On October 29, 2017, I had the pleasure of attending Catholic Art Guild’s first annual conference on “Beauty: The Restoration of the Sacred” in Chicago, IL. The Catholic Art Guild is a lay apostolate seeking the “restoration of the Sacred” in the visual arts. Their mission is to support artists in offering their gifts for the greater glory of God.
“The Guild seeks to form a community. We seek to help form artists to better offer their gifts to God and their fellow man, and we seek to give voice to Truth, Beauty & Goodness, so our events revolve around philosophical talks with top scholars, artists, architects and the like.” – Kathleen Carr, President and Founder of Catholic Art Guild
Their conference did just this, bringing together the world’s leading philosophers, architects and artists to rediscover the power of beauty in the modern world.
The conference began with a Choral Latin High Mass at St. John Cantius Church. It was my first time attending Latin Mass, the extraordinary form celebrated pre-Vatican II. I naively assumed it would be quite similar to the ordinary form of Mass, but oh was I wrong. Within a few minutes of Mass starting, I looked around and thought, “Am I in the right place? Did I accidentally stumble into an Anglican or Orthodox church?” It all felt very foreign and disorienting, but at the same time it was quite beautiful and intriguing. Had I let my mind settle and stopped trying to figure out what was going on, I probably would have had a better experience. From time to time I’d give up on my attempt to understand and simply close my eyes and pray. I later realized, this is exactly what I should have been doing the whole time.
As the “Latin Mass Society of Palm Beach” suggests, “If you get lost, just keep giving thanks to Jesus for His sacrifice and prepare your soul to receive Him in Holy Communion.” I especially loved the notice on their website “WARNING: The first time you attend the Traditional Latin Mass, you may be confused and possibly discouraged; the second time, you’ll probably be intrigued; the third time…..you’ll have fallen in love!” I definitely should have read up on tips and frequently asked questions prior to attending. I do plan to attend another Latin Mass after reading up on it a bit more. Stay tuned for a future post!
After Mass, the conference continued at the Drake Hotel with an excellent line-up of speakers.
Main conference themes included:
- The important role beauty serves in the Catholic Church
- The faults of modernism and our subsequent need to restore beauty in our churches
- Our call to support artists who aim to restore this beauty
The first speaker was Catholic artist, Anthony Visco, who described his experience in art school and how, much like its focus today, was entirely geared toward modernism. Abstract drawings or a cut-up garden hose would earn you an A, while carefully analyzing and painting the human anatomy wouldn’t be creative enough. Thankfully Visco survived this period and turned back to his roots as a skillful painter and sculptor. He expressed the need to train future artists for careers in the sacred arts.
Next up to the podium was architectural historian, Dr. Denis McNamara. You may recognize that name from a previously posted video on this site. Dr. McNamara discussed the ontology churches, or “church-ness,” essentially, what makes a church a church. A church is the mystical body of God, the visible sign of a living Church, and should be a reflection of the Church dwelling in heaven. When we see a mosaic, tiles or bricks, we should see this as a collection of pieces, as an image of the Churches’ many members. When we see gems, we see a perfected version of our fallen nature. We see what grace can do to transform us, just as carbon can be transformed into a beautiful diamond. He went on to define beauty as “a flash of understanding which approaches the way God understands.” If we are struggling with whether a church or church art has beauty, we should ask ourselves,
“Would this church or this artwork be in heaven?”
According to Dr. McNamara’s definition, here is an example of church architecture that misses the mark.
The next speaker was classical architect and editor of Sacred Architecture Journal, Duncan Stroik. He discussed our duty to find and foster the work of artists, create a market for artists and train artists in the sacred arts. Any patron of the arts should strive to seek out the best architects and artists who have the right background and skills to design a sacred space. After all, their work will be integrated into our sacred buildings. Paintings for example should be a window into the divine, which take collaboration among the patron and painter.
Last but not least was the Keynote Address by philosopher and writer, Sir Roger Scruton. I wouldn’t be able to do justice in summarizing his highly philosophical lecture. His quote in the program sums it up well,
“Beauty matters. It is not just a subjective thing but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.”
He discussed the transcendence of art and how it leads us beyond what we simply see on a canvas. My favorite line was, “The world has a greater meaning beyond that which we derive at scientifically.” How very true. We try to derive at everything empirically, and yet there is another way we can derive meaning, which is often stimulated by beauty.
At the conclusion of these lectures, we were able to hear from President and Founder of the Catholic Art Guild, Kathleen Carr who described her journey to launch the Guild. When I later asked what her hopes were for the Guild, she responded,
“My hope for the Catholic Art Guild would be that it helps to “restore the Sacred” in the Catholic Church which begins and ends with the Holy Mass.”
The evening concluded with dinner and a panel discussion where attendees were able to ask questions. Could you ask for a prettier banquet hall for a conference on beauty?
I hope this serves as a helpful summary, especially for those unable to attend. I will definitely be on the lookout for next year’s conference agenda!