building beauty

Jul 14, 2015

One of my classes this morning with Denis McNamara got me thinking anew about beauty.

It is commonly commented that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but certainly the human eye (and mind and heart) can be formed to appreciate beauty. Beauty is an objective reality. The ancients knew this and since antiquity goodness, truth and beauty have been considered to be the three great transcendentals.

Many of our little churches of the Good Shepherd Hurunui parish have beautiful stained glass windows. They were placed in these beautiful churches by people who knew the importance of beauty in the life of weekly worshippers.  Our hope is that the churches that are built in the Christchurch diocese in the next few years to replace those lost in the earthquakes, and are at least as beautiful as those crafted by our ancestors.

This morning Denis reflected with the class on San Chapelle in Paris. As he reflected, (and you get a glimpse of his passion for this beauty in the video below) the builders of this great reliquary understood that a church building is in itself a language about God. If we build using materials and design that is even less ornate than the fabric and plan of our own private homes, we are making a significant statement about the relative unimportance of God in our midst.

One of the great quotations from this morning’s class is from Abbot Suger writing about church architecture in the early twelfth century. His dreams for his design of the abbey church of St. Denis in Paris were nothing less than heavenly and divine, and while he acknowledged that such perfection was beyond the skill and pockets of the patrons and the builders he insisted: “But since we could not do as we wished, we wished to do as best we could, and strove to bring it about by the grace of God.”  De Administratione XXXII

A few years ago Pope Benedict was in the United States and took the opportunity when in St. Patrick’s Cathedral New York to reflect on the beauty and symbolism of stained glass:

“…stained glass windows, … flood the interior with mystic light. From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor… It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.” Pope Benedict, April 2008, New York.

In this brief video clip, architectural theologian Denis McNamara reflects on the beauty of the stunningly beautiful San Chapelle in Paris.

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