Throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church has always surrounded the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist with sublime expressions of beauty in sacred art, architecture, and music. From the primitive art of the earliest Christian catacombs, to the Romanesque basilicas and soaring medieval Gothic cathedrals of the last millennium, most sacred art has been produced for the liturgy. Over two millennia, Christianity has consistently expressed the “way of beauty” across cultures, languages, and artistic styles.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
“Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who ‘reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,’ in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.’ This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints.”
What the Incarnation Tells Us About Beauty
The role of beauty in the liturgy is linked closely to the mystery of the Incarnation. When God became man, He made the unseen seen. Likewise, the liturgy serves to make spiritual truths tangible through the manifestation of beauty. So, the Church surrounds the liturgy with beauty to reference the great mystery of God’s presence and action in every liturgy that celebrates the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. The beauty of the liturgy is rooted in the nature of the Eucharist as the supreme prayer of the Church that unites us with the unique self-offering of Jesus to His heavenly Father.
Looking to the Heavenly Liturgy
Catholics believe that the earthly liturgy is a participation in the heavenly liturgy. So, the role of beauty in the liturgy is to give a glimpse into that heavenly liturgy in the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the company of Mary, the angels and saints. May we delight in the beauty of the sacred art, architecture and music of the liturgy, letting it lift our eyes to the glory of the heavenly feast of faith.
About Dr. Jem Sullivan
Dr. Jem Sullivan is associate professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. She is an appointed member of the International Council for Catechesis in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization. Over three decades, she has served at the national and diocesan levels and taught undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Sullivan is the author of several books on sacred art: The Beauty of Faith: Christian Art and the Good News; Believe, Celebrate, Live, Pray: A Weekly Retreat with the Catechism. Her most recent books are Way of Beauty: Rekindling Eucharistic Amazement with Visio Divina and Sacred Art Every Catholic Should Know.