Denis McNamara on the Meaning of Beauty and its Importance in Church Architecture

In this short video  Denis McNamara talks about the nature of beauty and then talks about it in the context of sacred architecture (scroll to the bottom if you want to go straight to it and avoid my comments!). Denis is on the faculty of the Liturgical Institute, Mundelein; and his book is Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.This is the second in the series of 10 which I will be featuring in coming weeks.

In this video, Denis points out that beauty is not simply 'in the eye of the beholder' but is a property of the object itself, the thing that we are judging to be beautiful. He is asserting the the principle of objective beauty - it is in the object percieved; and objecting (if you'll forgive the pun) to the opposite principle, the idea of subjective beauty - which would be to say that it is simply a matter of personal taste of the person - the subject - who is seeing the object.

He defines beauty as a property of something that 'reveals its ontological being'. Another way of putting this was given to me by Dr Caroline Farey of the School of the Annunciation in Devon, England. She defined beauty as the 'splendour of being'. Both definitions are telling us that beauty is a property of something that reveals to us what  it is. So in the context of this talk, to be beautiful a church must look like church. It must appeal to our sense of what a church is.

As a bit of supporting anecdotal evidence for the definition that Denis gives: when I was a high school physics teacher in England many years ago, at the end of term I used to present the class with a piece of mechanical equipment made in Victorian times. It had cogs and moving parts exquisitely machined in polished brass. No one in the building knew what it was for, and we couldn't tell from looking at it what its purpose was (I never found out). Nevertheless, the precision and harmony of the motion its parts when turned were such that all assumed that it must have one. I would bring this into the classroom and without comment place it down on the table in front of them; I would let them look at it for a few moments. Then I would ask the question: 'Do you think this is beautiful?' Every time the response of the students was the same. They didn't answer yes or no, the always asked: 'What is it?' These were 17 and 18 year olds who had never studied aesthetics and and it was a school in London that had no particular Catholic or even Christian connections. Yet these students knew instintively that they could not answer the question, 'is it beautiful?' without knowing what the object was.

As I see it, this establishment of principles of beauty should not be interpreted as a way of proving (or disproving) that something is beautiful. Any attempts to create 'rules of beauty' to that end will always fall flat in this regard. That is not to say that there are not guiding principles, but that these are better thought of in the same way as the rules of harmony and counterpoint in music. All beautiful music makes good use of them; but not all music that obeys the rules of harmony and counterpoint is beautiful. There is always a intuitive element that relates to how they are employed that cannot be accounted for definitively when creating beauty - this is what marks the good composer from someone who just has technical understanding.

In the appreciation of beauty, there is always a subjective element present. This does not compromise the principle of objective beauty, however: some people are able to recognise beauty and some are not. Ultimately we don't know for certain who has this ability and who doesn't. This lack of an ultimate and perfect authority to whom we can appeal means that in the end we rely on the best authority we have, tradition. Tradition, in this context can be thought of as a consensus of the opinions of many people over generations as to what is beautiful and what is not. It is not a perfect guide, and clearly is less reliable the more recent the work of art we are judging, but it is the best we have.