From the Treasure Chest: The Catholic Religion and Art

I’ve got this hobby of finding electronic versions of great books about the Catholic Faith. I share this pastime with everyone who stops by here too, via the YIMCatholic Bookshelf. At last count, I’ve added 853(!) fully searchable volumes to the shelf so far. There’s no cost to read or download them, and we’re open 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Just the other day I found some books that were digitized from the collection of the Monastic Library of the Abbey of Gethsemani. Yes, the one in Kentucky where Fr. Louis was a monk and priest. They also spent some time on the shelves, and possibly still do, at the University of California in Berkeley. Who knew?


They are a compliation of essays entitled, A Pulpit Commentary On Catholic Teaching. The series was published starting in 1908. So far I’ve found volume I and Volume IV, so I’ll keep digging for II, and III. The subtitle of these books? A Complete Exposition of Catholic Doctrine, Discipline And Cult By Pulpit Preachers Of Our Own Day. That’s a pretty cool subtitle, you have to admit.

And it is neat that they are written by Catholic preachers too. What follows is an essay on Religion and Art from Volume IV. That’s a subject I’ve been playing with lately, especially regarding music. Perhaps Fr. Louis took a look at this volume back in the day too. It’s possible. But for now, I’ll save you a trip to the library at the Abbey in Bardstown KY.

Stand-by for a discourse on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, Catholic style.

St. Andrews, Pasadena CA

Religion and Art
By the Right Reverend James Bellord, D.D.

“Thy renown went forth among the nations for thy beauty: for thou wast perfect through my beauty which I had put upon thee, saith the Lord God.” —Ezech. xvi, 14.

The first object of religion is to bring us into communication with God and to save our souls: but its influence extends farther and lower than this object, and it affects the whole man in all his relations. Religion brings us into union with God; and God is not only the perfection of our spiritual life, but your intellect, will, imagination, and your whole natural life. We must not think that God is the object of worship only; He is the object of all our faculties and senses: they must all look to Him and serve Him.

God is not only Truth and Law, the rule of our belief and moral action, He is also perfect Beauty. This is one of His divine perfections. God’s Beauty will be one of the delights of the blessed in heaven. They will be filled with it as with His Truth and Goodness, through these faculties whose object is beauty. Beauty is also a mark of God’s works. Each one, even of His lowest material works, is an object of delight for its beauty to any who cares to study it. “His ways are beautiful ways” (Prov. iii, 17).

Our Lady of Sorrows
Chicago, IL

The Beautiful is one of the great sources of delight to mankind. It is something intangible and indescribable inhering in things; it is something which is different from their material composition. We cannot analyze it. It is a certain harmony and proportion, variety and unity, which fills us with delight as we contemplate it. Whether we consider a melody, or a series of sounds, a mountain chain, or a problem in mathematics, a poem, a thunderstorm, an invention, there is a something which is the same in all, which appeals to our sense of beauty and gives us exquisite pleasure. It is some gleam of divine beauty reflected in the creature.

It might be thought that Religion has no concern with the science of the beautiful, that it is too austere to bend to such frivolity, and that earthly beauty is rather the material of self-indulgence and sin. Not so. The perception and enjoyment and production of beauty are closely connected with God and religion. Religion is to us the source of the highest beauty as well as of truth and morality. The text speaks of the beauty of Jerusalem, which is the figure of the present Jerusalem, the true Kingdom of God on earth. She, too, is renowned for her beauty, and is made perfect with the beauty of God, which is communicated to her. Let us consider the desire which God has given us for the Beautiful, and see how it is met by Religion and gratified.

We are full of desires. These are capacities for action or enjoyment implanted in us by God. These natural cravings are good in themselves, and are intended to be gratified under due conditions, except so far as God may call us, at times or totally, to self-renunciation. However, through our own perversity or that which we inherit, we often exercise these desires on forbidden objects, or selfishly, for our own interest and pleasure apart from God. There is great danger of these desires becoming evil and leading us to sin and eternal loss. They need to be exercised then with caution and self-restraint.

