in the church for the visual, that all must be oriented toward the verbal.  This was true in the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century and it was true of the Reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as of the "enlightened" French Revolutionists.  Our recent encounter with iconoclasm was driven by the call to simplicity and poverty -- to identify the church with the poor in spirit by getting rid of anything ornate or beautiful, although ironically, the cost of doing a really good minimalist interior may far exceed that of a more traditional one, due to the high cost of such favorite materials as marble or alabaster clad walls.
Jose Rafael Moneo, Cathedral of the Angels
American, 1998-2002
Los Angeles, CA

Comparison between the post-Vatican II Church of the Holy Trinity in Brainard, NE
with a recent renovation of the same church
Now, granted, some of what existed before Vatican II in the US may have been in poor taste, but by no means all.  That was not true, however, in other, older places, where the same iconoclasm also occurred during the 1970s and 1980s.  I experienced it particularly badly in Ireland, where real iconoclastic crimes were perpetrated.  My own parish in New York's Manhattan escaped fairly lightly, but not without some damage.  The beautiful two-step marble altar railing, with gorgeous mosaic inserts of flowers and other symbols set against a gold background, was ripped out and partly replaced by modernist wooden rails.  In addition, some of the splendid altar furnishings were removed (but happily stored) and rather cheap looking modern furnishings substituted.   However, much of that damage was repaired during the 1997 renovation, when the elaborately carved marble railing from the former lower church was substituted for those destroyed and the original altar furnishings were brought back from storage.

At the time the post-Vatican II iconoclasm occurred there was also a desire on the part of churchmen to identify with the avant garde in architecture, which at that time was resolutely minimalist, possibly in a misguided belief that this would make the church "relevant".  (To whom, one may ask.)

Henri Matisse, Chapel of the Rosary, exterior view
French, 1949-1951
Ronchamp, Alpes Maritimes, France

Henri Matisse, Chapel of the Rosary, interior view

It was the era shortly after Matisse's chapel at Vence and LeCorbusier's at Ronchamp (both in France). Whatever one may say about the architecture of these two buildings I don't think that one could call them warm worship spaces.  (And, interestingly, both men were agnostics who looked upon their work on these buildings as a challenge and exercise in form, not Christians looking to create a space for worship.)  Sadly, these buildings now have a tendency to look very much of their period and thoroughly outdated.

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeannerat)
Swiss, 1950-195
Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut, exterior view
Ronchamp, Haute Soane, France

Le Corbusier, Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut, interior view

The impulse to adapt churches to this pattern was akin to that which spurred so much copycat architecture in the secular world as well, as architects for business fell all over themselves trying to imitate the post-war work of LeCorbusier or Mies van der Rohe.

Le Corbusier, UN Headquarters
Swiss, 1948-1952
New York

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Seagram Building, exterior view
German, 1958
New York

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building, lobby view
New York

The result can be seen in any fairly large American city today, street after street of nearly identical vertical flat roofed boxes, well meant, but intensely boring.

It is hardly surprising then that in the secular world a revolt occurred, beginning in the 1980s, that has given us buildings with shape, either just at the top (as it had with the classical skyscrapers of the 1920s and 30s) or that play with the shape of the entire building, most notably an ensemble of recent buildings in London. 

Recent skyscrapers constructed in London

Such buildings are, in fact, classified as "post-modern".  (So much for lasting relevance!)
However, the interiors of these buildings are usually just as minimalist as those of their predecessors and sometimes not even as functional.  So, it is even less surprising that, after decades of enduring minimalist worship spaces, ordinary parishioners might yearn for the return of something on which their eyes can rest as their hearts are touched.

Which brings me to the questions which form the title for this essay, why should churches be beautiful, why should there be art that is readable, didactic or affective?

Abbey of St. Denis, Choir
French, 1144

Master of St. Gilles, Mass of St. Gilles
French, ca. 1500
London, National Gallery
This painting shows the interior of St. Denis
before most of the furnishings left by Suger
were destroyed in the iconoclasm of the French
Well, one explanation was given by Abbot Suger of St. Denis, back in the twelfth century "The dull mind rises to the truth through material things" and even more fully, in answering some of his own minimalist contemporaries (they had them then too) "To be sure, those who criticize us argue that holy mind, pure heart and faithful intention should suffice ... These are, we agree, the things that matter most; yet we profess that we should also serve God with the external ornaments of sacred vessels, in all internal purity and in all external nobility, and nowhere is this to be done as much as in the service of the holy sacrifice. For it is incumbent upon us in every case to serve our redeemer in the most fitting way for in all things, without exception, he has not refused to provide for us, has united our nature with his in a single, admirable individual, and "setting us on his right hand" he has promised "that we will truly possess his kingdom" (Mtt. 25:33f.)." It is to Suger, incidentally, that we owe the impetus for the birth of the Gothic style.

Another, contemporary, person who has spoken about the value of art in raising human consciousness to contemplation of the divine was Pope Benedict XVI:  "...some expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith."2

In my own life I see the effects that art and beauty can have on the majority of people.  
Hendrick Terbrugghen, Crucifixion with
the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist
Dutch, 1624-1625
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I volunteer, I observe that even the most secular of individuals, even those from non-Western cultures, tend to pause before a work like Terbrugghen's Crucifixion and ponder. I don't really know what is in their minds, but something about the quality of the piece, stark yet not without beauty, pulls them up short, stops them for a moment, makes them think.  

Finally, we live in a world where the idea of the sacred has receded far from our daily lives and where education en masse has failed to introduce the young to Western culture or has introduced it in a negative way. Therefore, many, many people today have no idea what the image they are seeing is actually about. I have noticed this too at the Met, where the descriptions on the wall cards have been expanded recently to describe the action taking place in a painting or statue, be it a Christian scene or a mythological one, because the title can no longer be presumed to bring with it the necessary subject recognition.

In this new world it seems a good idea for Catholics, whether adults or children, to be exposed to the images of their faith as often as possible so that it can become the ground of their psyche, which is more easily reached by art or music than it is by words alone. So, bring on the readable paintings, the Stations of the Cross, the stained glass windows, the marble altars, the gilding and the jeweled sacred vessels. Let us see the scenes we hear about in the Gospels, let us touch a little bit of heaven on earth. We need flesh on the words and food for our imaginations as much, if not more, than our medieval ancestors did. 


© M. Duffy, 2014

10/4/2014 Addendum: In visiting the website of Magnificat, the small monthly prayer book that always features beautifully reproduced art on its cover and inside, for an updated image of its front cover to post in the right hand column of this blog I came across an address given by its American editor that deals with some of the same issues I have touched on here. It makes interesting reading here._________________________________________________________

1. Suger of St. Denis, On Administration (Translation by David Burr), from The Internet Medieval Sourcebook (© Paul Halsall January 1996 - July 2006), Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies, ( For more on Suger see: Abbot Suger and St. Denis: A Symposium, edited by Paula Lieber Gerson, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986 available online at

2. Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience on Art and Prayer, August 31, 2011 quoted in Duncan Stroik, "Benedictus XVI et Via Pulchritudinis", Sacred Architecture, Issue 23, 2013, p. 2.

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