The Attractive Power and Synthesis of the Liturgy and the Liturgical Arts

The liturgical arts are something that we can and do look at individually. We look at this chasuble or that set of vestments. We might consider the design of a particular altar, reredos or ciborium. We may look at the metalwork of a thurible or of a set of candlesticks -- the list goes on.

There is, of course, merit or even necessity in looking at these things individually, but it must be remembered that they are not, ultimately, to be taken in isolation; they are rather parts of a greater whole.  That whole is where the liturgical arts take on their greatest power and it includes not only the various plastic arts described above, it also includes the poetry of the liturgical texts, the noble strains of the liturgical chants, the sweet scent of the incense, and the ceremonies of the liturgical rites themselves.  I would suggest that all of these things can be considered manifestations of the "liturgical arts" when understood in the broadest possible sense.

Of course, this synthesis is at one and the same time both a source of very great power and also a very great challenge. If the liturgical arts were to be approached without due consideration of the whole, one could end up with a rather lack-lustre or even jarring result. All of these manifestations work together (or not as the case may be) and are in the presence of one another; they have power to positively amplify one another or to detract.  This is why we also need to take a broad view of the "liturgical arts" and should no more fail to consider the import a lacklustre liturgical translation on the liturgy than we would a sour smelling incense, gaudy chasuble or sentimentalist art. It isn't necessarily a case of "one rotten apple spoiling the bunch" in every instance, but it does threaten the overall harmony of the liturgical rites by interjecting a note of disharmony -- which in turn introduces distraction.  But when harmony is achieved the result is nothing short of resplendent, even life changing.

Dom Gerard Calvet, OSB, in his work, Four Benefits of the Liturgy, spoke of the "attractive power of liturgical beauty" in this way: enters the Church by two doors: the door of the intelligence and the door of beauty. The narrow door... is that of intelligence; it is open to intellectuals and scholars. The wider door is that of beauty..

The Church in her impenetrable mystery ... has need of an earthly epiphany (ie. manifestation) accessible to all: this is the majesty of her temples, the splendour of her liturgy and the sweetness of her chants.

Take a group of Japanese tourists visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. They look at the height of the stained-glass windows, the harmony of the proportions. Suppose that at that moment, sacred ministers dressed in orphried velvet copes enter in procession for solemn Vespers. The visitors watch in silence; they are entranced: beauty has opened its doors to them. Now the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas and Notre Dame in Paris are products of the same era. They say the same thing. But who among the visitors has read the Summa of St. Thomas? The same phenomenon is found at all levels. The tourists who visit the Acropolis in Athens are confronted with a civilisation of beauty. But who among them can understand Aristotle?

And so it is with the beauty of the liturgy. More than anything else it deserves to be called the splendour of the truth. It opens to the small and the great alike the treasures of its magnificence: the beauty of psalmody, sacred chants and texts, candles, harmony of movement and dignity of bearing. With sovereign art the liturgy exercises a truly seductive influence on souls, who it touches directly, even before the spirit perceives its influence.
An exquisite example of this liturgical synthesis came to light in recent months from a solemn pontifical Mass (usus antiquor) celebrated in the cathedral of St Maria Himmelfahrt in Coire, Switzerland at the invitation of the local bishop, Mgr. Vitus Huonder with the assistance of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP).    A full photo set is available but here is a selection.

Note how the elements all combine. The vestments and vesture, the altar and reredos, the architecture, the candles, liturgical books and incense -- and one can easily imagine the sweet sounds of the chants and the equally sweet scent of the incense. Even the light seems to have been purposefully factored in, both practically and aesthetically, by the architect.

The liturgical ceremonies themselves, when properly executed, demonstrate symmetry, balance and harmony.

Symmetry, harmony, balance, synthesis.

Solemn Vespers

Photo credits: FSSP

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