The Way of BeautyFeasting on Sacred Architecture

In 2008, Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, a consulter for the Pontifical Council for Culture, spoke about “the blight of and iconoclastic Puritan streak in North and North West Europe which has inevitably had an effect on all forms of art, including church architecture.” He has 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 unutterably drab buildings.”

Three years later, in 2011, Giancarlo Cardinal Ravasi, Prefect of the same Pontifical Council addressed the faculty at the University La Sapienza in Rome. In this lecture, he criticized 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.”

These concerns do not oppose modernity in favor of retrogression; they seek not to restore, but proclaim the power of sacred architecture to lift up the spirit. Their focus is the beauty of the Lord’s house and our spiritual home. Churches are sacred places where time converges with the timeless, where earth meets heaven. These concerns are calling for a re-evangelization of our church architecture.

A timely response to the criticism of Monsignor Fleetwood and Cardinal Ravasi comes to us by way of the sumptuous volume, The Church Building as a Sacred Place by Duncan Stroik, architect extraordinaire, educator, writer, and evangelist for the cause of sacred beauty in our churches. He is professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

The Church Building as a Sacred Place is a feast for the eyes – beauty appears on every page, this apologia for beautiful sacred architecture (Hillenbrand Books, 2009; ISBN: 978-1-59525-037-7). It is not merely the photos that are splendid, though they are. The author intends that in every chapter, there is something for everyone. Each chapter is complete and self-contained and can be read in one sitting. Each attracts, informs, inspires. You don’t have to read all the footnotes, but it’s nice to know they’re all there. The author summons Ordinaries and their assistant bishops, pastors, clergy, and seminarians, consecrated religious, laity – the entire Body of Christ – to ponder how the divine is made manifest in stone, marble, wood, glass, metal works as well as in signs and symbols, but in a way that differs from the Eucharistic presence.

The reader may object. Aren’t modern churches supposed to adapt to a contemporary world? What’s the problem? Why all the fuss?  These questions bring us to the contents of the book itself.

Part I: The Church As a Sacred Place: Principles of Church Design

Part I focuses attention on the structural elements of a church, in particular the apse and the altar; the reservation of the Eucharist merits special attention. The numerous photographs illustrate the critical point: In Catholic churches, the altar of sacrifice claims centrality whereas in Protestant churches, the pulpit, not the altar, is important (93).

Part II Church Architecture Today

In Part II, Stroik establishes his central thesis: the Classical style, the A B A form, is the blueprint underlying all church architecture.

As a matter of fact, the world’s beautiful buildings hold in common one visual characteristic: their classical form. To mention just a few: Notre Dame, Chartres cathedrals, St. Peter’s basilica, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Synagogue in Rome are religious monuments, the Parthenon and Pantheon, cultural structures, and the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings, places of government. It matters little whether they are secular or sacred, ancient or contemporary, large or small. These forms are beautiful because of their symmetry, balance, and proportion. And, of course, their quality. Their designs, though far from uniform, retain a universal truth that the A B A form is for all the ages. In the Classical style, there is no excess, no indulgence, no minimalism. Its beauty is warm but understated – the elegance of simplicity.

Symmetry and Balance in Architecture

Symmetry exists when exactly similar parts face each other or around an axis; it is a correct or pleasing proportion of the parts of a thing. In its basic structure, it is an A B A form, the basic structure of architecture, music, and poetry.

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.

More in The Way of Beauty

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

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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.

What to Do about Bad Church Architecture

In chapter eight, the author points out several myths about suitable church architecture. The objection arises: ‘You can’t change bad church architecture in the way you change a hymn.  Machine-art churches cannot simply be discarded. Failing restoration or renovation, such eyesores must be endured. Once they have been built, we are stuck with them. Worse, this type of architecture invites criticism from church leaders and from those beyond the Church.’

Stroik has spearheaded projects to renovate and reconstitute churches whose minimalism was embraced years ago. The tide has turned, thanks to the author and his colleagues.

In France, the famous chapel at Notre Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp (1955) was intended for the celebration of Mass, but the church authorities refused approbation for it. A gatehouse and cloistered monastery, virtually underground, were completed there in 2011.

The Dominican Monastery of La Tourette at Evreaux (1953), whose tomb-like chapel and oppressive spaces drove out the depressed monks, has been used for various purposes, e.g., a study center and/or retreat for architects. What is to be said and done about the cathedral in Los Angeles, the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in Oakland, the chapel at Ave Maria College in Naples, Florida, and other prominent and extreme Catholic structures?  

Part IV: Renaissance and Renewal – Appendices I, II, and III

The final section may appeal more to the interest of practitioners of architecture than to the ordinary reader. The appendices are intended for specialists. Stroik writes a moving chapter on the vocation of the architect, and separate chapters on the influence of episcopal documents, and of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.


Stroik admits that people may question spending money on new churches when the needs of the disenfranchised cry out for help. But he has defended building churches with their express mission of charity to the poor. Lavish modernist churches built in the middle of slum areas cannot and must not be the answer.

In Conclusion … 

Church architecture is designed to raise us up, help us to know ourselves, and give us an experience of beauty.  Don’t the faithful deserve the experience of God beyond ex opera operato? Duncan Stroik, one of the Church’s important and complete artists, gives us that sense of purpose to rediscover God in The Church Building as a Sacred Place. The book proclaims the Lord’s words: “I am with you always …” (Mt 28:20), for “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 16:4).

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