On Beauty: Notre Dame

Notre-Dame-Cathedral-Paris

Upon entering the most spectacular church I had ever visited, I was immediately overjoyed to hear angels. At least I thought it sounded like angels. The comforting sound brought me to tears. I was traveling to Europe in the early 90s with my father and my sister. My three young children were left to the charge of my mother and my husband (when he wasn’t working). I missed my family dearly, but the overwhelming beauty and sound of the boys’ choir rehearsal brought a wave of joy and comforting peace. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was everything I could possibly hope for and more.

There is no doubt in my mind that this Cathedral was the most beautiful liturgical space I had ever seen. I had never even heard a boys’ choir before, though I’ve directed many choirs, adults and children. I’ve seen boys’ choirs on television or listened to recordings, but to hear them in an acoustically perfect and most extraordinary space was outstanding. Scruton claims in his second platitude that “one thing can be more beautiful than another” (5). When one occupies such a marvelous sacred space that according to the Notre Dames’ website is the goal of the Cathedral to take one to a “brilliant transcendence, which the visitor to Notre-Dame can rarely resist, whether they see it as God’s work or as human genius. These both humble and superb means give genuine soul to this grand building, created to lift humans upwards towards the absolute, the universal, and the sublime.” The goal of the Cathedral was achieved upon my visit. To this day almost twenty years later I recall the feeling of transcendence.

How might one be formed to recognize the Cathedral of Notre Dame as beautiful? Might this simply be a matter of judgment? This is the fourth platitude of Scruton: “Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment: the judgment of taste”(5). According to Scruton the sacred and the beautiful are akin to the experience. Feelings are running over into each other (76).   Recognizing the heavenly voices in the boys’ choirs and noting the difficult harmonies is a judgment of the beauty. I wonder if one would appreciate the beauty of the music if one didn’t know the difficulty of the harmonies? I don’t know how even the most untrained ear could deny the beauty of a boys’ choir singing in the Cathedral? Perhaps.

As one who has a very negative view of the Catholic Church and has possibly been persecuted personally by the Catholic Paris-N-Dame-Rose WindoChurch there could be a feeling of disgust at the opulence. It is hard to believe, but maybe even a view of the South Rose Window may not strike someone as beautiful if one has experience such pain. Scruton’s final or sixth platitude asserts, “there are no second-hand judgments of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgment that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without experiencing and judging for myself”(5). Therefore, no matter how majestic or magnificent, if someone doesn’t make his or her own personal judgment, the South Rose Window might not be found beautiful to every gazer’s eye.

A rational or well-reasoned critical judgment could never argue against the South Rose Window’s spectacular beauty created in 1260 as a counterpoint to the North Rose Window constructed in 1250. The window is a dedication to the New Testament featuring 84 panes divided into 4 circles. The imagery throughout has been reworked and recreated over the centuries in order to carry on the message (according to the Cathedral’s website) proclaiming, “Christ triumphant, reigning over Heaven, surrounded by all his witnesses on earth.”

Scruton could easily argue the standard of beauty of the Cathedral based on its architectural genius. He would appreciate the liturgical practices of the well-disciplined choral masters, the exquisite organ that the Cathedral boasts, and the artistic mastery demonstrated in its liturgical space. Where one can critically judge something as beautiful according to a standard, Scruton would consider the liturgy as beautiful. Where there is no evident mastery or discipline Scruton would consider the artistry deficient.

On the other hand, if there is a subjective quality to art how can one determine what is liturgically beautiful? If art is valued only in the eye of the beholder with no standard, it would definitely be difficult to distinguish what is liturgically beautiful. How does one determine if liturgical space if beautiful if there is no standard? What is the consideration of beautiful liturgical music? That is a common issue and can be most problematic in the modern era. Some parishes do not allow guitar masses. There is a judgment that has been made in some parishes that guitars do not make beautiful music or contribute to what is considered beautiful. As a classically trained guitar player I do agree that some amateur guitar playing is not beautiful. But the same can be said for amateur organ or piano players. What might the standard be? How might one determine what is beautiful? Might the measure of beauty or aesthetic attitude be that which mirrors our view of the sacred? What one’s faith mirrors that of the holy and heavenly. The beauty in the liturgy is called to mirror that of the joyous and balanced. “It would be plausible to suggest that this defines one aim of art: to present imaginary worlds, towards which we can adopt, as part of an integral aesthetic attitude” (107).

Our imaginary world of the eternal is transcendent. This was my experience at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Our Catholic faith treasures the sacred and most beautiful. Our liturgical celebrations and places of worship should embody an aesthetic balance with the ascetic value as well. That again is the tension that must be held in balance.

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One thought on “On Beauty: Notre Dame

  1. Catherine,
    Thank you for these wonderful thoughts and reflections. I have always wanted to go to Notre Dame Cathedral, but I have yet to make it to Paris. I liked how you kept on referring to the church as “sacred space.” It is a good reminder for me that every time I enter a church or approach a tabernacle I am standing on holy ground.

    Liked by 1 person

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