Balance is a condition in which different elements are equal or in correct proportion, for example, keeping one’s balance between work and relaxation. We know the havoc wrought when railroad tracks or skis fail to run parallel to each other. A harp or other string instrument cannot be played properly if the strings are not stretched parallel to one another. Balance occurs when an even distribution of weight enables someone or something to remain upright and steady. Balance and symmetry, basic principles of life, are seen in the Parthenon whose frieze is symmetrical and whose balanced columns (4 plus 4) are its support.
Sacralizing the Landscape
An office building is secular in character because it engages in temporal activities without referencing the name of God. The word sacred connotes being set apart from the secular for God. As with the Ark of the Covenant that was set apart as sacred, as with the Temple of Solomon that was set apart as the Holy of Holies, so too with Catholic places of worship. They are set apart for the celebration of the liturgical mysteries.
Today churches and cathedrals still have a way of sacralizing the land surrounding it. Two such places are Chartres and Canterbury Cathedrals – for centuries, places of pilgrimage. We live in two overlapping cities: the City of God and the City of Man, and the two cities must talk to one another: Stroik echoes St. Augustine. Beautiful Catholic and Orthodox churches, large or small, made of stone or wood, are visual theology replete with religious and liturgical symbolism whose goal is to bring us all to the City of God.
The long history of church architecture began with house-churches which celebrated the sacred mysteries in secret and behind closed doors. After 325 A.D., the church-planning supervised by St. Helena, mother of Constantine, celebrated Christianity out in the open.
Stroik offers three general strains of church architecture in our long history: “the Classical, the Medieval, and most recently, the Modernist. Classicism encircles the mainstream of architectural expression shaping later developments. The baptized Classicism of the early Church led to the massive Romanesque, the soaring Gothic, the ordered Renaissance, the complex Baroque, and the cerebral Neo-Classical. … Modernism also comes from the Classical family though as an inversion of – or a reaction against – Classical principles and tradition. The Modernist inversion reacted against the whole sacred panorama of two millennia of Christianity” (36-7).
Regardless of the century, great masters who built houses of God possessed the science of their day and knew how to use it. A compass sufficed for years.
The Human Body, the A B A Form as a Cruciform Classicism
The human body is a study in symmetry and balance, an A B A form. This Classical form rose to prominence in Greek architecture. To confirm this fact, Stroik summarizes architectural history from Pythagoras to the present day.
A building for worshiping God is set apart from all other buildings in that it expresses beauty, functionality, and strength. The church building is the Domus Dei, the house of God, where the Body of Christ comes together for liturgical prayer. The shape of the church building is that of the human body, the form of a crucifix, i.e., cruciform. The cruciform in churches has a twofold symbolism: (a) the head of the body is the apse, (b) the body of the church is the nave, and (c) the arms, the transept. This image of humanity is completed “in the image of Christ outstretched on the wood of the cross in expectation of the resurrection” (Maurice Dilasser, The Symbols of the Church, 121).
Part III: Machine Church Architecture
(Column continues below)
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Today, most modern art forms, secular or sacred, are characterized by asymmetry, lines that are disjointed and anti-lyrical. Rounded arches which express serenity give way to angularity signaling tension, unrest, and agitation. Positive emotion is absent. Crude concrete and steel, known as “Brutalism,” dominate the structure. Anti-beauty, expressed or implied, is the antithesis of Classicism.
A visitor, on entering an Orthodox and a Puritan-style church, 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? Or, what if a church has been stripped, as in the days of Protestantism? A church building reduced to its barest essentials – to bare walls, bare sanctuary, and bare ceiling, may elicit curiosity from visitors about its shape, mass and proportion, but this makes for a different discussion.
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 the God of the senses. We worship like human beings in houses of worship that have traditionally been decorated to provide a festal setting for the assembly and the celebration. Frescoes, mosaics, sculptures, and stained glass windows contribute to the beauty of the structure. 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 the structure makes visible invisible mysteries of Christianity and (2) the extent to which it does or does not do so. Contemporary church architecture seems to have imitated modern secular trends that break almost completely with the Classical tradition.
Machine-art churches imitate the rallying cry of L.H. Sullivan, “Form follows function,” or that of Le Corbusier, “A house is a machine for living in; it makes no difference whether the building be sacred or profane.”
St. Thomas Aquinas equates the form and function in terms of a twofold perfection. First, the is-ness of a thing, and second, its function. The Domus Dei is not first a function, not a utility (uti), a thing to be used or controlled. Together with the faithful, the house of God symbolizes relationship and fruitfulness (frui)–life and growth, the sacred place where the faithful realize their vocation in Christ.