Beauty, Basilicas, and Barcelona

Beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs.

—Benedict XVI

7 October 2010


On Sunday Pope Benedict consecrated the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, a truly awesome rite.  Construction of the basilica, Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece, began in 1882 and is not expected to be complete for another decade and a half.  In that respect, the Sagrada Familia is like many of the other great churches of Europe which took centuries to complete.

Today, the Church celebrates the dedication of another great basilica, St. John Lateran, Rome’s cathedral.  To some, this might seem a rather strange feast on the liturgical calendar, commemorating as it does a building rather than an event in the life of Jesus or a saint.  Some might even disapprove of lavishing such attention on a structure, a sentiment that finds expression in a line from my least favorite liturgical song, “Gather Us In.”  “Gather us in,” the ditty goes, but “[n]ot in the dark of buildings confining.”

The idea of church buildings as “confining,” however, does not do justice to artistic marvels such as the Sagrada Familia or St. John Lateran, wonders as much spiritual as they are architectural.  These buildings are, in fact, a true and profound expression of faith.

It takes an act of faith just to start a project such as the Sagrada Familia, especially knowing that one is unlikely to live to see it through.  In Pope Benedict’s homily on Sunday he noted the deep faith of the architect Gaudí, who when confronted by setbacks and obstacles would exclaim, “St. Joseph will finish this church.”  I’m reminded of Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, which was designed to be topped by a massive dome—before anyone had developed the technology to make building such a dome possible.  Buildings such as the Sagrada Familia and Santa Maria del Fiore represent man’s stretch beyond the limits of his abilities, beyond what seems possible; to start building such a project is always an act of hope.

It’s also an act of great selflessness.  I suspect that the thing that makes the Church’s sumptuous basilicas and cathedrals incomprehensible to some and objectionable to others is the difficulty we have seeing beyond the individualism of our era.  It’s hard for us to fully appreciate what a profoundly selfless act it is to dedicate one’s life, one’s income, one’s creativity to a project that one will never see complete.  Perhaps there is even a social message in the cathedrals of Europe about the nature of the common good and the potential of the human spirit to act without self-interest, to be moved by a motive beyond profit.

Such a spirit of selflessness is exemplified for me in the history of the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee, that city’s most beautiful church, financed by working class Polish immigrants.  Some of those immigrant families took out second mortgages on their homes in order to see their church completed.  They knew they were part of something much greater than themselves.  Pope Benedict’s homily suggested that the absolutely gratuitous beauty we see in places like the Sagrada Familia or St. Josaphat can indeed draw us out of our selfishness.

Last year, visiting the Loyola University Museum of Art here in Chicago I was struck by a number of detailed carvings taken from the ceiling of an ancient English church, carvings so high up they would not have been visible to any mortal eye.  The spirit embodied in that stone still leaves me a bit in awe.  For whatever anonymous stonemason worked that stone, God’s approval was enough; simply making something beautiful was more important than the thing’s utility; and being—the reality of the thing—was more important than perception or recognition.

And how many such anonymous craftsman-saints are represented in the stones of Europe’s great basilicas?  Such churches are an almost sacramental sign of the Church itself, of how we in our small, anonymous, and unnoticed ways are part of a beauty infinitely greater than anything we could produce or purchase or even imagine.  What is the communion of saints but a long line of grubby peasants shot through with the radiance of the true God, Light from light?

The wonderful thing about the Church’s great cathedrals and basilicas is how they make transcendent beauty accessible to all of us, popes and peasants alike.  Perhaps a few of Europe’s palaces and royal gardens might rival its cathedrals in beauty, but they are the domain of the aristocracy alone.  And the beauty of St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, Milan’s Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, the Sagrada Familia far outstrips anything the rich might purchase.

I thought I’d close with a word about the Sagrada Familia itself and Gaudí’s strange wonderful style.  His buildings ripple and twist, all of them just slightly—and delightfully—off kilter.  He owes, it seems to me, quite a bit to the gothic style and something to El Greco as well.

The gothic is wonderful because of all the details—like the unseen ceiling carvings mentioned above—the way it allows for the individual to find a unique and expressive place within an ordered whole, and the way that whole points upward.

