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.
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.
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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.