The Patterns of Heavenly Things
Sacredness and Beauty in the Liturgy
This article is reprinted from the 27 January 2023 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, with the kind permission of the editor, Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ.
The history of the Catholic Church has produced an extensive tradition of sacred art, especially in the fields of painting, music, and architecture.
Although this tradition has expanded and diversified over time, with variations across cultural and liturgical contexts, sacred art remains guided by principles which orient it toward devotion, holiness and prayer.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
"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.'…
Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier."1
Through an examination of the teachings on sacred art given by the Church, both in her official documents and throughout her tradition, principles for the authentic, reverent and most edifying application of sacred art in churches and liturgies can be discovered.
Before delineating the principles of sacred art, an important distinction must be made.
It is essential, in any rite of the Church, that its liturgical expressions fit both the principles and the rubrics given by the Magisterium and in Tradition.
Personal or cultural adaptation are never permitted if they are in violation of these factors, even if tacitly permitted by custom: "Attentiveness and fidelity to the specific structure of the rite express both a recognition of the nature of Eucharist as a gift and, on the part of the minister, a docile openness to receiving this ineffable gift."2
As the Catechism teaches, "For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community.
Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy." (CCC 1125)
Further, it is not enough to preserve only the "bare essentials" of the liturgy, such as the matter and consecration of the Eucharist, while the rest is treated as superfluous and thus customizable.
Rather, the whole liturgy is significant,3 and the Church is thus called to practice liturgical magnanimity, the virtue of pursuing true honor and greatness in the form of the liturgy and its sacred art.
Since the doctrine of the Church understands the Eucharist to be the "source and summit of the Christian life,"4 the self-offering of Christ to the Father in Heaven re-presented and participated through the ministry of the priest, acting in persona Christi, (CCC 1548; cf. Heb 9:24) it is the highest form of worship achievable on Earth and thus deserves its most doctrinally faithful and aesthetically beautiful expression,5 with liturgical abuses and the misuse of sacred art being corrected by the Magisterium. (CCC 2503)
While the Church has called for simplicity, thematic faithfulness and "noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display" in sacred art,6 Scripture and Tradition inspire the pursuit of excellence in the right worship of God.
The first principle of sacred art is based in the function of the fine arts, which is foremost the communication of beauty through human creativity.
The classical and Thomistic philosophical tradition considers beauty to be "the synthesis of all the transcendentals,"7 signifying and crowning truth, goodness and unity as the universal properties of being.
Sacred art recognizes that beauty, as a name of God,8 is edifying and sanctifying, leading the mind up to the contemplation of God, and so is essential for the fullness of liturgical expression.
Further, as incarnate beings who, in the Church, are members incorporate in the mystical Body of Christ, Catholic artists express the truths of the Faith through the senses and the material world according to the sacramental imagination of the Church, uniting the intellectual and bodily nature of man and imitating God the Creator:
The truth is beautiful, carrying in itself the splendour of spiritual beauty.
In addition to the expression of the truth in words there are other complementary expressions of the truth, most specifically in the beauty of artistic works.
These are the fruit both of talents given by God and of human effort.
Sacred art by being true and beautiful should evoke and glorify the mystery of God made visible in Christ, and lead to the adoration and love of God, the Creator and Savior, who is the surpassing, invisible Beauty of Truth and Love.9
For these reasons, it is essential for sacred art to be authentically beautiful, exhibiting the integrity, harmony, and clarity which are the attributes of beauty as elucidated by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Catholic tradition.10
It can thus serve as a sign of truth for the edification of believers and the evangelical attraction of nonbelievers, for whom beauty is often a subtler means of witness than more overt argument or proposition.
This is what has been called the Way of Beauty or Via pulchritudinis:
To say that something is beautiful is not only to recognise it as intelligible and therefore loveable, but also, in specifying our knowledge, it attracts us, or captures us with a ray capable of igniting marvel.
Moreover, as it expresses a certain power of attraction, beauty tells forth reality itself in the perfection of its form.
It is its epiphany.
It manifests it by expressing its internal brightness.
If the good speaks the desirable, the beautiful tells forth the splendour and light of the perfection it manifests.11
Nevertheless, as Bishop James Conley reminds, "The primary purpose of sacred worship is not to evangelize.
We should be careful never to instrumentalize the liturgy as a means of evangelization."12
The second principle involves the balance of substantial continuity with tradition and accidental, organic development over time which is characteristic of Catholic liturgy and doctrine.
Although the Church has always encouraged ingenuity and inculturation in sacred art, these expressions should remain connected to the loving contributions of past centuries, recognizing their accomplishments and being inspired by them while striving to express the mysteries of the liturgy through the unique lens of the artist's own mind and the cultural background of the project.
As the Second Vatican Council taught, "There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing."13
In this way, sacred art can remain perennially applicable and relevant, adhering to the timeless and universal truths of the Faith while incarnating them in a particular time and place through the creativity of the artist.
The third and final principle of sacred art is its requirement to be authentically sacred in fidelity to the theology and doctrine of the liturgy.
