Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Beauty’

Like a Bride Adorned for Her Husband

May 30th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

This is a post originally published September 12, 2011. I am re-posting it after attending the rite for the ordination of deacon this past Saturday. I did a post yesterday that was critical of the lack of emphasis on the altar. From where I was sitting –on the right side of the nave about halfway down– I could not see the altar or more than the tops of the heads of the clergy at the altar. Not being able to see much of the liturgy I took to looking around and noticing, once again, some beautiful things, most noticeably the beautiful stained glass windows. They remind me of what I think is a very important concept a Catholic church building should convey.

The photos you see in this post are from the original post. The last one, especially, does not convey the full blue appearance of the windows as I saw them Saturday. The second to last window is a little truer to the effect I noticed.

Click on the Photos to see larger images.

Rev 21 [1] Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. [2] I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.


Rev  21 [11] It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.


Rev 21 [18] The wall was constructed of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. [19] The foundations of the city wall were decorated with every precious stone; the first course of stones was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald,[20]the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh hyacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. [21]The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl; and the street of the city was of pure gold, transparent as glass.

The church building in the Catholic tradition is more than just a gathering space for an assembly of people. It is a symbol of the New Temple –the people of God- and of the Heavenly Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven” dressed like a bride. The building should predispose us to experience the liturgy as timeless, incorporating in worship both all in heaven and all on earth. It is difficult to see how that experience can happen in a minimalist environment. I’m not going to say impossible, but, for most people, difficult.

Look around carefully and you can find in the Cathedral several suggestions of the heavenly Jerusalem in addition to the windows.


I can say something positive about our Cathedral even after the notorious renovation: the beautiful windows are still there. They form the equivalent of walls of jasper, gold, precious stones, pearls, sapphires and such, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The bride –the Church—is adorned in beautiful garments as she goes to meet her Lord.

Take heart! Not all is lost.

Book Review: “The Way of Beauty”

September 9th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

From the New Liturgical Movement website

Book Review: David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College


IMG_9804Clayton’s remarkable compendium, The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College, was published this summer by Angelico Press. The book and its subtitle tell you a great deal: this book indeed covers “the way of beauty” in so many rich ways, tying together not only the several fine arts themselves (in detailed assessments of how works of art actually function educationally and liturgically), but also the larger cultural context in which…

Read the whole review, here.

Mutual Enrichment, Anglican Patrimony, and the Ordinariate

December 27th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

An article by Matthew Alderman I ran across this morning on the New Liturgical Movement website:

Fr. Bartus, an avid reader of The New Liturgical Movement, sends along this item:

“Fr. Andrew Bartus, ordained in July as a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, has received an ordination gift of a set of exquisite white-and-gold Spanish-style vestments. Designed and gifted by Garry South, of Los Angeles, whose hobby for more than 25 years has been designing traditional vestments, the chasuble is modeled on the shape and ornamentation of a 19th century Spanish set.

“The set will be inaugurated at the Christmas Mass at Blessed John Henry Newman Catholic Church in Santa Ana, California, Fr. Bartus’s Ordinariate congregation that worships using the Anglican Use texts approved by the Vatican for former Anglicans that are received into the Catholic Church.

“South’s interest in vestment design was sparked when he converted from the Evangelical and Pentecostal tradition of his youth to the Episcopal Church, and lived for several years in…   

Read the full article here. And, see more pictures!

Ramifications for the Liturgy -do you think?

