“Celebrate with dignity and beauty”

Over the past week in our classes in Liturgical Law, we have also discussed the concept of art and regulating artistic forms in churches and architecture. I thought I would share with you a paper which I wrote about 4 years ago on the theology of art and beauty in the liturgy.
“Celebrate with dignity and beauty”- A theology of art and beauty in the liturgy


The whole notion of theological and liturgical aesthetics has gained momentum in contemporary theology, largely due to the work of such liturgical giants as Hans Ur von Balthasar, whose seven volume work Herrlichkeit (Glory of the Lord) heralded the opening of a new approach in twentieth-century thought. This new writing on beauty however, also reflected how little the liturgy of the Church is referred to and how feebly liturgical considerations enter into the fabric of the new theologies of the aesthetic.  It seems we are all drawn to beauty in some way, but we are not all moved by it to contemplate and worship God. People listen to glorious sacred music or visit opulent cathedrals, but while delighting in the beauty of the art therein, they appear to see these as hallmarks of mankind's creativity and thus glorify man more than God. Something about Gregorian chant must imbue it with such “divinizing” values for the Church to consistently uphold plainsong above all sacred music and arts.Why is this so? Is something truly more beautiful because it is inclined toward the divine?

The following work is a theological attempt to enter into discussion with some of these interesting connections which exist between liturgy, art and beauty. It endeavours to espouse lived liturgy and lived theology and answer the proposed question above. This paper does not claim to have a quality of completeness or finality and I am aware of the rawness of this study, from the point of view of both liturgy and theology. The main topics being treated are boundless and deal with a mystery which transcends both the mind and our earthly reality. However, this paper is born from my own personal interest to trace and explore this argument, especially from a charismatic perspective. It is a work inspired by the phrases of two very different men, living very different lives and in two different centuries. The first is that of Fr. James Alberione, an Italian priest and a founder of religious orders (1884-1971) who urged that liturgy be celebrated “with dignity and beauty”. The second is that of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, (1821-1881) who stated that “only beauty will save the world”.[1] Both of these concepts will be elaborated upon later.

Theology is, of course, a much contested word, but here I take it to be “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum) [2], a reflection on an experience already had. Liturgy differs as it is a form of primary theology or as is often expressed “as the church prays, so it believes.”[3] It is a disciplined thinking and re-thinking of the Gospel from which Christian faith arises, the reconciling self-communication of the triune God. Thus, the arts are vehicles of discovery to this kind of theology.[4] In this context, this appreciation lends itself to the development of the theme at hand.

The happy marriage of art, theology and liturgy?
To espouse theology and art within the liturgy, one risks gunfire from all sides: from theologians, from artists and also from liturgists! From the theologian’s side, this concept can encourage theological confusion. At worst it opens the way to art becoming an ultimate measure of theological truth. From the artistic side, the commonest worry regards artistic integrity which risks artistic freedom being choked by some inflexible ecclesiastical orthodoxy or the vice grip of liturgists. The dictum “liturgy is too important to be left to liturgists” [5] is by no means intended to undermine the efficiency of liturgists, more so it seeks to underline its importance and the need for it to be in dialogue with the other theological and anthropological sciences.
From a liturgical viewpoint, the cliché “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”[6] doesn’t do justice to the appreciation of the rich liturgical traditions of the Church. Exploration in the domain of liturgical aesthetics seeks to interpret and to understand the various relationships between beauty and holiness, based on the fact that liturgy is a complex art form. There is a permanent tension involved in the use of material objects, the domain of the senses and the imaginative powers of human art. Hence liturgical aesthetics must always point to an eschatological self-critique of the use of forms. This permanent tension in liturgy as art is but a reflection of the situation of faith for we live in a good but a fallen creation, between the initiation of redemptive history and its consummation. 

 A theology of art, decor and beauty:

Liturgical action does not simply use art; it is art, it is a dialogue with God in symbolic form. To speak of liturgical aesthetics, is to refer to that which is constituent in the enactment of the rites, both sacramental and non-sacramental.[7] Certain phases in the controversy between the Church and artists throughout the ages are perplexing and astonishing. During some periods the Church has been a munificent patron of art; at other times it seems to have carried the restraints of art to the point of a positive cult of the ugly.[8] Certainly, no artistic forms can have a legitimate place in liturgical life if they are not appropriate in form. Good quality is perceived and appreciated only by those who are able and willing to assume a contemplative distance from experience, and to see, hear, touch, and taste art for what is truly is.[9]  To consider the whole matter of beauty in liturgy and worship is quite complex because “beauty” is not a New Testament word, nor do the Greek synonyms for beauty kallos or euprepeia appear in the New Testament. Therefore in the words of Monsignor Mauro Piacenza:

  [Decor is obviously, and above all, an internal attitude and art re-enters fully into this, because in art is expressed the perception of Beauty and is at the service of its content.  Sacred decor is conceived to facilitate prayer and wonder for the mystery contained. From this same fount is born Christian liturgy. Precisely from this desire to manifest exteriorly an interior attitude of devotion, the Church has produced an extremely rich patrimony of art, which constitutes a testimony of faith which is capable of speaking a universal language which transcends the ages.][10]

