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September 05, 2012
Rebuilding Catholic Culture: Church architecture
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

In the eighth-century, St. John Damascene posed a challenge to Christians:  If  a pagan comes and asks you to show him your faith, take him to the Church and let him see the sacred icons” (St. John Damascene, Treatise on Images against Constantine Caballinus, 95-309, quoted in Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, 158). We will return to this question.

The Church, Patron of the Arts

 Beauty is a stepping stone to God, and the Church has earned a lasting place in history for inspiring a beautiful culture through the visual arts.  By commissioning the finest artists, the Church has stood as their foremost patron.  When illiteracy was common, the visuals served as catecheses which, through their beauty, taught as well as inspired.  

When vacationers travel to distant countries, among other things, they want to see Catholic architecture that graces large cities and dot the village countryside. Tourists first experience Catholicism through externals. Our creed and worship, our moral code are expressed through the senses. Ours is a religion bolstered by reason and feeling that convey the faith in a distinct texture, complex flavors, and deep resonance.  Our faith embraces a spectrum of tints, hues, and shades. Men and women have been converted through the sacred arts; such is their power to convince through beauty. People size up the Church universal in the particulars through edifices, great and small, regardless of country or continent. Catholic architecture seeks unity in diversity.

The Pontifical Councils for Culture (2006, 2008, 2011)

 In 2006, the Pontifical Council for Culture published “The Via Pulchritudinis, (way of beauty) Privileged Pathway for Evangelization and Dialogue.” The document was entirely devoted to the ways of beauty to evangelize and dialogue with others.  Critical of sacred art for its banality, superficiality, and negligence in liturgical celebrations, the document mandated “that beauty be returned in church buildings and that churches be aesthetically beautiful in its decorations and in its choice of music.” The document paraphrased Paul VI’s address in 1964 as “the divorce between art and the sacred that has characterized the twentieth century and the ugliness of some churches and their decoration; their desacralization is the consequence of this estrangement, a laceration that needs to be treated in order to be cured.” 

In March, 2008, the Pontifical Council for Culture devoted its meeting to the challenges of secularization and the need for the evangelization of culture.  Of major concern was and is the question of beauty.  Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, a consultor for the Council, spoke about “the blight of an iconoclastic Puritan streak in North and North West Europe which has inevitably had an effect on all forms of art, including church architecture.” He also noted that, during the utilitarian trends of the Soviet Empire, the Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, “seem to have successfully stood their ground, with an amazing talent for beautifying the insides of their utterably drab buildings.”  

In January, 2011, Archbishop Gian-Carlo Ravasi, Prefect of the same Pontifical Council addressed the faculty at the University La Sapienza in Rome.  In this lecture, he referred to abstract church architecture in Italy as art that deforms the liturgy.  In these modern churches, “we find ourselves lost as in a conference hall, distracted as in a sports arena, packed in as at a tennis court, degraded as in a pretentious and vulgar house.” 

Modern Art Forms in General

The twentieth century ushered in a crisis of meaning. Modern artists, of whatever discipline, expressed the iconoclastic spirit.  They tended to reject traditional forms, rules, methods of the past, and symbolic meaning.  Still, many successfully adapted the classical spirit to modernity and continue to do so.  The School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame is one such example.  Today, most modern art forms are characterized by asymmetry, lines that are angular, disjointed, and anti-lyrical. Positive emotional content is absent from most of these forms.

Accordingly, to ask what a form is, or what its symbolic meaning is, is irrelevant.  What does an art form communicate?  The totality of the form is its meaning, and viewers may interpret the form as they wish.  Contemporary art forms make for stimulating visits to museums, and, after the show, for lively conversation.

Utilitarianism and Fruitfulness: Minimalism in Church art

On entering an Orthodox and a Puritan-style church, a visitor will be struck by the differences of their architectural features and the atmosphere they express. One celebrates the senses; the other does not. What if a church building has been constructed like a machine?  The house of God is not a function, not a utility (uti), a thing to be used or controlled.  Together with the faithful, the Domus Dei symbolizes fruitfulness (frui)–life and growth.

Referring to today’s crisis of meaning, R. Kevin Seasoltz, O.S.B. writes that “unfortunately, traditional institutionalized religious bodies in many ways seem unequipped to respond to this crisis . . . .  In fact, contemporary art forms often simply image back to people the isolation and loneliness they already know in their own lives.” (R. Kevin Seasoltz, A Sense of the Sacred, 316).

A church building symbolizes the kingdom of God, and sacred architecture can never be seen as primarily functional, for its purpose is rooted in prayer, expressive of beauty. There is a difference between functionality (uti) and relationship (frui).

A church building reduced to its barest essentials - to bare walls, bare sanctuary, and bare ceiling - may draw visitors curious about its mass and proportion, but it is no more a building for Catholic worship than is a gym or an auditorium.   If the Incarnation is the mystery of God in flesh and blood, how can the Incarnation be expressed in a bare building, presumed to be visual theology?  We worship like human beings, as the statement below affirms:

Houses of worship have traditionally been decorated so as to provide a festal setting for the assembly and the celebration: hangings, lights, and precious materials have always been used for this purpose.  Pictorial decoration in the form of frescoes, mosaics, sculptures, and stained glass windows contribute to the festive atmosphere; in addition, they function as a kind of prolongation of the liturgical signs, with the emphasis especially on the heavenly and eschatological aspect of the liturgy.  This is why iconographic themes cannot be left to chance; in the East, they are often predetermined in great detail (The Church at Prayer, I:205.)

