Something unusual is revealed here as well: the house of God is the true house of humans. It becomes the house of humans even more the less it tries to be this and the more it is simply put up for him. — Pope Benedict XVI
In modern memory, has there been a Pope who has been so outspoken on the topic of art, architecture, and music as Pope Benedict XVI? Central to his thinking was the idea that art and architecture can speak to us. Benedict taught that architecture should make visible the invisible and point us toward the infinite. “I did once say that to me art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith.” For instance, in describing Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling he exposits, “In that moment of contact between the finger of God and the finger of man, we perceive the point of contact between heaven and earth; in Adam God enters into a new relationship with his Creation, man is in direct relationship with Him, he is called by Him, he is in the image and likeness of God.” During his homily at the dedication of the church of the Sagrada Família in 2010 the Pope said, “Gaudí, by opening his spirit to God, was capable of creating in this city a space of beauty, faith and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself.” In fact, during his travels Pope Benedict XVI often commented on great art and architecture and their meaning for believers.
In celebrating the liturgy, Pope Benedict modeled a vision of beauty. Under his eight year reign, a number of new liturgical elements were designed for Saint Peter’s basilica that reflected continuity with tradition: a cathedra canopy for outdoor masses, a new ambo, and beautiful vestments. In his use of the altar rail for giving out communion and his employment of the “Benedictine arrangement” of large crucifix and candlesticks placed on the altar he inspired many Bishops and priests to follow his lead. The intention of these initiatives, he explained, was to re-focus the celebration of the liturgy on Christ rather than on the community that it had become. “The turning of the priest towards the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself.” Pope Benedict offered a remedy to the man-centered church, by returning the crucifix to the center of the altar and “whenever possible, we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing the east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy.” Papal liturgies were models of both, including mass ad orientem on certain occasions.
Running through all of his teachings on art, architecture, and music was Pope Benedict’s theology of beauty. Beauty was seen as fundamental to faith and to the perception of truth. Furthermore, he saw beauty as the finest expression of faith, hope and love. In speaking to artists he said, “Let truth shine brightly in your works and make their beauty elicit in the gaze and in the hearts of those who admire them, the desire and need to make their existence beautiful and true, every existence, enriching it with that treasure which is never lacking which makes life a work of art and every man an extraordinary artist: charity, love.” Not surprising that he often brought the concept of beauty into his homilies and addresses. He spoke about the “via pulchritudinis,” or the way of beauty, whose deepest meaning must be recovered by men and women today. “However some expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith. We can see an example of this when we visit a Gothic cathedral: we are enraptured by the vertical lines that soar skywards and uplift our gaze and our spirit, while at the same time we feel small yet long for fullness.”
It was Pope Benedict’s love of baroque art and architecture that is such a revelation for English-speaking Catholics. He explains that “in line with the tradition of the West, the Council [of Trent] again emphasized the didactic and pedagogical character of art, but, as a fresh start toward interior renewal, it led once more to a new kind of seeing that comes from and returns within. The altarpiece is like a window through which the world of God comes out to us. The curtain of temporality is raised, and we are allowed a glimpse into the inner life of the world of God. This art is intended to insert us into the liturgy of heaven. Again and again, we experience a Baroque church as a unique kind of fortissimo of joy, an Alleluia in visual form.”
To those who see the promotion of traditional art, architecture, and music as merely an act of nostalgia it must be pointed out that the Pope saw the great masterpieces of Western art as living witnesses to the eternal faith. The Sistine chapel, Gothic cathedrals, and baroque altarpieces continue to speak to those who have eyes to see. The relation between tradition and innovation in Benedict’s thought grows out of Vatican II in which “any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” So what about the place of creativity in new works? “An art that lost the root of transcendence would not be oriented to God; it would be a halved art, it would lose its living root; and a faith that had art only in the past would no longer be faith in the present; and today it must be expressed anew as truth that is always present.”
Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in Volume 23 (Spring 2013) of Sacred Architecture and is reprinted with permission. See footnotes of original version for sources of quotations.