The Nature of Beauty and Sacred Art: A lecture by David Clayton

David Clayton is a professor at Saint Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH, where he has designed the Way of Beauty program which focuses on the link between Catholic culture and liturgy. I think this kind of talk is very important. I would like to see more people, more “average folks,” more in-the-pews people, that would think about these things, and speak up.

I am curious what others think. Do you think about these things? Do you care, or think they are important? I recognize that most folks are not into listening to lectures, but the connections between beauty (one of the transcendentals) and the Christian life, especially the liturgy and Cristian architecture, music, and other aspects of worship, seems really important.

A comment on the production: I am continually finding it troublesome that lectures on art and architecture seem to be video recorded by rank amateurs. Lighting is almost always bad, framing is generally poor, camera quality and movement indicate they are using cheaper equipment, and overall it always seems like recording lectures is, at best, an afterthought. I understand most of the time they cannot get professionals because of the cost (though more professionals should volunteer as a way of supporting the Church and tithing) but they can still do much better. In short, video of art lectures should be beautiful and well done, and they almost always are not, including this one. If the lectures rely heavily on PowerPoint (et al.) then get the presentation and add it directly to the video — don’t video the screen; at least use two cameras, one for the lecturer and one for the screen. Just as we Christians generally tend to lack the commitment anymore to build beautiful churches or commission beautiful liturgical music, we make lots of bad videos. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the content of these lectures. And I’m glad someone captured the lectures at least.

Catholic Perspectives on Art

Here are a couple of lectures from art historian Elizabeth Lev.

Unfortunately, so many art lecture videos online are not well produced. In this case the content is very good, but the audio is only passable, and the images of artworks are poor on the video. I would love to see more videos made with an understanding and care that they will live on for years online — especially when it comes to discussing art and architecture. But I love the historical perspective Lev brings to the study of art. Art history has not always existed, nor did it arise within a vacuum — and it has had a profound influence on the Church.

Here is a better reproduction of the final artwork she discusses:

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–52) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

There’s so much more than can and should be said, but these videos can function as kinds of introductions. I don’t know yet what I think of Lev; she seems to know her stuff (though these are not in-depth lectures), she lives in Rome, she has a story.

It is important that we Christians think about art. And I mean really think about it. We should be familiar with what art is today, what it was in the past, how it has functioned in society and history, and what it has meant to the Church. It is interesting just how important art has been within the history of Christianity, and just how trivial it has become today. I believe this has something to do with a turning away from God while still hanging on to religion. This is true for both Protestants and Catholics. Somehow I find it more sad in reference to Catholics. Fortunately, and as I perceive it, there are a number of very good Christian artists today (I don’t really like that term), a growing interest in the arts and in sacred architecture, and an increasingly impassioned younger generation becoming uninterested in the reasons (whatever they were — some kind of 1960’s iconoclasm I suppose) that led previous generations to jettison great and holy art in the Church.


The Theological Reasoning Behind Traditional Church Architecture

Here is a great lecture on the fundamentals of why traditional Catholic churches are designed the way they are. The reasons are primarily theological, which should give us pause when we consider more modern styles.

Increasingly I am becoming convinced that the traditional styles are better — not only because they are “cool” and I like them and all that, but much more importantly because they speak to our human nature, they way God designed us, in a way that our modern culture has forgotten.

A walk through heavenly architecture

This is a great video. We do not tend to think about architecture much, and certainly not philosophically or theologically. This video is a kind of primer on sacred architecture, and its subject and contents may be more important than we realize.

“It is perfectly legitimate to search for new forms, but these forms must express a symbolic content that remains the same thought the centuries because it has a heavenly origin. Modern builders must listen to and appreciate the suggestions of the chief architect, the Angel of the Temple.” ~ Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, p. 143

I wonder about this quote. Clearly the main thrust of modernity is the willful shutting of one’s ears to the voice of our Creator. But I also wonder about architecture, and that modern architects have not merely shut their ears when it comes only to church designs, but to all designs. I suppose one could say that modern architecture has become an expression of an incorrect anthropology. Also, can we not say that architecture itself should be seen as a kind of sacramental, that architecture, because it is about being human, must reflect the proper understanding of being human?

