Yearning for Artistic Beauty and Sacred Space

Earlier this month, my family visited western North Carolina to spend some time with my dad and to enjoy the cooler temps and mountain scenery. Despite the fact that my husband and I both grew up in NC, neither of us had ever been to downtown Asheville, so we chose a hotel a few minutes from the area. Though most of our sightseeing involved mountain views and waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway, we made time to see some of the city, as well. At the top of my “To See” list was the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, a century-old Roman Catholic church designed by one of the architects who contributed to the design of Asheville’s Biltmore Estate (largest residence in America).

This wasn’t my first time inside of a Roman Catholic church; I’ve attended Mass here in Houston, and I’ve toured stunning historic Catholic churches in Israel. Nevertheless, the few minutes I spent sitting in the back pew of Saint Lawrence’s were no less spiritually profound: the reverent silence; the stunning beauty; men and women kneeling in prayer amid flickering candles; the majestic crucifix suspended above the ornate altar; the sublimity of the domed ceiling. I let it all wash over me, realizing once again how much my soul longs for the experience of sacred space. Here are a couple of photos of the church’s interior. It features the largest self-supporting elliptical dome in North America:

Basilica

Basilica 2

These images don’t do it justice. It was breathtaking.

In the Protestant tradition, the statement is often made, “The church is not a building, it is a people.” I understand the point, and I realize that the material things of this world, including stones, bricks, and tiles, will pass away while the body of Christ endures. However, I have a deeply-held conviction that God values human artistry, and that design and craftsmanship are a vital form of worship and glorification of the Creator. As beings made in His image, we are unique among all other creatures in that we can reflect Him in our creative endeavors–visual arts, music, architecture. Contemplating the Basilica was an intensely worshipful experience, one that drew my mind to the transcendent. This is what objective beauty does, as the standard of the good, true, and beautiful is the very character of God himself.

I lament the utter lack of artistry in many Protestant church buildings. While some have architecture and interior design that is aesthetically pleasing (and practical), they typically do not visually convey a sense of the sacred, they do not inspire an elevation of the soul through unusual beauty. I subconsciously long for these things, and I know this to be so because of how strongly I am affected when I do experience a place like the Basilica.  I’m not saying that a building can have any mystical powers; I’m saying that consecrated spaces designed to reflect God’s majestic beauty as well as humanly possible fulfill a universal spiritual need. We long to be closer to His beauty, and sensory experiences give us glimpses of Him that are not achieved through other means.

In his book, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts, Philip Ryken argues that “God is a great lover of beauty, as we can see from the collection of his work that hangs in the gallery of the universe. Form is as important to him as function.” Ryken discusses the exacting beauty of the Tabernacle, right down to the colorful embroidery on the priestly robes, in an effort to emphasize this. Obviously, aesthetic considerations were of the utmost importance, and artisans were selected and inspired by God Himself. The beauty conveyed the holiness of God. The best artistry, says Ryken, will “satisfy our deep longing for beauty and communicate profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God has made for his glory.” These were, to be sure, major goals of the Tabernacle structure.

After (reluctantly) exiting the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, my father, who is a Baptist minister, turned to me and asked: “Why don’t the Baptists build churches like this?” I think more and more American Evangelical Christians are awakening to this need and are making efforts to recover what has, to a great extent, been lost.

I encourage you to make a point of experiencing and contemplating human art and architecture that has been set apart and purposed to communicating the sacred. You may be surprised by how much it enhances your devotional life.

5 thoughts on “Yearning for Artistic Beauty and Sacred Space

  1. I was born and spent most of my life in Europe. Down the years I have visited many RC churches and cathedrals in many countries. All the time I found myself longing for the austere beauty of Protestant churches and the great cathedrals of the UK . The theology of Roman Catholicism is reflected in the art which is found in these churches. The obsession with the suffering of Christ on the Cross, usually depicted as weak and pale in paintings and sculpture, the sentimental portrayals of Mary, the gruesome Sebastian martyrdom of Sebastian and others which appear everywhere in pictures over many centuries and so on, become increasingly repellant as one dwells on the Scriptures and sees how the truths of Scripture have become overlaid or even transformed into something other than the Gospel.

    In contrast, Bath Cathedral in the UK has recently held an exhibition called the Bath Abbey Diptychs by Sue Simon depicting the Life of Christ in 35 pairs of decorated panels – truly worth seeing. As in everything, art and theology must agree and illuminate each other. The Romantic idea of Beauty is not enough – there is always meaning.

  2. Great post, Melissa. I really sympathize with your feelings about sacred space. When I discovered a large Anglican church in our area, and my husband and I subsequently attended for a brief time, the beauty and reverence of the style of worship there spoke deeply to me, often moving me to tears. Although we later decided that ultimately that church was not where God was calling us to be, I miss the depth of the worship there, distilled over centuries into such meaningful symbols, creeds, and prayers. Certain church buildings, windows, etc. affects me similarly.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post and viewing the masterful artistry. Protestant myself, I do see your point. I once visited a RC church and inside was the largest Pipe Organ I’d ever seen! It was breathtaking! The church had stood for about century in downtown Detroit, MI. The architecture was old world and enduring. I visualize my Heavenly home … “Eyes haven’t seen; ears haven’t heard”. Wonderful post.

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