The Sacred Liturgy as Art: A Benedictine Monk Writes in 1936

[The following essay is taken from Liturgical Arts Quarterly, 1936, volume 5, no. 2. Contextually it should be noted that the context in which Dom Hammendstede writes was that of the classical Roman liturgy -- or what we today refer to more commonly as the "usus antiquior", "Extraordinary Form" or "Tridentine Mass."  Of course, what our Benedictine writes in that context should apply to any of the liturgical rites of the Church, however I emphasize "should" because, regrettably, this hasn't always been the case in actual practice, particularly since the Second World War, and especially in the decades that followed the Second Vatican Council  Dom Hammenstede's essay provides food for thought not only about the integration of sacred art and sacred liturgy, but also our approach toward it. -- LAJ]

The Liturgy as Art 
by Dom Albert Hammenstede, OSB

The Liturgy taken as a whole, is what the Germans call a "Gesamtkunstwerk," or a synthetic art form of a universal character. This is true not only because the Church in her official worship makes use of the products of the various arts but also because in the Church's Liturgy the very ideals of the different arts find an elevated and spiritually fuller expression. It is to Wagner's mad desire to create by his own power a "Gesamtkunstwerk" that we are indebted for a long series of his operas. He wished to bring together into one great operatic work a harmonized, artistic synthesis of all human desires, emotions, relations, and accomplishments as expressed in religion, philosophy, history, and the arts... Why such a desire was impossible of accomplishment, even for such a genius as Wagner, we shall better appreciate once we see in what manner the Liturgy itself is an art. In fact it will become evident that it was precisely a substitute for the Liturgy of the Church that Wagner intended, but was unable to create.

We may say of art in general that it is the incorporation in an external and beautiful form of an idea or thought which by its nature pleases. It is essential that art have a beautiful form. Pulchrum est quod visum placet. ... Since the Liturgy of the Church incorporates in its classical forms this pleasing element essential to all true art, it follows that the Liturgy in its own right is art. More than this however, the Liturgy is an art sui generis, unparalleled by any other on earth. It is not so much another kind or variation of art as it is its elevation into a higher sphere of being and activity which transforms and severely and supremely removes it from its merely mundane counterparts. Hence, although in its make-up it embraces and utilizes all other arts, it is not thereby a mere summary of them.

It is from its content that liturgical art gains its extraordinary and peculiar character. All other arts, no matter what their vehicle of expression, do not make present in their forms the realities which they represent. Thus, for example, in a statue representing mercy, only the idea is present, and this in the artist or the spectator. The carved stone itself is not an idea, but the representation of an idea. Liturgical art, on the contrary, makes present not only an idea but the reality. It does not stop at representing the highest ideas; the true, the good, the beautiful, but in the liturgical Mysterium to whose end liturgical art is ordered and without which it would not exist, it brings about objectively and in our very midst the highest form of reality, the Summum Pucrum, God Himself. Liturgy, in other words, is not only a reflection or a picture of higher things; it is the actual realization or making present of those divine things on earth. In a liturgical function those things which are represented or symbolized by the external forms are made in full reality present amongst us because of an infallible efficacy inherent in the sacrament, or Mysterium. It follows then that the true beauty of liturgical art can only be experienced or appreciated by a man who has the faith. An altar, for instance, in spite of its consecration still remains the stone it was, nor does it receive thereby a greater corporeal beauty than was given to it by the artist who made it, but it now shares in the Divine Beauty of Christ, Who Himself is represented in a certain way in the altar. Thus the bishop in admonishing the subdeacons concerning the care of the altar and its appurtenances says, "altare . . . ipse est Christus . the altar is Christ Himself," a symbolism that the Church very well expresses in her rubrics, ceremonies, and care of the altar. Only in the supernatural light of faith can the real beauty of the Liturgy and its art be perceived. That is the reason why one often sees Catholics praying with great affection and devotion before a statue which perhaps from a purely artistic point of view is not beautiful.

The same holds true of the Church's music. Plainchant can be sung and its external beauty can be appreciated by an unbeliever, but he cannot truly perceive how the Spirit becomes present in the singing of it in a liturgical service, as His vehicle for communicating certain graces. An introit sung at a solemn Mass has its own particular accompanying graces. Remove it from its correct liturgical setting and from its integral connection with the Eucharistic Mystery and its value as a liturgical experience vanishes. For the faithful who participate in the solemn liturgy of the Mass it is not absolutely necessary that they know the truth of the text of an introit, neither must they be aware of its moral value, nor have an understanding of the individual words- they need but experience the beauty of the text and its music. One's primary purpose in going to Mass is not to make a meditation or a resolution, but rather to admire and experience the beauty of God. This does not set aside the intellectual and ethical burden of the liturgical texts, which doubtless can be made the subject of meditations or resolutions. It only emphasizes the truth that the liturgical experience of a text is fully realized in its appropriate accompanying liturgical function. In the study of dogmatic theology we approach God inasmuch as He is the Highest Being; in moral theology we approach God inasmuch as He is the Greatest Good; in the Liturgy we approach God inasmuch as He is the Supreme Beauty. This last approach to God is neither a study of God's nature, nor a following of His commandments, but a participation in His Life and a living experience - a tasting and a seeing - of His Beauty.

