One (non-doctrinal) thing that always seems to come up when discussing the difference between Catholicism and various expressions of Protestantism is church art and architecture. The differences between a Catholic church building and a Protestant church building can be extreme.
While I am not going to address the views behind the Protestant understanding of the role of church art and architecture as I cannot come at it from a place of experience, I would like to address the often criticized, ornate, sometimes over-the-top architecture of many Catholic churches. Anyone who’s been inside (the magnificent!) St Peter’s Basilica–or any church in Italy for that matter–will know what I’m talking about!
My first experience of this Renaissance sensory overload was, of all places, St. Mark’s in Venice, Italy–and to be quite honest it didn’t sit well with me. The paintings, mosaics, and statues were truly beautiful, but for me at that point, ultimately distracting. I was overwhelmed by the scale of many of these Italian churches, every inch of which was covered in golden mosaics, precious stones, and ornate sculptures and murals.
I preferred–and still do, most of the time–the simplicity of a sacred space. As someone who can be prone to daydreaming during Mass, I initially saw everything around me in these churches as something that would get in the way of my participation in and hinder my understanding of the Eucharist.
In the Sistine Chapel for example–as monumentally beautiful as it is–I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that the ceiling got more appreciation than the small, humble, wooden tabernacle tucked under Michelangelo’s rendition of the Last Judgment. I mean, this is a chapel after all.
And although I can go on for days about the unfortunate recent trend of scooting the tabernacle out of our eye-lines and off to the side, at the umpteenth church I started to realize I was missing the point.
At their best, these artists weren’t trying to upstage the sanctity of the places they were creating (although that might have happened from time to time). Rather, this was their grand expression of faith, while I was looking at it merely as art. Instead of “Look at all the amazing things I create,” what they were really saying was “Look at our God! Look and try to understand what he did for us! We should always approach these things in wonder!”
Rather than distract us, these beautiful renditions of moments in Salvation History are meant to help us–to aid our faith with understanding, and with sensory connection. When we meditate on their content, these murals, statues, and mosaics give us visual context for what we hear from the pulpit and from the altar–for the romantics, the visual learners, the artists at heart, and (hopefully) the perpetually distracted daydreamer in all of us.