“O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness;

let the whole earth stand in awe of him.”

– Psalm 96:9

The psalmists never tired of praising the beauty and majesty of the Lord’s house. Solomon was so eager to build a fitting temple that he traded a good part of Galilee to Hiram of Tyre in exchange for building materials, and the description of the Temple and its construction takes up several rather tedious chapters of I Kings. The Christian Church, so far from rejecting the Temple’s earthly beauty, fulfilled it. John Saward, who, in a fine book on Christian art, anticipated the title of my essay, has suggested that the beauty of Israel was only fully revealed in Mary.

Anyone who visits modern Tel Aviv, after reading the Psalms, is bound to be puzzled. At its best, modern Tel Aviv resembles a down-market section of Miami Beach, and, at its worst . . . well, I would compare it with the industrial suburbs of Bratislava and Belgrade, but that would be unfair to cities that have endured bombing and communism and yet still preserved a great deal of beauty in their historic centers. In Tel Aviv, apart from the little bits of the Arab city, there is nothing but Newark.

How did it happen that the people of David built one of the ugliest cities in the world? The answer cannot lie in anything specific to the Jews themselves. The modern world is generally an uglv place, while ancient Jews, in their reverence for sacred beauty, were not at all unusual. Egyptians, Persians, and even Assyrians built big and built well, and their temples were typically the most impressive of their buildings. The remains of Creek pagan temples have never ceased to impress people who have onh’ seen pictures in books or Hollywood reconstructions. The religious appetite for beauty and magnificence did not die out in the Roman period, as anyone who has seen the Pantheon knows, or in the Christian Age, either in the East (Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, Cracanica in Kosovo- Metohija) or West (the cathedrals of Pisa and Siena, Chartres, and Winchester, to name only a few).

During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, magnificent churches were constructed, and even if I sometimes deplore the taste and spiritual formation of the builders, I have to admire the splendor. Even in the spiritually bankrupt 19th century, people demanded something more than mere utility in church architecture. Although (as one can conclude from Dr. James Patrick’s article elsewhere in this issue) the Catholic and Anglican rage for neo-Gothic churches represents a mentality almost as artificial as the many neoclassical churches (often of bizarre dimensions) built by American Baptists and Methodists, these poor souls wanted to adore their Creator in a building that no one could confuse with a factory or grain silo. Then what in Hell has happened?

Whenever modern architecture is condemned in round terms, someone inevitably responds by accepting the general premise, but with a few exceptions. After seeing more than a few of the exceptions, I shall stick to round terms. Modern churches are not simply shoddy or drab; they are worse than deliberately ugly; they are a deliberate affront to whatever sense of reverence the worshiper has. Let me take just one example, a much frequented and well-supported Catholic church in Northern Illinois. Appropriately located across from two small shopping centers, the church complex is the usual concrete-and-brick abstract study in confusion. There is no perceptible front or back, no imposing facade, no coherent shape. But this overall ugliness, however striking, is only superficial. After entering the brick barn and gawking at the avant-garde 19 50’s “art” (perhaps this stuff has a retro charm today), a visitor with an aesthetic sense feels immediately ill at ease. Of course, one is ill at ease in the dizzying circus-tent churches in which the lack of a focal point creates a sense of vertigo, but, in this place, there is something worse than confusion. The shape of the interior is like an asymmetrical cheese wedge, and the off-center location of the altar seems to drag the viewer’s attention to the right, as if by magnetic repulsion, away from the crucifix. On the rare occasions I have been inside, I have been reminded of Lewis’s description (in That Hideous Strength) of the off-balance room in which Mark Studdock is placed to begin his spiritual deformation.

I can imagine what sort of smirking academic architect would design such a monstrosity, but what I shall never understand is the mind of the pastor (and the rich and powerful laymen supporting him) who approved the design. I do not say that one cannot worship in such a place, though, on several occasions I attended, the problems created by the architect were compounded by the antics of a flamboyantly self-admiring Irish priest, flouncing about melodramatically in a wizard’s robe decorated with what he may have thought were Celtic symbols. Nonetheless, one of the best sermons I have heard in decades was delivered there by a joyfully severe African priest I should someday like to meet. Obviously. Christians can worship in a barn or in a sewer, but, given the choice and resources, any normal person would prefer to worship in “the beauty of holiness.”

That’s just Your opinion. Haven’t you ever heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

I’d rather to find it in the eye of the storm: “There’s beauty in the bellow of the blast / and grandeur in the growling of a gale.” Terror is a part of grandeur. What was it Rilke said, “Denn das Sclmne is nichts als des Schrekhchen Anfang“—the beautiful is none other than the beginning of the terrible. The fear implied by awe is a part of a certain kind of beauty, the beauty of the Pantokrator in the dome of an Orthodox church or Signorelli’s great frescoes of the Last Judgment in Orvieto. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” but what sort of fear or awe is inspired by light woods, soft carpet, and the reassuring commercial ambience of the contemporary mall-church, whether Protestant or Catholic?

Tastes do differ. There are pretty rococo chapels whose appeal is more to sensuality than awe, and, while I might think the style inappropriate in a church, I do not deny its prettiness. But nobody has ever really believed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The argument for aesthetic and moral relativism is always and ouly made by people with an offensive aesthetic or morality they wish to palm off on people who “don’t know much about art” but think (that is, they are waiting to be told) that they know what they like. If beauty really were subjective, why pay someone to paint a picture or build a church or compose a piece of music?

