A short rant on sacred art and architecture

I was at a conference on sacred music in Rome some years back where something occurred that was both irritating and amusing.

A liberal leaning choir director was going on and on about the sort of music we need for liturgy.  He was dead wrong about everything, of course.  He was, as you might suppose, a bit of a composer himself and he was exalting the rubbish he wrote.  By contrast many of the people at the conference were interested in Gregorian chant and real sacred music.  When it was observed that Gregorian chant had been shoved into the dustbin since the Council, the liberal self-promoter objected that Gregorian wasn’t dead, that it was indeed used – he himself rewrote melodies for his own compositions for responsorial psalms, that we have all these new books of chant from Solesmes!   The crushing response came from Msgr. Miserachs of the PIMS: In that view, Gregorian chant must be seen and not heard.

It is more and more apparent that the setting for our sacred music is not merely a desktop, or in a concert hall, but in church during our liturgical worship.

There is a vast treasury of worthy sacred music.  The doors to that treasury were slammed shut in the name of a false understanding of active participation.  Generations are being denied their patrimony and the opportunity to worship God in continuity with their forebears.

Now shifting to a slightly different gear….

At Sandro Magister‘s site there is a very good article about the famous painting by Raphael of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  You will want to read it.

During your reading you will come to these paragraphs, which I want to highlight with my emphases.

Monsignor Marco Agostini, an official in the second section of the secretariat of state, master of pontifical ceremonies, and a scholar of liturgy and sacred art, has rightly complained in "L’Osservatore Romano" that this improper placement deprives the painting of "three fourths of its capacity to speak."

Above the altar and during the Mass, in fact, the "Transfiguration" helped the priest and the faithful to "see" the mystery that was being celebrated, to identify in the consecrated white host the glorious Christ. This was why Raphael had conceived and painted it. While in a museum, this expressive power and liturgical function disappear.


I often visit museums when I travel.  I always have twinges of regret when I look at altarpieces.  Even as I admire their beauty, I wish that they could still be altar pieces.   The same thing applies during a concert of sacred music. 

Our church should be filled with the very best that we can offer.   The building itself, all that ornaments it, and everything that fills its space through gesture, word and song must be sacred and must be art.

I say: if a building was built in a certain style and it a good example of that style, leave it be.  I’ll grant that some buildings and their accoutrement are not particularly worthy.  Fine.   But generally, if you want something new, then don’t destroy the existing work by bastardizing it.  Go build something new.  But leave things alone.  Leave them whole.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    The modern Roman, Russian, and Ukrainian parishes have all most all stepped outside of the tradition of the Church by adding choral music. Chant, when monophonic, is far easier to be sung congregationally. The plainchant tradition of the various rites are incredible. It is a pity they are not being used in many, if not most, of these parishes.

  2. Tina in Ashburn says:

    About art in museums: A friend of the family was just telling me about his visit to Moscow. There are many icons there, confiscated out of Russian churches. In the museum there, many icons have candles before them. People were reverencing the icons, right there in the museum! Bewildered at this allowed behavior, Mr L. was told that the candles were in front of the icons that are considered miraculous.

  3. Supertradmum says:

    The now infamous destroying of the churches in Clinton, Iowa, a story covered in The Wanderer years ago, is brought to mind concerning this blog. A reredos created by German immigrant craftsman was hacked up and many of the beautiful statues, pictures, etc. sold to antique art dealers. What has happened is that those elderly who cannot get to church on Sunday, as there are no buses and no parish bus, no longer have parishes. All in the name of “community” and “consolidated finances”.http://www.savestmarys.net/2010/02/clinton-iowa-churches.html

    The same has been true with Gregorian Chant and I firmly believe that a lack of faith has caused both destruction of church art and church music. Without faith, one cannot appreciate Beauty, and from St. Augustine:
    But I, O my God and my Joy, do hence also sing a hymn unto Thee, and offer a sacrifice of praise unto my Sanctifier, because those beautiful patterns, which through the medium of men’s souls are conveyed into their artistic hands,emanate from that Beauty which is above our souls, which my soul seeks after day and night.

  4. Tina in Ashburn says:

    The problem of music in our Church today is an enormous problem, treated like the elephant in the living room. If we could fix the music, I daresay, we would fix a lot. There’s a lot to rant about.

    The Byzantines were not affected by the poison of the Reformation. The Westerners have been competing with Protestants ever since – introducing the organ and other instruments as well as irrelevant hymns to the Mass.

    We forget that God tells us how He wants to be worshiped. This includes saying the prayers that God reveals to us through the authority of the Church. The Mass is the holy “conversation” between the priest {Jesus Christ} and God the Father. The prayers of the Mass have a specific purpose. The chants reflect these prayers. So, in the end, what should be sung, should be what the priest is saying in the Sanctuary.

    Instead, we sing hymns. At one point, because of the subjective nature of choices which have led us to the anarchy we have today, the Church forbade hymns, and insisted on chant [which are the prayers of the Mass]. Re-enforcing this rule would sure fix a lot.

    This musical anarchy is another reflection of the arrogance of the laity and misunderstanding of our true place.