The sacred arts are not merely for ornamentation or the expression of individual cultures or artists but are an essential element of the liturgy 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."14 For this reason, sacred art must be sacrificial, solemn and traditional, centered on the Trinity, Christ and the saints within the hierarchy of truth, and conducive to prayerful, reverent, and contrite participation, rather than the casualness and self-aggrandizement which obscure the distinction between the lay and ministerial priesthoods and demean the sacredness of the liturgical action.15
The trends of popular culture, commercialism, "disgraceful sentimentality"16 or theological innovation should not violate these fundamental purposes of sacred art and its role in the liturgy of the Church.
Thus, the Second Vatican Council warns:
All artists who, prompted by their talents, desire to serve God's glory in holy Church, should ever bear in mind that they are engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator, and are concerned with works destined to be used in Catholic worship, to edify the faithful, and to foster their piety and their religious formation.17
Further, sacred art must remain holy, set apart from the mundane world for the sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy: "When and insofar as architecture, language, song, vestments, and movement leave behind the everyday and renounce all that is banal, they facilitate the existence of the sacred sphere, in which the presence of God is mystically felt."18
From the foundation of these principles, proven by countless examples across the centuries, the various fields of sacred art can be examined and properly oriented.
Since the legalization of Christianity in 313 AD by Emperor Constantine, architecture has been central to the liturgical expression of the Church.
Taking its models from the Temple and synagogue of the Old Covenant,19 "the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist."20
Perhaps more than in any other form of sacred art, architecture is meant to be a visual sign of the mysteries participated in the liturgy, and it does so by clearly representing the order and splendor of beauty, according to the principles of verticality, ad orientem posture and maintenance of symbolic thresholds as delineated by Fr. Uwe Michael Lang,21 gaining inspiration from the architectural forms of past centuries while allowing for appropriate cultural and artistic expression.
The permanence of its structure, made primarily from materials "sturdy and substantial enough to stand the test of time,"22 as well as its monumentality, its decorative detail and remembrance of tradition, guarantee its timelessness and help to both draw in passersby and inspire regular attendants.
Sacred architecture which is ugly, banal, commonplace, or even sacrilegious, turning the liturgy into a theater by making the priest or the laity the focal point of the Mass rather than Christ, are all greatly deleterious, distracting and contrary to its purpose; likewise, design which is iconoclastic in its bareness or mechanistic in its abstract design are all contrary to Catholic sacred architecture:
The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God.
God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world so that it may become transparent to him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship.23
As arguably the most memorable, influential, and varied form of sacred art, music, including liturgical chant, is especially obligated to exhibit and inspire the theological principles of the liturgy.
It does so most of all:
- by remaining faithful to traditional musical forms in reverence for their historic honor and holiness;
- by only inculturating new elements from culture and individual creativity which are in keeping with the principles and traditions of the Mass;
- and by adhering to a simplicity, solemnity, and order suited to the liturgy, appropriate to the particular setting or feast, and befitting the active participation of the faithful without becoming a distraction.
Saint Pope Pius X gave these directions for proper sacred music:
Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful …
Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.24
Sacred music should thus be careful to remain authentically sacred and reverent, using styles, instruments, etc. which are not profane or casual but which befit the liturgy as proven by traditional usage; in the Roman Rite, this applies especially to Gregorian chant and the pipe organ which, by "its similarity to the human voice," is "innately suitable for its sacred purpose."25
As Pope Benedict XVI taught in Sacramentum caritatis:
Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another.
Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided.
As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration. Consequently everything — texts, music, execution — ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons.
Finally, while respecting various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy.26
It is also conducive to active, interior liturgical participation to have times of prayerful silence during the Mass, as well as chant without musical accompaniment, since prayer is called by the Church "'the love of beauty' (philokalia)"; (CCC 2727) the Low or Said Mass of the Extraordinary Form and Ordinariate liturgies as well as the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom are beautiful expressions of this.
The visual arts, including sculpture, iconography, painting and even the missals used by the priest and faithful, are not purely decorative and extraneous but are essential to the full expression of the liturgy, the participation of the faithful and the sanctification of the sensory and artistic nature of the incarnate human person, "where religious iconography should be directed to sacramental mystagogy."27
As such, adhering to the above principles, these artforms should be reverent, traditional and theologically correct, allowing inculturation and innovation only within certain limits: "The centuries-old conciliar tradition teaches us that images are also a preaching of the Gospel.
Artists in every age have offered the principal facts of the mystery of salvation to the contemplation and wonder of believers by presenting them in the splendour of colour and in the perfection of beauty."28
Sacred art as such should be religious in character, since "if it is not religious, it is not beautiful… having normally a value in themselves, a radiation of religious emotion, of interior illumination and, specifically, of sanctification," independent of the particular school or technique of art:29
Superficiality, banality and negligence have no place in the liturgy.
They not only do not help the believer progress on his path of faith but above all damage those who attend Christian celebrations, and in particular, the Sunday Eucharist… the liturgy lets us immerse ourselves completely in the salvific action of God in His son Jesus, which makes it missionary.
Essentially turned towards God, it is beautiful when it permits all the beauty of the mystery of love and communion to manifest itself.