Our Lady of
Guadalupe Shrine
La Crosse, WI

One of our chief desires is rooted in the imagination and aims at the enjoyment of the Beautiful; and this is the origin of Art. We try to copy for our possession something beautiful in nature or in our own imagination. This is a faculty peculiar to man. The beasts do not share it; they seek food, shelter, warmth, and there is an end of it; of beauty, as of truth and law, they have no apprehension. Among men this faculty is universal. Early savage man engraved reindeer and horses on his implements of bone, and adorned himself with teeth of animals or beads of stone. Infants delight in beauty of color, and cry for anything bright and pretty. Savages show an acute sense for color and form in their ornaments of beads, and porcupine quills, and skins. Cave-dwellers have left colored pictures of men and animals on the walls of their abodes. The poorest people, indifferent almost to comfort, will adorn their hovels with bits of china and glaring pictures. The sense of beauty and of art, although crude, is common to them all. God is the ultimate object of this craving. The more nearly we approach to the likeness of God, the more shall we participate in this beauty, the more we shall be able to appreciate it and reproduce it. Religion brings men more under the influence of God, not only as the Truth and Law of goodness, but also as Beauty. It guides our desire and leads us to its fulfillment.

The Church of God is beautiful. “Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is no spot in thee” (Cant. iv, 7). She is so, as being one of the chief of God’s works, His special dwelling, and the manifestation of His perfections to men. Her doctrines are beautiful. The mysteries of Religion, the perfections of God, the life of Jesus Christ, the glory of His blessed Mother, the sacred Scriptures, have been the continual delight of thousands. The solemnities and ceremonies of divine worship in the Catholic Church, how impressive they are for their stateliness and beauty! Those who have come out of curiosity or hostility have often felt as if they had seen a glimpse of heaven. Whether splendid or poor, whether celebrated under the dome of the noblest Church in Christendom, or in a wooden hut, or a cavern beneath the ground, the worship of the Church is always stately. She cannot be frigid or lifeless on the one hand, or grotesque and fanatical on the other. Her action, like that of God, is always beautiful.

The Catholic religion does far more than any other to elevate and ennoble its followers’ characters and beautify their lives. Among the simple, the poor, the suffering, in remote corners of the world, among an industrious and Christian peasantry, there is found a spirit of contentment, courtesy, faith, patience, purity and fervor, which go to make up the most lovely of spectacles. Religion is the only antidote to that sordid selfishness, meanness, cruelty and lust, which stain our civilization with such unloveliness and produce such hideous results. It is being discovered that the creation of wealth degrades the workers, that mere knowledge and industry cannot elevate them, and that the sight of artistic and beautiful things is necessary to nourish the imagination and bring light into their lives. Of old the Catholic Church supplied this need of the mind with its sculptured cathedrals, its pictured glass, its wealth of statuary and painting, its histories of the saints, its festivals and bright processions, pulpit eloquence, and moving strains of music. The Reformation in some lands swept all this clean away, condemned it for the very reason which is its great merit, that its vividness and splendor appealed so much to the artistic sense and gratified the imagination. Time has brought its revenge. Legal holidays, popular concerts, and galleries of art, are an attempt, all too tardy, to supply the toiler with some few crumbs of the banquet of beauty which the Church of old dispensed abundantly to all.

I must quote in substance the words of a distinguished nonCatholic author on this point: “One method by which Christianity has labored to soften the characters of men has been through the imagination. Our imaginations affect our moral character, and, in the case of the poor especially, the cultivation of this part of our nature is of inestimable importance. Rooted to a single spot, excluded from most of the interests that animate the minds of other men, condemned to constant and plodding labor, their whole natures would have been hopelessly contracted, were there no sphere in which their imaginations could expand. Religion is the one romance of the poor. It alone extends the narrow horizon of their thoughts, supplies the images of their dreams, allures them to the supersensual and ideal. … It is the peculiarity of the Christian types that, while they have fascinated the imagination, they have also purified the heart.” He then recalls some of the externals of Catholic worship and concludes, “More than any spoken eloquence, more than any dogmatic teaching, they transform and subdue his character” (Lecky).

