Will Beauty Take Care of Itself?

Author: Giles Dimmock, OP

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 3, Fall 1990


"The fine arts are rightly classed among the noblest activities of man's genius; this is especially true of religious art and of its highest manifestation, sacred art. Of their nature, the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God's praise and of His glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men's minds devoutly towards God." ("Sacrosanctum Concilium", n. 122.)

It may seem strange to those familiar with the "bare ruined choirs," which our churches have become in the aftermath of Vatican II, to see the council's words of praise for the fine arts placed within its treatment of sacred art and sacred furnishings, which the Church wants to "worthily and beautifully serve the dignity of worship" (ibid.). This same section of the constitution on the sacred liturgy makes it clear that while "the Church has not adopted any particular style of art as its own," she has inherited "a treasury of art which must be preserved with every care" (n. 123). That this "magna carta" of the visual arts in the service of the liturgy has not caused a great flourishing of sacred images, architecture, stained glass, murals and the like, I think can be explained by certain principles embodied in the constitution itself. Ordinaries are exhorted to encourage "noble beauty rather than sumptuous display" (n. 124) and while sacred images are encouraged, "their numbers should be moderate and their relative positions should reflect right order" (n. 125). While these two sensible "caveats" were welcomed by me as a young seminarian, when the constitution was first promulgated (1963), I have lived to see these ideas profoundly misinterpreted, perhaps even officially. Noble beauty or simplicity has simply become the Bauhaus look or LeCorbusier's poured concrete predicated on Louis Sullivan's dictum that form must follow function.

According to one theory if this is done well, then "beauty will look after itself" as Eric Gill used to say. The splendor of the inner form will shine forth in honest making, the theory continues, but we can wonder if bare concrete walls simply don't manifest the cult of the crude rather than the inner splendor of the sacred. Such an approach is taken in the bishops' statement on art and environment and seems rather dated in our postmodern era when in painting recognizable form is returning and in architecture, Palladian arches are universal in current building design just liberated from its Bauhaus prison by Philip Johnson's whimsical and courageous placement of a Chippendale top on the AT&T building in Manhattan.

Even though these principles seen in germ in "Sacrosanctum Concilium" have been carried to extremes in current church buildings, aided by "secular theology" and the fad of multi-purpose buildings replacing churches, I think a careful consideration of the whole of "Sacrosanctum Concilium" in tandem with the general instruction of the Roman missal (Chapter V) can help to correct the situation, especially if the problems in the document "Environment and Art" (NCCB, 1978) be noted.

Let us state at the onset that building a new church for the current liturgy is quite a different challenge than remodelling an older edifice, but the same principles lie at core. Frankly, I have seen so many wonderful old interiors of Irish Victorian and German neo-baroque churches gutted that I am more concerned with the latter than with the former, although I also think that the present situation, with the younger generation of clerics more open to the sacred, may help to balance the scales more on the side of the glory of God in the visual arts as well as in music.

Because the document "Environment and Art" focuses on hospitality, the human experience, the contemporeity of art--all valid points--it tends to see the experience of the sacred (or of the mystery) in terms of a "simple and attractive beauty" (n. 12) and the liturgy as demanding quality in artifacts, which comes when there is "love and care in the making of something, honesty and genuineness with any materials used, and the artist's special gifts in producing a harmonious whole, a well-crafted work" (n. 20). The liturgy also demands that works of art bear "the weight of mystery, awe, reverence and wonder" and serve the liturgical action carried out in the assembly of worshippers (n. 21). While these guidelines are well intentioned, they clearly flow from the "form follows function" school of aesthetic and do not give us a clearly transcendent vision as the brief but pithy sentence in the opening paragraph of Chapter V of the general instruction in the Roman missal which states: "The buildings and requisites for worship as signs and symbols of heavenly things, should be truly worthy and beautiful" (n. 253). I think it is the loss of the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem that has given us such lack-luster environments in which to pray and such dull service music to sing when we do so.

The general instruction of the Roman missal reminds us of the hierarchical nature of the liturgy and that the church building should reflect that nature in a unity of space with diversity of roles (n. 257), whereas the bishops' statement seems to be chiefly concerned with showing that different ministries do not imply "superiority" or "inferiority" (n. 37). It is interesting to note the Roman document recommends some kind of emphasis on the sanctuary as special and different from the nave (n. 258), whereas the American document does not--an omission that reflects a less sacred view of the altar.