The liturgy is beautiful when it is 'acceptable to God' and immerses us in divine joy.30
Further, sacred art is fundamentally superior in nature and purpose to the fine arts which it subsumes and to non-liturgical religious art for which it is "its highest achievement,"31 oriented as it is to the liturgical action, and so it should never be a mere means of arbitrary self-expression, nor should it sacrifice its accessibility to all people by becoming "the domain of a self-declared elite or avant-garde."32
As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains, "There cannot be completely free expression in sacred art.
Forms of art that deny the logos of things and imprison man within what appears to the senses are incompatible with the Church's understanding of the image.
No sacred art can come from an isolated subjectivity."33
Ultimately, sacred art should lead to God rather than to the artist.34
Following from the visual arts, the specific liturgical fixtures and implements required for the liturgy, such as language, vestments, the altar, the crucifix, and the vessels, should follow these same overarching principles, being traditional, reverent, and expressing liturgical theology through beauty:
Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty.
Special respect and care must also be given to the vestments, the furnishings and the sacred vessels, so that by their harmonious and orderly arrangement they will foster awe for the mystery of God, manifest the unity of the faith and strengthen devotion.35
Mundane, iconoclastic, overly abstract, bland, or misleading forms of these elements can be severely harmful to the sacramental and incarnational imaginations of the participants, creating an atmosphere of sentimentalism, false ecumenism and innovation which disconnects from the history of the Church, obscures the mysteries of the liturgy and blends the Church too greatly into secular society from which it should stand apart as "a light of the nations." (Is 51:4)
Many more recent forms of these elements, such as simplistic altars, vestments with less decoration and more generic symbolism (at times not even explicitly Christian), crucifixes which do not make evident the sacrifice and divinity of Christ, and vessels which are more appropriate for a school cafeteria, violate the solemnity, beauty, and mystery of the liturgy and the principles which are given in tradition for the proper expression of sacred art.
In conclusion, although other principles and forms of sacred art could be examined, this overarching investigation gives a picture of how artistic expression can best be made to aid the ars celebrandi ("the art of beautiful liturgical celebration") 36 of the Divine Liturgy, the full participation of the faithful in its mysteries and the evangelization of culture.
As the Catechism teaches, it is ultimately the responsibility of the hierarchy of the Church to address false expressions of sacred art; (CCC 2503; Sacrosanctum concilium §124) nevertheless, it is also the mission of all Catholics to produce and promote authentic sacred art and to reject that which their sensibilities as bearers of the sensus fidelium judge to be contrary to the Faith and its highest form of worship.
In a world which is often mired in the mundane, the utilitarian, and the tragic, sacred art can serve as a reminder of the eternal love of God and of the redemption won for us in Christ through the transcendental power of beauty.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2020), §2502.
- 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), §40.
- Joseph Ratzinger, Review of The Organic Development of the Liturgy, by Alcuin Reid, Adoremus 10, no. 8 (26 July 2004).
- Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen gentium (21 November 1964), §11.
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship, §44 (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000), 12.
- Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum concilium (4 December 1963), §124.
- W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2001), 372.
- Dionysius the Areopagite, "Divine Names," in The Collected Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, trans. John Parker (Woodstock, Ontario: Devoted Publishing, 2015), 20.
- Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (28 June 2005), §526; cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, §122; cf. CCC 2500–2501.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiæ, I, q. 39, a. 8, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
- Pontifical Council for Culture, Concluding Document of the Plenary Assembly Via pulchritudinis, Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue (2006), II.2; cf. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists (4 April 1999), §3.
- James Conley, "'Foretaste of the Heavenly Liturgy': Ars Celebrandi and the New Evangelization: Plenary Address to the CMAA Colloquium," Sacred Music 143, no. 2 (2016), 8.
- Sacrosanctum concilium, §23.
- Sacrosanctum concilium, §122.
- Michael Fiedrowicz, The Traditional Mass (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020), 6795.
- Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 2nd ed. (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2020), 151.
- Sacrosanctum concilium, §127.
- Fiedrowicz, The Traditional Mass, 4762.
- Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 756.
- Sacramentum caritatis, §41.
- Uwe Michael Lang, Signs of the Holy One (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015), 86–88; cf. Ratzinger, The Spirit, 816, CCC 1186.
- Built of Living Stones, §215.
- Ratzinger, The Spirit, 1522.
- Pope Pius X, Motu Proprio on Sacred Music: Tra le sollecitudini (22 November 1903), §1–2, at Adoremus, www.adoremus.org.
- Lang, Signs, 147; cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, §116, 120.
- Sacramentum caritatis, §42.
- Sacramentum caritatis, §41.
- Compendium, xvii.
- Maritain, Art, 151-152; cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, §123.
- Via pulchritudinis, III.3; cf. Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter on the Sacred Liturgy: Mediator Dei (20 November 1947), §195.
- Sacrosanctum concilium, §122.
- Lang, Signs, 93.
- Ratzinger, The Spirit, 1557.
- Maritain, Art, 145.
- Sacramentum caritatis, §41.
- Conley, "'Foretaste of the Heavenly Liturgy": Ars Celebrandi and the New Evangelization," 8.
Article written 27 January 2023
Copyright © 2023 Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.