  5. Supertradmum says:


    Priests pushed the arrogance of the laity by encouraging the clericalism of the laity with extraordinary ministers, lay readers, etc. If the clergy and hierarchy would not have recreated the traditional pyramid of vocation and works into the egalitarian nonsense we see today, arrogance would have remained in check and lay people would be doing what they should be doing-bringing the Gospel into the workplace.

    Now, it is the lay people who want Gregorian Chant and are held back by the same clergy who pushed the laity forward. Doesn’t it seem like the issue is something other than the laity? Hatred of the established Church and hatred of Beauty go together, as these did in the Protestant Revolt. Rebellion and apostasy in the priesthood, as prophesied by Our Lady of Fatima, led to this state.

  6. Patikins says:

    Several years ago I visited the art museum in Cincinnati. It has several wonderful reredos and other liturgical art. I had a feeling of awe but also regret that these were not in a church anymore. I’m glad though they they are being preserved.

    Fr. Lutz in Columbus, OH runs the Jubilee Museum which collects and preserves liturgical art. I know of a couple instances where items from the museum were later put into use at local parishes. Please visit the museum if you are ever in the area.

  7. Fr Matthew says:

    At one of my Sunday masses last weekend, the music director was absent. I went ahead and intoned an entrance hymn, and a good part of the congregation sang “a cappella” with enthusiasm and pretty good pitch. We did all the hymns and some of the responses this way, and it sounded great. Maybe we can work some Gregorian Chant back into the picture now…

    I completely sympathize with Fr Z’s feelings about finding altarpieces and other works of art from churches like reliquaries, crosses, etc., now in museums. It’s painful – especially when you see some of the “art” found in a lot of our churches today, some of which ranges from mediocre to atrocious.

  8. sejoga says:

    He was dead wrong about everything, of course.

    You have such a way with words, Father. LOL.

  9. I’m not sure all this is due to apostasy and a loss of faith. Perhaps it’s as much due to a desire to be modern and effective and to leave behind a mark, a memorial of oneself even if it means ripping out the work of others. I find it hard to understand myself but I see similarities not just with the Reformation but more so with Iconoclasm which arose after wars and the rise of another more powerful state/religion (their Islam v. Communism/Fascism/Capitalism) coupled with internal theological controversies going back centuries (Protestantism and the Enlightenmnet for us). Perhaps these are contributing factors to the loss of faith in tradition, inour identity that caused so many to destroy or neglect so much. Fr. Finegan at the Hermeneutic Of Continuity blog has some heart-rending pictures of the abandoned Ushaw college in England. I sometimes feel we are like the Iconphiles in the middle of the Iconoclast era, saving what we can and hoping and praying for a restoration. I live with a friar who ‘re-modeled’ a church and believe me they just do not see what’s wrong. That you this post, I agree whole-heartedly.

  10. Subdeacon Joseph says:


    You are mostly correct concerning the Byzantine Rite and music. While our hymnography has remained the same, the majority of the Ukrainians and Russians have abandoned the plainchant Byzantine tradition for choral music. The choral music, while beautiful, definitely stands outside of the plainchant tradition of all rites in the Catholic Church. I enjoy ancient Roman chant because it sounds so Byzantine, and Gregorian chant too because it is just as awe inspiring. It will be a great day if and when these chants are used again in the Latin rite.

  11. Patikins says:

    A second thought:

    My own parish is a quite traditional novus ordo one with a beautiful un-wreckovated church building. I sometimes cringe when I visit other Catholic churches — both those that are of traditional design but have been stripped of their grandeur and more modern designs. I often try to imagine how the church can be made more beautiful within the shell of the existing building. Sometimes it is easy to imagine but other times, especially in “church in the round” churches it is more difficult.

    I think pastors who “inherit” these churches ought to do what they can within the means of the parish to restore the beauty of the churches or create it if none was there to begin with.

  12. Fr. Basil says:

    I know in my own experience as a choir director when adapting traditional Slavic and Neo-Byzantine chant to English text is that what works at my desk may not work in rehearsal with real voices singing it.

    And what is successful in the choir room could easily bomb in the service, howsoever well it might be sung.

    \\The modern Roman, Russian, and Ukrainian parishes have all most all stepped outside of the tradition of the Church by adding choral music. \\

    I’m saying nothing against monodic chant, but at least with Russian and Ukrainian parishes and their canonical descendants, such as the OCA, harmonized chant such as Bakhmetev Court Chant and the like have been around long enough to be considered part of the tradition of the church.

    Yea, were you to gather a random group of clergy, cantors, and choristers, and give them a text marked “Tone 6,” we can both guess what it will sound like when they sing it.

    I’ll also bet that the average congregation will more easily sing–and even more likely sing– Bortniansky’s Cherubic Hymn #5 than anything in the Obikhod.

    The Finlay Trisagion is nice, too.

    **The Westerners have been competing with Protestants ever since – introducing the organ and other instruments as well as irrelevant hymns to the Mass.**

    Organs and other instruments were used in Western churches centuries before the Reformation.