 Guardini[11] too makes this analogy of liturgy and its similarity to art. For example, like painting, liturgy is undertaken for its own sake and brings about a disclosure of a reality which we would otherwise miss. The believer at worship is like the artist “who merely wants to give life to his being and its longings, to give external form to the inner truth”.[12] Building on this comparison of liturgy to art, Guardini points out that worship, like art must respect the relationship between beauty and truth because “beauty is the splendour of truth.”[13] Following on from this St. Thomas Aquinas provides us with this statement about beauty:
For beauty three things are required: in the first place, integrity or perfection (integritas
sive perfectio)
, for whatever is imperfect is eo ipso ugly; in the second, proportion or harmony (proportivo sive consonantia); in the third, clarity (claritas); for there is a splendour in all objects that are called beautiful. [14]

Our human response of faith to beauty

For something to be deemed beautiful, a response is required. Aesthetics, in general involve a perception with the senses. The person’s ability to perceive beauty depends on how perceptive one is. In liturgy, beauty is not an optional extra; it becomes and is the way to God and a manifestation of God at the same time. God’s beauty is what draws us to God, and this includes the mystery and glory of Christ on the cross, the utter distortion of divine-human beauty and yet its complete fulfilment. [15] Likewise in the liturgy, we celebrate the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our relationship with God as we bless God for his blessings to us. The fine arts drawn into the liturgy are just another expression of the visible and touchable veneration that is necessary for us humans to give glory to God. Without faith there is no art commensurate with the liturgy just as no sacred art can come from an isolated subjectivity.[16]

Liturgy should excel in its appeal to the person’s entire personality. The faithful are not drawn into the world of Christ only by their faith or by strict symbols but they are also drawn into a higher world by the beauty of the church, its sacred atmosphere, the splendour of its furnishings, the rhythm of the liturgical texts and by the sublimity of its chant or by other truly sacred music. Even the perfume of incense has a meaningful function.The use of all channels is the encounter of all the senses because art and beauty are not for ornamentation, but for evocation. Their role is not to fabricate an alternative world alongside ordinary life, with all its burdens and ugliness, even though the beautiful can be a relief  from the heaviness of daily tedium.[17]

When we see a beautiful cathedral, or pray before a hand-written icon, the response to worship becomes alive in us because an essential element of its artistry is to involve us in the same dynamic of faith which was involved in bringing it into existence. We do not only observe a response made by others as they were gripped by the reality of God; we ourselves are put in touch with that reality and invited to be stretched in response.[18]  Yet, monks like the Cistercians refuse architectural ornamentation in their abbeys, for them the beauty lies in the starkness. Similarly, plain chant can be sung on three notes without elaborate polyphonic singing, the belief being that God is beyond the reach of created expression and that the desert of ‘emptiness’ allows exclusively for the light of the “Burning Bush”, the God of Mystery to radiate.[19] Could this be regarded as aesthetical nothingness?

We see that the use of art in liturgy and the appreciation of its beauty are accompanied by a type of liturgical anonymity which also celebrates the secret beauty of each person. [20]  In the liturgy, where we are faced with the action of Christ, what is the value of our human works? The liturgy does not name who designed the chasuble or crafted the altar, or who is playing the organ, the only Artist mentioned is Christ himself. He is the “Musician who controls that universal-sounding harmony which He exercises through all the physical world”.[21] Apply this concept of anonymity to any other context, and we observe that the artist is always acknowledged. At a concert, the singer is named, at a fashion show, the designer is named. Yes, liturgical art involves renunciation and yet through this liturgical poverty we walk the path to transfiguration in Christ. Dostoyevsky was right when he said that: “art has its divine value in that it serves nothing!”[22] Art does not have a scope but is itself the scope, just as liturgy in itself serves nothing if not because it is the cult of adoration offered to God through the frailty of human gestures and words.

In his last encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II, in explaining the theological foundations of the Eucharist also presented a liturgical-artistic section entitled “Decorum of the liturgical celebration” (nn 47-52), in which he underlines important connections between liturgy and art. The encyclical affirms that Christ himself wanted this decorum. The Pope recalls the preparation of the room for the Last Supper (Mk, 14, 15; Lk 22, 12) and the unction at Bethany (Mt 26:8): “like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no “extravagance”, devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist.”
[23] Captivated by a sense of the overflowing abundance and generosity of God, the human spirit stretches all its imaginative, intellectual and material resources in response. The intoxication of excess joins heaven and earth in a nuptial embrace.

From a biblical perspective:
The beautiful, the good and the true:

The art historian Timothy Verdon states that “our words and art forms cannot contain or confine God, but they can like the world itself, be icons, avenues of approach, numinous presences, ways of touching without grasping or seizing.” [24] In the Old Testament, for example, the origin of art is presented in function of the cult, and the gifts of wisdom and intelligence given to artists from the Lord was so they could carry out the work of the construction of the sanctuary, doing “all things according to how the Lord had ordained” ( Ex 36: 1).[25] In the creation event, God saw that creation was good. Liturgy belongs to the created world and thus is an art, for the created world belongs to God. All artistic effort is in itself proleptic as well as participatory in God’s creativity.[26]

Beauty seizes creation and snatches it from the realm of appearances to make it resplendent in its essence and full of meaning. It is a passage to action, like birth. So too, the arts are actions where their powers and the energy of the liturgy come together since the spiritual evolution of humanity is at issue. [27] But the question remains: at the crossroads of art and the liturgy, is there harmony or contradiction? The public cult of liturgy is an expression and witness of the infallible faith of the Church and should help to understand in a deeper sense that our desires and our aspirations which are moved towards that which is good, true and beautiful, are rooted in and heard in the transcendent reality of God. In his encounter with the woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, Jesus declares that “the moment has come when the true adorers will adore the Father in spirit and in truth; because the Father seeks such adorers” (Jn 4, 23).

