In defense of beauty

“Why does the Church have all those gold cups and fancy paintings?” is a complaint that carries a lot of power because the founder of the Church has some very sharp words about the dangers of wealth, and Catholics have not always done a bang-up job when it comes to listening to them. 

As far as the words of Jesus go, the picture is not at all unclear. The Son of Man, who had no place to lay his head and who had to borrow a coin in order to make his point about rendering unto Caesar, radiates a deep distrust of and awareness of the dangers of riches: 

“No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt 6:24). 

“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:23-24). 

And so forth. Smash cut to the High Middle Ages and the pope showing St. Dominic around Rome while boasting, “Peter can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold I do not have.’ To which the blunt saint replied, “Neither can he say, ‘Rise and walk.’”

Substance of charge

This remains the substance of the charge to this day: that the evangelical counsel of poverty is contradicted by the art, the gold, the finery, the gorgeousness of the Catholic artistic and cultural tradition and that the only true Christian is more or less walking barefoot in the snow like St. Francis. Its power was felt in Dominic’s time by the people in southern France, who compared the austere lives of the Cathars with those of the corrupt clergy and voted “Cathar” in droves. It retains an enormous amount of power today when, in addition to the gorgeousness, there is also the inevitable corruption that always afflicts any aggregation of homo sapiens, including ordained homo sapiens. In short, a bishop — living in a mansion with fine wines and premium cigars — who covers up the abuse of children is a powerful argument against the Faith. 

anointing
Mary, sister of Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet. Shutterstock

Catholics who seek to defend the Faith should not give that point short shrift. St. Dominic certainly didn’t. Instead, he founded an order of beggars and revived obedience to the evangelical counsels of chastity, obedience and poverty that had fallen on hard times in his day. Other Catholics from the Discalced Carmelites to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal have done the same over the centuries. 

What they have not done, however, is demand that the Church sell off its artistic legacy or start celebrating Mass with paper plates and Styrofoam cups. Indeed, what is remarkable is that those who have most strongly embraced the evangelical counsels of poverty for themselves and urged them upon the faithful have also insisted on the gorgeousness of the Church in its work of worship to God. Servant of God Dorothy Day, who was not exactly a fan of Donald Trump-like opulence and who had a heart for the poor as big as any saints who ever lived, said, “For Christ himself, housed in the tabernacles in the Church, no magnificence is too great, but for the priest who serves Christ, and for the priesthood of the laity, no such magnificence, in the face of the hunger and homelessness of the world, can be understood.”

Christ’s example

This distinction between the gorgeousness that is properly devoted to God and the temperance we should practice toward ourselves should get our attention, because it raises a matter that is often overlooked in the popular conception of Jesus as a sort of folk guru who lived a purely ascetic life. In fact, Jesus seems to have been pretty fun at a party, judging by how often we find him invited to dinner in the Gospels. The wedding at Cana is a rather significant instance of Jesus being exceptionally fun at a party, and we find him invited to the homes of such figures as Matthew, Simon the leper, Mary and Martha, various tax collectors and sinners — notably Zacchaeus — and even a smattering of Pharisees. Indeed, so well known was Jesus’ reputation as somebody who enjoyed, temperately, the good things of this world that we find his enemies trying to maintain the contradictory complaints that his cousin John is a nutty ascetic, while he is an out-of-control party animal: 

Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Shutterstock

“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance; we sang a dirge, but you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works” (Mt 11:16-19). 

This matters because at one of the most famous banquets of all — held to celebrate the raising of Lazarus from the dead — we see the old familiar charge of obscene waste leveled, not against corrupt Renaissance popes or negligent bishops, but against Jesus himself. And the prosecutor is, disconcertingly for the scold of the Catholic Church, none other than Judas Iscariot saying all the stuff that purveyors of moral panic about the Church still say today: 

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. ... But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denari and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me’” (Jn 12:1-8).

Beauty in service to God

This gives us a clue about how reformers from St. Dominic to Dorothy Day could call for radical poverty, yet have no objection to lavish beauty in the service of God. For Jesus himself had no objections to the worshipper lavishing what she had on God. In this, he was acting in obedience to what his Father had revealed in the Old Testament. 

Cana
The wedding at Cana. The Crosiers

So, for instance, in the Book of Exodus, after we get past all the parts that everybody knows (concerning the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea and the journey to Mount Sinai), we come to the bits nobody reads, in Exodus 25-31 (concerning the building of the Tabernacle — Israel’s movable shrine — and the Ark of the Covenant and the priestly garments of Aaron and so forth). 

In these chapters, God calls the Israelites to put their very best into the worship of him. The sanctuary was to be made of the finest materials they had and worked with the best craftsmanship. It was to be not merely functional, but beautiful. Scripture (which almost never mentions colors) dwells on the scarlet, red and blue materials of the Tabernacle and lays out in minute detail the way the precious metals of gold and silver (as well as bronze) are to be used to create the place that will be the Dwelling Place of God. In this, we hear something of the unique sort of love and joy that is known by those who create beautiful things with their hands: the joy of beauty. 

