On the Objective Nature of Beauty

Peace of Christ,

I am in the midst of an ongoing debate on the nature of Beauty, in particular what makes a Catholic church (the physical structure) “beautiful”.
My opponent’s argument runs as follows: After the Second Vatican Council, churches that are devoid of any “traditional” forms of religious artistic expression (intricate architecture, copious sacred images, statuary, High Altars, etc) are not beautiful, and therefore harmful to the spiritual welfare of those who worship in them. He holds that the “traditional” forms of artistic expression are what define Beauty in the Church in the objective sense and that there is no room for “newer” forms of artistic expression within the Church.

I can accept the fact that different people have different artistic sensibilities, but I hold that he is referring to beauty in the subjective sense of the word. I can also understand that a small, simple parish church built after Vatican II is going to be less intricate than a Gothic Cathedral, but that to me does not make it any less beautiful. I replied that what makes a Catholic church “beautiful” in the objective sense is the Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament (whether on the Altar or in the Tabernacle).

Does anyone have any thoughts on this subject? I would greatly appreciate your comments.

First, there are objective standards for beauty in architecture. There are certain forms and patterns and colors that people respond to, generally, in the same way.

Fine Art, especially modern art, is pure 100% junk. It is meant to be incomprehensible. I’ve watched it closely from the late 1960s till now. Fine Art is supposed to be a communications media - it isn’t anymore. Should “artifacts” be included that resemble people or recognizable objects, there is an exactly zero chance of determining the meaning of the work in question. Unless, of course, the artist is interviewed in a “real” art magazine and explains a few of his works, which still leaves me with the feeling that a photo of a bag of trashed dumped in an empty room is still a bag of trash dumped in an empty room as opposed to some lofty, otherwise totally unknowable thing. Those who draw real things, even if they include ‘special effects,’ are drawing the viewer into communication with them as opposed to confusing them or putting them off

The history of Sacred Architecture is its own field of study. But choose your books carefully.


Ask your friend about where he got his ideas from. The feeling of awe and grandeur I feel when I see a very old cathedral does not make me dismiss any other ‘style’ of Church off hand. For example, I saw a photo of a priest in a remote part of Mexico who said Mass from the back of his pickup truck. The back door/ramp was let down, covered with a cloth and the bread and wine rested there. He wore what vestments he could considering the temperature. The faithful knelt in the dirt.

I hope you find the following letter helpful.



Interesting posts guys. I’ve wondered why there isn’t more discussion on here about beauty and art, particularly considering the Churches history of promoting art.

I’m a “professional artist.” I work for a very famous contemporary artist whos paintings and sculptures sell in the millions (likely one of the “junk” artists that edwest refers to). He has a workshop where artists like me actually MAKE his work. I’m not going to mention his name because 1) it’s not very relevant and 2) he has internet programs that search to see what people online are saying about him, and I don’t want him seeing me talking about him on forums/facebook/etc. I’m not even saying anything negative about him, but you understand.

Anyways, I largely agree with what was said here. I agree that most contemporary art is garbage. In fact, it’s meant to be garbage (some of it literally IS garbage). It’s meant to be misunderstood and “ironic.”

This is what happens when a culture abandons its Christian (particularly Catholic) heritage. The secular culture takes over and devalues everything.

But anyways, back to the original topic.

Brother Stephen, I see your point, but I personally think I agree with your friend. I’m sure I’m biased because I’m a more traditional artist. I get annoyed that the Church doesn’t really promote art much anymore. So many “modernist” minded within the Church seem to think stripping the Church of art will make it more appealing to Protestants and secularists/atheists/etc. It hasn’t worked. And I think they probably appeal to the “spirit of Vatican II” to support their views? I’m not sure.

But if so, Vatican II doesn’t really support the semi-iconoclasm of the past 50 years.

And like your friend said, Churches that are devoid of beautiful art may be harmful to the spiritual welfare of the people within them.

Let’s look to what the Church, even in Vatican II, has said about sacred art:

Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium
“Besides the commission on the sacred liturgy, every diocese, as far as possible, should have commissions for sacred music and sacred art.”

"Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.

Holy Mother Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world, and for this purpose she has trained artists. In fact, the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use."

“Let bishops carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense.”

And when churches are to be built, let great care be taken that they be suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful."

Blessed John Paul II, "Letter to Artists"
“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”

Catechism 2502
“…Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.”

Catechism 2513
"The fine arts, but above all sacred art, “of their nature are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God’s praise and of his glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men’s minds devoutly toward God”

After rereading your post and mine, it seems that I was responding more to an iconoclast. You aren’t supporting iconoclasm, you’re just saying that the idea that “traditional” art is more beautiful isn’t necessarily true, and that the Eucharist is in and of itself beautiful. Thus we don’t necessarily need traditional art?

I can see your idea here, but as a traditional artist, I still think I agree with your friend. :stuck_out_tongue:

I do agree that what’s beautiful can be subjective. But I think most people can agree when something really isn’t beautiful. For instance, we can argue whether Michelangelo’s “Pieta” or Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St Teresa” is more beautiful. But I think most people going to mass could admit that either of those sculptures are more beautiful than Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

And the Church has said in Vatican II that all diocese should commission sacred art when possible, and that the art should be beautiful, and ugly art should be avoided.

But you’re right in the sense that they never defined what is and is not beautiful.

I also think there may be a problem with the term “traditional” art. It seems that people today tend to lump everything before Picasso into the “traditional” camp and everything after Picasso into the “modern” camp. But obviously there are many different styles throughout history. For instance, Renaissance, Baroque, Roccoco, Neoclassicism, and 19th century Academic art are all “traditional” but very different.