Paul Tillich believed that the word beauty has become so associated with what is “pretty” that a substitute for it needs to be found. He preferred to talk about the expressive power of works of art. For him, all forms of art evoke truth, truth of eye and ear and mind. When the attempt to produce something beautiful is separated from truth the result is mere sentimentality.[28] 
The beautiful, the good and the true need each other in the liturgy, as in every other facet of the church's life. Isolated liturgical beauty becomes mere aestheticism; but the ethical and the truthful detached from beauty are simply flat, dry and uncompelling.[29]

The principle of the Incarnation and liturgy:
How then do we reconcile the words of Exodus 30:1-6? : “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath.” Aidan Nicol’s cautions that we should not oversimplify the situation of aniconism in ancient Israel[30] because the representation of God, which surpasses the prohibition in the Old Testament (Ex 20:4 and Dt  5:8), makes it possible for the Incarnation of the Son of God, for God himself to make his image (Col 1:15), Jesus Christ.
[31] The mystery of the Word made flesh (Jn 1: 14) is the basis for the argument of the cult of images and of art. The use of imagery for worship is to discover that at its best, the purpose of liturgical art has always been disclosure and revelation for Jesus himself affirms that “whoever sees him, sees the Father” (Jn 14:9).

In a conference in 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger stated:[ “so as to approach the mystery of God, man has need to see, to stop and look, and to ensure that that ‘seeing’ becomes ‘touch’. The Word which becomes visible becomes therefore the face or the icon of God ”]. [32] Thus, the liturgy is an act of Christ and his Church. It is not a dependence on the intellectual sphere but foremost on the principle of the Incarnation, and therefore evidently implies an aesthetic dimension. [33] Our gestures during the liturgy acquire importance because they are the gestures of Jesus. Therefore, since liturgical gestures are gestures of Christ they have a beauty and aesthetic value of their own, apart from any additional or secondary beauty which we might strive to give them. Art is ordered to the mystery that becomes present in the liturgy and oriented to the heavenly liturgy.[34]

Jesus as Incarnate Beauty:
Sacramentum Caritatis n.35 reminds us that God allows himself to be glimpsed first in creation, in the beauty and harmony of the cosmos (Wis 13:5; Rom 1:19- 20). In the New Testament this epiphany of beauty reaches definitive fulfilment in God's revelation in Jesus Christ. The Father's glory shines forth and is communicated (Jn 1:14; 8:54; 12:28; 17:1) in the glorification of the Son, Yet this beauty is not simply a harmony of proportion and form.  Jesus is “the fairest of the sons of men” (Ps 45[44]:3) is also, mysteriously, the one “who had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). [35] In him we see how the truth of love can transform even the dark mystery of death into the radiant light of the resurrection:

Jesus’ sign at the Last Supper was beautiful. If it is to speak of hope in the face of death, then it must be re-enacted beautifully. Church teaching is often met with suspicion. Dogma is a bad word in our society. But beauty has its own authority. It speaks our barely articulated hope that there may be some final meaning to our lives. Beauty expresses the hope that the pilgrimage of existence does indeed go somewhere, even when we cannot say where and how. Beauty is not icing on the liturgical cake. It is of its essence.[36]

Indeed the splendour of God's glory surpasses all worldly beauty and the truest beauty is the love of God, which he definitively revealed to us through Jesus in the Paschal Mystery. Beauty then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour.  The function of art in the Christian life is to map out the location of God’s presence and to detonate the sacramental potential of the world.
For Rouet, there is a strong parallel between the hidden ground of faith and the elusive vision of beauty. In both cases, there are strong moments and weak moments. We are like stained-glass windows, we sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, our true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
 Strong moments of faith are filled with religious experience when nothing has to be explained to us, rather we are overawed by the abundance of some beauty, goodness or grace in our lives. [37]  The subject of the liturgy's intrinsic beauty is Christ himself, risen and glorified in the Holy Spirit, who includes the Church in his work. (Sac Car 36). However one does not have the Resurrection without the Crucifixion. There is a long tradition of Christian artists who feel the necessity to confront and embrace the harrowing central presence of the Crucifixion in the great narrative of sacrifice and redemption.