As Religion is so closely connected with uncreated Beauty and with the Beautiful in most of its forms, so it has been the chief agent in originating and inspiring Art. Faith has supplied noble images to the mind, and breadth and dignity to the characters of men, and these qualities have expressed themselves outwardly in architecture, painting, poetry, music, etc. From these arts, first employed in the service of Religion, all modern Art has sprung. Painting, decoration and sculpture began in the Roman catacombs with the endeavor to express Christian hope in symbols on the martyr’s tomb, and Christian reverence around the Altar of the Holy Sacrifice; and they were brought to perfection by the need of representing the doctrines of religion on the walls of Churches for the instruction of the faithful. The requirements of a new class of buildings for religious purposes created the glorious architecture of the Middle Ages, more living and progressive than the massive Egyptian, the stern Doric, and the elegant Corinthian; more capable of yielding in its details to the varying fancy of each nationality; more capable of development on many different lines, ranging from rude massiveness to fair delicacy, but always marked by truth and perfect taste. Musical notation was invented by Pope St. Gregory the Great, and later the simple but exquisite hymns of the liturgy were one by one composed.

The Pieta

Popes and bishops were always the chief patrons of Art. Monasteries were the home of art as well as of piety and learning. Churches sprung up over Europe, each of which was a museum of beauty open for the free enjoyment and culture of all. The walls, the windows, the pavement, the altars, the tombs and the shrines were examples of the best that human taste has ever wrought in stone and wood, embroidery and metal, glass and precious gems. All this was no mere extravagance or luxury, or an artificial or enthusiastic movement, but it was the natural and spontaneous expression of high and noble feelings. Faith and love, generosity and awe, the sense of man’s sin and God’s majesty, and of the truth and eternity of religion, must of necessity find expression for their intensity and their force in works vast, beautiful, and durable. “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of the house, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth” (Ps. xxv, 8). The spirit of these words, which God poured forth on those who labored on the Temple and Tabernacle of old, we may well believe to have been infused into the souls of the medieval artists, that they might be able to translate, not only their own devotion, but even a reflection of uncreated Beauty into the works of their hands.

So much is Art bound up with the Catholic Church that no history of Art or any portion of it could be written without giving the largest place to Catholic doctrines and customs, to popes and saints. A philosophy of Art would be chiefly a history of one aspect of religion, and of the widespread degradation which follows the decline of its influence. When intolerant atheism shall advance so far as to remove from the streets of cities, the walls of museums, and the shelves of libraries all traces of religious art, as it has already attempted to remove all traces of religion and morality from the school-room, it is not too much to say that ninety-nine per cent. of all the genius, and one hundred per cent. of the refining influence of art, will have perished. When artist or poet wishes to depict the beauty of worship or religious feeling, where else does he seek inspiration but in the solemn High Mass of a Catholic cathedral, or among the crowd who sit round the confessional, or in the daily life of the priest or sister of charity? When the tourist in a foreign land seeks distraction from his year-long toil, in pursuit of the beautiful in nature or in man’s handiwork, where does he find the chief center of attraction?

Piazza, St. Andrews
Pasadena, CA

He goes not to the churches of his own religion, but to a Church whose doctrines he disbelieves, and whose worship he scoffs at; doing it unwilling homage by recognizing in it a sense of life, truth of devotion, majesty, of worship, beauty of workmanship, and by yielding to the feelings of awe which these things enforce. It is strange that so many can admit the Catholic Church to be the highest expression on earth of religious beauty; i. e., of divine beauty, both material and mental, and yet fail to recognize in her the highest expression of divine truth and law. For the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are one and indivisible.

This suggests another thought; that, where religious truth has failed, there will the sense of beauty be impaired and its ideal lowered in the course of time. This age is far superior to any preceding in wealth, knowledge, mechanical appliances, and general cultivation. Our great works surpass in many ways those of the Ages of Faith. How wonderful are our railways, bridges, hotels, warehouses! For utility they are supreme; but not one is marked by the extraordinary beauty of ancient times. Town-halls, castles, streets, churches especially, had a beauty now irrecoverable. Architecture was never so overwhelming for its power and gracefulness as in the old Catholic churches. A great building reflects, as does a great book, the mind and qualities of its architect, as he reflects these of his age. The qualities of the times of faith have perished, so we can no longer produce their effects.