And El Greco’s figures are real, but not quite.  They aren’t fragmented and dehumanized as are so many of Picasso’s, but El Greco isn’t striving simply to mimic reality either.  He allows an element of fantasy into his realism; he paints a world which is recognizable but different from the everyday.  And in this, perhaps, he trains the Catholic mind to think sacramentally, to imagine our resurrected future, a new heaven and a new earth, bodies which are still us but at the same time are in a deeper truer way.  One sees in El Greco’s work hints of being intensified.

And I think the same goes for Gaudí, architecturally speaking.  He has a sacramental sense.  His buildings are real, no doubt, stone and concrete and metal and glass, but there’s something in them that says, more.  They hint at a beyond.  As Pope Benedict put it in his homily on Sunday, the Sagrada Familia stands as “a visible sign of the invisible God” whose spires point “like arrows…toward the absolute light… to the One who is Light, Height and Beauty itself.”


28 Responses to Beauty, Basilicas, and Barcelona

  1. Michael Williams says:

    Excellent. My only beef is that I wouldn’t go so far as to call “Gather Us In” a “liturgical” song… 🙂

  2. Joe Simmons, SJ says:

    Bravo, Tony. Another excellent post. That line, “What is the communion of saints but a long line of grubby peasants shot through with the radiance of the true God, Light from light?” sounds like something out of Balthasar.

    – Forza! JS, sj 🙂

  3. Tom Piatak says:

    An excellent piece.

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    Antuneddu, once again, VERY well-put and insightful post. And while any work from Gaudi’ is not even on my radar as far as architectural favorites, I am grateful for ANY glimmer of Catholicism in modern Spain (although the fact that the queen of said country refused to kneel in the real-presence of God in the holy eucharist when offered from the Pope himself doesn’t inspire confidence).

    Personally, I think the beauty of Christianity is that we can obtain grace and communicate with God both in and out of a “structure”. And there are purposes for both occasions. Anyone who advocates abandoning all religious sites or shunning the human experience to live on a church altar 24/7 is missing the point.

    Lastly, to offset the eye-ball full of Gaudi’ I have received this morning, here are my Top 5:

    1. Cefalu’ Cathedral
    2. San Giovanni Laterano
    3. Santa Prisca (Taxco Cathedral)
    4. Azuwa Maryam church, Bahir Dar
    5. The “Loreta” church, Prague

  5. crystal says:

    I appreciate beauty but I can’t help thinking of all the people that could be helped with the money spent on such structures.

    • Michael Williams says:

      Crystal, your concern is a good one. However, the point is exactly that thousands of people are indeed helped by these massive, beautiful, yet inevitably expensive structures. As was quoted, man needs beauty, and in the end, he needs it far more than physical goods. A life well provided for without beauty (and goodness and truth) would be the truly impoverished life.

  6. crystal says:


    I’m not sure someone watching their family starve would agree with that idea … Jesus either.

    • Henry says:

      I am sure there are people in your area in that situation right now. Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is and sell your computer – which brings beauty into your life – in order to feed that family. After all, aren’t you the Church too?

      • crystal says:

        Hi Henry,

        I do give money to charity, though I don’t have much to give lately.

        But I’m different from the institutional church – I don’t have gold encrusted monolithic pieces of architecture built to further my aims when a simple, modest building could be as beautiful in its testamony to the integrity of the church’s committment to the gospel value of a preferential option for the poor.

    • Henry says:

      I not only give money to charity, I grew up poor and I have worked with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the South Bronx since the 80s. In fact, my School of Community did charitable work with them for three years – we managed the food pantry. But, that’s neither here nor there.

      To a “poor person” the only difference between you and the institutional Church is the quantity of things. They have more, you have less. I assert that it is part of the preferential option for the poor to build Churches with the best materials and most beauty as possible that the poor, and rich, can enter and pray in to the God that is Beauty itself. Even your family in some ways asserted man’s need for beauty with the “cheap” trip you took to Europe. Should we provide the poor with the opportunity to experience beauty in their area too. If this is confused, I’m sorry but it’s late! Pax.

