Built Form of Theology

The Natural Sympathies of Catholicism and Classicism

When the early Christians were finally able to build their churches in public, they chose the high-style architectural classicism of the Roman Empire. Almost every Christian culture, from the Constantinian era forward to the mid-twentieth century, has used some version of classicism to build its churches. After many decades in the shadows, classicism is appearing once again in civic and ecclesiastical architecture. Architects who specialize in traditional design are getting significant commissions in cities across the nation as more congregations are asking for churches that “look like” churches. Architects Thomas Gordon Smith, Duncan Stroik, David Meleca, Michael Imber, and the firm of Frank, Lohsen, McCrery and others are using the classical and traditional language for Catholic church design. But what is one to make of this resurgence? Is classicism simply a thing of the past used today in a moment of comfortable nostalgia, or can we still find relevance in the 1,800 years of Christian architecture which made use of the classical language?

San Clemente is a prime example of the appropriation of classical architecture by the early Church into the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Photo: Caroline Rose & Pierre Grimal: Churches of Rome


Classicism and Catholicism

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, liturgy “is woven from signs and symbols” that make up the rites we know (CCC, 1145), and because liturgical architecture is part of the rite, it also bears sign and symbol value. Although every “style” of architecture signifies something, certain kinds of architecture, like certain homilies, relay their messages more clearly. Classicism is a way of making buildings that signify clearly, that is, use the medium of architecture to convey otherwise invisible ideas. Proper churches are built to signify theological realities like the presence of the Christian community, the importance of the Church in civic life, and the presence of the full liturgical assembly: the Trinity, the angels, saints, souls in purgatory, etc. Liturgical art and architecture is therefore properly called sacramental in the broad sense of the term, since it makes invisible theological realities knowable to our senses.

Another way to say this is that architecture is the built form of ideas, and church architecture is the built form of theology. Classical architecture, with its rich vocabulary of forms is an articulate bearer of meaning. It serves the church particularly well because from its very origins, classicism was an architecture meant to embody and reveal Truth, not merely to solve a functional or structural problem. Like the liturgy itself, classicism is concerned with continuity. It speaks of truths that transcend the mundane facts of names and dates, giving new expression in a familiar language that can be readily understood because of our culture’s inherent familiarity with its forms. Catholic liturgy recalls past deeds as does classical architecture.

Discussion of architectural classicism is not a discussion about “style,” even though classicism certainly does include the buildings of many stylistic periods. (I include Gothic and other medieval styles under the broad heading of classical architecture because of their explicit use of the classical tradition in, for instance, the use of Roman-derived columns, the basilican form, etc.) Instead of framing the discussion in terms of style, it is better to compare classicism to language, which has structure, syntax, and rules that are necessary to best convey meaning.

The architectural language of classicism speaks of the importance of civic buildings such as the Supreme Court of the United States, even to those untrained in architecture.

Language can be flexible but requires stability, can be poetic yet precise, mundane and yet convey soaringly transcendent ideas. Words can be everyday slang or reserved for sacred occasions. Language by its very nature conserves, relying on stability to make it understandable. New words are invented as the need arises, but always within the stable context of a common grammar and lexicon. It has differing accents, regional turns of phrase, and local conventions. Language reserved for ritual behavior retains archaic forms that distinguish it from everyday speech (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name …”). Language expresses and conveys ideas, and the kind of language used is closely tied to what is being said. In a similar way, ritual architecture depends upon inherited form and should not be subject to arbitrary wholesale innovation; rather it corresponds to a proper understanding of its role in the liturgy.

