Beauty In The Church
Kh. Krista West · March 17, 2008
Audio length: 18:12
Kh. Krista explores the various reasons that beauty is important in the Church.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. I’ve just returned from a week-long lecture trip to St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s seminaries and I thought I would use this podcast to give an abbreviated version of my lecture on beauty and the Church.
I’ve spoken at length about the historical origins of our liturgical garments and about the need for beautiful vestments, but there comes a time when we need to ask a very vital question: Why is Beauty in the Church important? Why should we devote our thoughts and imaginations and resources to adorning our churches?
In my mind, there are three primary reasons that beauty in the Church is important: The first is that by having beauty in our churches, we are putting our theology into practice and integrating it into our spiritual and physical lives. As Orthodox Christians, we believe in the redemption and transfiguration of the material world and like all of our theology, we must put it into practice. We do this through architecture, iconography, chant, and liturgical garments and textiles. By building beautiful churches and adorning them with iconography and vestments, we are working out our salvation. We are teaching ourselves through work what we need to be—citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven—and setting up concrete examples to remind us. When my daughters were little, it never ceased to amaze me that they seemed hard-wired towards work. All mothers have experienced their children seemingly tied to their apron strings, following them around, watching them work, wanting to help at “real” work. Even now, my youngest daughter uses every possible excuse to be in the workroom when I’m cutting or sewing or even just working at my desk. I think it’s a deep-seated human need to work at something and the work of beauty is even more compelling because it satisfies our physical need for work and at the same time satisfies our spiritual need for something heavenly. Working out our salvation is not just a, in the words of Frederica Mathewes-Green, “woo-hoo mystic” sort of thing. It takes some elbow grease and there are actual tasks that can be done like picking up a hammer or a needle.
The second reason for having beauty in the Church is for us to be the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and fulfill our calling as Orthodox Christians and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. If I was planning a trip to another country, I would at the very least pick up a travel guide to see a photo or two so I had a picture in my mind of where I was going. I’d check the weather report and figure out what kind of clothes I needed there. The same is true with beauty in the Church. We are all working through our fasting and prayers and almsgiving towards the greatest goal of all—union with God and eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. While I don’t really have any idea of what Heaven will look like, I feel fairly confident in assuring you that it ain’t gonna be plain! So by beautifying our churches here on earth we are manifesting the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and giving ourselves a small foretaste of its beauty.
The third reason for beauty in our churches is to bring our souls into closer union with God. Beauty has a wonderful way of absorbing our physical senses so that our nous, or spiritual mind, can be engaged and drawn into closer union with God. The beauty of the church fills our senses, and we are able to withdraw from the world and enter the Kingdom. It’s helpful to remember that in the Byzantine mind, the material and spiritual world were intrinsically linked. Matter was not evil, rather it was a jumping-off point for a deeper spiritual reality. They understood that the things around us—wood, paint, cloth, had their truest and most real meaning when they were transformed into things of beauty. A Russian theologian has called this “Christ charming us into the Kingdom” and it is an evocative image of a loving and merciful Christ. Beauty can be a great motivator to repentance—just think of a time when you’ve had a particularly hard day and you enter the church for an evening service—the lights are low, the icons seems to glow, the chant is deeply moving, and you hear the sounds of the censer bells and then see the priest come out in his glorious vestments. You might take a deep breath and feel refreshed and encouraged for the first time in that day. You feel drawn to the beauty and majesty of the service and you want to be a better Christian. God is beautiful and He draws us to Him with His beauty.
All three of these reasons where brought home to me in my own parish this summer. Our building was completed six years ago, and its a traditional Byzantine building with four domes in the nave. After building, we painted the domes light blue until this past summer when we finally had the funds for the iconography. I went in the first Sunday after our Platetera icon was completed, stunned as I had been throughout the week as I had seen the icon coming alive, and I took my usual spot. The face of the Theotokos was so tender and loving and encouraging, that I began to weep in my pew. Feeling somewhat silly and not wanting my parishioners to think Something Was Really Wrong, I headed for the narthex so I could compose myself. I stood there, watching people walk in, light candles, and then gasp as they saw the icon for the first time. I must have seen 15 or 20 people have the identical reaction and I was awestruck that we had lived for six years without this icon. I felt that we had been living in a spiritual and visual desert, not really knowing what we had been missing. I thought how many children has sat through the Liturgy without the benefit of that sweet and loving gaze of the Theotokos looking at them and I was quite sad. Of course, all things work to the glory of God, and this icon happened when it needed to happen, but it was both its absence and its presence that brought to mind the vital importance of beauty in our churches.