The Heavenly Liturgy:
Ratzinger speculates as to whether after the tearing of the Temple curtain, and the opening up of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified, we still need sacred space, sacred time, meditating symbols.
[38] In the same breath, he answers his own question. Yes, there is need for art and images because “through them, through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven.” [39] Our liturgies are carried out at the frontier between this world and the life to come. Liturgy is a doorway to transcendence for those who are not yet aware of the journey which we make as pilgrims on the same journey back to God for “those who love beautiful celebrations, sacred music and ceremonies, and are imbued with the liturgical spirit have a foretaste of their future participation in the heavenly liturgy, exercised by the eternal High Priest Jesus Christ”.[40] It is a reflection and a means of arriving towards the glorious liturgy celebrated in paradise.[41] This same idea is echoed in Sacrosanctum Concilium: “in the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem where we journey as pilgrims and where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the Holies and of the true tabernacle” (SC 8).[42]
So too beauty and art have eschatological significances and in them we glimpse the future transfiguration of the cosmos which is symbolised in the New Jerusalem and the new heaven and earth prophesied in the Book of Revelation. [43] Art and liturgy are invited to join forces in a realm beyond themselves, their rapprochement is transcendence. If they are united in the One who is supreme beauty because he is the icon of the Father.[44] All sacred images are in certain sense images of the Resurrection, and for that very reason they are images of hope, giving us assurance of the world to come, of the final coming of Christ.[45]

The Liturgical Movement, the Reform of the Liturgy, Vatican II and Sacrosanctum Concilium:

With such a rich Scripture tradition behind the theology of beauty, it is not surprising that those who pioneered the Liturgical Movement were primarily those from the monastic tradition who meditated upon the Scriptures in great depth. The beginnings of the Liturgical Movement can be traced back to the work of the French Benedictine Prosper Guèranger (1805-1875) whose volume on the liturgical year, L’Année liturgique, was instrumental in promoting the treasures of the liturgy[46]. With this seed already planted, another great boost to the liturgical cause was the publication of the motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le sollicitudini (22nd of November 1903). With this gesture the papacy acknowledged that this was a matter of importance for the whole Church. Thus, the Liturgical Movement gained momentum and all this lead up to 1947 to the publication of the encyclical Mediator Dei on the sacred liturgy by Pius XII.[47]  With this liturgical advancement in the air during the years which preceded the Second Vatican Council, it became evident that Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the Apostolic Constitution on the Liturgy, was, as defined by Neunheuser “the last stone of that building which the Liturgical Movement attempted to build”.[48]  Indeed in Vatican II, the Church moved with the times and renewed its patronage over the fine arts (SC 122) and began to train artists so that “things set apart for use in divine worship should be worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of things supernatural” (SC 122).

The Liturgy Constitution ratified and endorsed the important work of liturgists such as Alexander Schmemann, Cipriano Vagaggini, Irénée Dalmais, Salvatore Marsili and others whose work gave emphasis to the theological aspects of liturgical celebration and its aesthetics.[49] Held up as a ‘magna carta’, the Constitution provided the basic doctrinal and disciplinary principles that inspired and guided many influential liturgists to rediscover beauty and art in liturgy. The twelfth and last sub-commission of the Preparatory Commission for the Constitution dedicated its study and research solely to that of sacred art in the liturgy. Whilst there was ample discussion on the subject of sacred music, the discussion on sacred art left much to be desired. Chapter VI of the Constitution addresses the topic of sacred music, exalting it as a “treasure of inestimable value, greater than that of any other art” (SC 112). Chapter VII treats sacred art and church furnishings, reminding us that the arts are “oriented toward the infinite beauty of God” ( SC 122). It also underlined that there is an intrinsically aesthetic character to all liturgical celebration and environment. We see this re-iterated by the fifteenth- century Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino who said: “By its utility, harmony and decorativeness, the world testifies to the skill of the divine artist and is proof that God is indeed its Maker.” [50]  This is also what is at the heart of what liturgy, according to Sacrosanctum Concilium.  Since Vatican II, the liturgical books have been enhanced with an unprecedented richness of biblical and euchological texts; rubrics, gestures and movements have been simplified. The place of celebration more clearly defined; there have been changes in vestments, church furnishings, iconography, music and hymns.[51]  Vatican II teaches:

These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of resounding 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 (SC 122).
This invitation to direct the minds and heart of people to God through the liturgy became a new means of evangelisation, providing a challenge for those who earnestly sought to elevate humanity to the ‘beautiful, good and true’ of which we spoke earlier. One such man who responded to this invitation was Fr. James Alberione.

From a charismatic perspective:
Apostolate of the Liturgical Centre of the PDDM and the vision of Fr. Alberione
In the early years of the 20th century a dream was already forming in the mind of an Italian man who would subsequently found a Congregation specifically for this ministry of promoting “dignity and beauty in the liturgy”.  [52]  Fr. Alberione’s great love for the liturgy can be seen in his many writings. One such example can be found in ‘Appunti di teologia pastorale’ [53] where he dedicates one entire chapter of his book solely to the construction of churches. An extract of it reads:

[The Church is destined for the cult of God and toward the good of souls: it is not just an accumulation of riches, it is not just a house of luxury, it is not just an artistic construction. For this reason, the Church must surpass in beauty the other buildings which surround it; because this building is the domus Dei, the house of God, and the others, the house of men.][54]

 Alberione was one of the discreet but hardworking figures who anticipated the Vatican II Liturgical Reform. His role has not yet been considered by many liturgical scholars thus this brief study is also a modest attempt to open the horizons of liturgical appreciation to his effort in the field of liturgical aesthetics in which he encouraged liturgical integrity and wholeness. To the Pious Disciples, the religious congregation of which he was founder, this was quite clear. His vision for them was that “[they (PDDM) practice the liturgy and make it known with all the means used by the great Benedictine liturgical centres]”.[55]  As the mission acquired clarity in concrete actions his words to the sisters also acquired a definite direction:

 All that the Church teaches can be said by words and also can be said with works, with facts, through painting, with sculpture, with the construction of churches and with all that which is directly liturgy. Your apostolate is vast. When a painting represents a dogma, then it is clear that it is a sermon in itself.[56]

Indeed, so many skills have been developed during the centuries, especially for the beautification of the Mass and the objects used in it. Carving, gilding, painting, lace making, needlework, sewing, weaving, and many other human crafts have been developed to their present perfection because of the needs of the liturgy, and they are in danger of disappearing without these needs. Over the past century the Pious Disciples have operated with these skills and Fr. Alberione was very aware of this as he guided the fledgling Congregation: “Artistic, liturgical work, diffusion of the Church’s teachings about the sacraments, sacramentals, consecrations, blessings. Do not be afraid, the field is unmistakable. The liturgical field is yours. Dedicate yourselves to embroidery, painting, sculpture and make progress”.[57] 

The apostolate of Domus Dei:
Within the success of the Liturgical Movement in Europe, this Congregation continued to promote liturgical and artistic formation, so that the Christian community may live, pray and celebrate with dignity and beauty, thus facilitating the encounter with God. Centres of diffusion known as ‘Liturgical Centres’[58] or  Domus Dei, as it was originally named in the 1940’s,  were established for this purpose. Again we note Alberione’s vision for this ministry: “When someone enters into the Centre, they must think that they are in a Church, where Jesus is made known”. [59] The concept of the Domus Dei as intended by Fr. Alberione referred to all the works of the liturgical apostolate since 1942. He elaborated upon this frequently in his meditations:  Domus Dei does not only mean beautiful embroidery; it means, first of all, preparing the House of God, the Church.”[60]  

In 1963,  Domus Dei, a civil business with the same name but separate from the Liturgical Apostolate was originally established as an independent family business for the realisation and design of works of sacred and liturgical art, giving this contribution in the sector of architecture and art for the Liturgy. Currently it also operates in the sector of stained glass windows and mosaicery. In 2007, the Congregation of the Pious Disciples of the Divine Master (PDDM), as an international project, assumed the gestation and management of Domus Dei, in line with the proper charism of the Institute and as a response to the apostolic methodology which the Founder left, i.e. the idea that fine arts should serve the liturgy: “it is not sufficient to imitate, you (PDDM) have to conceive, create and to know how combine a delicate artistic taste with the Church’s liturgical spirit. The five fine arts- painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature, must be at the service of the Liturgy.” [61]  The mission of Fr. Alberione was prophetic for its times antedating the Constitution on the Liturgy by no less than 50 years. The legacy of his aesthetical and liturgical thought continues to be transformed into liturgical mission and action through the work of the Institutes which he founded.

 Contribution of Joseph Ratzinger:

Another significant figure who has a deep appreciation of art and beauty in the liturgy is the present Holy Father. He is keenly aware of the effect of art, architecture and music on the individual soul and on the experience of worship in common. His first encyclical Sacramentum Caritatis [62] takes up the aforementioned ideas. Everything which is at the service of the Eucharistic Sacrifice “should be marked by beauty” (Sac C. 41). Closely connected to the beauty of the sacred art, the paintings and sculptures and stained glass, is the beauty of vestments, vessels and liturgical furnishings, which should “foster awe for the mystery of God, manifest the unity of faith and strengthen devotion” (Sac C.41). The harmony in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy is fostered and safeguarded by the liturgical norms which all are obliged to observe. These norms which pertain to the rite itself, to the liturgical vestments, vessels and linens, and to the church and its furnishings all serve the beauty of the rite which points to Christ who is the all-beautiful one acting in the rite. Pope Benedict XVI also indicates the importance of careful attention to the various kinds of language that the liturgy employs: words and music, gestures and silence, movement, the liturgical colours of the vestments.[63]

The Pontiff, as did Guardini, explains how the liturgy in being veritatis splendour is inherently linked to beauty:

The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. In the words of Saint Bonaventure, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendour at their source. This is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God's love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love (Sac C. 35).

At the Rimini Meeting in 2002, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expanded this thought and delivered these words:

[Liturgy, with art and sacred music, serves to let man encounter the beauty of faith: To admire icons, and in general the great works of Christian art, guides us along the interior way, a way of overcoming oneself, and in this way, the purification of one’s gaze, which is a purification of the heart, and reveals Beauty to us, or at least its ray].