September 28th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie
True beauty satisfies the human heart.
(from The National Catholic Register)

Register illustration via “Shutterstock”

“…My interest in the influence of beauty on mental health arose in graduate school at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. I heard a series of lectures by philosopher Kenneth Schmitz in which he addressed the relationship between the transcendental qualities of being (truth, goodness, unity and beauty) and the practice of psychology. This really caught my attention — in part because I had heard very little about the topic previously. In particular, it struck me that I knew of no place in psychology where beauty — understood in its depth — and its role in human health had been addressed in a direct, conscious way…
In my research, I found empirical studies showing that exposure to natural beauty is salutary, actually improving physical and mental health. There are also health benefits of exposure to artistic beauty, as expressed in painting and music. I became increasingly aware of how the various forms of beauty can help to heal the human person, particularly in terms of psychological healing…”      Read more

A Gem in Geneva – Part III

September 22nd, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie


Part I

Part II

Here I share with you the stained glass windows of St. Stephen’s Church in Geneva, New York. The most interesting of these beautiful windows is the large one that rises above the narthex and main doors. The subject is the Jesse Tree. My camera is just not sophisticated enough to do it justice from below so you will have to travel to Geneva to really appreciate it.

(you will definitely want to click on the pictures to see sharper images)

"The Jesse Tree"

detail of "The Jesse Tree"

detail "The Jesse Tree"

detail "The Jesse Tree"

detail "The Jesse Tree"

"The Jesse Window"

some of the south (side) windows

detail of one of the south windows


one of the south windows


one of the north windows (?)

church sign

main entrance

 This is the last in the series on St. Stephen’s Church. The church is part of “Our Lady of Peace” parish.

A Gem in Geneva – Part II

September 21st, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series

Here are some more pictures from my visit to St. Stephen’s Church in Geneva. The sculptor who decorated this church is the same, if I remember correctly, who also did the work in Blessed Sacrament Church in Rochester. Anyone know his name? I apologize for not researching it.

I would call this a beautiful Catholic church. How do we know if a Catholic church is beautiful? Is there any standard we can apply? Is it just a matter of opinion and personal taste? I’ve published here, before, my thoughts on that subject. If you are interested, browse through our topics list on the right side of the homepage. I have several posts under the headings beauty, beautiful, Catholic images and a few more.

(click on pictures to see clearer images)

Lessons and Carols – St. Thomas the Apostle, Sunday at 3:00 PM

January 6th, 2012, Promulgated by Gen

We would like to announce that there will be a service of Lessons and Carols this Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany, at St. Thomas the Apostle Church at 3:00 PM. Please do your utmost to attend what is sure to be a beautiful service, offered by the parish and presided over by Fr. Frank Lioi. The service, which has its illustrious roots in the Anglican tradition, has been “Catholicized,” and features many Gregorian chants particular to Christmas and the Epiphany. If you are looking for a beautiful, traditional, and sacred way to end your holiday season, this is your chance!


Feast Your Eyes

October 18th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption

Covington, Kentucky

A very beautiful Basilica, containing one of the largest church stained glass windows in the world. In fact this Basilica is a profusion of beautiful stained glass. A beautifully illustrated book is available to explain the symbolism of many of the windows.

View panoramic picture here

Cathedral Website Homepage here


Now Consider Skill, Sacredness, and Noble Beauty

October 12th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

In my last post I offered a negative evaluation of the Lourdes triptych of “The Resurrection” based on the work’s unorthodox presentation of the Supper at Emmaus. Orthodoxy prevents the hijacking of the liturgy for heretical, social and political purposes and is, therefore the most important standard in measuring the suitability of a work for the liturgy. My suggestion was to stay away from anything the least bit innovative or trendy when it comes to content (that includes unorthodox interpretations suggested by the artist’s design). The Liturgy and everything associated with it must be unambiguously orthodox.

In this post I would like to offer a further evaluation of the triptych based on three other criteria that I use to judge a proposed or existing work of liturgical art. Like orthodoxy, the three criteria come from Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council.

We can examine the triptych by asking three questions that represent the three criteria.

First, to what extent is the work of high quality in terms of material and artistic skill?

Those who commented on the triptych in the first post of this series overwhelmingly saw the same problem with the artistic skill demonstrated in the work. Briefly, the panels, to them, look “amateurish.”

The triptych project required a skill in composing and rendering the human figure in a naturalistic style. Unfortunately, in this work, the artist’s skill does not rise to the occasion. We sense that he wants the figures to appear not just naturalistic but realistic, and his skill at pulling it off falls short which is distracting. The problem is noticeably evident in his rendering of the heads and faces, and hands. The poses seem unnatural, even comical.