How melancholy, as a rule, are our attempts to revive an old style of architecture; they are no longer the spontaneous expression of an original mind, but are forced and lifeless imitations, mechanically made; they are like a stolid wax figure with its smooth countenance and fixed expression, by the side of a living face full of character, brightness, and emotion. There are few of these medieval revivals which are not marked by inconsistency and inharmony of parts, servile imitation or glaring bad taste. Let there be a vast competition of designs and selection of one by a committee, let cheapness be one of the points of merit, and the result will be one of those abominations and eyesores that disfigure our modern cities.

The Chair of St. Peter
Rome

Enter an old Catholic church in an old Catholic city and you are awed into mute wonder. It speaks to you of the eternal, the ancient of days, the immutable: it seems as if its multifarious beauty could never be grasped, and it is certain that man, as at present, could not again produce its like. You feel that it is truly the house of God and the gate of Heaven, a blessed vision of eternal peace. But if it be one that has passed from the Catholic to some reformed Church, what a picture of desolation it presents. It is a desert of monotony and inutility, a storehouse for incongruous tombstones. It is a corpse. That sense of life which comes from the presence of the Most Holy with the beacon lamp and kneeling worshipers is absent. It is the Jerusalem of the captivity. “How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people: how is the sovereign of the Gentiles become as a widow? . . . The ways of Sion mourn because there are none that come to the solemn feast: all her gates are broken down. . . . The enemy hath put out his hand to all her desirable things, for she hath seen the Gentiles enter into her sanctuary, of whom thou gavest command that they should not enter into thy Church” (Lam. i, I, 4, 10).

It is just the same with these altar-pieces, triptychs, chalices, reliquaries and vestments, removed by vandal governments from their natural home to picture galleries and museums. They have lost half their beauty; they are no longer parts of a living beautiful body, but anatomical specimens. How sad and useless they are, taken forever from the service of God, put under glass shades, turned into mere objects of curiosity, from being part of the eternal worship of the Church and aids to faith and virtue!

In painting, too, the soul is gone when faith has ceased. The old monk-artist sought inspiration in prayer and fasting, before taking his brush to portray the Virgin Mother and her Divine Infant. He sought to make men realize spiritual truths and move them to purity and love. The modern artist, pipe in mouth, works from questionable models to make a reputation or to fill his pockets. Modern painters are undoubtedly superior in technical knowledge, in manipulation, archeological correctness of detail; they will reproduce exactly the scenery amidst which our Lord lived, the particulars of His costume, the type of face then prevalent: but the figures are not divine, all spiritual beauty has fled.

Judas’ Kiss, Giotto

Turn from these to the frescoes of Giotto, or the rude mosaic of Ravenna: anatomy, perspective, details are all astray, but you have seen in these works a spiritual life. You feel as if you were actually before the stern, all-seeing, impartial Judge of Mankind, or as if you had seen, face to face, the most pure and most blessed of women. You may see young men, as they come suddenly into the presence of the Madonna di San Sisto, check their laughter, snatch off their hats, and stand silent and motionless, as though they saw a real glimpse of heaven through the parted veil.

A Protestant Dutch School of Art arose some couple of centuries ago. Light and shade portraits, domestic life, tavern orgies, dead game, pots and pans, texture of tapestries and furs they rendered with unexampled perfection. But when they forgot the limits of their powers and tried to soar to the higher level of religious ideas, their incapability was shown by the grotesque and soulless results. Turning to modern days, we may compare ordinary exhibitions of sculpture with the delicate, lovely, and touching conceptions in the great cemeteries of Genoa and Florence. We may see, too, in the undue sentimentalism and ingenious filthiness of academies and salons, how Art can fall when the purifying and ennobling influence of faith is cast off.

