Does a beautiful Church building matter to Christians? What about adornments like statues, altar rails, decorative pews and such? Stained glass… Stations of the Cross… the placement and design of the Tabernacle… If God is everywhere, especially in the humble and downtrodden, should beauty matter?
An article in the UK’s Telegraph shares a statistic that should be of interest to Christians: “Around 13 percent of teenagers said that they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral, according to the figures. The influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.”
What’s your experience? Have you found a secure, prayerful refuge in the Catholic Church either in part because of, or despite your physical surroundings in Church buildings?
Speaking for myself, I am certain that beautiful, other-worldly sacred spaces help me to pray, and help me to imagine and connect with God. That’s why I am thrilled to see a revival – if not of a full-fledged boom of artisans – of at least an understanding and appreciation for their value in society, and specifically in the Church. Recognizing that these skills are not conjured in a day, or reinvented from the ground-up, we should rejoice that in small pockets, there are men and women dedicating their lives to the preservation and restoration of beauty in the old ways, that things might not be lost. And we must be ready to support them, both spiritually and materially, as patrons of the arts.
Today, I’d like to present the Brothers Stuflesser, fifth-generation woodcarving artisans with a 300-year-old family atelier in the Northern Italian Alps. These three short videos will do a much better job than my own words ever would. Check out these three videos, and then ponder the words below from two popes and the Catechism. Let us, together, be part of a restoration of Beauty in Holy Mother Church – the House of Beauty, Incarnate.
The Catholic Church Speaks on Beauty in Art
1. Excerpts from Saint John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists
“In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty. This was well understood by the Greeks who, by fusing the two concepts, coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. On this point, Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful”.(5)”
“Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers…”
“May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude…People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world”.(25)”
“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!”.(26)“
2. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
(As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in a 2002 letter to the Communion and Liberation Movement)
“To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”
3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church Paragraphs 2500-2502
2500 The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous spiritual joy and moral beauty. Likewise, truth carries with it the joy and splendor of spiritual beauty. Truth is beautiful in itself. Truth in words, the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality, is necessary to man, who is endowed with intellect. But truth can also find other complementary forms of human expression, above all when it is a matter of evoking what is beyond words: the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God. Even before revealing himself to man in words of truth, God reveals himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of his Word, of his wisdom: the order and harmony of the cosmos-which both the child and the scientist discover-“from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator,” “for the author of beauty created them.”
[Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. For [wisdom] is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. I became enamored of her beauty.
2501 Created “in the image of God,” man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works. Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man’s own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing. To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.
2502 Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,” in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.
Not everyone can be an artist (in his vocation or profession, at least) but as Catholics, we are compelled to support the arts – and I mean true, tradition-bound arts that aim at communicating ineffable, poetic, sacred beauty. We should pray for a restoration of beauty in our churches, our manners, our sacred aids to prayer in the home. We should, insofar as it’s possible on a budget, purchase beautiful pieces of art for our homes and/or as gifts. We should care for and maintain old things passed down to us, as well as supporting living artists who are carrying on and tending the flame of these works in our own day. We should look for opportunities for our churches to commission new sacred art to support these artists. And so I conclude with a personal battle cry: eschew aschemiolatry (the cult and worship of ugliness)! We Catholics have a distinct and sacramentally-informed role to play in restoring beauty to a world that thirsts for meaning. Let us first recapture beauty, ourselves, so that we can show her forth to the world, inviting all to the fullness of Beauty in Christ.
Catholic Contemporary Artists Producing and Restoring Sacred Art
…who did we miss? Let us know and we’ll add them.