Church as Icon of Heaven

In the Book of Revelation, an angel gives Saint John a literal-sounding tour of the heavenly city with a measuring rod, giving dimensions, numbers of gates, and descriptions of materials (Rev 21:15-17). But the heavenly city is not a tangible, material place. It is an icon of the glorified church in which God is seated and the faithful are the “living stones.” This has led some to theorize that since the people are the living stones, then the actual physical building is therefore irrelevant. Strictly speaking, if “we are church,” then the church building, by definition, is not. What is it then? The answer of course, is that the church building is an icon of the full living church of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The metaphorical association of the members of the Church (including the angels, saints, et al.) with the church building takes its cue from scriptural language itself. Christ, of course, is the stone the builders rejected who has become the cornerstone (Mt 21:42, Mk 12:10, Lk 20:17). James, Cephas, and John are called “pillars” (Gal 2:9) and Paul speaks of building up the church “like a skilled master builder” who builds the foundation that is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:10–11). In Ephesians Paul explicitly compares the people of the church to an edifice, calling Christians “citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone” (Eph 2:19–22). Similarly, Peter calls Christians “living stones” built into a “spiritual edifice” (1 Pet 2:4), a phrase used by the American bishops in naming their own document on church architecture, Built of Living Stones. So the church building, then, is an icon of the Heavenly Jerusalem, which itself is made up of the Trinity and celestial beings surrounded by living stones of the saints. Making this invisible spiritual reality appear to us in material form is the very essence of the sacramentality of a church building.

Clear Creek Monastery by Thomas Gordon Smith

Sacraments are never exact images of the realities they signify, so churches we build will never literally “look like” heaven. But, by definition, sacraments use conventional forms that humans understand. So, what do we make our sacramental heavenly city “look like”? The Book of Revelation tells us its length, width, and height are equal, making it roughly cubic in shape. The city has twelve foundations, each with a name of one of the apostles upon it. Its twelve gates are like pearls, and the walls are made of precious gems including jasper, sapphire, onyx, and topaz. Additionally, the city is described as “pure gold, clear as glass” and filled with radiant light of the glory of God (Rev 21:15–27).

One need think of any well-ornamented church from the early Christian period through the twentieth century to see an understanding of church building as icon of the heavenly Jerusalem. Glimmering gem-like mosaics combine with rich materials and images of Christ and the saints to fill these churches with iconic representations of the heavenly realm. Similarly, the Gothic cathedral, with its great expanses of glowing stained glass and colorfully painted and gilded interiors evoked the heavenly city, as did the buildings of the Renaissance and high baroque, with angels and saints swirling around interiors made of precious marbles and gold. Eastern-rite Catholics and Orthodox have maintained this sense of the sacramental nature of church architecture, even in contemporary churches, often basing their buildings on the proportions given by the angel and covering the interiors with icons over gold leaf.

Natural Sympathy between Classicism and Catholic Liturgical Architecture

Moving from the theoretical to the specific, the broad language of classicism (which includes Gothic, Romanesque, Byzantine, and other “styles”) has at least five essential qualities that make it uniquely suitable for Catholic liturgical usage: 1) its continued place in the Western cultural vocabulary; 2) its inherent respect for received tradition; 3) the integrated nature of its proportional systems is an imitation of nature; 4), its anthropomorphism; and 5) its origins in festive architecture.

First, its forms remain potent in the dominant culture as markers of important buildings. Years of teaching both children and adults have convinced me that the language of classicism, even among those without great understanding of its origins or terminology, marks a building of high status in our culture. The significant public buildings in American history are classical, and this understanding has not been erased by the glass and concrete monuments of recent years. Whether or not people can speak of volutes or triglyphs, Corinthian or Ionic, they know that important buildings are made a certain way, and in the West and Near East, that way has been derived from the classical tradition. Classicism therefore gives a church building a head start in being recognizable as important.

The Triumphal arch such as the Arch of Constantine, celebrates military victory in antiquity. In Christian architecture, the motif is appropriated to celebrate the Triumph of Christ’s victory as seen in at Alberti’s Church of San Andrea in Mantua.

Second, classicism by definition maintains close ties to received tradition. Just as the liturgy grows and changes slowly and organically, so does classical architecture. When we celebrate the liturgy of Vatican II, we use a rite combined of many encapsulated pieces from the past bought together for current use. Phrases like “Kyrie eleison” have their origin in liturgical use from the fourth century, but they grow out of a cultural use even in pre-Christian times. The First Eucharistic Prayer dates to the fourth century, and the Second Eucharistic Prayer is even older. In both cases, the prayers themselves reuse the words of Jesus Christ himself at the Last Supper, bringing the past forward and making it present to us today.