The argument from relativism is very much like the concept of equality. The only people who argue for equality are seeking superiority over a current!) dominant group. “Bottom rail on top now,” a popular slogan of Reconstruction years, explicitly concedes the scarcely hidden objective of all minority-rights movements. In exactly the same way, aesthetic relativists would use your money to replace your sense of beauty with their own and, if necessary, at the point of the gun that will be used to arrest you if you refuse to pay your taxes to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tastes do, indeed, vary, from man to man (and more, from man to woman), place to place, and age to age, but there are absolute standards of beauty within which these variations occur. Symmetry and proportion have been acknowledged elements of the beautiful since ancient times. Much poetry and music, for example, depend on the regular repetition of contrasting elements known as rhythm; in sculpture, there is a harmony of proportions of body length to the lengths of trunk and legs and of height to girth. Great and beautiful art is never quite realistic; it maintains a tension between the natural and the divine (that is, the ideal).

In sculpture, one of the problems faced by the Greeks was how to reconcile an abstract canon of geometrical proportions with the reality of the human form, and one can trace the history of their brilliant failures from archaic kouros types, reminiscent of Egyptian imperfect statues, to the late archaic sculptures from the Aphaea temple on Aegina, to the Parthenon’s pediments and friezes, to the even more complex canons of Polyclitus and Lysippus. They are “failures” in the sense that the task is more impossible than squaring die circle —which is one good reason why aesthetic taste is always fluctuating, if hardly ever improving.

Architecture presents more and graver challenges. The geometric basis of the Parthenon or Hagia Sophia is obvious; less apparent are the subtle ways in which architects must cheat on reality in order to bring their ideal into relationship with the human scale and the human eye.

All real artists, whether they can articulate it or not, are aware of the disjunction between the natural and the ideal. The Renaissance’s pursuit of photographic realism, complete with camera oscura and the elaborate calculations of perspective pursued by, for example, Paolo Uccello, was as wrongheaded as most of what went on in the Renaissance. Indeed, scientific naturalism is really a reversion to Neolithic cave paintings that look a good deal more naturalistic than most great art.

The artist, as opposed to the photographer or the Neolithic hunter who projected his eidetic memory on the wall and filled it in, is forever finding the meaning that lies hidden within flesh and bone. In this sense, the Greek geometric painter who tried to reduce the human form to lines, triangles, and circles is closer to Polyclitus than the Renaissance artists and their successors (down to the Impressionists) who thought they could portray things either as they are or as they seem to be in this sublunar world.

As Plato knew, the search for form is part of the search for the divine, but where Plato went astray was in believing that artists only imitated natural things that are themselves imitations of the ideal and perfect forms. On this point, Plotinus corrected his master. Even physical beauty may draw us upward toward perfection. The true artist—whether Phidias or an icon painter—fixes his gaze on the forms themselves, and the true architect, when he builds a church or temple, is trying to find a plastic expression of man’s yearning and reverence for the divine. The elements he uses are in their origin simple and often natural: tree trunks that evolve into marble columns; domes that echo the dome of the heavens; basic geometric shapes like triangles, pyramids, columns, and cones that give us a hint of the Creator’s mind.

A vast Gothic cathedral sometimes seems like a towering mountain range, but the mountains of another, more perfect world. The spires, soaring to heaven, draw our minds upward to heavenly things. Small wonder that Gothic became the high-church vernacular in the 19th century, the beginning of the final phase of European unbelief. The same century also witnessed the rise and fall of aestheticism as an alternative to Christianity, as writers and artists, after walking away from the “beauty of holiness” pursued the “holiness of beauty.” The experiment was made, in the best faith they had, by the “Parnassian” poets in France (and their successors, the symbolists), the aesthetes and decadents in England, and, most ambitiously of all, Richard Wagner in Germany.

I am struck by the number of these beauty worshipers, whose lives were mostly tragically immoral, who came eventually to stare their own failures in the face and pursue sanity. Baudelaire returned to the Church of his childhood; Lionel Johnson (in many respects the best of the English decadents) turned Catholic; and even the impossible Wagner composed Parsifal, the opera that was the last straw for his Christophobic admirer, Friedrich Nietzsche. The “professor” (as Cosima Wagner called him) hated the work because he admired and feared it:

It was as if someone were speaking to me again, after many years, about the problems that disturb me —naturally not supplying the answers I would give, but the Christian answer, which after all has been the answer of stronger souls than the last two centuries of our era have produced.

This, then, is the reason why Tel Aviv is so ugly, and why Moscow and Detroit are (for the most part) ugly. Poverty and greed, rampant capitalism and stagnant socialism have played a part, to be sure, but men have created beauty in order to make a profit, and Stalin himself is said to have had some taste in poetry and music. The brick factories and wrought-iron train stations of the 19th century now seem like works of beauty to be preserved when compared with the lightless, airless, godless boxes that loom over downtown Manhattan and Chicago, and even Stalin’s terrifying buildings in Moscow have a kind of Gothic charm, today.

We of the Modern Age have not accidentally stumbled into ugliness; we have embraced it the way a married man embraces an ugly prostitute. We hate beauty because we hate the Source of beauty, and, in deliberately building ugly churches, we are betraying our true allegiance, which is not to Cod or even to Mammon. But, sursum corda: There is nothing wrong with modern churches that a fleet of FEMA bulldozers cannot fix.