A few years ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to spend almost two weeks travelling around Greece with a group from my school. Greece is a varied country, but one thing you can count on seeing no matter where you travel are beautiful Greek Orthodox churches and chapels.
During my ten days in Greece I probably saw more than one hundred churches, shrines, and monasteries. I was struck by the thought and care that went into even the smallest church in the smallest town.
In addition to catching my eye, these beautiful churches brought a few questions to my mind: What did the beauty in these churches accomplish? Why didn’t the protestant churches I had grown up in emphasize beauty? What should the role of beauty in the church be?
An Architecture Both Symbolic and Aesthetic
Most Greek Orthodox churches are designed specifically to remind people of God and his gifts. They share a very similar architectural style which is both symbolic and aesthetically pleasing. The basic floor plan is a cross with the entrance on one side, the altar across from it, and wings or alcoves on either side. The iconic dome of this architectural style is placed above the center of the cross. From the moment you walk in, the church reminds you of the sacrifice the cross represents.
Not only is the architecture gorgeous and symbolic, but the interiors of the churches are stunning. The artwork, whether mosaics or paintings, plain or colorful and gilded, is incredibly well done. You can tell from the moment you walk in that the artists loved their work and put a great deal of time and thought into the decoration of a building for the worship of God.
The buildings are awesome, in the literal sense of being inspiring of awe. I was not awestruck by the architecture or artworks themselves, however, though I certainly did admire them. I was in awe of the God whom the artists and architects took the time to worship through the talent and time He gave them.
“Things Churches Ought to Have”
Seeing these churches made me think about the churches I had grown up in and how they lacked the beauty which permeated the Greek Orthodox churches. I grew up Protestant non-denominational, so my congregations did not meet in grand buildings. I did not feel awe walking into the churches or even necessarily feel like anything in them particularly inspired reflection on God and His works.
Sure, there were pretty quotes or verses on the walls and a cross somewhere, but generally you could tell they were mass-produced. No particular time, thought or effort went into creating them. In my mind, they seemed empty – things to take up space on the walls or “Things Churches Ought to Have,” not things made to please and assist in the congregations’ worship of God.
Growing up, I did not notice this lack of beauty. I was wordlessly taught that the external form of worship was not important. My time in Greece brought to my attention that some branches of the church embrace beauty and see it as helpful and therefore important. This made me consciously reconsider my native assumptions about the role of beauty in the church: Is there something missing from the churches that don’t care about aesthetics, or do the beautiful churches waste their time on frivolities?
Give Beauty Back to God
I believe the answer is that something is missing. I don’t believe that this is just about the style of art or architecture, however. We neither can nor should turn all churches into Orthodox style churches. There is not the money or time to create the aesthetics of a church that was first built in the 12th century and has had artists working on it ever since. Rather, I believe that the churches from my early years are missing the heart that went into creating those aesthetics.
Beautiful aesthetics in churches lift my spirits to the worship of God. They remind me of the wonders of His creation and inspire in me a reverence and thankfulness that he gave us both beauty and the ability to enjoy it. Beautiful artwork is not, for me, a pretension or a waste of time and money. It gives beauty back to the God who gave us that beauty in the first place. It seems fitting to me that artists use the talents given to them by God to create a space where He is honored in every aspect, art and architecture included.
What I am arguing for is not a major redecoration of churches or massive construction projects, but a recognition that we ought to give from the gifts God has given us. When an artist uses his talent for the glory of God, it gives the beholders an appreciation of His greatness and benevolence and reminds them of His beauty.
In Greece, I loved seeing the work of artists worshiping God in their creations. I could clearly see and wonder at the amazing Creator who gave the artists the passion and talent to create such beauty. Not only did they worship God by using His gifts for His glory, but through their time and devotion they pointed me, a person who lived almost a thousand years after they died, to the One who inspired them.