Similarly, classical architecture captures motifs from the past and uses them today. For example, the triumphal arch form was used in ancient Rome to mark the victorious entry of a significant person into the city. The triple-arched Arch of Constantine, named for the first Christian emperor, retained a particular symbolic importance. From the early days of Christianity, the triumphal arch form was added to the west entry of the church building to speak of the new triumphal entry, the victory of Christ over sin and death that allows our entry into the heavenly city. This form remained part of the Christian vocabulary through the middle ages and into modern period, and it continues today in such new works as architect Allan Greenberg’s Church of the Immaculate Conception in New Jersey and Thomas Gordon Smith’s Church of Saint Joseph in Georgia. Importantly, a triumphal arch entry is more than three doors in a row; it is a motif known through many years of tradition with recognizable pieces arranged in a particular way. The use of the same pieces, elements and motifs that were used in fifth or fifteenth century, makes that form legible as part of the continuity of Christian architecture.

Despite the common perception, dependence on precedent always allows for great freedom of expression. The architect of Chartres did something very different than Michelangelo did at Saint Peter’s, which is very different again from a Chicago parish in the nineteenth century. Dependence on precedent assures a building’s cultural legibility and prevents an artist or architect from imposing a highly idiosyncratic, intensely personal design that baffles all who use it. The common language of classicism, based on consistent principles, makes the building serve all comers who can then compare the building with those they have seen before and evaluate it based on established norms rather than merely their own emotional reaction.

Third, classicism places the harmonic proportional systems found in nature at its very heart. From the discussions of Plato and Pythagoras through Aristotle to the writings of Saint Augustine and the medieval and Renaissance scholars, the notion of harmonic relationship of parts has dominated the discussion of beauty in art, architecture, music, and poetry. Harmony in music is directly related to the proportional relation between different notes. Certain notes played together are pleasing while others are discordant. Similarly, the eye knows pleasing proportions in buildings. The patterns of harmony and proportion are found in nature, mathematics, geometry, and Scripture, all of which reveal the mind of God imprinted in created things.

The Caryatid Porch of the Erectheum in Athens shows the relation of columns to the human figure.

Every part of a classical building is designed with harmonic proportional systems in mind. Columns have height-to-width ratios in particular whole numbers, column bases are composed of parts with particular numerical relationships, and the scroll of the Ionic capital grows out of a mathematical formula based on the repeating mathematical patterns found in nature, mathematics, and geometry. Since Catholicism affirms the goodness of creation and its ability to make invisible realities present to us in material form, an architecture in which every part, large or small, roots itself in the goodness of creation forms a good starting point. Furthermore, certain proportions were given by God in Scripture itself, from the Tabernacle of Moses (Ex 25––28), Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6–7), to the very heavenly city itself (Rev 9). Scriptural revelation combines with evidence in the natural world to establish the importance of proportional systems that precede and overwhelm the individual emotional expressions of any particular artist, producing instead a beauty, though expressed by a human mind, that remains rooted in the mind of God.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man demonstrates how the human body is arranged proportionally.

Fourth, classicism is anthropomorphic, that is, based on the proportions of the human body. Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man, which shows the proportional and geometric patterns of the human form, aptly reveals the geometric underpinning of the body created in the image of God. The circle and the square formed by the human body are therefore foundational in classical architecture, although other geometric forms enter in gracefully to classical design as well.

A classical column has a capital, from the Latin word capita, meaning head. Many also have pedestals, from the Latin pede, or foot, which also gives us the words pedestrian and pedal. Classical columns are conventionalized forms directly modeled on the human body. A very old convention places twelve columns on church interiors. Since the column is an icon of the human form, a “pillar” of the Church, twelve columns form a visible sign of the Twelve Apostles, the primary pillars upon which the Church was founded. Exposed steel I-beams and blank white walls, while they may be trendy and praised by architecture critics, simply cannot bear the same meaning, the same sacramental identity, as a properly constructed column.

The Orders exemplify proportional systems of classical architecture.

