A House to be Dedicated is a Soul to be Sanctified

Sacred Architecture According to Hugh of Saint Victor

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Hugh lived 1097/1101 – 1141. Hugh’s time as an Augustinian Canon at the Parisian abbey of St. Victor left its mark on medieval Europe; to his writings is ascribed a formative influence upon the liturgical commentator William Durandus and on the famed architect Abbot Suger, designer of the gothic wonder of St. Denis. Hugh was lauded as “the second Augustine;” he is quoted approvingly by St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure praises him as unique for having attained to equal mastery in doctrine, morals, and the mystical life. Dante’s Bonaventure introduces Hugh in Paradiso XII among the great doctors who “made themselves the friends of God.”

A reflection on sacred architecture must at some point regard the church edifice precisely as it is “sacred”—set apart and consecrated for divine worship. Worship joins human beings to the life of God by knowledge and by love. Yet, in this high affair, what significance should we attribute to the building itself beyond its psychological effect on worshippers? The twelfth century commentary by Hugh of Saint Victor on the rite for the Dedication of a church answers clearly: second to the Incarnation, the church building is theologically fundamental because it represents and interprets a new sacramental cosmos wherein human beings, as members of Christ, are to return to God.1 Hugh’s theology combines three themes: his unique division of sacred history into God’s works of foundation and restoration; his liturgical notion of the soul’s journey to the divine likeness and participation in the divine life; and his use of the ancient ascetical theme of the coordination of the created and uncreated temples.

The work of foundation—The temple liturgies of cosmos, history, and soul
Hugh divides history into two great works of God: the “work of foundation” is the world and all its creatures; the “work of restoration,” beginning at humanity’s fall, is the Incarnation and its sacraments that precede in the Old Law and follow in the New to heal, illuminate, and glorify a humanity marred by sin. Humanity was created to know and to love God, ascending in worship to an intimate life with him in his divine likeness.2 Therefore, God revealed himself by the created work of foundation: “Like a book written by the finger of God,” the world’s natural resemblances, or simulacra, express the unwritten book who is the Father’s eternally-begotten Son.3 They do so by imitating the harmonious order of a soul conformed to his likeness. That is, the sanctified soul is creation’s exemplar, a microcosmic blueprint of the macrocosm.

The Royal Abbey of Saint Victor before it was destroyed in the French Revolution

To read his “book,” God gave to humankind three “eyes:” the eye of contemplation looked directly on God; the eye of reason beheld his image and likeness in the well-ordered soul; and the eye of the flesh apprehended the corporeal signs for interpretation by the reason. God also gave to humans a comprehensive knowledge of creatures by a “simple and direct [interior] illumination,” along with outward miracles and revelations.4 This foundation taught humanity to live according to wisdom: soul was to be ordered under God in love, body under soul; lastly, humanity was to order the world that it might manifest God’s beauty.

Hugh writes “historia fundamentum est”—history is the foundation—because from “the beginning,” the narrative of cosmic history has taught how to become like God. Rational creatures are made at first “unformed in a certain mode…, afterwards to be formed through conversion to its Creator.”5 Accordingly, God created the cosmos initially in a “form of confusion” and then set in full order.6

This conversion is liturgical; one grows in the divine likeness by knowing and loving God most especially in a divine worship that is guided by and prompted by gratitude for his creation. Hugh construes this liturgical life as an initiation into the mystery that Lord disclosed to Isaiah when he revealed himself seated upon his throne with his glory filling the heavenly temple amidst the thunderous triple-cry of sanctus!7 For Hugh, the cosmos is like a corporeal temple replete with God’s glory; the angels and saints are his throne. History is as a temporal temple filled with his works, with eternity his throne. Inasmuch as they manifest God, Hugh likens these temples to the Lord’s body.

By knowledge and love, the soul moves through the corporeal to the spiritual and finally to the very face of God, fashioning an inner temple that joins the angelic worship of heaven.8 Throughout history, soul and cosmos have manifested the uncreated Word so that humanity might coordinate the internal and the cosmic with the heavenly liturgy. Perfected after his likeness, the temples of soul, cosmos, and history were to have been made sacred. However, turning toward sensual gratification, humanity’s first parents abandoned the work of God.

