The Divinizing Power of Beauty
The Sacramental Nature of Sacred Art and Architecture
In his foundational work on architectural theology, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara explains that the purpose and great calling of fine art in general is to reveal the ontological reality of things and “assist in God’s salvific work by ‘undoing’ the Fall”through what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “subcreation,” the imitation of God the Creator who sacramentally reveals His mysteries through His Creation: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” While all art has the power to sacramentally reveal “invisible spiritual realities” through beauty which “tells forth reality itself in the perfection of its form”, Vatican II taught that sacred art elevates subcreation through the grace of acting as a proper sacramental oriented toward the revelation of the Divine Liturgy as “the anamnetic re-living of the one sacrifice of Christ as well as the anticipated foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet in which God is all in all”.
Both through iconography and sacred architecture as well as the vestments, instruments, music and other artistic expressions in the Mass and even the accidental species of the Eucharist itself,sacred artworks are intended for the right worship of God, the divinization of man and the sanctification of the world by acting as “signs and symbols of heavenly realities” which “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”. Through sacred art acting as a necessary service, amplification and support to the liturgical action, God’s Beauty divinizes mankind “by making them whole, turned toward him, and clearly conformed to the image of their maker.”
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McNamara then offers a set of principles from Vatican II to apply this theology to sacred art and architecture. According to the Council, sacred art should be holy or “set apart” (SC, 122) for God, distinct from and superior to mundane life and mere domesticity. As the Catechism teaches,
When the exercise of religious liberty is not thwarted, Christians construct buildings for divine worship. These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ… this house ought to be in good taste and a worthy place for prayer and sacred ceremonial.
Further, sacred art and architecture should exhibit three characteristics: worthiness or dignity, decorum and “noble beauty”. (SC, 122) McNamara connects these qualities to the Thomistic attributes of beauty itself: sacred art should have the dignity of integritas which properly suits and reveals its “churchliness,”the decorum of consonantia which clarifies the solemn and glorious importance of the Mass as the sacrifice and banquet of the Heavenly Liturgy, and the claritas of what Vatican II called “noble beauty” (SC, 124) which, as McNamara notes, is a kind of “repetitive emphasis”, since nobility is know-ability and beauty is the contemplative love which appetizes the truth and illuminates the good: “To say that something is beautiful is not only to recognise it intelligible and therefore loveable, but also, in specifying our knowledge, it attracts us, or captures us with a ray capable of igniting marvel.”
These principles, as well as the warnings of Vatican II that sacred art should be reverent and in keeping with tradition, not vainly “sumptuous”, mediocre or offensive to faith, (SC, 124) can be read together with the principles of revelatory abstraction, catholic universality, recognizable naturalism and heavenly idealization McNamara listed previouslyand Jacques Maritain’s principles of orthodoxy, liturgical orientation and legible knowability, as well as the warnings against “irrational and tribalistic abstraction” from Pope St. Paul VI, “exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism” from Ven. Pope Pius XII, “[s]uperficiality, banality and negligence” from the document Via pulchritudinis and “disgraceful sentimentality” from Jacques Maritain. In the end, as the document Sacramentum caritatis taught, “Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty.” This is the sacramental heart of sacred art and architecture.
Denis R. McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Chicago: Hillenbrand, 2009), 188.
J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964), 88, 75.
McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 188.
Pontifical Council for Culture, Concluding Document of the Plenary Assembly Via pulchritudinis, Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue (2006), II.2.
McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 192.
McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 192.
Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum concilium (4 December 1963), §122.
McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 188-189.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2020), 1180-1181. Kindle.
McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 174.
McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 189-193.
Via pulchritudinis, II.2.
McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 148.
McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 163.
Paul VI, quoted in McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture, 144-145.
Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter on the Sacred Liturgy Mediator Dei (20 November 1947), §64.
Via pulchritudinis, III.3.
Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 2nd ed. (Providence, RI: Cluny, 2020), 151.
Pope Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission Sacramentum caritatis (22 February 2007), §41.