Additionally, the proportions of each of the three major column types, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, have been associated with different types of people since ancient times. The Doric, with its low, wide proportions was understood as an analogue of the male body and was often used for buildings dedicated to warrior gods such as Mars. The slender Corinthian, with its graceful proportions, was associated with young maidens and used for such “delicate” goddesses as Diana and Fortuna. The Ionic, with a proportion somewhere between the Doric and Ionic was associated with the “matronly” woman, the wife and mother.
Again, the notion of sacramentality of the church building comes to the fore. If the Church is built of “living stones,” that is, its members, and the building is an icon of that reality, then architecture better represents that reality when it expresses the anthropomorphic attributes of the Church it symbolizes. For instance, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the first church dedicated to the Virgin after she was defined as the Mother of God in 431, used two long rows of Ionic columns in its interior, clearly associating these otherwise merely structural members with the “motherly” anthropomorphic quality. In a similar way, a church dedicated to a young female martyr such as St. Agnes might be built using the Corinthian order, thereby making the architecture itself resonate with the “pillar” of the Church that the building represents.

Fifth, classical architecture is an architecture of festivity. The scholarship on the origins of classical motifs reveals that its ornament is closely associated with festive occasions. In ancient religious festivals, the first simple wooden structures were festooned with swags of fabric, flowers, beads, and bundled fruits, much the same way we decorate our homes and churches for holidays with popcorn strings, pumpkins, and garlands. In addition, festive occasions called for celebrating through the night, so buildings were lit with torches and lamps, just as we light our homes with lights at Christmas to this day. Eventually, these ornaments were absorbed into the very architecture itself. Classical architecture is full of meaningful ornamental enrichments such as the egg-and-dart, wave, and leaf patterns, swags of fruit, urns, lamps, and the like. Even the very columns themselves came to be ornamented in the ways we ornament our bodies: beads are placed around the neck of columns and flowers emerge from the capitals like an adornment to the human head. One is reminded of Psalm 144, when God is asked to make the daughters of Israel “graceful as columns adorned as though for a palace.”

The proportions of the masculine Doric order relate to the proportions of a man.

The Catholic liturgical act is also festive. It is the sacramental presentation of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the time of the consummation of the world, when the Church as bride meets Christ the Bridegroom (Rev 19:7, 21:9). We distinguish a festive meal from other ordinary meals by ritual actions and decoration, and what we do at the liturgy is also festive, though of a higher order. We dress in our fine clothes and ornament ourselves properly. Brides carry flowers and grooms wear boutonnieres. Bishops, priests, deacons, and servers wear attire specific to the festive community act of sacrificial worship. This sacramental expression is of the very essence of our ritual action, and if the church building is to signify the “living stones” of the Church, it will do what we do.

A church is decorated for the importance of its celebrations, just as a bride and groom dress appropriate to the importance and solemnity of the occasion.

In sum, classical architecture, in stark contrast to much recent architecture, is about highly specific and articulate signs and symbols, the “symbols of heavenly realities” that Sacrosanctum Concilium asks of us (SC, 122). While many modern buildings will often claim some vague symbolism or association through shape or general motif, classical architecture can be read like a book. Every piece is designed as part of the whole in an organized manner that represents theological and heavenly realities rather than merely the latest trend or most economical method. It does what Catholics want their liturgy and witness to do: it remains a potent visual marker in Western culture for buildings of great significance, and therefore important liturgical activity within. It stays close to precedent, as does Catholic liturgy, thereby preserving the inherited tradition. It makes use of the revelation of the mind of God in its imitation of nature in mathematics, proportion, and the human form. As a festive architecture, it both displays and reinforces the notion of the sacrificial feast in the Eucharist. It does what walls of glass and exposed beams and bolts cannot do: it makes the very nature of the liturgical celebration visible in sacramental form. As such, it is an architecture that allows worshippers to enter something formative and sacramental. The worshipper is drawn in by its beauty, inspired therefore to participate in the liturgy, and once formed by the liturgy, to go out in mission of service to the world. Architecture thereby becomes a participant in the liturgical life in the Church and plays an important role in full, active, and conscious participation in the sacred liturgy.

Denis R. McNamara is Associate Director and Associate Professor at the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago and Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.