 How do artisans craft their respective materials in order to breathe Christ into their work?  Their art forms must have a human, sensate, and accessible component with wide appeal, as well as a reserved component appealing to the sublime, the spiritual aspect of the person.  The forms touch the senses and pass through them to affect the intellect, will, memory, and imagination. Sacred art forms are intended to give the Assembly a heightened sense of God’s presence that is reserved and, yes, deeply enjoyable.

The Aftereffects of World War II

The widespread destruction of European countries following World War II necessitated the building of new churches. Professional architects, with or without faith, were commissioned to design them.  Gone were the nostalgia and commitment for linking the past with the present. At first, the reforms used simple abstract ornamentation in sanctuaries and stained glass windows.  Devotional objects were rightly moved away from the sanctuaries, the main focus of the liturgical action. 

After Vatican II, church interiors underwent structural reform mostly for liturgical reasons. In many cases, changes were executed organically from the Church’s tradition.  In other cases, the stripping was excessive, reminiscent of the cleansing of Catholic churches during the Protestant Reformation.

Sanctuaries in many postconciliar churches were stripped–denuded, without placing a minimum of decoration in them.  While praise abounded for purified architectural vitality, critics were appalled that the church building and their interiors signaled a desacralization, even a secularizing of the church buildings.

Machine-Church Architecture

A machine-church, whose functionalism takes priority over form, may fascinate the eye and stimulate discussion about the designer's imagination, but this is a different issue from the religious one.  Verticality, harmony, symmetry and balance, and proportion of the human form are de-emphasized or entirely absent.  Emptiness and architectural nihilism evoke not serenity but madness because the interior is stripped of sensory religious symbolism. Even banks and doctor's offices, decorated with art forms, are not absolute in their functional role. 

Ultra-abstract church architecture combines secularized Christian art and rationalized religion.  Inseparably connected as they are, here the sensory aspect of the Incarnation is denied.  Concern about modern architecture is twofold: (1) whether an art form makes visible invisible mysteries of Christianity and (2) the extent to which it does or does not do so. Church architecture should mediate not a Gnostic god but the Incarnate Word of God.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Exaggerated Church Architecture 

In 2000, the USCCB published Built of Living Stones.  This document restates the Church’s acceptance of all forms of architecture, and
is ever open to embrace newer forms that have grown organically from her rich heritage of artistic expression; (but), architecture that draws more attention to its own shape, form, texture or color than to the sacred realities it seeks to disclose, is unworthy of the church building (Nos. 44-45).

Many contemporary churches “have grown organically” from the Church’s “rich heritage.” The exterior shapes of others however have been described as extreme. They are exemplified in the church buildings mentioned below.
 The famous shape of Notre Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp (1955) has mystified observers. Designed by Le Corbusier, it has been called a study in primitivism, an imitation of a sea shell or sail boat, a nun’s cowl, Peter’s barque or Noah’s ark. “A house is a machine for living in,” he writes; “it makes no difference whether the building be sacred or profane.”

The Dominican Monastery of  La Tourette at Evreaux (1953), also designed by Le Corbusier, resembles a massive rectangle that might be mistaken for an office building or prison. According to Michael Rose, “its oppressive structures drove out most the monks, but the defective construction as well called for renovation, scheduled to begin in 2005 (In Tiers of Glory, 103-04).

The Church of the Holy Trinity in Vienna, by Fritz Wotruba, is constructed with concrete blocks, arranged in irregular angular patterns.  The church has been nicknamed, “a pile of rocks.”

The Millennium Church of the Great Jubilee (2003) designed by Richard Meier, is constructed of three sparkling, jagged, white and steel concrete curvilinear panels with glass walls. It is conspicuously located in the center of a poor village just outside of Rome.

The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland (2008), designed by Santiago Calatrava and Craig Hartman, is composed of a ribbed, bone-like structure of steel, glass, and concrete resembling a massive technological tent, a clam shell, a rib cage, or even the belly of a whale.  Some see the dramatic form as hands joined in prayer.  The same general description applies to the chapel at Ave Maria College, Naples, Fl (2004 Architect, E. Fay Jones) and to the chapel at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles (2002) was designed  by José Raphael Moneo.  A study in angularity, the cathedral’s warm interior mitigates its outer severity.

The English minimalist, John Pawson was commissioned to design the Trappist monastery of Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic.  According to current, and perhaps temporary, photos, here cloistered monks will live out their entire lives within bare walls, bare sanctuary, and bare ceiling.

The above-mentioned churches break completely with the tradition of church. Extreme minimalist church architecture cannot be discarded. Failing restoration or renovation, it must be endured. Worse, this type of architecture invites criticism from church leaders and beyond.  The film, “Into Great Silence,” proclaims that even the Carthusian Order, the most austere in the Church, greatly values sensate beauty.

Open Questions

Finances and other practical issues in the building of new churches remain outside the scope of this essay.  Still, wisdom, balance, and moderation are needed to raise the standards of church architecture and re-apply ageless principles to it.  Discernment is an indispensable virtue in choosing competent and devout architects who will build our churches to last a thousand years.

Once Again, St. John Damascene 

Let us rephrase St. John Damascene’s challenge posed at the beginning of this piece. Can a Catholic show a non-Catholic our church architecture with pride: "See, this is our Catholic faith." While cheap pietistic visuals are not the answer to incarnational theology, neither are antiseptically-stripped churches. The Catholic ethos, deeply committed to cultural history, is made for fruitfulness (frui) and not for utility (uti). 

We are neither machines worshiping in a machine nor pure spirits worshiping in a Gnostic temple.  No one can destroy our instinct for worshiping God in beautiful buildings, and our leaders ought not be afraid of rebuilding a Church of grace and beauty. We, the Body of Christ, deserve this.  So do those who have fled the Church and the church building!

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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