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    Dome of Saint Peter's Basilica

    Should Churches Be Beautiful?

    A Christian raised in folding-chair storefront churches is uncomfortable in Rome’s glittering basilicas – until she starts to see them as God might.

    By Sharon Rose Christner

    May 5, 2023

    Available languages: Español

    • Sharon Lunden

      I love this! Beauty speaks to our souls in so many ways, despite the sometimes awkward humanity of depicting Jesus, his mother Mary, God the Father or any saint in stained glass or sculpture, and despite the sometimes painful origins of great churches, built from wealth obtained through slavery, serfdom, or alongside poverty. Yet God can use these human and beautiful things to draw us closer, to open our hearts to the Spirit and the sheer awe of the love of God. Our 180 year old Episcopal church is at times an albatross, in constant need of attention, yet I find inspiration in the windows, old carved wood and scents of that dear space, drawn deeper into faith as its beauty cracks open my soul a bit more. God loves simplicity, but created such extravagant beauty that I realize it is not an either/or but a both/and when it comes to the style of church or worship that we find best suited to our particular soul, which may vary from time to time.

    • Greg Bourn

      This was a good article, thank you. A cathedral should bring one to a point of complete stillness. One is so overcome by its beauty that silence is the only response. A silence in deep communion with our maker. There is nothing wrong with basic churches as a gathering place for the people. These kind of “churches“ are places for social gatherings. They are not normally a place of silent encounter with God.

    • Rebekah Christner

      Beautiful, Sharon! I love this.

    • Sr Margaret Kerry fsp

      Thank you for your thoughtful essay. A Sister friend of mine, Sr Julia Mary Darrenkamp, is also from Lancaster. The beauty of the first Catholic Church she entered gave her a glimpse of heavenly beauty. She lit the candles, all of them. Stopped in the confessional to see what it was and eventually joined the church and became a promoter of beauty as a religious sister. Follow her Instagram along with 67 K followers - because beauty will save the world(Fyodor Dostoyevsky). The good, taken separately from truth and beauty, is only an indistinct feeling, a powerless upwelling (Soloviev). I found it revealing that you were taught that indulgences purchased churches. As a Catholic from my first steps on earth I have a very different remembering. It was the faith of my ancestors - at least up until the reformation. My grandfather was a convert, his ancestors were Anabaptist, Methodists, Puritans (1635 arrival), anti-Catholic all the way from Cromwell. From this marriage of anti-Catholic and core Catholic and throw in my dad's middle-eastern background, I grew up with an understanding that faith is central and we are all seekers. My seeking is for origins - the Gentiles to whom Paul preached the gospel are my ancestors. As Christianity grew some became desert dwellers living in squalor to recapture the simplicity that they originally had to accept. My ancestors were also part of the Austrian rush to beauty for Church architecture. Do you know of Antoni Gaudi of Spain? That the Church he built (still being built) takes away your breath! And fills it with the breath of the Spirit. Churches built despite the sinfulness of others and our own sinfulness, are there for us to worship God. Yes, you are correct! God sees in our attempts the child presenting a fist of weeds that look like flowers to the child and like any mother exclaims - it is beautiful. It is good. Lets make it true.

    • Tom Davis

      Thanks for your beautiful essay. Living in Europe now, I have felt ambivalent about the beautiful worship spaces I have seen. Your essay reframed that for me.

    • Dr. Russell Kendall Carter

      Jesus taught on mountain tops and from boats; early Christians worshiped in the deserts. We do not need luxury churches to praise God.

    • John Wilson Jr

      I enjoyed this article immensely and I think it raises an important question about beauty and its place in world. Where it does and does not belong. I think there is a place for beauty. Often the church building is seen as the house of God. The tabernacle was the house God Commanded the Israelites to build for Him. If we read the description of what God wanted built it is, as I imagine it, quite beautiful. When in the Gospel Jesus was anointed with a very expensive perfume, some complained about the extravagance and what might be done with what the perfume could be sold for. Jesus called the anointing a beautiful thing. Beautiful things are often expensive, but it is clear from scripture, and looking at His creation that God is a lover of beauty, regardless of the expense. I think sometimes we lose sight of this, though I will be the first to admit that I often wonder what better use could be made of the money.

