Friday, August 5, 2016

Beauty: Is It Worth It?

"I think Luther might have been on to something."
"No, no he wasn't."
"Just look at this place. It's ridiculous."
"It's a church, and not a new one built in America."
"You're just defending everything pre-Vatican II."

Such an exchange took place five years ago in the basilica that commemorates today's miracle, the "Lady of Snows," when the Virgin answered the prayers of Pope St. Liberius and drew the foundations of a church in her honor.

St. Mary's has more in common with the Lateran Cathedral than with either St. Paul Outside the Wall or St. Peter's Basilica. It is a pivot point, itself fundamentally unchanged and still while the Christian world has turned around it, each age leaving a part of itself as it passes: a basilica constructed in the most Romanesque sense, enhanced by the mosaic styles of the first millennium, the floor and altars contributions of the middle ages, the ceiling of the Renaissance, and the chapels and statuary thoroughly baroque. There is a tremendous amount of what my conversant, one time a Dominican novice, deemed excessively ornamental. Most of these superfluous items, effigies of dead princes and likenesses of nobles, came through patronage of St. Mary's by the Spanish court and ruling classes, who held a close association with the church until recent times.

Some of St. Mary's chapels near decadence, but the church is generally beautiful and beauty, said death bed penitent Oscar Wilde, is "useless." To Wilde something was "useless" if it was good, it required no functional purpose for its existence other than its own categorical virtue. Some baroque churches accomplish this architectural feat better than others (baroque is very expensive and difficult to do well); the medieval, uniquely born in the Christian age, best exemplifies beauty for the sake of the Divine alone, although Roman and Byzantine styles can also reach Edmund Burke's concept of the "sublime," a kind of haunting beauty that incites fear within our vulnerable instincts.

Our poor conversant was reared in the religion of large "folk Masses" in churches built after the styles of dormant Detroit warehouses melded with a singularly Wojtylan interest in the Divine Mercy chaplet and family issues, and apostasy was a lesser sin than sniffing within a mile of a Lefebvre-derived Mass. He was devout, the best American Catholicism had to offer in the 1990s. To him a church could never be "useless" for God nor a pivot point in history, through which we are merely passing per omnia saecla saeculorum on our way to the vitam venturi saeculi. Would that there be more churches as uselessly beautiful as St. Mary's!

Upon learning that both Ss. Jerome and Pius V rest within the Liberian basilica this soon-to-be Preacher changed his mind about the Roman basilicas. When we arrived at St. Peter's he pondered aloud, affirmatively, as to whether or not "the Reformation was worth it".


  1. The baroque facade is like a fist in the eye though. I don't know who was audacious enough to obscure the beautiful mosaics...

  2. It's beautiful! You can't see everything from the presented picture.
    If what human hands have made is too much, are we truly heading ready towards Heaven? Heaven's Glory is so much more and more and more.
    Luther admitted he didn't get it, and he had a point about that. I don't know how the Church functioned at that time, but couldn't he just leave it and get married and live how he wanted? Why did he have to make something else instead?

  3. Well, Luther was the theological genius who taught that Jesus is a composition of good and evil and that Jesus was a fornicator (there times) but, to be fair to Marty, Luther was also a vow-breaking violent drunk who like to tell fart jokes while still finding the time to write some pretty good songs.

    I can't wait of the celebration of the protestant revolution upcoming in Lund, Sweden for it will , no doubt, feature photos of Franciscus bowing down to be blessed by a Lutheran Bishop, a lesbian no less, who is married to a fat lesbian and the, um, couple, have a child.

    O, yes; you may think we have reached a nadir, HA!!! We will soon be blasting right through the Noosphere

    Was that too churlish?

    In any event, great piece, RT. I have never been inside a beautiful church had had a pragmatic Americanist reaction - The money could have been used to feed the poor, rescue hostages, or to buy a gown to put on a witch prior to burning.

    Money dedicated to the worship, honor, and glory of God is nearly always defensible; well, ok, Pope Leo X selling indulgences and spending the money on St Peter's prolly was not the best idea but on the other hand the protestant revolution was a war of the rich against the poor.

    OK, I'm rambling

    pax tecum

    1. "Blasting through the Noosphere"—A great phrase! I may use it.

  4. This hatred of beauty in churches is a contempt for the poor.
    The rich get to live in beautifully decorated rooms all their lives, but the church might be the only one the poor ever see.
    A rich man might be intellectually sophisticated enough to appreciate the abstract beauty of abstract art, but poor people like beauty you can see with your eyes.
    Those at leisure might be able to compose themselves spiritually without the help of sensual objects, but those who are exhausted by work greatly benefit from beautiful objects to lift up their minds.

    Reminds me of an anecdote of a missionary priest who took the beautiful jewellery off a statue of Our Lady in order to sell it and distribute the money to the poor, replacing the decoration with cheap wood. I think they killed him.

    1. Indeed. The greatest of the Medieval cathedrals were voluntarily built by the poor for the poor and wretched. A Mass in Notre Dame de Paris was probably attended by the prostitutes, the beggars, the poor, the wretched, the refuse, and the sinners of the city (while the Royalty went to Mass at Sainte Chappelle).

      It was likely not a quiet, stringent, tight-aired, American-style "respectable" Low Mass; of that I am certain.

    2. Cathedrals in Europe were not only Sacramentalism realised in stone, they were a catechesis for the common Christian Catholic.

      If more Americans travelled to Europe and looked at the Cathedrals with their eyes and minds wide open, they would weep at what has been lost for a skyline bespeaks what it is a culture values and what America values is Industry, Insurance, and Banking and what America never valued is no longer valued in Europe.

      I remember walking down Cavour Street in Florence and The Bride kept wondering why we could not see the famous Dome of the Duomo (narrow streets of a Medieval town) and as we draw closer to town, the flow of folks down the Cavour artery began to coagulate near a square and as we turned the corner, we came face to face with the Cathedral; Holy Shit said the Bride.

      Indeed, the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore had a forceful presence and it was as though we were suddenly standing before a Holy Giant Bishop, vested in white and Brunelleschi's Dome was his impossibly beautiful Miter.

      I will never ever forget turning that corner and walking into that square for I not only saw the Cathedral, I felt the Cathedral as its presence was so puissant; Lord have Mercy!!!

  5. I realize I'm a bit late to the party, but I read the bit about uselessness and thought you might appreciate the following pair of brief essays by David Warren: