The Power of Beauty

A few years ago a childhood Catholic friend who had abandoned religion soon after college when he moved overseas returned to the States to attend his mother’s funeral. The funeral Mass took place in a local parish church. Admitting that he hadn’t been inside a church in 30 years, my friend commented that were he ever to return to the faith it would be because of the beauty of the liturgy. Ah, the power of beauty!

Let us hope that the Foundation for Sacred Arts flourishes. The advance of the Kingdom will not be brought about by the spiritually anemic but by those invigorated by the power of the good, the true and the beautiful.

Since its inception Christianity has championed the power of sacred art, whether visual, architectural, musical, dramatic or liturgical. The murals in the catacombs bolstered the faith of the early believers. The mosaic frescoes of the 4th century, the soaring cathedrals in the middle ages, the icons, statuary and painting masterpieces of the Renaissance, all stirred and lifted the human spirit – to say nothing of Gregorian chant and the sublimely moving works of Mozart and Palestrina. Sacred art was employed not just to inspire but also to teach and evangelize. Many of us remember learning that the biblical scenes depicted in Europe’s stained glass windows were to instruct the illiterate in the facts of the faith. Indeed, the edifying effect of religious art long predates Christianity. Thinks of the psalms and that lovely word ‘psalmody.’

In an effort to reverse the decline in the world’s appreciation of, and creation of, sacred art, both Pope Benedict and his predecessor have called on the artistic community to rediscover the essential relationship between sacred art, its manifestation of the true, the good and the beautiful, and the path to the transcendent, to God. Much as the easy and self-referential enticements of  what’s called ‘spirituality’ lure young minds away from the theocentric demands of ‘religion’, modern art in large measure abandons realism and embraces abstraction. While there is nothing wrong with abstraction, it is the physical that is real. Physical reality is created by God and, through the Incarnation, sanctified. As sculptor H. Reed Armstrong is quoted as saying in ‘Our Sunday Visitor’, art and faith are bound by beauty: “We are brought by the perceptible beauty of the material world to the imperceptible beauty of the spiritual world”.

One organization that is responding to the call for a revival in sacred art is the Foundation for Sacred Arts founded in 2002 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. As its website states (www.thesacredarts.org): “The Church has long recognized the power of the sacred arts to communicate truth and to turn souls devoutly toward Christ…..However, since the dawn of the modern era the arts have increasingly been divorced from a Christian nexus, and the pursuit of excellence in conformity with truth, goodness and beauty….has languished. The spiritual anemia of modern society makes it all the ore vital that the sacred arts thrive….”

Let us hope that the Foundation for Sacred Arts flourishes. The advance of the Kingdom will not be brought about by the spiritually anemic but by those invigorated by the power of the good, the true and the beautiful.

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