Considering Sacred Architecture

Here is another lecture from Duncan Stroik. Most people are not going to find a lecture on sacred architecture to be all that interesting, but I find this fascinating. In fact, I think it is quite important.

I’m not going to say much here about church architecture, but it’s clear that many, perhaps most, of our churches today do not serve us in the way God designed us to be served. We do not generally build sacred spaces anymore — except maybe in sports stadiums and museums. Too many Catholic churches today, those built over that last 50-75 years or less, have designs that seem to be based on assumptions (if anyone assumes at all) that the space will be made sacred by the Real Presence and a few common Catholics items, and thus we don’t need to have architecture that reaches towards Heaven. In one sense it’s true that we don’t need church buildings to point us to Heaven, or at least it’s logical, but in practice there is often a corresponding denial of the more mysterious aspects and needs of our humanity in our church designs.

I wonder what cultural forces have shaped our world such that many Catholics see no problems with, and even love, lousy church architecture. Perhaps we have lost the understanding of what a sacred space truly is, and that, I suppose, only comes about because we have lost the understanding of what a human being is — a sad thing indeed, especially for Catholics.

Christianity and Art: Something Lost & Something to Gain

This is a good lecture. Christians should invest in the arts more. This is a big topic. There are no easy answers, except maybe to just embrace the arts, invest in the arts, encourage the arts, etc., etc. Anyway, listen to what he says. It’s good.

It’s a tragedy that Christianity, as a whole, has become largely irrelevant when it comes to the arts (even though there are many excellent Christian artists — or excellent artists who are Christian). And if this is the case, then Christianity is largely culturally irrelevant — not in terms of its content, but in terms of its reaching people and speaking to them meaningfully.

Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. If we have lost Beauty, can we really say at least we’ve still got Truth and Goodness? Probably not.

So maybe some of the content isn’t so good either.

Anyway, it can’t just be artists crying for support. They sound like whiners to everyone else, even though they are not. Others need to cry to, and then support the arts.

Dressing for Mass

I find this video encouraging.

I also wonder why this has become an issue. Why are videos like this necessary?

Maybe you don’t think they’re necessary. I’m sure some folks will feel put off by the sentiments behind the video, and the encouragement to dress better for Mass. That encouragement may, instead, feel like rules being imposed. I understand.

I think about my own feelings of wanting to be liked and accepted. I want others to like me for who I am, and not because of some show I put on. There is a strong thread of this way of thinking within Christianity. We want to believe that God loves us directly, that we don’t need to put on a show, that He doesn’t care about how we dress, that He takes us as we are, warts and all.

Well, that’s true. And anyway, we can’t hide from God.

We can carry that further and believe that we must do away with all hints of pretension in order to have a more authentic faith, and more genuine worship. There is truth in this, but I feel that our culture carries the burden of this thinking, born in many ways in the 1960’s and 1970’s, to the extreme across all of society. We are a society of slobs in many ways, as though we are making a point about authenticity or something, but I don’t think it’s a conscious thing anymore. I wonder if, in our modern freedoms, we have lost the sense of being made in the image of God. I’m sure we have.

But dressing for Church is not for God. And it shouldn’t be as a show for others. Rather, it is for us, for our souls.

You don’t have to kneel for prayer, but that posture feeds the soul in some mysterious way. You don’t have to bow your head or clasp your hands either, but there is something true, something connected with the deep design of our humanness that such postures speak to and reflect. I believe this is true for how we dress at Mass. We are in the very Real Presence, with Christ Himself, and with our fellow brothers and sisters. What a great opportunity to rejoice in this fact.

There is no pretension in knowing you are a child of the King, either. And consider this, with this truth in mind, dressing up for Mass is fundamentally an act of humility. It’s not about putting on airs, rather it’s about showing reverence, and doing so in a way that conforms to our nature.

a tremendous effort

[A] thing which Catholics do not realize about converts is the tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which they feel about praying publicly in a Catholic Church. The effort is takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort. ~ Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain

So true.

Perhaps it is my Baptist upbringing, and a West coast kind of sensibility as well, but kneeling to pray, even in a Church, even in a living room, can be difficult. Worried one’s family would stumble upon you praying the rosary can also be an embarrassment one wants to avoid. It’s strange, really. Why worry? I know I have felt that embarrassment, that sense of worry, being self-conscious about it.

