Category Archives: Art

The Alabaster Church

Should we be building (or restoring) beautiful churches when there is so much poverty in the world? Shouldn’t the Church sell all that it owns and give the money to the poor?

I am a simple man and I do not have a complete answer to that question. But I ask you to consider the story of the feast of Simon the leper, or more appropriately the story of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment. Does this story have a lesson for us that applies to the questions above? I think so.

Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_Pharisee

Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618-1620, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

In the Gospel of Matthew, verses 26:6-13, we read:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, “To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”

In the Gospel of Matthew this woman pours ointment on Christ’s head, in Luke it says she pours it on His feet and wipes them with her hair. I think it is fair to say she did both, and to do so fits with Christ saying she did it for His burial. But here’s the question I think we should ask for ourselves in light of this story: Do we not, very specifically and uniquely, have Christ with us at Mass, truly present? Are not our churches, in fact, both temples and palaces: places for worship and sacrifice on the one hand, and places for monarchal reverence and pomp on the other? Yes, we must help the poor, but our love for our neighbor goes forth from our worship of our creator and our savior. We proceed from Mass into the world, conforming our lives to Christ in our actions. And churches are for all who come, rich and poor alike.

The poor, above all else, need salvation of their souls as does everyone else. Certainly we must not forsake the poor with cheap excuses that our monies are tied up elsewhere. Christ chastised the Pharisees for that as well. But we must not turn away from proper worship in order to, instead, focus on the poor. When we do, we put our souls at risk, and theirs.

[I realize I risk saying all this because I am not poor. My apologies for any thickheadedness and offense.]

I believe the state of the “new Church” today, with its numbers plummeting, its thin gruel of RCIA programs, its horrible music, its new Mass with namby pamby vestments and shallow prayers, and all its staggering and ravaging scandals, is all of a piece with its degraded and ugly churches. To forsake right worship, which includes, if at all possible, beautiful places of worship of sufficient design and beauty to glorify the King, is to lose the forest for the trees. It is, in a sense, to lose Christ.

This is one reason why churches that focus only on helping the poor all too often become churches where soup and blankets becomes their gospel and not the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins, saving us from Hell, and leading us to eternal life. Raising Lazarus was an image of the gospel, but Lazarus was raised to die again. His true salvation came because Christ died on the cross, and then rose from the dead, then ascended to the right hand of the Father, and then Lazarus believing in that truth.

Therefore, I believe that a gospel which says we should do away with fancy churches and instead give that money to the poor is, in fact, a substitute gospel. It has some appeal because it has some important truth (we truly do need to help the needy and lay down our lives for others), but it elevates one truth inappropriately above another. The poor (and the downtrodden, and those in prison, and widows & orphans, and the hungry, and the naked, etc), whom you must love, will always be with you. But if you are to see Christ in the poor you must first see Him in the Eucharist, and bend the knee, and bow your head, and worship Him. Should you sell all you have and give it to the poor? Maybe. Should the princes of the Church live simple lives of poverty? I think they probably should (certainly many today should be brought low). Ought the Church as the body of Christ celebrate Mass in plain sheet-rocked or concrete-tilt-up boxes instead of beautiful, ornate, and more expensive churches? I think not (if at all possible). Give glory as and to whom glory is due.

Does this mean that if we focus once again on building more beautiful churches all our problems with go away? No. But we must not be afraid to build beautiful churches. To do so will feed and inform our souls in surprising ways, and help us become more holy, more fully human, more like Christ. This goes hand in hand with helping the poor. The stunning churches of old, those that are still with us, are memorials to those who built them in a similar way that the story of the woman with the alabaster box is her memorial.

You will meet her if you get to Heaven. And, perhaps, you will bow to her and thank her for showing the way.

Finally: Arvo Pärt, the brilliant minimalist composer from Estonia, set the words from Matthew above to music. Listen to this and read the words as you do. This is, I believe, a stunning example of what setting the words of scripture to music can be.

Introíbo ad altáre dei.

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France is paying for 2,800 Cathedrals & Churches to be Demolished across France

It’s sad to see a beautiful Catholic church building destroyed. The video below shows some demolition moments from a church destruction earlier this year in France. But for how sad the video is, the churches demolition is really just a symptom of many other factors.

Those factors include such things as:

  1. The French government and not the Church itself owns all the Church buildings. And many of these buildings are old and in need of major repairs, and are unsafe if not repaired — the one above was going to be quite expensive to repair. And though beautiful, they don’t attract enough tourism to warrant their survival.
  2. A Church whose membership numbers have been in free-fall for decades. Thus there just are not the numbers to keep the churches filled with parishioners and, consequently, financially supported. There are a lot of reasons for this, but certainly they include: Too many priests and bishops who no longer believe in the faith, but have found careers essentially live action roll-playing being priests and bishops. Modernism and all its mutant children, including bad theology, a lightweight view of marriage, and rampant sexual immorality seem to have replaced a hearty and robust faith — and few are interested anymore. And many Church leaders often seem eager to dismantle the Church.
  3. Consequently very few Catholics are left who have the means and are willing to save these old churches. It’s easy to bemoan the loss on social media, it’s another thing altogether to step up and contribute where needed, even to fight for it.

And the list goes on. The point is, however, that we should not be surprise at all about the destruction of this church. What we should be is sad. But not so much for this building as for the Church itself, and for the world that is so actively and happily rejecting Christ. If anything, the above video is a powerful reminder of how the Church has been, and is continuing to be, assailed from within by a Catholic leadership who no longer has faith, and a laity who follows suit.