THE SUBJECT of a piece of art must not only be beautiful in itself, but its external form should correspond to its content. In the Liturgy this is preeminently true. In all the Church's rites there is evidenced a wonderful harmony between the outer expression and the inner reality. This is brought about in the first place by that symbolism which characterizes the forms of the Church's classic Liturgy. In revealing divine things the Church does not vulgarize them; her expression of them is sacramental and symbolic. She eschews realism, and with a vibrant sensitivity toward divine things inherited from an earlier age, she veils her Mysteries in a secret chiaroscuro. Therefore, again, only a believer can truly perceive the beauty of her liturgical forms because he alone is initiate to their hidden content...

One can see from this how contrary to the true liturgical sense of the Church is that historical realism which parades under the name and is sometimes confused with symbolism. Symbolism is destroyed where detailed historical imitation is introduced. This is seen especially in the Church's liturgical rites in which she actually brings about in our very midst the Work of our Redemption. This she accomplishes through her sacramental and symbolic rites without having recourse to any realistic imitation of the historical details connected with the Work of Redemption. In this she shows herself the consummate artist of the classical tradition. Well she knows that a dramatization of historical details and the minute reenactment of historical incidents need have no part in her Liturgy, which is above all else a pulsating, living thing of the present. There is, for example, none of the beauty of symbolism expressed in the custom in some places prevalent on the feast of Epiphany of having three boys, dressed up as the three kings, offer their gifts at the altar. It is too realistic. It reveals something but concelas nothing, and therefore it offends good artistic, and consequently, liturgical taste. As Goethe says: "Man merkt die Absicht und wird missstimmt - The intention becomes obvious and one refuses to be impressed." The portrayal of historical details forces one's mind willy-nilly, empties itself in the external expression, and is profane in the etymological sense, that is, more suitable outside the Church. How masterfully, artistically, and inspiringly the Church creates the symbolic forms which veil her Mysteries...


A THIRD characteristic which bespeaks the beauty of liturgical forms is that they are typical. It might almost be said that the same process by which the liturgy reduces things to their most simple and necessary form accounts simultaneously for their quality of objectivity. Classical liturgy removes things as far as possible from the subjective and accidental and establishes them in an objective sphere, conforming them as much as possible to types. The difference between a photograph of me sitting at my desk and a painting of me at the same desk illustrates the distinction between the typical and the accidental. The photograph of me is an accidental form; it reflects all the external details of the moment. The painting on the other hand is a thing of art because it has something typical in it. It captures that which is essential to a man and conforms me to it, making the picture of me something typical and objective.

Similarly the liturgy brings it about that individual things and persons lose in as far as possible their accidental characteristics and gain a typical, or objective, character. Therefore the Church's insistence on conformity to the rubrics in her liturgical functions. She demands of the priest at the altar that he renounce his own accidental and particular behaviour and conform himself to an objective type or form. This also accounts for the Church's insistence on vestments and habits for her ministers and for those vowed to her service. When the priest stands vested for the altar, the Church no longer recognizes in him his individual personality and all the accidental characteristics that go to make it up. She sees him only as the priest of God, and it is in conformity to that designation that he must bear himself in a liturgical service.

Far from excluding the grace and elegance of manners and actions with which one associates the correct bearing of a priest at the altar, this actually makes the elegantia morum of all priests at the altar the common rule. That is what we mean when we say that liturgical art is typical, reducing as it does what is accidental to a typical form, a simplified and objective mode of action... There is yet another corollary which flows from this third characteristic of liturgical forms. Being typical and objective they partake in a certain limited way of the immutability of God. The more accidental a thing, the farther it is removed from God. The closer a thing is to God, the more it appears in the state of tranquillity. Thus in the hierarchical choirs of heaven, the lowest order, the angels, are sent as ministers to and fro, whereas the highest orders, the cherubim and seraphim, stay constantly in God's Presence. A dim analogy of this might be seen in the liturgical service of pontifical vespers: the bishop sits enthroned with the ample folds of his cope gathered about him. His immediate assistants are seated quietly near him, but the farther those in the sanctuary are removed from him (chanters, acolytes, et alit), the more they are in motion. The typical forms of the liturgy create a tone of dignity and tranquillity about God's altar. Because of this, a priest in a far removed country mission with only a poor parish church and with no assistants can nevertheless conduct a dignified and an artistic liturgical function.

A FOURTH characteristic of liturgical forms is their enthusiasm. In her Liturgy the Church expresses most significantly the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is to the rousing of the Spirit of the Lord among her people that her entire liturgical ritual is directed. The complete ensemble of a solemn service; beautiful vestments, music, lighted candles, incense, sculpture, painting, all these are manifestations of that enthusiasm of the Spirit which is present in the Church's functions...

Briefly summarizing what we have said up to this point, we see that the Liturgy in itself is art first of all because it realizes and actualizes in its celebration the very highest ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful, making present through the liturgical Mysterium the Summum Pulchrum - God Himself. The external forms of the Liturgy correspond in perfect harmony with the Divine Things which they reveal and at the same time conceal. These external rites, moreover, are in themselves beautiful and artistic because they appear as necessary or fitting, typical, and enthusiastic. All true art is purifying in its effect; it produces a spiritual catharsis. Someone who views and enjoys a masterpiece of art in some museum might not be aware of the purifying effect of such an experience until years later, when, in the selecting of a painting, he is unconsciously directed in his choice by the ideals of the picture he enjoyed years before. It is not difficult in this regard to see how the Liturgy contributes to the purification and clarification of the soul.

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