1. The artist certainly possesses some skill he depicting the figure -notice the foreshortening in the hands- but has trouble with Mary's right and left forearm and elbow. Readers remarked negatively about the artist's skill at depicting teeth and expressions.

The artist who created the triptych is not known as a figurative painter but as a landscape painter. Figurative work is not part of his repertoire. Artists tend to be grouped into categories of subjects they specialize in. One of the most basic of categorical divisions is between figurative (works in which the human figure is the main subject) and non-figurative (works in which the human figure is not included or in which figures play a very minor role). This artist here is known for his non-figurative watercolor landscapes. That is the subject, medium and technique at which he excels. He was not a suitable choice for this project and as a result the figures in the panels appear awkward or amateurish.

It is interesting that one of our readers commented that he liked the landscape backgrounds. That is because landscapes are this artist’s forte, not figures.

2. The artist of the triptych is here shown working out of doors on one his many watercolor landscapes for which his is well known.

There are certainly skillful aspects to the triptych, among them: the harmony of colors and balance of tones and the suggestion of new life through the use of high value colors. If you can concentrate on just the color and distribution of tones across the three panels you can sense that he has skill at balancing tones and controlling color. He also is knowledgeable and skillful at coordinating the elements for the purpose of emphasis and movement.

3. The artist is skillful at organizing the elements to create emphasis. Notice the downward sweep of Christ's left arm joins with the upward sweep of the smoke. the movement then returns to Christ by way of the sail of the boat. In this way he unifies the figures and frames them, lending emphasis to the figures. Notice that the figures in the background lean in toward the center grouping further enhancing emphasis. There are however some awkward mergers between the foreground and background. Notice the awkward alignment of the mast of the boat with the left contour of the apostle's head. The water line, too, is awkwardly aligned with the bottom of the boat and the shoulders of three of the figures.

The artist is a well known successful artist and teacher in our region. Unfortunately he was asked to do something outside his area of expertise.

Second. To what extent does the work have the exclusive aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God?

A religious subject alone is not sufficient for qualifying a work of art as sacred. The work must express a redeemed, glorified, and transcendent world. Even the depiction of scriptural historical accounts must –in my opinion- be represented in the light of God’s plan for man and the world. Time in the liturgy is God’s time. Everything, including past events, must be depicted as glorified, transformed. The prayers, language, gestures, movements, art and music must all reflect the reality that we are attending the liturgy of heaven. We are joined by the angels and saints in a heavenly Jerusalem.

4. "The Conversion of St. Paul", Caravaggio (1600-1601), Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popola, Rome. The artist's use of light here suggests Divine Light -God's intervention into human history. The light pierces the darkness of this world. God is Light! The world is redeemed just as St. Paul was converted. The event now enters God's time.

Liturgical art is a specialty. Just being a professional artist is not good enough. The artist must be familiar with the history of liturgical art and must be familiar with and understand the scriptures, and commentaries on the scriptures. He must have more than a passing knowledge of applicable Church teachings, dogmas and doctrines and their history and explanations; same with knowledge of the saints. Further, he must be able to articulate how liturgical art through the history of the Church has presented a particular scriptural text, doctrine, or saint.

"The Annunciation", Father Marko Ivas Rupnik, Mosaic

5. "The Annunciation", Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik, Mosaic. Divine Light pierces human history here, also. But the artist -a professional liturgical artist- also includes other doctrinal symbols. Once again, we see an historical event transfigured.


Liturgical art commissions should be awarded to artists who have demonstrated success as liturgical artists. Unfortunately, many works originate with pastors or parish councils or committees that really have no knowledge of what good liturgical art should look like and so awards go to somebody’s relative or friend, or, in this case, a member of the parish who happens to be an artist. Sometimes the artist is a professional, but too often the person is just a “Sunday” painter. The artist here is a well known professional.

