Peter Kwasniewski

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Self-portrait by Juliette Aristides.

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Why beautiful painting, sculpture, music have a crucial place in Catholic spirituality

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter
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Alexander Stoddart's Annunciation sculptures.
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Church designed by Ethan Anthony.

October 9, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Most Catholics may be forgiven for not attaching much significance to the fine arts in their approach to the Catholic Faith. After all, the past fifty years and more have not usually given them many works of art to look at, listen to, or be proud of. Cavernous suburban parishes with no style in particular, few ornaments to catch the eye, and a buffet of sonic banalities to sample—shrines to what Robert Barron once called “beige Catholicism”—have left us sorely lacking in access to beauty, that mysterious messenger of the divine wonder, in all its elevated strangeness and many-faceted glory.

But this is surely a strange way for Catholics to live. We belong to a religion of the Incarnation, the taking on of flesh by the Logos, the Word and Wisdom of God. Beauty is not for us an incidental add-on; it is a revelation of God’s love for His material creatures and a response to our simultaneously intellectual and corporeal thirst for His inner wealth of being, which manifests itself to us as truth in the mind, goodness in the conscience, and beauty in the sphere of the senses. 

The Catholic Church built up the greatest civilization of fine arts—of architecture, painting, sculpture, mosaics, bookmaking, calligraphy, music, poetry—that the world has ever known, without even a close competitor. Every year millions of tourists, among them many thousands of believers, go on pilgrimage, be it secular or sacred, to the great cathedrals and churches of Europe and other countries touched by European Catholicism. They go to concerts to listen to the music written in the centuries of faith. They go to museums to see works of art that, in far too many cases, used to be in churches and still belong there.

Our forefathers loved beautiful things, and they made beautiful things with a wild abandon, in playful praise of the God of infinite inventiveness and ingenuity. They rejoiced in the harmonious order of creation and strove to imitate it, even, in a way, to surpass it, in their handiwork. There could never be too many churches, altars, or tabernacles, too many Masses, motets, or Magnificats, too many symphonies, concertos, or sonatas, too many sequences, sonnets, or sestinas, too many icons, portraits, or landscapes. 

The fine arts were the exuberant eruption of a culture of faith that valued Persons most of all—divine, angelic, and human—and the ineffable mysteries that brought these Persons together in a divine comedy, a cosmic Sistine Chapel, the polyphony of countless voices of rejoicing, lamentation, and exultation. This culture of beauty centered on the supernatural and the eternal, striving beyond (without dismissing or condemning) the everyday, the practical, the useful. Above all, it treasured the Most Holy Eucharist. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no ‘extravagance,’ devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist.”

This is not the bygone idealism of a lost civilization. Rather it is the intrinsic tendency of the Catholic Faith whenever it is healthy. As the same pope said, the Faith always strives to express itself, to take on flesh, in all human endeavors, including the arts at their crown. Christian revelation, to the extent that it is welcomed, becomes incarnate in the entire world of man, from politics to sciences, from mechanical arts to liberal arts to fine arts. That is why we can be sure that a deterioration or disappearance of great art from the Church is a sure sign of infidelity and decline, and its reappearance and flourishing a necessary condition of Church renewal and a necessary component of effective evangelization.

It is for all these reasons (and plenty more) that the upcoming Annual Conference of the Catholic Art Guild in Chicago promises to be so important and rewarding. The all-day event, dedicated this year to the theme “Formed in Beauty,” takes place on Sunday, November 4. It opens with an orchestral Latin Mass in the Baroque splendor of Chicago’s historic St. John Cantius Church, with the Canons Regular who are well known for bringing beauty into worship. Then, at the Drake Hotel, participants will hear four guest speakers, three of them great artists in their own right—keynote speaker Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor for Her Majesty the Queen in Scotland; Ethan Anthony, principal architect for Cram & Ferguson; and Juliette Aristides, Classical Realist Artist, Author & Founder of Aristides Atelier—and a fourth (yours truly) who will offer a theological perspective on the fine arts in Catholic life today. An elegant banquet follows, with a stimulating panel discussion to round out the day. 

(Those who might like to make a weekend out of the event could come in early to catch the annual Mozart Requiem on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, at St. John Cantius. There is also a special demonstration by Juliette Aristides of classical figure drawing techniques on Saturday, November 3rd.)

I am particularly excited to meet, hear, and enter into conversation with these three world-famous artists—a sculptor, an architect, and a painter, each working in a medium in which so many great works of Catholic civilization have been executed in the past, and, if only we open our eyes, in which great works are still being produced down to our own day. There is truly a mini-“Renaissance” under way, as an increasing number of artists turn from the dead-end paths of modernism and pastiche/parody to rediscover the vigor of naturalism, the force of tradition, and the joy of lofty ideals, and as an increasing number of patrons recognize how well such works of art honor their subjects and ennoble their beholders.

At the top of this article is a combination still-life and self-portrait by Juliette Aristides; in the middle, a recent sculpture of the Annunciation by Alexander Stoddart; at the bottom, a new church designed by Ethan Anthony.

To read more about the Catholic Art Guild and its November 4th conference, and for information on tickets and other practicalities, please visit their website.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.