    • Mary

      Yikes. I’m going to England for the first time in a few months on a pilgrimage. I needed to read this. Thank you!

    • Ed Schupbach

      Raised Anabaptist in 'a simple, white clapboard' community, I will never forget, as long as I live - I trust - the moment I stepped out of the train onto the platform and looked up to take in the Cologne Cathedral. After a few minutes of wonder and awe, I said to my wife, 'Now I know what it must have been like for a medieval serf, perhaps illiterate yet struck by the majesty, power, awe, glory and security of GOD to His People ... all seen through the ministry of architecture caught by the mind and hands of someone whose heart was moved by and with the Love of God. It confirmed what I have since learned as the primary worship of the human soul in righteously comporting to the natural world around, all of which has come about by The Hands, moved by The Heart of The First Love. I personally think it is very hard to worship the God of the 24th Psalm if one is proud that their place of worship (which they call 'church') is designed to look like a ball-bearing factory. That must in some embarrassing way reflect a heart that has a strange view of the beauty of the Lord.

    • TW

      What a beautiful, well said essay. Thank you!

    I have this memory of something glowing, the color of a sapphire sky with bright points of light, like the heavens opening in our midst, shining out from underneath the canopy over the altar – all of which I must have been imagining during that Mass, because looking into it no such thing exists there. We felt we were in some type of elaborate heaven-replica, or that heaven could rupture through the windows at any time. My younger sister sat with her mouth open and gaped up at the ceiling of Philadelphia’s cathedral, at the domes and hanging lanterns and painted angels and gold leaf everything. To her, “church” still meant the old grocery store.

    None of the churches we attended growing up could accurately be called churches in any architectural sense. There is an inclination toward aesthetic simplicity among born-Mennonites, ex-Mennonites, charismatic Christians, and shoestring-budget churches, and these, in various combinations, were the groups of people with whom the six of us spent our Lancaster County Sundays.

    Our first church, a little community church merely designated “Christian,” met in a partition-walled room rented from the town’s rec center. This room was at other times used for exercise classes, baton twirling lessons, and an afterschool childcare program, so there were coloring-book pages on the walls and batons and pom-poms and weights piled in the corners, and not much else in the way of decoration. There were no hymnals or programs, so someone borrowed an overhead projector and shone song lyrics onto the front wall. People sat on brown metal folding chairs, or, if you had lots of little people, on a blanket on the floor. We children were often allowed to dance around in the back during the singing, with tambourines, shakers, and ribbons. To my memory, there was nothing in the services that marked a structure or a changing of seasons, except for the real events in our lives, and that once every few months there were donuts.

    church service in an elementary school gym

    Photograph by PortableChurch.

    Then we went to church in a school gym, then in the room above someone’s garage. Then a church made out of an old grocery store: boxy, plain, a kind of scuffed-up off-white, impossible to get totally clean, with overhead fluorescent lights and exactly one window. A former office building, a rented basement, the spare room in a restaurant that eventually burned down. In some way these congregations were like the early church: nothing around us had been made originally for worship, but anything could be adapted for it. Nothing was already a church, but any place could become one.

    On the occasions (funerals, free Summer Bible Schools) when we went into churches that had been built as churches, they were usually low and plain and vernacular, in the Mennonite way, with not much decoration except a quilt sewn by some grandmothers, maybe a bulletin board with the finger paintings of the young children. Still, it was a striking experience to walk into such a place and know that it had been made for this; it had never been anything else.

    It all seemed very tall and gothic and formal and uninviting – and, above all, unnecessary.

    Imagine my surprise when, near the beginning of college in Philadelphia, I walked into a Catholic church for the first time. St. Agatha–St. James was at once beautiful and unsettling. I had suspected any church with “Saint” in the name would be very fancy, and this one had two saints and quite a bit of fanciness. I questioned all of it: Why the miniature castle behind the altar? Why statues of people? Why a rent-a-votive booth? Why the hundred gold fleurs-de-lis on enormously high ceilings? Where did they find all the money for this in West Philadelphia? Were there not enough people to feed? Why were there donors’ names in the stained glass windows? And this was just the building. In the service there was a secret script I could not see but which everyone else had memorized, with bits and pieces of prayers in dead languages. It all seemed very tall and gothic and formal and uninviting – and, above all, unnecessary.