This is the text from the video notes:

This is the last moments of Église Saint-Jacques d’Abbeville (St. Jack’s Church Abbeville). France is paying for 2,800 Cathedrals & Churches to be Demolished across France. The Saint-Jacques church was a neo-Gothic parish church located in Abbeville The building was constructed from 1868 to 1876 at the site of 12th century church which was rebuilt in 1482. It gradually deteriorated for lack of maintenance at the beginning of the 21th century and was demolished from January to May 2013. Architect Victor Delefortrie was responsible for the design of the church. The church contained two bells, Jacqueline from 1737 and another, mute, dated 1645. Inside, there was a particular organ called Mutin Cavaillé-Coll from 1906. During World War I , Abbeville was bombed but Saint-Jacques church was not affected. Only impacts shattered the windows. It also survived World War 2. In 2008, it was estimated that it would cost 4.2 million euro to restore the church from weather damage and disrepair. In 2010, an association was created to safeguard the church and a petition was launched. In spring 2011, while deciding on its fate a crack was noticed which had caused stone to fall from the church. The 31 January 2013, Nicolas Dumont, the mayor of Abbeville, issued an order to demolish the church as a safety hazard. The next 7 February, the city council voted to demolish the church at estimated cost of EUR 350 000. On April 27, the foundation stone was found and preserved by the city. In November 2013, the rubble of the church are used by two artists to create a work of contemporary art entitled Build/deconstructed. A town square was proposed for its replacement. The project was the work of an architect in the city, Jean-Marc Demoulin, who accommodated the desires of the residents. A lawn of grass covers the church’s location, taking its shape and orientation. Two pathways form a cross. At the site of the choir, a memorial will be erected to honor veterans and Achilles Paillart, the pastor responsible for the church’s reconstruction in 1868. A small pond will occupy the site of the altar The conversion also included the creation of forty-two parking spaces on the perimeter of the square, including three for people with reduced mobility.

The story as told above doesn’t seem as horrible as the video images first seem, but it’s still a terrible situation. I do not know if it’s entirely true about how many churches France is paying to demolish. 2,800 seems rather high, but my gut says it’s probably true. Is there hope for France and its churches? Can these buildings be saved? Can the Catholic Church in France rise from the ashes? If Christ returns will He find faith in France?

I pray every day for the Church in France.

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From the Sacrament to the Mysteries: A Survey of Classical and Sacred Architecture

Dr. Denis McNamara gave two lectures on Church architecture, sweeping quickly through many aspects of Church design, classical architecture, the meaning of many details that easily get overlooked, and why it matters. The amount of interesting information in these talks is amazing and, I believe, a lot more important than most Christians realize or probably would care to know but should. Denis is also one of the three voices on one of the best Catholic podcasts anywhere, The Liturgy Guys.

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Is Music a Civilizing Force?

This short talk by Roger Scruton is worth listening to in its entirety. His thoughts on silence are especially profound.

I have come to realize that rock-n-roll’s purpose, among other things, is to un-civilize the individual. We love rock-n-roll precisely because we want to be un-civilized. I do believe there is some value in occasionally “letting down one’s hair.” I really can’t say it’s all bad. But I also believe it has to be appropriately counterbalanced with beautiful music that leads us to perfection of the soul.

This idea of perfection of the soul is laughed at by moderns. No one believes in perfection anymore, in part because they don’t think it’s possible, but more profoundly because they don’t believe there is an objective standard by which to measure perfection. But they also do not believe in the soul. Why seek to perfect something that does not exist? And why go to the effort if there is no life beyond this one? I would posit, however, that the existence of music, and the phenomena of human experiences of music, are an excellent argument for the existence of the soul, its eternal nature, and its desire for perfection.

Then, when I think of the Mass, I consider its music and what that does to us. I wonder about appropriateness, and form, and the teleological purpose of liturgy. I also think about Scruton’s comment about the soul being prepared to receive good music. Can poor music at Mass harm us in some way? Can the repeated use of poor music at Mass cause the souls present to be temporarily incapable of receiving proper music when presented? How might we fix this?

Why in the world did God make music, and what is the relation between music and the human soul?

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The Hidden Beauty in the Eucharist, Revealing the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity through Sacred Art

The following is a lecture on beauty and sacred art by Jed Gibbons, artist, designer, and vice president of the Catholic Art Guild, which is based out of the beautiful St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.

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The Return of Religion in Contemporary Art Criticism

My previous post featured Jonathan A. Anderson lecturing on the lack of theological considerations in contemporary art criticism. This lecture comes several years later and takes a look at how religion is reappearing in the writings about contemporary art over the past two decades.

 

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The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism

Many art critics have religious leanings. Many artists have religious leanings. Many works of art deal with religious themes. However, there would seem to be an unspoken pact among art critics (and art teachers) that religion and theological concerns will not be seriously considered as a topic or approach to thinking and writing about art. This is not a great situation for either artists or anyone who would appreciate art.

Jonathan Anderson is an artist, critic, and professor, and author of the book: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (Studies in Theology and the Arts). In this lecture below he surveys and addresses this lack of theology in art criticism, and why it matters — not merely because he’s a Christian, but because theology can help all of us better understand works of art.

Anderson mention James Elkins and his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Here is a lecture Elkins gave on that topic a decade ago:

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Filed under Art, Books, Curious, Deconstruction, Education, Philosophy, Religion, Theology, Video