The Eucharistic experience of believers became so rich that it sparked the spiritual imagination outside of Mass. Not only in devotional life, but the Eucharist also influenced human art forms–not just art and architecture, but also music.
49. With this heightened sense of mystery, we understand how the faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated. This led progressively to the development of a particular form of regulating the Eucharistic liturgy, with due respect for the various legitimately constituted ecclesial traditions. On this foundation a rich artistic heritage also developed. Architecture, sculpture, painting and music, moved by the Christian mystery, have found in the Eucharist, both directly and indirectly, a source of great inspiration.
Praise for Western European forms:
Such was the case, for example, with architecture, which witnessed the transition, once the historical situation made it possible, from the first places of Eucharistic celebration in the domus or “homes” of Christian families to the solemn basilicas of the early centuries, to the imposing cathedrals of the Middle Ages, and to the churches, large and small, which gradually sprang up throughout the lands touched by Christianity. The designs of altars and tabernacles within Church interiors were often not simply motivated by artistic inspiration but also by a clear understanding of the mystery. The same could be said for sacred music, if we but think of the inspired Gregorian melodies and the many, often great, composers who sought to do justice to the liturgical texts of the Mass. Similarly, can we overlook the enormous quantity of artistic production, ranging from fine craftsmanship to authentic works of art, in the area of Church furnishings and vestments used for the celebration of the Eucharist?
My sense is that John Paul II overstates the point here. Regarding the move from house churches to “solemn basilicas,” we need to keep in mind that these “solemn” structures were public buildings. If Christianity were emerging today, it would be in malls and conference centers. These would be the 21st century equivalents of 4th century basilicas.
But on the development of cathedrals, I have no argument. Did it fully express the Eucharistic mystery? It may have been the grandest inspiration, but it was not the only one. Equally important, but lost to the medieval and especially the Tridentine perspective, is the connection of the Eucharist to everyday life. Is the Eucharistic inspiration only to be found in churches? I would say that ordinary expressions of banquets and nourishment as well as the sacrifices of ordinary life are other connections important to recover, and very important still today.
It can be said that the Eucharist, while shaping the Church and her spirituality, has also powerfully affected “culture”, and the arts in particular.
And this “Eucharistic presence” within the wider culture–this is vitally important, and a possible avenue for evangelization. This thrust to the outermost boundaries of culture, this is something important to recover, and probably where this encyclical doesn’t go quite far enough.