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The Fall and the work of restoration—The liturgy of sacrament and scripture

This fall wrought severe injury. The stabilizing illumination was lost and reason’s eye clouded so that it could not read accurately the inner image or the outer sign. The eye of contemplation was closed. The eye of the flesh, alone unharmed, was left to rove the sensory realm, which now overwhelmed rather than informed the reason.

Immediately, God initiated his work of restoration so that human beings can journey back to God albeit “through a glass” and “darkly.” What humankind once saw directly by contemplation is now possessed indirectly by faith’s belief. This sanctifying foretaste, writes Hugh, is the “sacrament of future contemplation.” We journey “darkly” because, bereft of Adam’s illumination, we misread the signs for selfish satisfaction. Yet, fulfilling Isaiah’s vision, wisdom is manifest in time by the Incarnation, and continues in the sacraments. To those who are members of his body, the Church, all sacraments represent wisdom without and fashion wisdom within, re-forming the microcosmic soul-temple after the likeness of Christ.

Creation as an expression of the Logos

Scripture and the sacraments both re-explain the simulacra, but the sacraments also replace them. Unlike the simulacra’s passive “image of nature,” Christ’s sacraments are an “image of grace,” actively dispelling the soul’s darkness.9 The seven sacraments proper visibly represent invisible things by a natural aptitude; are appointed to a salvific function by divine institution; and are sanctified by benediction to contain and communicate divine grace.10 However, the “sacraments of exercise”—today called the “sacramentals”—do not contain grace but instead restore the microcosmic temple to Christiform beauty by exercising its baptismal faith and charity.11 All sacraments—whether by their own grace or by the operation of faith and love—humble the pride, re-form the intellect’s understanding of faith, and enflame the will to a devotion conformed to that understanding.

So doing, the sacraments form and evoke worship in place of the natural signs of old. For in foundation, “that the praise of God might be perfect, the works of God were shown” so that “the rational creature…might understand [and] might rise to render thanks” for what she admired both without and within, rising through the “affection of love” to be perfected in praise.12 So too in restoration: “Certain places were consecrated, churches built, and…times appointed at which the faithful should assemble together in order as a group to be urged to render thanks, offer prayers, fulfill vows. …so that in turn the hearts of the faithful are now composed for rest, now excited to devotion.”13 The Christian amidst the sacraments must do what Adam did not do amidst the simulacra: probe the signification of divine-things-by-created-things so that, by a well-formed praise of God, the microcosmic temple of the soul may recover wisdom’s likeness and attain contemplation.

An illustration of the creation as an expression of the manifestation of enthroned Wisdom. Note that Christ is enthroned upon the eschatological City of God.

The sanctification of a new cosmos

Now we can connect the sacredness of ecclesiastical architecture to that of the soul. The New Testament speaks of the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (the soul) and of the eschatological temple of the “New Jerusalem” (Christ’s body, with the saints its living stones). The medieval church building served also as a new cosmos wherein the sacramentals re-form humankind by perfected worship. As Umberto Eco wrote, the Gothic cathedral was “a surrogate for nature, a veritable liber et pictura…[which] actualised a synthetic vision of man, of his history, of his relation to the universe.”14 Specifically, Hugh aligned his exegeses of the creation narrative and the rite of Dedication for a church—for both narratives form the soul as a sacred temple.

As a sacrament of “preparation,” the rite of Dedication operates on its participants, to impress its meaning sacramentally as an “invisible truth in the faithful soul.”15

Hugh positions Dedication in his De Sacramentis according to its position in Christian life. He discusses it in the context of Book II, concerning the “Incarnation… and the fulfillment of God’s grace, from the sacraments of the New Testament to the end and consummation of all.”16 This “fulfillment” is the Church, Head and members, united by grace. After describing holy orders, Hugh declares that Dedication must be described before all else because in the dedicated church “all other sacraments are celebrated.”17 Hugh implies an analogy of church and sacraments to cosmos and signs: Foundation’s temple was the cosmos filled with the signs of God’s glory; the church building with [28] its sacramentals declares visibly the new cosmos and temple of restoration—Christ’s body—wherein the new history of restoration is fulfilled by the celebration of the other sacraments, bringing post-lapsarian humanity from disorder to harmony.18

Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin consecrates the new altar at Saint Mary Catholic Center in College Station, TX.