Beauty in our worship was important from the beginning, and there are 10 chapters in Exodus devoted to the blueprint for true worship and the adornment of the temple. Bishop Kallistos Ware has stated it so well when he says “Christians are true materialists because they see in material things the spiritual destiny of those things.” I had a priest point out to me several years ago that Liturgy cannot happen and an Orthodox Christian cannot receive Holy Communion unless the priest is vested. Now that definitely sounds like the kind of point an ecclesiastical tailor would just love to make (chalk one up for the tailors!), but if we look at the meaning of this, then we see that it is a pithy bit of practical theology—we cannot partake of Christ without Beauty. We do not experience Christ, we are not allowed to experience Christ without the presence of Beauty. There’s a truly wonderful quote from the book “Unseen Warfare” that states this much better than I can:
“Seeing the beauty and shapeliness of creatures, separate in your mind what you see from its spiritual meaning, which you do not see, and reflect that all this visible beauty is the work of the invisible and most beautiful creative Spirit, in Whom lies the cause of all external beauty. Then, filled with joy, say: ‘O rich streams flowing from an uncreated source! O life-giving rain drawn from the boundless sea of all blessings! How I rejoice in my innermost heart, when I think of the ineffable beauty of my Creator—the origin and cause of all created beauty! What spiritual sweetness fills me, when I hold in my mind to the thought of the beauty of my God, which no word can describe nor thought comprehend, and which is the principle of all beauty.”
To recap, the three primary reasons to attend to beauty in the Church is that it is incarnational and transfigurational theology put into practice, it manifests the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and prepares us to be citizens of that Kingdom, and it brings our souls into closer union with God. There are also some secondary reasons that I think are important to mention:
Fostering beauty in our churches is desperately needed in the modern world because we need to bring “metania” (metanoia) —repentance— to our physical senses. Most of us are familiar with the Greek word “metania” and its connotation of turning away from sin in order to turn towards God, but how many of us think about bringing repentance to our physical senses? In the modern world, we live with so much ugliness on a routine, daily basis in the form of fast food restaurants and strip malls with their horrible architecture, throw-away clothing and home furnishings, lightning-fast television and computer visuals that our senses are truly assaulted and defiled. We have become dulled and senseless to ugliness’ negative effects on our spirits and our faith that we need to turn our senses back to God, not just on a spiritual level, but on a physical level as well. Remember, in the early Christian mind, the physical and the spiritual were intrinsically linked—if the physical sense was defiled, then the spiritual sense was likewise defiled. So, adorning our churches with beauty is not just working out our salvation, but is an act of repentance, as well.
When someone finds out that I’m an ecclesiastical tailor, I often get the “Ooooo” response as in “Oooooo—you’re so lucky, you get to work with such gorgeous fabrics!” There’s an underlying assumption that the kind of beauty I work with is somehow a little decadent, a little too-too, a little over the top. But if we think of beauty in general—say, a beautiful flower or a mountain stream—as uplifting, not just visually or emotionally, but spiritually uplifting because any beauty draws us toward God, than what is ugliness? I find a very pervasive assumption in American culture that beauty is uplifting, but ugliness is somehow “neutral” or without effect. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Ugliness, or to use the British expression “plain-ness”, is the opposite of beauty and it has an opposite effect. I don’t think it’s too strongly put to say that ugliness is evil. Have you ever been inspired to glorify the Creator of All by the tile floor of your local fast food restaurant or the immodest, disposable clothing at your neighborhood Target? Probably not, which illustrates ugliness’ negative effect on our physical and spiritual senses.