6. This is one of the beautiful watercolor landscapes by Dick Kane, the artist who painted the "Resurrection" triptych.

But, the artist in this instance has no liturgical art background as far as I know. He is not known as a liturgical artist. As a result, the triptych fails to do more than narrate a story although the artist’s use of high value color does suggest a peaceful and transcendent aspect to the scenes. Unfortunately, the colors in the triptych have to fight the lack of skill in the handling of the figures and the result is prettiness, or suggestive of a children’s book illustration.

Needless to say, a work might be religious but not necessarily liturgical. These triptych panels fall into the category of religious, not liturgical.

Third. To what extent does the triptych exhibit noble beauty? Has the artist used the elements of design effectively according to the principles of design to create a lofty feeling rather than a common or base one?

To get an answer we can refer once again to the comments our readers posted in reaction to my first post regarding the triptych. We see among the comments a consensus that suggests the panels seem better suited to classrooms for young students or perhaps a youth group, or to children’s religious books, coloring books, etc.

7. "The Assumption", Carracci (a rival of Carravaggio), 17th century. Everything comes together to form a work of noble beauty: pose, expressions, control of light and dark patterns, movement, balance...


Noble beauty is a difficult goal. It is liturgical artists who are best qualified to know traditional approaches for creating noble beauty. Professional, non-liturgical, artists are also qualified in this area but we need an artist who is both a professional and a liturgical artist.

8. "Supper at Emmaus" Icons are particularly expressive of a transfigured reality and possess noble beauty.

Unfortunately, this triptych just doesn’t measure up as a liturgical work of art. I suspect the fault is not with the artist but with the person(s) who oversaw the project from its inception. The artist was simply asked to do something out of his field and the patron didn’t have a clue as to what was required. This kind of thing happens all the time when it comes to commissioning a liturgical work -the patron (even if -and sometimes especially because- the patron is a committee) often doesn’t know what he (or it) is doing.

In my next post I would like to try to outline how I think such projects for churches should be organized and supervised to ensure a product that can properly predispose us to receive an abundance of graces from participation in the liturgy.


Picture Sources

1. Photo by a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Brighton


3. Photo by parishioner






The “Righteousness of the Plain”

October 3rd, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

1. Monastery of Kloster Eberbach, 1145-1160 and 1170-1186, Frankfurt

The phrase –“the righteousness of the plain”– is used by Robin M. Jensen in her 2004 book The Substance of Things Seen [1] to describe the view of many that art in worship marks the “beginning of a slide down into vanity, materialism, and –ultimately—idolatry.” God should be worshipped in simplicity and free of distracting “trappings.” Art is viewed by such folks as self-indulgent and, at the very least, an unnecessary expense. Better that the money be spent on meeting the basic needs of people, especially the poor. The Church should concentrate on good works rather than beautiful works.

Jensen points out that a text from Isaiah is often cited by holders of this view.

“When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bring offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:12-13. 16-17)

The “righteousness of the plain” view understands feelings and sensory experiences to be improper to religion. Religion should be a dispassionate activity. Art “awakens appetites” and “arouses passions” and can tempt people to sin.

We recognize this viewpoint as representative of puritanical Protestantism. There are exceptions, to be sure, but we identify the view, in general, with Protestants. Catholics often describe a plain church as looking “protestant.”

But this passion for the plain has a tradition in Catholicism as well. For pretty much the same reasons, “Cistercian monastic architecture –under the influence especially of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)– was characterized by its simplicity and austerity. In contrast to the richly carved capitals and portals at other monasteries, Cistercian art was minimal, with almost no figurative carvings to distract the monks.” [2]

2. The "architecture of light" of Acey Abbey represents the pure style of Cistercian architecture, intended for the utilitarian purposes of liturgical celebration

Saint Bernard, in a letter to William of St. Thierry, writes:

“…the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the costly polishing, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper’s gaze and hinder his attention… The church is resplendent in her walls, beggarly in her poor; she clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked; the rich man’s eye is fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find their delight here, yet the needy find no relief.” [3]

3. 12th-century Cistercian

Bernard’s austere aesthetics and numerous rules eventually outlawed the use of paintings and other images in his monastic churches. His rules it must be remembered, were for monks who had withdrawn from the people, “we who left all the precious and beautiful things of the world for Christ’s sake.” Bernard, however, notes that bishops and their parishes have an excuse for expensive worship in “being debtors to the wise and the unwise, and unable to excite the devotion of carnal folk by spiritual things, do so by bodily adornments.” [4] Clearly, even in the case of non-monastic churches, Bernard disparaged use of liturgical art.