But I suppose that a Church COULD have more modern/contemporary art in it. The problem is that Vatican II clearly states that sacred art should be beautiful. And modern/post-modern art often is purposely ugly…

I think part of the issue here is that the Church, unlike the mainstream media, is just not as loud. As a contemporary illustrator of real objects, or ‘representational artist’ who does not produce sacred art, there are resources out there. Sadly, art schools are not very good places, in general, to learn how to draw real things. I should have taken Industrial Design classes instead. At least there, you have to understand real light, real shadow, perspective drawing and draw a ton of real objects. It has since been renamed Product Design.

Anyway, there are resources for Catholics interested in the arts.




And this may help:



Thank you both for you insightful and sober comments. I greatly appreciate your feedback and resources.

Pax Christi,
+Br. Stephen

I think much of the problem is a discord or disconnect between the appearance of the church (art and architecture), and the reason for the church (celebration of the Mass and other liturgies). A deliberately plain, 'un-churchy" building says “mundane stuff happens here.” But that is exactly what is not true. Instead of harmony between appearance and purpose (an objective measure of beauty, IMO), there is disharmony, and not only that, but the disharmony is deliberate. There are two messages being presented at once: this place is not important, and this place is important.

Based on what I’ve read, this was done deliberately by those who got away with it. Until recently.


Yes, I also believe that to be the case.

The question is, is this going to turn around? Will the Church start supporting the arts again?

The issue is not the Church supporting the arts, but supporting arts that are in line with authentic Church teaching.



Yes, it’s turning around now.


I understand what you’re saying and I agree with it to a large extent. The Church can’t be promoting and patronizing art if so much of the art being created today is antithetical to the Churches teaching and is even often purposely ugly.

But Michelangelo’s and Fra Angelico’s don’t come out of a vacuum. They need support.

Vatican II states in Sacrosanctum Concilium:
"127. Bishops should have a special concern for artists, so as to imbue them with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy. This they may do in person or through suitable priests who are gifted with a knowledge and love of art.

It is also desirable that schools or academies of sacred art should be founded in those parts of the world where they would be useful, so that artists may be trained."

Has the Church set up any schools that teach the craft of painting/sculpture and design? I’m unaware of any. Do many Bishops have any particular concern for art? I’m unaware of any, though I’m a recent convert and don’t know the particulars of various Bishops. But Vatican II seems to indicate this should be happening.

There’s a movement of independent traditional art schools growing around the world called “ateliers” (French for “studio”). Rather than getting a degree learning from modern/post-modern artists who don’t know how to draw/paint/sculpt, you instead study privately with a skilled artist. I studied like this, and I personally think it’s a much better way to learn the craft of painting.

IMO, the Church could try to take off of this model.

There are secular artists that have opened art schools for people who want to draw real things. It appears that things are different in Europe. I will research this further to see what I can find. There are those who recognize the need for such schools in the United States.

The original Universities in Europe were established by various entities and sought out professionals in the arts, and other fields, to pass their knowledge on to others. I think the Church is making a real effort in this area at present and, again, I will investigate further.


Art for its own sake is not art for the sake of God. The rage for modernism inside the parish churches and even outside, is just a way of putting us on the same plane as many protestant structures.

Why is anyone surprised that today so many Catholic teens chew gum at Mass? Or wear the most casual clothes in their closets. Or play the banjo and the guitar at Mass. The downgrading of liturgical art has consequences … few of them very inspired or inspiring.

There are Catholic schools in various parts of the US. I’m covering this first.





Sacred Music




Based on my research, there are schools scattered about and individuals who teach others. In the main, it seems that many individuals do not possess very good drawing skills. I welcome additions to my efforts. And I await contact from a source that might provide more answers.


The Modernists wanted it this way: distortion, ugliness, a lack of reverence. The Church is working to turn things around now.


I hope you’re right, and I hope they can turn it around.

There’s also a group of schools called “ateliers” that teach traditional drawing/painting stkills. I studied at a few of them. They are like an apprenticeship program. Perhaps you’re already aware of them, since you mentioned Dony MacManus.


Check out these schools:

You (edwest) sound pretty educated on the issue, so you probably already know this information.

Of course these are all secular schools. But they’re teaching a lot of the needed life drawing/painting skills. Probably the biggest problem of trying to apply these schools to sacred art is that these schools are all naturalistic, whereas sacred art is almost always designed and idealized. I assume that once one learns to observe well from life the necessary design and construction skills could be easily learned though.

I was not aware of these. And I thank you very much. Having gone through art instruction, along with a few friends at University during the 1970s, realism was out. Indoctrination to see something that wasn’t there or malformed or totally ridiculous was what they wanted from us. They wanted us to join their cult of nothing. We all refused.

These all look like fine places to learn to draw the human figure properly. And this could easily be coupled to our desire for sacred art by reading the words of people like Dony MacManus. The Modernists came to destroy beauty, to manipulate the students and twist their minds.

Do you know why I quit college? After seeing a ten foot wide spiral of duct tape on the floor of the local art museum, I made a discovery. There was a small white card on the floor with these words: “Please do not remove. This is art.” So, if I had let my mind accept their pointless nothingness, I was fine, but if the cleaning lady saw this, she might scrape it up from the floor and throw it out.

With due respect to the Church, we do not have to wait. We have artists who are and who have worked for us who were mostly self-taught. God will raise up more, since our hope rests with Him. So fear not. You have shown that there are ways to do this now and bind it to the sacred and reverent.

With God, nothing is impossible.


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