What of the Dedication rite itself? As a “sacrament of preparation,” it propaedeutically frames the other sacraments, just as creation and its narrative physically and didactically frame Adam’s establishment and advancement. Dedication does not accomplish in the soul a baptismal illumination or a nourishing eucharistic transformation; rather, these are properly received or lived-out by a soul-temple formed in accord with what Dedication teaches; such a soul may pass through the sacraments to Christ. In this way Dedication “prepares” for, although it does not always precede the other sacraments. As Hugh writes, “a house to be dedicated is a soul to be sanctified.”19

The form of this sacrament and the sanctification of the temple

The narratives of creation and Dedication become true worship when actualized in the souls of those who receive it through the operation of faith and devotion. The rite thus has four steps which parallel the journey of the soul in faith. First, twelve candles are lit within the church and the bishop circles its exterior walls thrice, sprinkling them to signify “the threefold immersion of purifying through water;” he enters the church to pray because “those…not yet sanctified…should pray for themselves.” The abecedarium-the Greek and Latin alphabets written with the crosier in a chi of ash upon the floor—“is the simple teaching of faith” in “the form of the cross which is impressed upon the minds of the people by the faith of the evangelical preaching” in Scripture. This itinerary suggests the illumination and ordering of the intellect for discernment by piety’s belief and discretion’s ability to judge, formed by faith’s teaching (the cross), advanced by preaching, Scripture, and communion with God through prayer. Since baptism was signified at the beginning, we take the future “sanctification” to be the contemplative rest and praise of the microcosmic temple in this life, which is a foretaste of eschatological rest in the beatific vision.

Secondly, the pontiff “ascends to…the altar” where “he invokes God to his assistance” without saying Alleluia. He signifies those who, with “a knowledge of faith, gird themselves for good works and for struggle against invisible enemies,” humbly “ask[ing]…divine assistance” without presuming “on their own strength.” They struggle “amidst sighs,” without Alleluia.20 We see faith’s second stage, when discretion makes firm its judgment and approves faith’s truth, putting forth an effort of strength to order the will and the desires according to the informed intellect.

Thirdly, the pontiff blesses water, salt, and ashes, adding wine, signifying that “the people are sanctified by faith’s teaching and by the memory of Christ’s passion, united with their head, God and man.” The bishop “makes a cross over the four corners of the altar” before sprinkling it and the church thrice and pouring out the excess water “as if committing to God what is above his strength.” The altar is “Christ upon whom we offer to the Father the gift of our devotion.”21 It is “wiped with linen cloths” to show “his flesh, brought by the Passion’s beatings to the whiteness of incorruption.” The bishop “offers incense” upon the altar, showing “the prayers of the saints.”22 The oil that anoints crosses on the altar and the church’s walls “demonstrates the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Hence we have moved from initial illumination, through struggle, to the full conversion of devotion. Once the soul prayed only for itself; now she can pray for others, having been conformed to Christ’s passion and sealed with the Holy Spirit’s grace. Now all desires are turned to the God known through devotion’s affection. The soul becomes both temple and offering when her praise unites [29] her fully to her “Head” as a member of Christ’s body.

Hugh of St Victor teaching three canons regular.

Fourthly, the conclusion: “Finally when the consecration has been completed the altar is covered by its white veils.” “The white covering…designates the glory of incorruption with which Jesus’ humanity was clothed after the Passion, mortality having been swallowed up.” The Dedication does not signify arrival at the beatific vision because, as it began by signifying baptism into his body, it ends by signifying the incorruptible glory of Christ’s resurrected flesh, which Christians receive from the consecrated altar and through which they become an offering of perfect praise. To become sacred, we must seek Christ in a contemplation of love opened most fully by the Mass celebrated in the dedicated church building, when the saints cry sanctus! and receive him.