4. "Quietly Beautiful" Novy Dvur contemporary monastery in the Bohemia area of the Czech Republic. Photo by Ståle Eriksen

Although St. Bernard sees the use of images and decoration in worship as having the potential for descending into idolatry, he seems to object most to what he understands as the distracting aspect of decoration, and the contradiction between expensive worship and care for the poor.

I suppose someone should have asked Bernard if he found Jesus –the image of the invisible Father- “distracting?” The sacramental nature of liturgical images, based upon the theology of the Incarnation (affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea 787) [5], would seem to place St. Bernard’s thinking on the subject of the use of holy images in churches at odds with the teaching of the wider Church. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformers several centuries later echoed Bernard’s thoughts. [6]

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council we witnessed an onslaught of minimalism in the construction and renovation of churches that only recently, after forty years of iconoclastic thinking, seems to be running out of steam. The minimalist tendency had already been evident in the liturgical reform movement leading up to the Council. It gained momentum quickly after the Council mostly as a result of the interaction of the thinking of the Council with regards to active participation in the liturgy and the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s: rejection of authority and tradition, and the intensity of emotions over racial and social justice concerns.

Austere simplicity of church buildings is generally outside the mainstream of Catholic architectural tradition being relegated, for the most part, to monastic environments andl church architecture that became popular with liturgists of the second part of the 20th century. I do not mean to imply, of course, that austere simplicity cannot be beautiful or, even, Catholic. We have a strong tradition of monasticism in the Catholic Church and we formulated, after all, Western thought on social justice and effective care for the poor and marginalized. Rejection or at least abstension from sensual stimulation is within our tradition and as much a pathway to spiritual union with God as reflecting on beautiful art and music. I can’t go into the details of such spirituality here, only to point out that it is a ligitimate pathway that yeilds great fruit not only to monks but to a large segment, if not a majority, of Catholic faithful. I think that it would be difficult to find a page in “My Imitation of Christ” (by Thomas à Kempis) without word about letting go of this world and its sensual allures. Then, there is the example of the covering of statues and paintings during the last two weeks of Lent.  The Cistercian approach is a strong one in our tradition, if not a dominate one.

We each have our preferences, of course, but the vast majority of the Catholic faithful are not monks or nuns under a rule of austere simplicity and chastity. Diocesan churches, it seems to me should adhere to the thinking of the Second Council of Nicaea and employ images and decoration in churches –and not be cheap or stingy about it. The Second Vatican Council did not change the policy of images in churches; indeed, it stressed their importance.

It does not help that often art or “decoration” is viewed as not essential, as actually have a role to play in the liturgy. Since it is thought of as “frivolous”, it is usually one of the last things considered in a budget and only if money is left over.



[1] The Substance of Things Seen; Art, Faith, and the Christian Community, Robin M. Jensen, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004)  pp 79-80

[2]  Sacred Destinations

[3] Early Medieval Art 300-1150, Carcilia Davis-Weyer, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1986)  pp 168-69

[4] Early Medieval Art… 169

[5] “…the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.  … we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.”

[6] St. Bernard did hold some doctrines that the Protestant Reformers would later resurrect. His theology contains a mix of Protestant and Catholic doctrines. Calvin, for example, quotes Bernard several times to show the historical validity of “faith alone”, and his concept of justification was important to the Protestants. I don’t mean to imply by this that Bernard is not worthy to be a Doctor of the Church; that would be ridiculous. Only that his thinking could at times, on certain topics, seem to not obviously exemplify traditional Catholic teaching.