  7. crystal says:

    Sorry, I should clarify. I do think beauty is important to th soul, it’s just that I think the money used to purchase and maintain that beauty shouldn’t be spent by the church. Governments, universitues, private individuals provide us with a chance to experience created beauty in places like museums, galleries, and even the royal palaces that once belonged to nobility are open to the public. I like beauty and have visited the Lovre, the Ufizzi, the Tate, Versailles and Buckingham palace, etc. but wonderful as the beauty of art and archetecture is, is it more important than a kid with no access to clean water?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:


      Glad you brought Jesus into this, as he addresses this argument directly:

      Jn 12:1-11.

      I’m also not sure exactly how the kid with no access to clean drinking water is supposed to accompany you to the Louve, Uffizi and Tate. Nor that he would be particularly welcome at any of those places.

      Nor is it at all obvious to me that constructing cheap, unattractive churches would translate into great material gains for those who need it most.

      Seems a false choice to me.


    • Henry says:

      So you are saying that the Governments, universities, and private individuals should do what the Church already does? After all, I have been in Churches (which are designed for worship of the One we love) where masterpieces can be seen for free. With the exception of the National Gallery in D.C., are there any Museums in California that would waive their entrance fee for a “poor” person?

  8. Qualis Rex says:

    Crystal how WONDERFUL for you that you were able to afford vacations to such expensive destinations. I’m sure the entire trip while you were enjoying the couisine, sights and luxurious atmosphere of Paris, Florence and London and looking at such sumptuous art after paying admission to the museums you mentioned, you were thinking of these poor children without drinking water. Kudos to you.

    As far as what you think Jesus would or wouldn’t agree with, well…that and a dime won’t even provide clean drinking water for a child.

  9. crystal says:


    the passage you brought up, Jn 12:1-11, has been used for ever to justify not helping the poor because “they will always be with us”. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant, as pretty much every other reference he makes to the poor is about helping them. He told the rich young man to sell his possessions and give the cash to the poor, not to the church building fund.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Crystal, I would heartily encourage you to sell all your possessions and give them to the poor!

      But the passage I referred to does seem to discourage self-righteous indignation directed against those who do give to the Church building fund.

      Remember I’m not arguing that we should not help the poor. I’m arguing against setting the proclamation of the Gospel through works of charity against the proclamation of the Gospel through works of art, creating an either/or scenario. The Church can and always has done both.

      Governments, as you point out can do many good things, many of which look like what the Church does… but governments and museums don’t really proclaim the Gospel, which is what both our works of charity and Christian art aims to do.

      • crystal says:


        I think I see where you’re coming from and I’m all for religious art. But the church goes way beyond that – for instance, the Vatican museum has tons of art that isn’t religious and some of which has been “liberated” from it’s otiginal owners (Greece Renews Call for Parthenon Marbles Return as Museum Opens). I don’t see how the display of wealth and power through art preaches the gospel.

      • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

        The Vatican does not control the British Museum.

      • Qualis Rex says:

        Crystal – to echo Anthony’s point, the Elgin marbles are NOT in the Vatican, but in the British National museum, which holds a number of stolen artifacts from around the world. I was/am heavily involved in an effort to return Christian Ethiopian artifacts stolen by the British from Christian Ethiopians during the battle of Magdala.

  10. crystal says:

    Qualis Rex,

    I’ve been to Europe once, just after college with my mom and sister, when we saved from our jobs to get the money to go on a cheapie tour. I couldn’t afford to go now. BTW, most museums have a day a week free admission so that everyone can enjoy the works of art.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      Crystal, you would have to agree that to someone who cannot afford clean drinking water or whose family is starving, your little “cheapie tour” to European capitals and museums would be seen as quite extravagant. To put this into perspective, I have lived and worked in countries where the price of your airline ticket alone (let’s say conservatively R/T @ $800) would feed 30+ people well for 12 months.