    That summer, when my sister visited Philadelphia, we went to see the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and I discovered that it was possible for a church to be even more extravagant. It had all the golden trappings of Agatha-James, all the candles and strange liturgical objects, but on the scale of an airport or capitol. An absolutely mammoth place, where everything curved and soared and delighted in the heavens, and which asserted here below its great columns and caverns in a stately procession.

    The next year I lived for a term in Cambridge, England, where every third building is a church. I found myself in weekly evensong at the chapel of King’s College. This place was another order of magnitude entirely, a prism-cavern of stained light and perfect prismatic voices. The organ in the center was bigger than entire churches I had once attended. Someone hundreds of years ago had organized the seating into physical tiers based on the rank and status of the parishioner, and people were still arranged this way. Chiseled into the stonework in the wall and ceilings were seals and symbols of kings who praised the Lord and killed each other. Their likenesses were sculpted into the stone heads of the saints, then bashed to blank submission by their successors. Quiet graffiti scratched into the dark wooden bench backs said things like JOHN E 1729. Up through the high Anglican liturgy floated words like sundry, absolveth, beseech, holpen, shawms. The choirboys were professionals, and their director would soon be knighted. In the day the whole place glowed; in the night they did not even attempt to fill that giant space with light and instead speckled it with hundreds of candles on benches and stands and hanging in the air, and at the end of evensong it took several men to put each one out and return the place to its great brooding darkness.

    King's Chapel, Cambridge

    King’s Chapel, Cambridge. Photograph by Jean-Christophe Benoist. 

    And finally, after Cambridge, I found myself in Rome, marveling at the papal basilicas, and ultimately St. Peter’s in Vatican City. It completely overwhelmed everything else. At five million cubic meters, it could fit the other three churches I have mentioned inside of it, easily, with room to throw in some parish churches and a few thousand people and the eleven side-chapels that are already in there. And every surface of this cosmos is plastered with ornament, gold and gems, priceless works of art, and the dead bodies of immortal souls.

    I had come, step by step, very far from where I had begun, from the plain white room with folding walls and folding chairs to this vast marble vault. I felt discomfort with all this excess, and with the sense that these things had been intended to communicate power as much as to invite prayer. I knew St. Peter’s was financed in part with the sale of indulgences, which provoked Luther’s church-rending Reformation, which in turn convinced Catholic prelates that this basilica must be even bigger than originally planned, to show those protesters who the real church was. This seemed exactly the kind of tragic conflict and foolish excess that convinced my ancestors to be simple farmers and hold church in someone’s barn. Is there some spiritual advantage in having so much gold around? Is there not more likely a danger? Are there not people who could use food and shelter? Why make something so lofty and inaccessible, so beautiful and unattainable, when Christ came down to his people? You would never know that the God worshipped here was born in a barn and grew up in a backwater town.

    To someone who is himself the perfect architect, maybe it’s all cringey and rough-hewn and laughable in technique and execution.

    I walked around Rome thinking these things for some time, and then something strange happened. I was in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, looking with a still-wary eye at a hundredth exquisite mosaic of Jesus and his mother, when suddenly the whole thing appeared to me as a child’s drawing.

    The materials hadn’t changed, but the elements appeared as if a child of seven might have arranged them. Jesus and Mary sit next to each other on a couch, the structural integrity of which is uncertain. Mary’s eyes are slightly askew; she has a unibrow on her oblong, colorless face. Her nose is very long and her mouth is tiny. She’s wearing a very fancy hoodie dress, and a crown, but has no hair. Jesus’ eyes too are not quite looking in the same direction; he’s got a neck beard and a very strange three-part moustache. He’s way bigger than anyone else in the picture, including a lineup of his friends, who are all wearing very flamboyant shoes. Mary is holding a paper and Jesus is holding a book, and both of these are inscribed with enormous wobbly capital letters, such that each word spills over onto multiple lines. Floating beneath them are a bunch of disproportionately small two-dimensional sheep that kind of look like fat horses.

    Of course I knew that it was still beautiful and extravagant, but once I saw it as a child’s attempt I couldn’t unsee it. Everything began to appear this way: the swirly curlicue doodles in St. Clement; the pope drawn like a little white turtle at Jesus’ feet in St. Paul Outside the Walls; the grade-school character of the snake biting someone’s crotch in the Sistine Chapel.

