Fine Arts Column: Beauty and the human person – Palestrina in Rome


True art is an expression of the beauty of God, and man, who is created in his image and likeness, participates in this divine economy through his custody of the created world. Without arts – especially literature, poetry, and music – man loses vital mediums to portray his miseries and joys. 

Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World, stresses this need for man to know the arts (62). 

As this semester’s Fine Arts columnist, I wish to concentrate my thoughts on the lives and fruits of major Catholic composers from various generations and show how they gave a response to God’s beauty and to the distress of their eras in music. 

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 – 1594) is a composer near and dear to my heart and musical training. He mastered and honed the evolving art of late medieval polyphony and transformed it into what we know today. His artistic environs were situated in the epicenter of Renaissance culture: Rome. 

His florid and colorful compositions showcase how this man was able to mathematically arrange rhythm and voice around a set text. An opus of 104 Masses and over 300 sacred motets is his testimony. 

During Palestrina’s lifetime, Renaissance humanism in Catholic Europe collided with the growing spread of Martin Luther’s malignant heresies. What was Rome to do in the face of the collapse of Christendom? Surely, they could not foresee the eventual collapse of Western Civilization which inevitably followed thProtestant Reformation. Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent in the hopes of containing the spread of flames. 

The Council of Trent wanted to forbid polyphonic pieces at the Mass in favor of the monophonic Gregorian chant. The goal of the council fathers was to have a music easily understood, mutually intelligible and unobscured. (Additionally, there was the problem wherein much polyphony used material taken from secular music celebrating deviant behavior.) 

Legend has it – as outlandish it may sound – that Palestrina rescued Renaissance polyphony from condemnation. Following through on the Council’s declaration for unobscured sacred music, he composed a polyphonic Mass setting fulfilling that needhis famous Pope Marcellus Mass.  Far from being ironic, Palestrina was able to make divine beauty accessible without sacrificing it on the altar of banality.   

Composed in honor of Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for a meager three weeks in 1555, this Mass became the norm for papal coronations, the last usage of which being at the coronation of Pope Paul VI in 1963. The Ordinary of the Mass turns into a bright, clear window of divine light, and each phrase and prayer into a stream of otherworldly color. 

The listener (perhaps you, dear reader) cannot help but find himself pleased by the elegant craft with which the praises of God are fixed, creating a medium to bring the mind and soul to prayer.  I encourage you to take some time, perhaps during your studies, to listen to the Pope Marcellus Mass and consider the varied range with which beauty is communicated across the piece’s well-rounded yet vast spectrum of simplicity and complexity. 

Beauty is a necessary need for the soul. Souls must be formed and trained in aesthetic wonder and symbolism in order to process the ideas and tenets of religious faithReligious formation is the most important for our understanding beauty itself: Jesus Christ. Yet, it cannot be contained within the four walls of the Church: an entire society without beauty has committed suicide.   

Sir Roger Scruton (1944 – 2020) says of beauty, “Beauty has fallen into disrepute  there has been a huge cultural shift, an almost deliberate attempt to expel beauty from the place in human life that it naturally occupies, which is the center.” 

Beauty’s expulsion from society and religion is part of the parasite devouring modern society.  Man needs to return such beauty to its rightful place. If Palestrina was able to save beauty in sacred music, then each of us is capable, at least to a small degree, of doing the same for the world around us, according to the individual vocations God has given to us.