the aesthetic of catholic sacrament

The ceiling of a Catholic church.

The ceiling of a Catholic church.

Catholicism was a richly textured religion of the senses.
— Alec Ryrie, "The Age of Reformation: The Tudor and Stewart Realms 1485-1603," (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009): 169.

the church was heaven’s place on earth.

Aesthetics were a powerful way of conveying atmosphere and provoking religious fervor, wielded as a tool during the Protestant Reformation by both denominations. Converting images and atmospheres was a persuasive strategy, and also conveyed a lot of history. Catholics benefited from appealing to the history of the Catholic Church as an institution, and many of their sacraments were elaborate in nature. In many ways, Catholicism was more of a performance than Protestantism because participation in this aesthetic led directly to heaven. Objects and devotion to capturing the spirit of a sacrament could intensify one’s works, as opposed to Protestant aesthetics which only fueled the covenant of grace. “Faith” was a much more intangible and immaterial concept.

During the Reformation, aesthetics were also often used as ways to determine someone’s “real” faith during times of transition. For example, although someone might claim to be Protestant, their reluctance to rid themselves of Catholic objects such as rosaries might indicate their true leanings. Protestantism, although it did develop a new and more minimalist aesthetic, conveyed the mysticism through the Bible as a source.

Before the Reformation, because participation in the sacraments was considered crucial to one’s salvation, attendance at church services was both spiritually and societally obligated. Because of the exclusive ability of the clergy to perform the sacraments, they had more power over the laypeople, and heretics reacted to the power of the Church over their lives rather than doctrines themselves.

anne boleyn.jpg

Anne Boleyn, a case study:

Historians have cited her anxiety to have the sacraments performed while in the Tower facing her death as proof that she was indeed a Catholic, although she had Protestant books such as Le sermon du bon pasteur that say little of the sacraments and speak poorly of the clergy. Her desire for prayers indicate a belief in purgatory, a distinctly Catholic idea.

G.W. Bernard, “anne boleyn’s religion,” the historical journal vol. 36 no. 1 (1993): 7, 19.

examples of aesthetics

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Aesthetics could increase the effectiveness of a work and were therefore important to the Catholic Church because of works’ importance to salvation. Elements such as dress, images, lights, and incense helped to create a spiritual atmosphere within a Church. As Eamon Duffy writes in The Voices of Morebath, holy water was “capable of repelling evil and bringing blessing on men, beasts and crops.”

Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 55.