    True “a capella” performance calls for instruments (cornettos, strings, recorders, whatever) to double the voice parts, rather than playing independently, as developed during the Baroque and later periods.

  13. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    Fr. Basil,

    All I’m saying is the Serbians, Albanians, Greeks, Galician Ukrainians, Carpatho-Russians, Arabs, Romanians, and Bulgarians have maintained the plainchant tradition, and this plainchant tradition comprises the greater part of the Byzantine Rite/Orthodox Church. The Byzantine Rite services are to be sung by all God’s people according to the canonical tradition of the Church and choral music breaks this most sacred tradition. I would prefer to see the znamenny chant used more readily. A fine example of the is Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne, West Virgina. Also, the famous Valaam Monastery using their own musical recension of znamenny.

  14. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Subdeacon Joseph:
    The Melkite parish which I occasionally attend sings according to the ancient rules still.

    Fr. Basil
    Its hard to completely explain a complex subject in a succinct post. Yes you are right.
    The Westerners used the organ, while the Easterners did not. Yes instruments did exist before the Reformation. The organ was the instrument used in the stadium, coinciding with the massacre of Christians, lending a bad connotation to the organ. This is why the organ never caught on with the Byzantines. As you know, even today, the voice is the only approved method of music…the organ is allowed. Most of the Byzantine practices are closer to our early Church traditions. Sadly as Subdeacon Joseph reports, there are Eastern churches losing their grip.

  15. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Supertradmom, I agree. In other posts I have mentioned the betrayal by our hierarchy. To be succinct I described the symptoms. The causes are complex. As a layperson [officially only a sheep], I can only control my own behavior, so I call to the laity to pull ourselves together as best we can.

    Can anyone name a bad tradition in the Church that hasn’t been led by someone in authority, or through permissiveness?

    Thank God for the good, overworked clergy and religious who are trying to make up for the evil the laity suffers.

  16. Supertradmum says:

    Amen, to the traditional, good, holy priests.

  17. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    Amen to the good and holy laity who are fighting the good fight too.

  18. Clinton says:

    A couple of observations…

    I think that while we’ve seen people struggle and sacrifice to repair and maintain lovely, well-built traditional churches in their
    multiplicity of artistic styles, decades hence we will *not* see crowds fighting to preserve St. Stripmall’s church even if it is a
    ‘magnificent example of 1970’s neoliturgical brutalism’ and still has its original avocado shag carpeting. The fact that most such
    churches were badly built with inferior materials will also contribute to their rarity in a few decades.

    I too am saddened when I see liturgical artworks in museums, or worse, taken and put to an inappropriate use. I wonder if this
    placing of sacred things into a profane context, to be treated casually, has any relation to the treatment of actual sacred spaces
    that we see today. I recall my first trip to Rome, where I was astonished at the behavior of my fellow tourists inside the churches.
    Even during Mass, the talking, critiquing of artwork, strolling and filming continued. If that oblivious disrespect were only
    based on ignorance it could be understandable, if still not acceptable. However, something tells me that if those tourists were to
    go home and stumble into a church where a Mass was underway they’d behave differently. At home, they’d act as a visitor in a
    church. Abroad, they visit churches as they would an artifact in a museum. (The worshippers nearby are merely a ‘tableau vivant’
    staged for their benefit). If a sacramental can be turned into a mere artwork for our casual glance, it makes it all the more
    acceptable to treat an entire church as a museum exhibit one may stand inside. Even St. Stripmall’s doesn’t deserve that.

  19. greg the beachcomber says:

    Our church should be filled with the very best that we can offer. The building itself, all that ornaments it, and everything that fills its space through gesture, word and song must be sacred and must be art.

    Exactly. And don’t forget what fills most of that space: us. Do we, through our dress, behavior and attentiveness, give our best at Mass?

    Just a thought.

  20. Geometricus says:

    I saw a public television documentary about a large number of sacred artifacts that were returned to the Omaha people in Nebraska by a museum at Harvard. Harvard had kept them for over 100 years, as it turned out, to preserve them while the Omaha people were going through a time of transition. They fully belonged to the Omaha people, but they may have a more robust understanding of themselves as a people now than they did at various times in the 20th century, and hence were not ready to receive back what was really their own. Yet it was sad for them to not have what was in some cases crucially important to their culture for decades on end.

    Perhaps the Church will be able to get the same point at some future time, of officially asking for our sacred art back from museums much like Indian tribes have been doing for years now. Perhaps the original buildings such pieces were created for are gone, but worthy new structures could be built with these pieces in mind so that art which was created to be used in worship at mass can once again fulfill the original intent of its creator.

  21. John F. Kennedy says:


    You wrote, ” The organ was the instrument used in the stadium, coinciding with the massacre of Christians, lending a bad connotation to the organ.” Do you have ANY reference for that?

  22. Tina in Ashburn says:

    I attended a seminar taught by the learned Melkite pastor in our area. He mentioned many aspects of the musical differences between Eastern and Western. The Byzantines do not use the organ, that’s for sure.

    Consider the organs we hear at the baseball stadium!

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