Judas’ Kiss, Mosaic
Ravenna, Italy

Again, the stage is a branch of Art with which the Church has little to do, except to watch it with suspicion, and occasionally to pronounce a warning. Part of it is respectable and really belongs to the domain of high Art. But it has often been a powerful instrument of immorality, and its associations are not always lovely. Yet the Church originated the modern drama in her miracle plays, which still survive in the Passion Plays among remote mountains. These furnish a rare occasion of observing the association of Religion with this form of Art. After feeling the thrilling effect produced by untutored mountaineers, whose chief qualifications are their devotion and belief, and who receive holy Communion by way of preparing for the play, one can understand how much moral power and spiritual and artistic beauty there may be in the drama.

Ruskin has remarked that the decay of a country begins in its Art, and its prosperity is measured by its possession and appreciation of fine artists. The character of its art and the direction of its taste are, of course, closely allied with its national character, in its decline or improvement. I may, perhaps, go farther, still, and suggest that the art of a nation, and especially its religious art, may throw a sidelight on the character of its religion and of its religiousness.

For instance, the numerous indications of the approach and future absorption of an important section of Protestants into the Catholic Church are much reinforced by the sight of the work done of late years in the restoring and refurnishing of old churches, and the building of new ones. When one sees the scrupulousness and consciousness of the new work and its perfect harmony with the old, the conclusion is forced on one that a similar spirit has presided over both and that those who have so perfect a sense of beauty cannot be very far off from a perfect sense of truth.

On the other hand, we find that a weakening of the Religious Sense, as during the Reformation, is accompanied by a decline in art and loss of esthetic sensibility. And one is tempted to fear that where art, and especially ecclesiastical art, is flimsy, finical, untrue, mean and cheap, there will be a corresponding weakness in the sense of Religion. Today there are two different tendencies that are daily becoming wider and more defined. On the one hand, there is a revival of severe taste and real beauty in Art: on the other, there is an Art which prostitutes the advantages of cultivation to the representation of all that is hideous in vice and that panders to the filthiest passions.

This correspondence of Art with Religion is not complete and definite. A holy man will not of necessity be a man of taste; and a correct artistic taste does not prove the truth of a man’s belief or the excellence of his morals. It can only be said that on a large scale the general tendency of an age will be broadly in the same direction; towards Truth, Goodness and Beauty jointly, or away from them. This can be recognized by comparing nations or periods, and not by a comparison of individuals.

Da Vinci

Great is the beauty of the material works of God; greater still is the beauty of the works of human intelligence directed by God; greatest of all, the spiritual beauty of a soul in the state of grace. This kind of beauty does not vary according to our tastes. This is essential beauty coming direct from God, and a participation in His. “Thou are perfect through my beauty which I had put upon thee, saith the Lord God” (Ezech. xvi, 14).

Our Lord Jesus Christ possesses this by His nature in infinite perfection. His blessed and most pure Mother possesses the highest degree of communicated beauty. The contemplation of these has raised a high ideal before the eyes of men, which has been attained by apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins. Their zeal, their labors, their purity, their self-renunciation, their lives and their deaths are the most beautiful things among the many beauties of this world.

Below these there are thousands of beautiful lives grouped or dotted about amidst the unutterable abomination of sinful lives. This is not the beauty of material form, or of cleverness, or of wit, or of fashion; they are not the lives of statesmen, of the successful, the wealthy, the ambitious; but they are hidden lives unknown beyond a small circle, lives spent in toil, in suffering, in ignorance, perhaps, in poverty, lowly in the eyes of the world and unenviable, but lovely in God’s sight for their faith and love, humility and obedience, patience and resignation. Of such it is written “O, how beautiful is the chaste generation with glory: for the memory thereof is immortal: because it is known both with God and men” (Wisd. iv, 1).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05342713528373741011 Anne

    A truely wonderful collection of books and essays. I shall have many happy moments browsing and cherishing the collection of YIM books. AnneLondon, UK

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Ya'll come back now, ya hear? ;-P


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