What Makes a Church Beautiful?

Saint Thomas Aquinas noted three conditions that lead to beauty (Summa Theologica, I, 39, 8). These apply equally to both the Via Positiva and Via Negativa, the most complex Baroque cathedral and the simplest country chapel (see previous post, “What Are the Two Ways to Beauty?” July 2016).  Simply put, if these “conditions for beauty” are met, the church in which you stand will be beautiful. If you can locate which of the conditions are lacking, you may know where to start your renovation.

Integrity Makes a Church Beautiful

Saint Thomas’s first condition is integrity (integritas). This could be called “fullness of being.” In sacred architecture, integrity is that which makes something whole, perfect, and completely “itself.” Practically speaking, we ask: Does the church have unity?  Is it coherent in itself? Does it hold together visually? Is it “all of a piece?” Also, does it have all of its necessary parts to contain both the liturgical action and the contemplation of God? If not, what is missing? What are the jarring or discordant elements?

View from the altar, Saint Peter’s Church, Kingston, NY

Radiance Makes a Church Beautiful

Once a church design has integrity, we look for the second condition which is radiance (claritas). Radiance is both literal and symbolic. Literal radiance is that electromagnetic illumination visible to humans. In other words, the church must have light! Each style of architecture “does light” in its own way. A Baroque church may have a dramatic or dazzling light, while a Romanesque church may have a subtle or mysterious light. But light it must have.  Great sacred architecture does great things with light, especially the natural light God gave us. (Sometimes Christians have had to make do with less than perfect lighting conditions such as caves.)

Symbolically, the radiance of the church must illuminate our minds with the mystery of God. A church must lead us into the light of truth (even if it is a mysterious light) rather than the darkness of confusion. According to Saint Thomas, because each being has its own form, each has its own distinct radiance. Its radiance allows us to receive the “self-revelation” of the particular thing. It is through this self-revelation that we can answer the question, “What is it?” with precision and understanding.


Light-filled gothic
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Proportion Makes a Church Beautiful

Once a church has both unity and radiance, it must also met a third condition, proportion (consonantia). The various parts of the church must be in proportion to each other. Tabernacle must be in proportion to the altar, the sanctuary in proportion to the nave, the height in proportion to the width, etc. What is more, these parts must work together in a way that is proportionate to their function.  In this sense a church building is like a person. It is a finite object oriented toward an infinite end. It has a high calling.  How to express it?  The architecture must lead us from the limited reality of earth to the eternal reality of heaven.

San Martin de Tours of Fromista Church interior
Saint Martin de Tours de Fromista, Spain

This still does not answer specific questions about problems in church renovation and restoration, but it gives us a framework for those questions.  More to come!

Posted by Karen D’Anselmi, July 2016

(Pegis, Anton C., editor. Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.  New York: Random House, 1945.)

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