Exodus moves from describing the sanctuary to describing the garments in which the ministers of the sanctuary — Aaron and his successors, the high priests of Israel — are to be clothed. The materials of these garments are the same as the Tabernacle and they covered head, body and legs. The priest wore a linen turban with an attached gold plate. Notably, this priestly turban was also referred to as a “holy crown” (Ex 29:6; 39:30; Lv 8:9), which befits Israel’s calling as a “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6). A linen tunic was worn beneath a blue robe, an ephod embroidered with colorful strands of gold, blue, purple and red, and a colorfully embroidered breastpiece studded with 12 gemstones, each engraved with the name of an Israelite tribe. Similarly, to show that the high priest represents Israel before God, two onyx stones were also attached to the shoulder pieces of the ephod and engraved with the names of the 12 tribes. In addition, bells of gold and “pomegranate” decorations were hung around the bottom hem of the seamless blue robe so that worshippers could hear them as the high priest processed in and out of the sanctuary (Sir 45:9). Embroidered breeches covered the loins and thighs. Finally, the high priest had a pouch holding the Urim and Thummim (Lv 8:8), two lots with different markings or colors that were used to discern the will of God for Israel (Nm 27:21; 1 Sm 14:41). Less complex but still beautiful garments were worn by Aaron’s sons. 

What is notable about all this finery is that it is, indeed, finery. The priest’s garments, in addition to being symbolic, are gorgeous. God’s specific command concerning the design of the priestly garments was that they be made “for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:2,40). Why? 

Just as God spoke to Israel through the imagery of architecture in his instructions for the Tabernacle, so he also spoke to Israel through the imagery of the priest’s vestments. The task of a priest, after all, is to act as a go-between: to mediate God to the people and the people to God. His robes were, therefore, not for him but for Israel’s sake. The fine materials and craftsmanship represent the fact that Israel — and we — are to bring our very best to God in sacrificial self-offering and that God, in turn, was giving himself (the greatest gift he could give) to Israel. The precious stones on the breastpiece show how precious God’s people are to him. In other words, they exist, not to teach God, but to teach us. The vestments were beautiful because they showed forth the fair beauty of the Lord. Even more, they show forth God’s desire to share that beauty with us, making us beautiful. 

The glory and beauty of the priestly vestments bespeaks a second point as well: the Chosen are always chosen for the sake of the Unchosen. Aaron, after all, is inside his clothes and cannot really see them (mirrors were extremely rare in antiquity). So the people who receive the principal benefit of the beauty of the vestments are those who were looking at them, not those who wore them. The point was that, by their ministry, priests were not to benefit themselves, but to serve the people of Israel.

‘Rich toward God’

And not just priests are called to live sacrificially toward themselves and lavishly toward God. All of us are. That is the point of a story not often connected with this question, the story of the widow’s mite: 

“When he looked up he saw some wealthy people putting their offerings into the treasury and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins. He said, ‘I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood’” (Lk 21:1-4). 

What is striking here is what Jesus does not do. He does not tell the rich offering their gifts to stop giving to the Temple treasury. Nor does he tell the poor widow not to give. Rather, he acts as though he really believes what he has said about the need for everybody, rich and poor, to be “rich toward God” (Lk 12:21). Those to whom much is given, much will be required (as he says elsewhere), so he is critical of the rich who give out of their surplus but not sacrificially, while he commends the widow who gives nothing of any practical value but does so out of a sacrificial love of God. Exactly what he does not do is mouth Judas’ proto-Marxist class war rhetoric, because he knows that the essence of worship is sacrifice and that all, rich and poor, are called to worship. So he likewise welcomes the sacrifice of Mary’s jar of ointment, expensive as it is, as a fitting adornment to the greatest sacrifice of all: his own crucifixion in just a few day’s time.

Lifting up our spirits

Pope Benedict
Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead a special meeting with artists in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in 2009. Pope Benedict met with hundreds of artists. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

The Church has followed this pattern ever since. Have all Christians followed the pattern ever since? No. We all know the stories of Renaissance popes, or Christians living opulent lives, or Catholics who buy into some form of Prosperity Gospel. Judas was not the last Catholic to love money. But the fact that Catholics sin does not mean that all richness toward God is therefore an evil. Precisely what, say, the splendor of the St. Peter’s does is, ironically, what Judas, the austere fundamentalist and the Marxist all demand: It gives to the poor. For the reality is that any beggar off the streets of Rome can wander into St. Peter’s for free and see something that will lift his spirits up to heaven. The irony is that the artwork is a work of devotion, exactly like the Ark of the Covenant was. Those who demand that it be sold and put to some “useful” purpose seem to have no clear idea what they are asking. Of what “use” is a Pietá beyond the use it is currently put to in Rome? Those who would sell it off are essentially demanding that a beauty that is currently available to everyone be locked in a rich man’s vault. 

In the end, the paradox of the richly paradoxical gospel is that we are indeed to be wary of richness toward ourselves (and that, by the way, is a warning Jesus addresses especially to his clergy): 

“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent servant, whom the master has put in charge of his household to distribute to them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on his arrival finds doing so. Amen, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is long delayed, and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eat and drink with drunkards, the servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt 24:45-51). 

But as Jesus also showed in accepting the anointing of Mary, we are not to be stingy with God in the slightest — because he has been absolutely lavish with us by pouring out the very life of his Son for our salvation. 

Mark Shea writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/