Picture Sources





5. and 6. Cistercian Abbeys, History and Architecture, Photos by Henri Gaud and Text by Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, (China, Könemann, 2006)


Another “Which one?” Post

September 28th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie
(click on the photos to see a larger image)
If you had no other choice, which one would you choose to worship at each week for the next year: A or B?
Can you state your reasons for us?
Picture Source
Cistercian Abbeys, History and Architecture, Photos by Henri Gaud and Text by Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, (China, Könemann, 2006)

Evidence of the Unredeemed

June 10th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

I was recently in the Shanghai Museum in Shanghai, China, wandering through its wonderful collection of bronze, ceramic and porcelain ware, clothing, furniture, calligraphy, painting, and other arts. Two vases from the period circa 3,000 to 800 B.C. caught my eye and reminded me of what is, I believe, a truism of human behavior; namely, that once the basic needs of nourishment, clothing, shelter, and security are provided humans turn to the creation of beauty. The more secure we become and the more thorough our basic needs are met, the more sophisticated and intense becomes our quest to create beauty.

Fig. 1 LEFT: Red Pottery Vase with Pointed Bottom, Xiwangcun Type of Yangshao Culture, 3000-2700 B.C.; MIDDLE: Detail of vase on left; RIGHT: Impressed Pottery Lei (Pot), Western Zhou, 11th century - 771 B.C.

One of the vases [Fig. 1 Left and Middle] (ca. 3,000 – 2,700 B.C.) in the museum has a utilitarian form interesting enough in itself. But, what caught my attention was the textural pattern of parallel lines scratched freehand over the entire surface of the vase. In addition, a less pointed instrument had been used to incise a pattern of lines around the vase and over the scratched pattern. The relative spontaneity of the decoration is perhaps indicative of a first step in the quest to beautify.

Next to the vase I just described was another one [Fig. 1 Right] from a later period (ca. 1,100 – 770 B.C.). Its form is also interesting but it exhibits a greater care for symmetry than the other even though it, too, was constructed using a basic coil (snake) technique. This vase, however, has a rich array of different patterns that were paddled or pressed into the moist clay at the time of construction. Much effort must have gone into creating this decoration as the patterns would have had to be created first, on a separate object, and then stamped or paddled into the moist surface of the vase. The quest for beauty had apparently intensified.

Fig. 2 Women's Embroidered Garment, Yi, Yunna, ca. 1975

The quest is also evident on another floor of the museum, in the display of Chinese minority costumes [Fig. 2] used for special occasions like harvest festivals. They nearly all consist of intricate patterns and a variety of woven materials that had been painstakingly dyed. We’ve all seen this kind of thing in cultural arts displays. Like the patterns on the vases the colors, patterns, textures and intricate weaves of the costumes add absolutely nothing to the practical functioning of the clothing. In fact, in some cases, movement must have been impeded.

Why do it? Why go to all this trouble?

Obviously, to make it “look nicer” –nicer than ordinary clothes.

Fig. 3 Chausable - "Tree of Life" set; first half of 18th century; made in the former Ursuline convent at Neuburg a.d. Donau, Bavaria. When a priest vests in the chausable he "puts on Christ", Beauty Himself.

Another truism: the more important a building, or object is to a society the greater the effort to make it look even nicer [Fig. 3]. That’s why items associated with religion have always been accorded the greatest attention when it comes to artistic presentation. It’s also why the most precious materials –gold, for example—are reserved for sacred things.

Making things look nicer –beautiful—is, I believe, evidence of a natural yearning for God. God, after all, is the source of all beauty.

Art in the service of the Liturgy expresses this yearning for union with God. We employ beautiful chalices, candle stands, altar fronts, vestments, music, etc. to help us worship God, the Creator. It’s not that ordinary objects, clothing and other things are bad. It’s because ordinary things, relative to beautiful things, remind us of an imperfect, fallen world. Beautiful things in worship remind us of a redeemed world; a world at one with God. Liturgy that demeans artistic expression or dismisses artistic excellence and revels in the ordinary denies the Incarnation; denies the redemption and deification of man and the sanctification of the world. Beauty in the Liturgy helps us to revel in our redemption. This is a most Catholic understanding of art in the service of the Liturgy.