The theological significance of sacred architecture

Hugh discovers in the liturgical rite the saving history of faith which, from Scripture, he knows to be the subject of the sacraments that replace the darkened simulacra. His orderly exegesis subserves the recovery of the likeness within the soul that devoutly prays the liturgy with this narrative in mind. Like God’s deliberately temporally-extended liturgical work of creation which taught Adam how to live in the world, the Dedication rite is a preparative instrument that shows what we ought to pursue as members of Christ.23 When Hugh enumerates the things that must be “excited to mind,” he wishes to make the soul sacred.

An illustration from a manuscript for the dedication of a church.

The liturgy for sanctifying a church building charts and subserves the life that sanctifies the human being as a temple of God conformed to heavenly worship. So much for liturgy and liturgical exegesis. But what is the physical sacred architecture; why a building; why a specific “place”? Historia fundamentum est; the church building is a new visible cosmos symbolizing both Christ’s body and the Christian soul; within this building, the yearly liturgical repetition of salvation history is a new saving history interpreted by the particularity of his Incarnation.24 Therefore, beyond the church building‘s sacred atmosphere, to enter this particular “place” asserts a theological claim: There is one Christ, one body, one temple built of his members, as of living stones. The temple of the soul is meaningless apart from the greater temple of Christ’s mystical body. He is the new cosmos with a new history; in him we journey as members of a body purified by the Passion. This is what Dedication teaches and what the building, with its liturgies, declares.

The church building is more than a human-fashioned aid that could be discarded without loss; Hugh contends that it is a providentially-inspired and integral element of a divine and sanctifying pedagogy. Like the concrete signs and events of salvation history, sacred architecture and liturgy are never merely supplemental. They are more necessary than ever now that Christ has come because they show us our way within him. The sacred architecture of the church building, signifying both the soul of the saint and the new cosmos of the body of Christ, is the symbolic foundation of the new historia that proceeds, through God’s work of restoration, to a seraphic praise that makes sacred the temples of soul, cosmos, and Church, uniting them in Christ.

Jordan Wales is Assistant Professor of Theology at Hillsdale College.  He earned his PhD in historical theology from the University of Notre Dame.

1 Hugh was born ca. A.D. 1078 (or 1096) and died in 1141. For further information, see Boyd Taylor Coolman, The Theology of Hugh of St. Victor: An Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
2 Hugh of St. Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei), trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1951), I:VI, ii; 95. (Numbers after the semicolon indicate page-number in the English translation). The translation is often modified for accuracy.
3 De Sacramentis I:III, xx; 50; De Tribus Diebus 4 (PL 176 col. 814).
4 Ibid., Sacramentis I:VI, xii; 102.
5 De Sacramentis I:VI, v; 97.
6 De Sacramentis I:I, iii; 9.
7 See Grover A. Zinn Jr., “Hugh of St Victor, Isaiah’s Vision, and De Arca Noe,” in The Church and the Arts, ed. Diana Wood, 99–116 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 99–116.
8 Zinn, 112.
9 Commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius I, 1, in Angelic Spirituality, trans. Steven Chase, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2002), 194–5.
10 De Sacramentis I:IX, ii; 155 and I:IX, vi; 164.
11 Ibid., I:IX, vii; 164 and II:IX; 315–321.
12 Ibid., I:VI, v; 97; I:I, iii; 9.
13 Ibid., I:IX, iii; 158.
14 Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 61.
15 De Sacramentis II:V, I; 279.
16 Ibid., II:I; 205.
17 Ibid., II:V, i; 279.
18 De Arca Noe Morali I, 2 (ET I, 2; 52–4).
19 De Sacramentis II:V, I; 279. This discussion quotes extensively and without citation from Hugh’s exposition (De Sacra-mentis II:V, ii; 279–81) and exegesis of the rite (II:V, iii; 281–2).
20 De Sacramentis II:V, iii; 281–2.
21 De Sacramentis II:V, iii; 282.
22 Ibid., II:V, iii; 282.
23 De Sacramentis I:I, iii; 8–9.
24 See Grover A. Zinn Jr., “Historia fundamentum est: The role of history in the contemplative life according to Hugh of St. Victor,” in Contemporary reflections on the medieval Christian Tradition. Essays in honor of Ray C. Petry, ed. George H. Shriver (Durham: Duke University Press, 1974), 135–158.