Beauty is a necessity, not a luxury. …without beauty, the duties prove too hard and, eventually, seem pointless.
Why is it that we feel happier when we’re in the presence of beauty? And why do drab or utilitarian surroundings make us feel sort of listless or depressed, or even agitated? We instinctively respond to beauty, just as we keenly, if unconsciously, sense it’s absence.
Understanding this difference between objective and subjective judgment is crucial to our understanding of beauty and indeed reality.
Is it possible to speak objectively about what’s beautiful and what isn’t? Joseph Pearce argues that we can, though we will first need to be open to the truth that there is such a thing as an objective standard for beauty. That’s a tough sell today, and requires a large dose of humility.
When it comes to art, especially sacred art, we don’t know what we don’t know.
In the article linked below, Catholic artist and author David Clayton writes about the collapse in art education and the resulting fruits we see around us every day, even in our churches. He also provides a detailed description of how sacred art “works,” and what we need to do to recover a genuinely Christian approach to art.
It is no accident that much of the most beautiful art and music in the Western tradition has been religious, and that a good deal of that has been produced for use in the sacred liturgy.
Evangelization isn’t just giving people a set of propositions, or a rulebook to follow. It’s inviting them into a relationship with the living God. But first we must get their attention. Human beings are by nature drawn to beauty. If we want people to fall in love with God, we must give them a glimpse of His loveliness.
Of course, love is the primary way we do this. But it’s a mistake to think that the outward forms of the Faith—liturgy, music, art, architecture—are superfluous. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These outward manifestations of beauty reveal something of the great love of God for us. They are also a sign of our love for Him.
There’s so much ugliness and banality all around us—it’s the hallmark of our post-Christian age. The Church must provide a refuge from all that.
The article linked below describes the connection between beauty and right worship, and explains why “there are no box stores… in the City of God.”
Unless you happen to be an architecture buff, you may not know the name Pugin, though you’ve certainly seen some of his work. The Houses of Parliament and St. Stephen’s clock tower (known colloquially as “Big Ben,” which is actually the name of the bell inside) in London are two of the 19th century architect’s most famous contributions. But they’re not his most important contribution.
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was born in 1842 and died a mere 40 years later. During his short life, his work inspired an architectural movement that changed the British landscape and gave us many of the structures that today we so readily identify as British.
Pugin had a powerful moral vision for Britain, which was at that time experiencing the disruption of the industrial revolution and the decadence of the Georgian monarchy. A convert to the Catholic faith at a time when being Catholic was still a risky career move, he believed that architecture was the key to bringing about a renewed Christian society. For him, this Christian architecture was Gothic. The Gothic style represented a pure, medieval Christian faith and morality: precisely what the country had lost after the Protestant revolution. His Gothic revival churches in particular, such as St. Giles in Cheadle, Staffordshire, are testaments to his Catholic faith and medievalist vision.
Why is Pugin important for us today? We’ve talked a lot at St. Mark about the concept of lex orandi, lex credendi. That is, the way we worship both influences, and is influenced by, what we believe. There’s a similar idea in Pugin’s thought. For him, “bad” architecture is a sign of a spiritually sick society. But he also proposed that creating better, spiritually uplifting architecture would help cure society’s ills. He believed in the power of beauty to change souls.
Take an hour sometime to watch the video linked below. Not only is it a superb presentation, but it tells the deeply moving story of the young man whose heart burned to restore a more moral, a more Catholic, Britain.
One of the curious things about late-20th century church “renovations” is the sheer amount of work that went into hiding or eliminating many of the beautiful elements which marked these older buildings. These modernizations have not aged well, and a lot of time and money is now being spent to undo the changes and restore these buildings to something resembling their former dignity. For another example of this, look at the before-and-after shots in this article from the Liturgical Arts Journal.
As we consider the future of our own church building at St. Mark, let’s try to think beyond contemporary trends and imagine how what we do will be received by future generations.
Here’s an another great example, by the way of the Liturgical Arts Journal, of how restoring color to our Catholic churches can make such a big difference. This is from St. Patrick’s Oratory in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As we’ve learned watching the videos by Denis McNamara, returning beauty to our church buildings is not just about making things pretty—it helps churches fulfill their role of making Heaven present to us.
Children are naturally interested in making art, and of course this should be encouraged. In fact, basic art skills such as drawing should be a part of a well-rounded education. Many well-known artists first learned to draw in school.
Catholic artist David Clayton provides a valuable perspective on art education for kids (or anyone, for that matter):
For something a little different, here is a link to an article in the Liturgical Arts Journal on hand-made altar cards, created by Pelican Printery House in Lincoln, Nebraska. For those not familiar with altar cards, these are the cards that are framed and placed on the altar, containing some key Mass texts for the priest to refer to during the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. It’s wonderful to see this kind of art still being made today.