The document “Liturgy and Beauty” [65] poses the questions: “Is there a boundary between aesthetic emotion and an authentic sense of the spiritual? Is a beautiful liturgy one which satisfies the tastes of consumers?”  It is quite strong in its answer, implying that the liturgy is not a consumer good, nor is the Church a ‘supermarket’! Consequently we seek to establish the fundamental criteria for the beauty of the liturgy, apart from trends and tastes for it would be a great error simply to apply secular standards of aesthetic taste to the liturgy. A short poem from Robert Browning addresses this matter in a succinct way:

 “I thought it best that thou, the Spirit

Be worshipped in spirit and in truth,

And in beauty, as even we require it-

Not in the forms of burlesque, uncouth,

I left but now, as scarcely fitted

For Thee.”[66]

Other forms of beauty; music, art, poetry, and a sober solemnity in the ritual derive naturally from an inner spiritual beauty because the deeper a community lives and comprehends the beauty of the liturgical mystery the more it strives to express it in wonderful outer forms. It is the natural understanding that only the very best we can offer is truly worthy of the Lord. Ugliness, blandness, banality and bad taste on the other hand diminish the liturgy and betray a lack of appreciation of the mystery and sometimes, a certain lack of faith. Beauty is inherent to liturgy and it is intimately bound up with authentic liturgy. Beauty however does not only mean splendid sacred buildings and sublime music. The primary beauty in liturgy is that of a community united heart and soul in the prayerful celebration of Christ's sacrifice. It is the beauty of priest and people engaged in full, active and pious participation in the mystery.  This beauty is achieved, in spite of a possible lack of external splendour, whenever the sacred ministers and each member of the faithful strive to live the liturgy to the full.

Hence we see, that the innate beauty of the liturgy demands special attention to the works of art which serve the act of worship as they direct to a deeper understanding of the sacraments as the privileged means by which Christ pours forth the grace of the Holy Spirit into our souls.

 “Liturgy’s reduction to ritual protocol brings a series of other reductions in its wake: symbol degenerates to sign, icon to picture, performative speech to didactic explanation, sacrament to souvenir, church to juridical overseer.” [67]  In a plastic, throw-away society, such as ours, it is easy to neglect genuineness.  Art and beauty in the liturgy requires the competence of a polyglot because it must speak in several languages, verbal and nonverbal, with God and with others.


Hans Urs von Balthasar, the 20th century's most notable writer on the theology of beauty stated that: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at Beauty's name, as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past, whether he admits it or not, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” [68] The beautifying effect of art has its justification in the Resurrection of Christ and only there. Thus, far from being a harmful illusion, it is a pointer to the redemptive work of God in Christ. The two functions of beautifying and sanctifying are closely related, for God’s beauty is His holiness, and our sanctification is the most significant manifestation of our participation in His beauty.[69]
In the Bible beauty is an ambiguous reality; it can either evoke the glory of God or represent a trap in which the journey forward becomes bogged down. Beauty is only revealed in the course of an exodus or a journey. This is because beauty is transfiguration through which human beings become icons of the glory of God: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as through reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; from this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:18).[70] The artist looks, listens and feels the world about her and then transmits her experience into notes and brush-strokes and word-rhythms. Art points out to liturgy the place where it must pitch its tent and digs it well, because that is where human desire is evident.  Art and beauty in liturgy is an important locus theologicus for understanding the way forward for both theology and liturgy.
 “Beauty will save the world!” The incomparable beauty of Christ will overcome the horrific evil, including great apathy towards evil that engulfs the world. Likewise, works of liturgical art steeped in truth continue to take hold of us, attract us to themselves with great power, and no-one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem. If the crests of these three trees join together, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three. In that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world”, but it is the reality of the Christian life. “Turning the hearts and minds of people to God” (SC 122) is precisely what the Church needs to do in a world already marred by the ugliness of sin, violence and hatred. The Church, through the liturgy celebrated with dignity and in beauty, must apply the balm of Beauty to our wounded world in whatever way it can so as to form in us the beauty of holiness, because for every element of beauty there is an eye somewhere to see it. For every truth there is an ear somewhere to hear it. For every love there is a heart somewhere to receive it!


Alberione, G., Abuntantes Divitiae- The Charismatic history of the Pauline Family, Boston: St. Pails Books and Media, 1993.

Alberione, G., Alle Pie Discepole 1956, Rome: Edizioni Paoline, 1986.

Alberione, G., Alle Pie Discepole 1958, Vol III, Rome: Edizione Paoline, 1986.

Alberione, G., Appunti di teologia Pastorale, Cinisello Balsamo: Edizioni San Paolo, 2002.

Alberione, G., Carissimi in San Paolo- Lettere, articoli, opuscoli, scritti inediti, tratti dal bollettino interno ‘San Paolo’ (1933-1959), Rome: Edizioni San Paolo, 1971.

Alberione, G., Ipsum Audite- collections from Fr. Alberione’s sermons to the PDDM, n.1, Rome: Edizioni Paolini, 1979.

Alberione, G., To the Pious Disciples 1946-47, Rome: Edizione Paoline, 1986.

Begbie, J., Sounding the Depths- Theology through the Arts, London: SCM Press, 2002.

Class notes from Juan Xavier Flores, Pastoral Liturgy, Sant’Anselmo, Rome, academic year 2004.

Fagerburg, D., Theologia Prima, What is Liturgical Theology?, Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004.

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ary of Sacramental Worship, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1990.

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Flannery, A., (ed); Vatican II- The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, New Revised Study Edition, Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1992.

ed. Flannery, A., Vatican II, the Liturgy Constitution, Dublin: Scepter Publications, 1966.

Hoffman, E., The Liturgy Documents- A Parish Resource, Vol 1, Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991.
Krieg, A., Romano Guardini- A Precursor of Vatican II, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1997.

Marini, M., A Challenging Reform- Realising the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007.

Nichols, A., Looking at Liturgy- A Critical View of its Contemporary Form, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996.

Peil, R., A Handbook of the Liturgy, Freiburg: Herder Druck, 1960.