    This allowed me to be more hospitable to the whole thing: the unapproachable gold mosaic was really just the work of a kid, doing his best to make a picture of Jesus and maybe Jesus’ friends and mom too, and mostly butchering it, getting the eyes and proportions and coloration all wrong.

    I wondered if great artists see most art this way; and if God sees all man-made things this way. To someone who is himself the perfect architect, maybe it’s all cringey and rough-hewn and laughable in technique and execution. Relative to what a God of the universe might see around himself at all times – looking down from that, it all must seem a little bit attempted.

    After all, hadn’t Philadelphia’s Basilica of Peter and Paul revealed Agatha-James to be a simpler, quieter thing? Which it is: very medium for a Catholic church, somewhat plodding, well-meaning, where Father Carlos gives soft-voiced homilies to young people who trudge in with backpacks and despondent faces and sometimes keep both on through the Mass, where the cantors have to compete with sirens from five hospitals.

    Dome of Saint Peter's Basilica

    Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Photograph by Maksim Sokolov. 

    And in light of the famous Cambridge chapel, Philadelphia’s basilica seemed unassuming and homelike: a local Philadelphian, less than two centuries old, designed to survive riots, trying its best to look beautiful while wedged against the giant concrete Sheraton with its enormous red-lit signage. The service, once I came out of my starry trance, was humble enough, involving a first-time homilist making the case for a Sunday rest.

    When I had seen Rome, I could see King’s College Chapel as a place that was also trying: trying to get students to come worship, trying to be a chapel while under pressure to be primarily a museum and concert hall, trying to heat that impossible space through so many sparsely attended evensongs. Always a bit stressed about keeping the building maintained, always wishing people could put their cameras away and just hear.

    Each of these churches made the previous one seem provincial and modest. And maybe they all seem this way to the one for whom they are ostensibly designed – all childlike, half-successful attempts at devotion.

    Of course it’s more complicated than that. These churches have seen displays of power and exploitation; a great deal of the harmful kind of pride. But someone – some cardinal or stonemason – must have put into the making of each of these buildings a labor of love, or careful duty, love’s relative. Someone must have seen the inadequacy of it all to capture its referent, and tried to get as close as possible anyway, for love’s sake and not for pride’s. Building a house for God – how could we possibly do it adequately?

    Pride, anyway, can be laced into artistry or austerity. Mennonites can take pride in their perfectly plain dress, and Lutherans can take pride in their potlucks, and nondenominational Christians can compete for the most Spirit-led service. Some of us are proud of what we have and some are proud of what we can do without.

    When a child makes her sister a gift, we hope she does not care more about her glitter paint or artistic skill than she cares about her sister. But if she loves her sister very much, we quietly celebrate when she uses up all her very best paints, sequins, stickers, beads, and afternoons to make something extravagant. We also celebrate when, unprompted, she scribbles something kind for her sister with half a green crayon she saved in her pocket.

    Seeing extravagant places as rudimentary attempts can help soften both the asthete and the ascetic. For the asthete: if your exquisite basilica is no more impressive to God than the plain one-room chapel – the way a two-year-old’s drawing doesn’t look so different from a three-year-old’s to a famous painter – then the intention really is the most important thing. We don’t love our child’s drawing of us because it looks like us; it doesn’t. We love it because she wanted to draw us, to give us something that she made.

    For the ascetic: if the masterpiece is just a child’s try, then it’s in that class of imperfect things that God loves to redeem and use in dramatic fashion. I had no trouble believing that God could use a school gym or failed grocery store; it was harder to imagine how he would redeem a decadent palace. But the palace, with all its faults, holds the same redemptive potential in the hands of a benevolent and creative God.

    And today, congregations that worship in tall and golden places are, as much as anyone else, working with what is on hand, with materials they did not choose. They’re doing their best to fit into some expensive and unwieldy hand-me-downs, and they are making it work. The longer I look, the more I see that every place and song is makeshift, that everyone who loves is just trying. Even St. Peter’s, if you stay long enough, will begin to show its humble seams, its sincere and wobbly acts of devotion.

    Contributed By Sharon Rose Christner Sharon Rose Christner

    Sharon Rose Christner is a student at Harvard Divinity School.

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