The altar itself is seen in the general instruction as the table of the Lord and the place of sacrifice as well (n. 259), and ought to be free- standing so that "Mass can be said facing the people" (n. 262). A fixed altar, made of stone, is recommended (especially the "mensa"), but moveable altars of other materials are permitted (nn. 262, 263). Relics may be enclosed in or under the base of the altar, though this tradition is no longer required, and the altar ought to be blessed (nn. 265, 266). From the care of this legislation one can see the dignity and specialness of the altar. The bishops' document calls the altar "the holy table" and sees it as the common table of the assembly, not making any sacrificial reference, though it does say it "should be the most beautifully designed and constructed table the community can provide" (n. 71). It recommends a square or slightly rectangular shape since it is for the "community and the functioning of a single priest--not for concelebrants" (n. 72) but one can find no such bias against concelebration in the Roman document. It also presumes that candles and the cross will never be on the altar (n. 71), whereas the general instruction allows this provided they do not block the view of the congregation (n. 269).

It is interesting to note that the altar is the first item treated in the Roman document, and the celebrant's chair is first in the American adaptation. Does this reversal hint at a different ecclesiology or liturgical theology? Both documents stress the chair as the symbol of presiding--presiding in charity would be the understanding of Saint Ignatius of Antioch of the role of the Bishop of Rome and so of all bishops and of all priests who act in "persona Christi" and show forth the ordered, hierarchical nature of the communal celebration of the liturgy. The Roman instruction warns against the appearance of a throne in the celebrant's chair (n. 271) and while this admonition is not mentioned in the American document, illustration #13 is a throne that would put Bernini's altar of the chair to shame! In a wonderful old German Victorian-gothic church in Minnesota the carved reredos has been preserved by Frank Kacmarcik, but rather than being a backdrop for the altar facing the people as one might expect, it has instead become an extension of the chair, towering to the heavens, while the altar is shunted to the side to share equal honors with the ambo or lectern. While it may be true, as "Environment and Art" alleges, that the altar need not be "spatially in the center or on a central axis" (n. 73), nonetheless, the Latin of the general instruction says that the altar should be "revera centrum" (truly central), which seems not to permit this casual off-center treatment which gives the lectern and altar equal billing.

The lectern is described in the general instruction as a suitable place for the proclamation of the Word of God and states that the dignity of its function demands that ordinarily it not be moveable (n. 272), whereas the American document describes it simply as "a standing desk for reading and preaching" though it wants it to be "beautifully designed, constructed of fine materials, and proportioned carefully and simply for its function...(it) represents the dignity and uniqueness of the Word of God and of reflection upon that Word" (n. 74).

Of interest to our readers would be the contrast in the discussion of the placement of the choir, musicians and their instruments in both documents. The Roman document is concerned about the sign function of the choir and its special mission (n. 274), but that of the bishops is more pragmatic (n. 83), worrying simply about placement, although is does encourage good organs, while warning against their concert use.

Images for the veneration of the faithful (statues, icons, murals) are encouraged in the general instruction, although as we have seen, there is a caveat against having too many or placing them in improper order (n. 278). The American document treats them along with seasonal decoration and warns against their competing with the assembly (n. 98), a negative treatment more suitable for a Quaker meeting house than a Catholic church, it would seem. This concern is echoed in the treatment of the Eucharistic chapel where "iconography or statuary...should not obscure the primary focus of reservation" (n. 79). Both documents recommend a special chapel for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, a widespread European or at least Roman custom. The general instruction sees this as helpful to "private adoration and prayer" (n. 276), whereas the American document seems most concerned that "no confusion can take place between the celebration of the Eucharist and the reserved species since active and static aspects of the same reality cannot claim the same human attention at the same time" (n. 78). Not only do I think this preoccupation is overblown for ordinary Catholics who seem to know little about the Church's teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but it seems to me, that many of the unworthy solutions to the question of where to place the Blessed Sacrament have contributed to the breakdown in Eucharistic faith and the decline of devotion. The Roman document sagely notes that if no special chapel is possible, the Blessed Sacrament should be on an altar (forbidden by the bishops in n. 80) or in some other place (wall safe, sacrament tower, a special niche) that is prominent and properly decorated "in parte ecclesiae pernobile et rite ornata" (n. 276). Finally, I might point out there is no treatment of the baptistry or confessionals in the Roman instruction, whereas the bishops' document treats of fonts permitting immersion for infants (n. 76) and reconciliation rooms (n. 81).

My comparing of the two treatments of the church edifice from an artistic and liturgical point of view is not to exalt one perspective over the other, but I do find it curious that the Roman perspective is more flexible. Is that because it is more truly universal, needing to enunciate the tradition for all climes and cultures? Finally it seems to me that it is clear from the comparison that the American document despite its good intentions sells the sacred short and with that, no longer gives our artists, architects and designers transcendent goals for which to strive, unfortunately impoverishing us all. The glory of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, needs to be incarnated in paint, stone and glass to give us hope for the journey and a glimpse of the ultimate beauty for which we yearn.