Radcliffe, T., What is the Point of Being Christian? London: Burns and Oates, 2006.

Ratzinger, J., The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francesco: Ignatius Press, 2000.

Rouet, A., Liturgy and the Arts, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997.

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Theissen, G., Theological Aesthetics, London: SCM Press, 2004.

ed. Sartore, D., Triacca, A., Nuovo Dizionario di Liturgia, Roma: Edizioni San Paolo, 1984.

Seasoltz, K., A Sense of the Sacred-Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and Art, London/New York: Continuum, 2005.

Sheery, P., Spirit and Beauty- An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Viladesau, R., Theological Aesthetics- God in Imagination, Beauty and Art, NewYork/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Von Balthasar, H., The Glory of the Lord- A Theological Aesthetics, Volume VII: Theology: The New Covenant, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989.

Wagner, N., Modern Liturgy Answers: 101 Most-asked Questions about Liturgy, San Jose: Resource Publications, 1996.

http://www.domusdei.it/    Accessed on 2/1/2008

http://www.zenit.org/rssitalian-13514  Accessed on 14/01/2008.

[1] We find these words pronounced by Myshkin, one of the Dostoyevski’s characters in the literary work, The Idiot, published in 1868.
[2] The expression used by St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) to define theology.
[3] N. Wagner, Modern Liturgy Answers: 101 Most-asked Questions about Liturgy, (San Jose: Resource Publications, 1996), 9-10.
[4] Ed. Jeremy Begbie, Sounding the Depths- Theology through the Arts, (London: SCM Press, 2002), 3.
[5] A. Nichols, Looking at Liturgy- A Critical View of its Contemporary Form, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 9.
[6] Thomas Aquinas was renowned for his thoughts on beauty, and  stated that ‘the beautiful is that of which the apprehension itself is pleasing (cuis ipsa apprehension placet) and elsewhere, that which being contemplated pleases (quod visum placet). See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia IIae xxvii I. Quoted in E. Routley, Church Music and the Christian Faith, (London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1980), 31.
[7] P.Fink, The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1990), 33.
[8] E. Routley, Church Music and the Christian Faith, (London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1980), 30.
[9] K. Seasoltz, A Sense of the Sacred-Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and Art, (London/New York: Continuum, 2005), 344.
[10] Invention given by Monsignor Mauro Piacenza, Secretary for the Congregation of the Clergy, in occasion of the Day of study on the theme “Majesty and Beauty in His Sanctuary: Art at the service of the Liturgy” organised on the 1st of December 2007 in the Vatican. See http://www.zenit.org/rssitalian-13514. The text translated is only an extract from the intervention.  Accessed on 24/02/2008.
[11] Romano Guardini (1885 -1968) a Roman Catholic priest, a noted theologian and writer especially in the areas of philosophy, theology, with many contributions in the field of liturgy, philosophy of religion, pedagogy and ecumenism.
[12] A. Krieg, Romano Guardini- A Precursor of Vatican II, ( Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1997), 77.
[13] Ibid.
[14] E. Routley, Church Music and the Christian Faith, 35. Routley draws this Thomist source from Maritains’s Art and Scholasticism, (???:Christophers, 1932), 252.
[15] ed. Gesa Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics, (London: SCM Press, 2004), 6.
[16] J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, (San Francesco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 134.
[17] A. Rouet, Liturgy and the Arts, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997), ix.
[18] ed. J. Begbie, Sounding the Depths- Theology through the Arts, 120.
[19] A. Rouet, Liturgy and the Arts, 10.
[20] Ibid, 48.
[21] Quote from St. Paulinus of Nola, Poem 27, found in Ancient Christian Writers, edited by P.G Walsh, (New York: Newman Press, 1975). Sourced in Gesa Theissen’s “Theological Aesthetics”, 43. Capitals are included in the original quote.
[22] Class notes from Pastoral Liturgy course in Sant’Anselmo, Rome, academic year 2004. Lecturer: Juan Xavier Flores, OSB.
[23] John Paul II, Encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 48.
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/special_features/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_20030417_ecclesia_eucharistia_en.html Accessed on 23/02/2008.
[24] ed. E. Hoffman, The Liturgy Documents- A Parish Resource, Vol 1, (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), 319. Here, I quote from “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship”, (EACW), no. 2 issued in 1978.
[25] My translation of the article, “Gli aspetti liturgici che incidono sull'arte”.  See http://www.zenit.org/rssitalian-13514 Accessed on 24/02/2008.
[26] P. Fink, The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, 38.
[27] A. Rouet, Liturgy and the Arts, 9.
[28] R. Harries, Art and the Beauty of God- A Christian Understanding, (New York: Mobray, 1993), 48.
[30] R. Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics- God in Imagination, Beauty and Art, (NewYork/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 52.
[32] Ibid.
[34] J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, (San Francesco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 125.
