Classicism, Christianity and Beauty


Introduction: Classical Truth

Before rushing into rash conclusions about the place of stained glass in the history of church architecture and ministry, you need to understand the mindset that set it all up. That mindset was formed by Classicism.

Classicism is a wide collection of thought which came together gradually over the centuries. By the time of the Renaissance it was a coherent way of making sense of the universe. Classicism in art and architecture is only one aspect of the system as a whole, which included philosophy, natural science, astronomy, language, math and politics. The important thing to remember for our purposes is that the starting point and glue for the whole system was the belief that two truths MUST support each other and CANNOT conflict. Therefore, if anyone disproved ANY aspect of that system, the whole thing had to fall. That is why heresy (religious or scholarly) was such a heinous crime. Classicism explains the universe. You DON'T destroy that!

Classicism and Christianity

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Classicism and Christianity were seen as complementary aspects of divine truth. Therefore, every attempt was made to demonstrate this. The Classical system of beauty was adopted for Christian use; Idealization likewise; Classical figures were transferred or adapted for Christian purposes. Thus Nikes (Messengers of Victory) became angels, the Earth goddess became Charity, River gods (whose crab's claw crowns refer to the death and resurrection of Isis) appeared in scenes of Christ's baptism. Only with the advent of Protestantism and sceptical science in the sixteenth century, did people start to denigrate the Classical tradition with the term "Paganism". This term is unacceptable because it buys into obsolete propaganda and obscures the historic scientific and cultural function of Classicism. Stick with "Classicism".

Classical Beauty

Jump to the three properties of Classical Beauty.

This is a system by which it was thought we could be certain of recognising beauty when we saw it. It is quite separate from personal taste, and may even conflict with it (although it was believed that constant exposure to beauty would eventually train the taste to love it). Beauty is important because this is how people have traditionally tried to approach the divine and fit themselves or their souls for the next life.

It was believed that the image of whatever the eye saw would pass through the optic nerve and literally lodge in the soul, where it would ennoble or demean you. This mattered immensely because it was believed that we, like everything else in the universe, are made of dross (i.e. sewage!). It was also believed that beauty manifested God.

Obviously, then, it was vitally important to know what beauty looked like, and to make sure there was plenty of it around—particularly in religious sanctuaries. The system was initiated in the Classical Greek period, completed when Christianity was legalised in the 4th century, and continued in vigorous use until the end of the Baroque period. This is how you recognise Classical Beauty:
It has three properties, which were codified by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, when Gothic architecture and stained glass had already reached their height:

  1. Geometry, or proportions that can be expressed in whole numbers
  2. Bright color, or lots of light
  3. Smooth finish, clearly defined form, and/or perfect condition (undamaged)

The system can be used for all visual arts although it works particularly well for architecture. In fact, it was a major stimulus behind Romanesque and Gothic architecture with their widespread use of vaults and stained glass.

Want to find out how all that worked?

Why not find out what they did before there was stained glass.

Or check out the Medieval search for the perfect vault


Why Use Stained Glass? Classical Beauty Before Stained Glass Seeking the Perfect Vault The Vault as Illusion