      The beauty of the Catholic church is that we get the benefit of 2,000+ years of scriptural scholarship. So, while you might pick up a bible, read a passage and immediately think you know how to interpret it to justify your viewpoint or use it to solidify your righteous indignation towards the church, there is most likely much MUCH more background and context you need in order to get the full picture. Did you know that God actually COMMANDED humanity to build Him a very large, beautiful and ornate temple? He sure did! It’s right in the bible in 1Kings 6,7 &8. So, you see? If you take that section, as well as the passage Anthony pointed out, you’ll see the ability to create beautiful architecture and works of art ad majorem Dei gloriam is actually a longstanding biblical tradition. But don’t feel bad; people open a bible and start their own churches based on errant theology every day.

  11. crystal says:


    Sorry, I posted a link to the wrong article. The Vatican museum has some of the Parthenon marbles, but the pope won’t given them up, though I think he’s loaned them back for a time …. Greece talks tough on Parthenon marbles.

    But at any rate, I guess this is a dopey argument, so I give up.

  12. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    Hi Crystal,

    I don’t want you to think that the issue you raised isn’t a valid one. Local Churches, as well as each one of us, have to find a balance between all the many different things we’re called to do… or perhaps, you could say, all the different ways we’re called to carry out the one mission we are given, to proclaim the love of God to the world. In some cases, Churches and individuals can certainly be wasteful or unbalanced, and a lot of decisions are open for debate… but what I would want to avoid is the blanket condemnation of centuries of Christian experience.

    I certainly don’t think your trip to Europe was inappropriate or wasteful, and I suspect the others who’ve posted on the subject don’t think so either; it’s the blanket condemnation of “the Church” they’re — justifiably, in my view — upset with. I think it’s a good thing that those who are able do travel because I think that cultural travel (as opposed to drinking pina coladas in Cancun) can help to expand and develop the soul, the whole person.

    And, of course, another way of putting the Church’s mission on earth is precisely that: expanding and developing the human soul. In some cases, this requires material assistance to those in desperate need, as you rightly point out, but the encouragement and cultivation of the arts is part of the same project. That’s why I’m not overly concerned that the Vatican Museums contain “secular” art as well. Certainly the Church should (and does) primarily encourage Christian art, but we don’t have to be puritanical about ensuring every piece of art is explicitly religious. I think a document like Gaudium et Spes strikes the right sort of balance on these issues, and that’s certainly not a document that’s reactionary or encourages the accumulation of wealth and power. (If memory serves, there may actually be a paragraph in there about travel, and I think there’s an encouragement of the arts as well.)

    But if the discussion is primarily concerned with condemnation, then it will lead to a very benighted worldview. In the long term, the sort of expansion of soul, the sense of higher calling, the inspiration that the best Christian art and architecture provokes will lead to people who are more generous, creative, and loving… and in the end that is better for everyone, rich or poor, Christian or otherwise.


  13. crystal says:

    Thanks for explaining more, Anthony.

    • thereserita says:

      Crystal, I actually have been in the situation you describe about having a hungry baby & no way to afford to pay for his formula. Its horrible, believe me. I wasn’t going to a Catholic church at the time but the church we went to referred us to a gov’t program. I just say this to support the point you made re: the need for real, physical concern for the needy. James is very very clear about this in his epistle.
      That said, I don’t think this is an either-or situation. I often remember a quote attributed to Mother Teresa to the effect that, if you have say ten dollars, use half of it to buy food & the other half to buy flowers which are food for the soul. We really have to have both to live!

  14. crystal says:

    Qualis Rex.

    I know the Elgin marbles are in the Britisj Museum – I posted a link to the wrong article. If you scroll down you’ll see the right link in a reply to Anthony. The Vatican museum does have some of the Parthenon marbles, which the Greek gov and Greek chuch have repeatedly asked for back from the Vatican to no avail, though I think they’ve been lent back to them after the recent fisnish of the new Greek museum.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      Crystal, by “some” you mean three very small fragments that were given (this is key, not “liberated from their original owners” as you said) to the Vatican by the Venetian state long before Lord Elgin looted the parthenon. Trying to lump the Vatican collection with the scurrilous and underhanded dealings of the British museum and its benefactors is simply dishonest.

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