It is agonizing, on various levels too. For to kneel and pray in a Catholic Church, before the Blessed Sacrament is one of the deep longings that many converts feel. To leave the world of the evangelical Protestant aesthetic and enter into a truly sacred place, perhaps lit by candles, perhaps filled with icons and statuary, and then to kneel before the Real Presence and pray without embarrassment or worry of self-consciousness, is one of the common reasons many converts are drawn to the Church. And one can agonize right at that crux of self-consciousness and desire.

I suppose many cradle Catholics merely wonder why this is an issue (if they are even aware). Why a tremendous effort? Why an effort at all?

It is.

not a good social critic

I am not much good as a social critic. It’s not for lack of interest or want. I find social criticism interesting, and I’m always wanting to connect the dots when it comes to seeing how various social and historical forces interplay to create and fashion our world and minds.

My problem, however, is not that I don’t see, but that I am too eager to judge others and not myself. I am very willing to see what is wrong with the world, but not so much what is wrong with me. I think this is as true when it comes to judging Christian culture, and the lack of beauty in my local parishes, etc. as it is with anything else.

It’s easy to not be humble. It’s easy to say what’s wrong, but not actually lift a finger to change anything.

And I don’t pray enough for the world and others.

Beauty at Church. I wonder.


I doubt many (any) readers of this blog attend Mass at an ancient, Romanesque-style church, or Medieval Gothic cathedral. Some may attend in a “Catholic looking” styled church building, a sort of neo-gothic, American version of a previous age. We have one of those in our town. Nevertheless, when I look on the Internet at images of old church interiors from Europe, I see a level of beauty nowhere to be found around here except, perhaps to some degree, in the Eastern Rite and Eastern Orthodox churches. I’m not one to make a big deal about church buildings, but I do sometimes wonder at what terrible turn did modern man take such that we are left with our modern church buildings. They seem terribly bourgeois and evocative of the baby-boomer aesthetic (which I won’t go into here).

I also wonder why we have become a culture where people frequently dress as slobs, as though they don’t think they have any inherent worth. Is there a correlation? I wonder.

With this in mind, I imagine going to Mass where the exterior of the church building is beautiful proportioned, architecturally appropriate, and practically exudes “Catholic” in the fullest and best sense. And where the interior is lit by candles, with icons on the walls, an actual altarpiece up front, and the scent of incense and melting wax. One would probably feel that this is a holy place, and sense deeply that God is there; and with the Real Presence of Christ within, and with other Christians present, God is there.

Also imagine going to church and being welcomed by friendly, serious, faithful people. And imagine these are also your friends. And new people are also welcomed and naturally included in the community. Imagine large families and single people all feeling welcome. This would happen if the Christians within took the words of Christ to heart and lived without fear and without protecting their precious self-images. I recognize this is a bigger question than mere church and liturgical styles, but maybe they are related somehow.

And imagine if those attending Mass were not dressed like slobs. That is, they dressed like they were actually in the presence of their King and Savior, which they are. And that the way they dressed and behaved functioned as a kind of encouragement to their souls, and to others. That they recognized they have been created in the glorious image of God, that they once were blind but now they see, that God so loved them that He gave His Son to die for them, that Christ is risen indeed! And they dressed like all that is true.


If we really, truly take seriously, take into our very souls that our God is, in fact, the One in Whom we live and move and have our being, then perhaps, just perhaps we would do church differently. We might dress differently, speak and act differently, design and decorate our churches differently. I wonder.

Of course, we can twist and warp all of this into ugly, judgmental, and shallow actions. We can miss the point, live on the surface, be hypocrites. And we can act pious as we hurt others. But imagine if we gave it a try, for the sake of Truth, Goodness, and BEAUTY – that is, we tried to add beauty back into our worship, beauty that is true and good, beauty of love in action, beauty in design and good proportion, beauty in its totality and in it challenge and in its mystery.

I think that would be a good thing.

For now, however, I will find whatever beauty I can, try to dress and act better at church, and remind myself that what most important is to love God and love each other. And I will try to find ways to encourage more beauty, because I think that is a way to love God and others too.