There has been, I believe, a prevailing bias in this diocese in favor of the profane and common when it comes to the Liturgy. I think the situation is improving but I’m shocked at the low expectations of our clergy and other leaders and workers on the diocesan and parish levels. It is certainly evident in music but I see it often in the artistic impoverishment of liturgical objects (chalices, tabernacles, crosses, etc.) and the awkward way in which those in the sanctuary enact the ritual. It is the reason why people complain that their parish church looks and feels like a Protestant one. Protestant theology has generally shunned ritual ceremony and opposed the use of beautiful art in worship, rejecting the ability of a fallen depraved world to led us to God . Beautiful art is held suspect; a tempting diversion from our goal.

Fig. 4 LEFT: glass wine gobblet; RIGHT: Chalice from Pozsony, early 15th century, Church of St. Martin in Bratislava, Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

I recall –this was many years ago—attending a liturgy committee meeting at Good Shepherd Church in Henrietta. I raised the issue of the quality of the chalice used by the priest in celebrating the Eucharist. It was inexpensive glassware [Fig. 4 Left] and was, I believe, purchased at a local discount department store. The communion cups were of the same material and quality. I suggested that the cup that holds the Sacred Blood of the Savior should be of a precious material and as artistically excellent and original [Fig. 4 Right] as we could afford. The reaction from one of the other committee members was, “Well, we don’t want to put on a show!” It seems that ceramic and glass vessels are commonly used in the churches of this diocese but it is not for their beauty but for their association with impoverishment, in the case of clay, and for their transparency, in the case of glass.

Fig. 5

At the same church the priest routinely prayed the petition prayers of the Mass and the locally prepared prayers for feast days and other occasions from a Kodak three-ring training binder –the Kodak red and yellow icon, as large as it could be, on the cover [Fig. 5]. I purchased for the parish a set of three-ring binders from a liturgical supply company that at least sported liturgical colors and Christian symbols but I never saw them used.

Church entrance doors now are more than likely to look exactly like the common unadorned glass and metal doors you pass through on the way into the shopping mall [Fig. 6]. Rather than stoking our anticipation of entering into the sanctuary of the most High God, the transparent glass doors are meant to make us feel welcomed as if we were entering a common run-of-the-mill Wal-Mart to shop. There are even greeters, just like a real Wal-Mart.

Fig. 6 LEFT: Contempory commercial entrance; RIGHT: St. Helen's Church in Gates

Fig. 7 Church Doors by Scotsdale Art Doors. This company creates doors based on characteristics of historical periods or imagery.

This peculiar adversity to beauty shows up in more than just the objects used in the Liturgy. Altar servers put on a show all their own. They seldom seem to know what they are doing, appearing awkward and hesitant, their movements jerky and uncoordinated. The result is distracting to those in the pews. In the “old days” anyone assisting in the sanctuary was taught a proper way to walk, genuflect, bow and move. It was a choreographed dance of sorts (real liturgical dance!). No wasted or awkward movements. Every movement reinforced the theological underpinnings of the action or, at the very least, minimized distraction. It was beautiful to behold. Not anymore. Beautiful and meaningful movements are out, jerky stumbling distraction is in. And it’s not just the altar servers. Priests go out of their way to be casual and awkward as if to imply that Jesus would not have been concerned with graceful ritual and formality; imagine that, the author of all grace and beauty. Then, of course, there is the way the congregants dress for Sunday Mass; you and me.

I know, it’s not just this diocese. The Second Vatican Council is often incorrectly cited as unleashing a type of Chinese Cultural Revolution; a purifying of the sanctuary; out with the beautiful, the old, and the traditional, and in with …the common, the ordinary.

The common and ordinary –evidence of an unredeemed world.


Book Suggestion: Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Denis R. McNamara