The last of the “secondary” reasons for beauty in the Church is evangelism. In this modern world with its inherent ugliness, the startling and refreshing beauty of an Orthodox Church can be an amazing evangelistic tool. The physical church building is often the first encounter someone has with Orthodox Christianity and as such, it needs to be an honest and faithful representative. Many people are literally starving for beauty and an Orthodox Church can be quite a lavish banquet! I frequently consult with mission communities to help them determine what liturgical textiles they need to get started and I always encourage them to give a lot of thought and care into how they adorn their space because the adornment of a church is an evangelistic tool, just as important as greeters or pamphlets or books. Among missions in particular, I’m definitely seeing a move away from the “let’s just get something in there cheap and quick because it’s required” approach towards the “how beautiful can we make our space given our resources” approach. There’s even a quirky little side note here: many missions and parishes are beginning to be aware of how important it is to promote the Orthodox Church’s teachings on stewardship of the environment, given how important this topic is in our current society. Living in ultra-green Portland, Oregon, I’ve experienced the importance of this issue firsthand when we’ve had visitors to our parish question our environmental practices and even ask why we’re still using styrofoam cups at coffee hour (don’t worry, we’re working on phasing them out this year!) But, I’m happy to report that in the grand scheme of things the Orthodox Church is counted as a “super”-environmental organization because we have embraced the “less is more” approach towards consumption in our liturgical arts for 2,000 years—by creating items of exquisite and lasting beauty. Our churches are built not for decades, but for centuries, our iconography can be counted in millennia and our liturgical garments have a minimum life span of 15-20 years. By any environmental standards, this is amazingly low-impact!
When we began to think about beauty in the Church, it can be tempting to approach it from a modern, post-Rennasiance aesthetic mindset—“If beauty is so important, we should really have Orthodox “artists” creating new things, things “relavent” to our modern culture. But all of the Orthodox arts—architecture, iconography, chant, and sacerdotal vestments-require discipline, constraint, craftsmanship, and a laying aside of self on the part of the artisan as he works within the tradition and does not create the “new”. Photios Kontoglou, the famous and outspoken Greek iconographer states it this way:
“For an iconographer who works in the Tradition, who serves the holy art, “in spirit and truth”, the Tradition and the canons of this Liturgical art are not an obstacle in expressing himself. Instead, they are firm ground on which to stand. And not only does he not lose his freedom, but instead he breathes the true air of freedom, emancipated from the passions of display, egoism, and the desire to impose his own personal feelings upon the souls of others, as happens in the case of secular art.
“Such an artist does not contribute to the creation of works that represent certain subjective states, but instead, he contributes to the creation of works that are enduring and mystical. Therefore, he is not a technician, but a mystic.”
And for those given the work of adorning churches—bishops, priests, patrons among the laity—there is a need to make conscious, thoughtful decisions.
Awhile ago, I was discussing this topic with a client of mind and he wrote a very beautiful and profound letter to me sharing some of his ideas about beauty in the church. I’d like to share some of it with you:
“Aesthetics (the beauty of the Church) and ascetics (the spiritual disciplines of the Church) emerge from the one faith. The display of beauty on the one hand conveys the arduous spiritual work of reforming and artistically reshaping the soul on the invisible, inside of us, on the other. St. Paul prayed that the Ephesian community might be ‘strengthened with might through the Holy Spirit in the inner man.’ By making beautiful vestments the visual Tradition of the Church kind of frames the whole written Tradition, like an appropriate frame hugs a masterpiece and brings it out, reveals it as beautiful. The great ascetic Fathers who served parishes, although faithful to the monastic calling of being personally poor, spent money continually on stunning vestments and church adornment. Why? Because they knew the sacramental dimension of the Church. Their own ascetic piety brightened the lives of the faithful. That brightness has to be seen, also, materially. It must be ‘on display’. The Eucharist has a material vestment, bread and wine, and a glorious, eternal, beautiful Body and Blood of Christ. So, icons, vestments, etc. must be a visible medium of invisible grace—uncreated energy. In this way the Church as the Kingdom of God permeates the Church as the true Eden of Paradise. Fr. Pavel Florensky has written: ‘Asceticism produces not a good but a beautiful personality; the characteristic pecularity of great saints is not the goodness of heart which is common among carnal and even very sinful men, but spiritual beauty, the dazzling beauty of radiant, light-giving personality, unattainable by carnal men weighed down by the flesh.’
Ultimately, architecture, iconography, chant, vestments, all of these need to manifest the Kingdom of Heaven and what we are called to as Orthodox Christians—not just to be good, but to be beautiful.