[35] Benedict VI, Sacramentum Caritatis, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation to the Bishops, clergy, consecrated persons and the lay faithful on the Eucharist as the source and the summit of the Church’s life and mission, 2006, no. 48. See http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20070222_sacramentum-caritatis_en.html . Accessed on 13/01/2008.From henceforth it will be abbreviated to “Sac.C” so as to avoid confusion with the abbreviation “SC” which is the usual abbreviation for the Apostolic Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.
[36] T. Radcliffe, What’s the Point of being a Christian?, (London: Burns & Oates, 2006) 26-27.
[37] A. Rouet, Liturgy and the Arts, ix.
[38] J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 61.
[39] Ibid, 61.
[40] G. Alberione, Carissimi in San Paolo- Lettere, articoli, opuscoli, scritti inediti, tratti dal bollettino interno ‘San Paolo’ (1933-1959), (Rome: Edizioni San Paolo, 1971), 675.
[41] G. Alberione, Alle Pie Discepole 1956, (Rome: Edizioni Paoline, 1986), n. 622.
[42] Text from A. Flannery, A., (ed); Vatican II- The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, New Revised Study Edition, (Dublin: Dominican Publications), 1992.
[43] P. Sheery, Spirit and Beauty- An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics, 156.
[44] A. Rouet, Liturgy and the Arts, xiv.
[45] J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 118.
[46] P. Marini, A Challenging Reform- Realising the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007), xiii.
[47] Ibid, xiv-xv.
[48] See B. Neunheuser, “Movimento liturgico”, in Nuovo Dizionario di Liturgia, edited by D. Sartore and A. Triacca ( Rome: Edizioni San Paolo, 1984), 904-918.
[49] ed. P. Fink, The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, 722.
[50] Quoted by Wladslaw Tatarkiewicz in his History of Aesthetics, III, (The Hague, ???, 1974), 102. Sourced in Spirit and Beauty- An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics by Patrick Sheery, 3.
[51] Office of the Liturgical celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Liturgy and Beauty, Experiences of renewal in certain Papal Liturgical Celebrations, 2000,n. 2
.http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2004/documents/ns_lit_doc_20040202_liturgia-bellezza_en.html Accessed on 24/02/2008
[52] “Dignity and beauty in the liturgy” and “celebrate with dignity and beauty” were phrases coined by Fr. James Alberione also to be used by his spiritual daughters in their ministry of promoting liturgy as a means of evangelisation.
[53] G. Alberione, Appunti di teologia Pastorale, (Cinisello Balsamo: Edizioni San Paolo, 2002) n. 361-372. Father James Alberione (1884-1971), founder of the Pauline Family, composed of ten Institutes. From an early age, he was enrolled in the Society of Friends of Christian Art (Amici dell’arte cristiana). In 1913, through the work of this society, a magazine came into being entitled Arte Cristiana, founded by Bishop Celsus Costantini. The purpose of this magazine was to promote love for and creation of sacred art, in general, and of liturgical art in particular. Fr. Alberione was assigned to teach liturgy for many years and during his time as master of ceremonies to the bishop of Alba, his love for the sacred liturgy increased and moved him to envisage a Congregation would be committed to diffusing a love and knowledge of the liturgy through the use of the most efficacious means of social communication. This Congregation he would name the ‘Pious Disciples of the Divine Master’ (PDDM). Today, among their primary apostolates is that of living and promoting the liturgy through centres of diffusion (Liturgical Centres), liturgical catechesis especially through the publication of liturgical magazines destined for all those involved in parish and community liturgy.
[54] Ibid n. 367.
[55] G. Alberione, Abuntantes Divitiae- The Charismatic history of the Pauline Family, (Boston: St. Pauls Books and Media, 1993), n. 145.
[56] G. Alberione, Alle Pie Discepole 1958, Vol III, (Rome: Edizione Paoline, 1986), 2.
[57] G .Alberione, To the Pious Disciples 1946-47, (Rome: Edizione Paoline, 1986), 477-480
[58] Centre or Liturgical Centre is the name given to the centres of diffusion for church furnishings and liturgical services which are part of the apostolate of the Disciples of the Divine Master.
[59] G. Alberione, Alle Pie Discepole 1958, n. 2.
[60] G. Alberione, To the Pious Disciples 1946-47, n.6.
[61] See G. Alberione, Ipsum Audite- collections from Fr. Alberione’s sermons to the PDDM, n.1 (Rome: Edizioni Paolini, 1979), 82 and also “To the Pious Disciples 1946-47", 152 by the same author.
[62] Benedict XVI’s Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis. See http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20070222_sacramentum-caritatis_en.html, n.35. Accessed on 14/01/2008.
[63] Ibid
[64] Monsignor Mauro Piacenza, “Majesty and Beauty in His Sanctuary: Art at the service of the Liturgy”. See http://www.zenit.org/rssitalian-13514 Accessed on 14/01/2008.
[65]Liturgy and Beauty, Experiences of renewal in certain Papal Liturgical Celebrations, 2000, n.2.
http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2004/documents/ns_lit_doc_20040202_liturgia-bellezza_en.html Accessed on 24/02/2008
[66] Robert Browing in his poem ‘Christmas Eve and Easter Day’. Sourced in Art and the Beauty of God- A Christian Understanding by Richard Harries, 14.
[67] D. Fagerberg, Theologia Prima, What is Liturgical Theology?, (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004), 221.
[68] H. Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord- A Theological Aesthetics, Volume VII: Theology: The New Covenant, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), 327.
[69] P. Sheery, Spirit and Beauty- An Introduction to Theological Aesthetics, 15.
[70] A. Rouet, Liturgy and the Arts, 20.


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