Editorial: Estote Ergo Vos Perfecti

Dear artists, as I draw to a conclusion, I too would like to make a cordial, friendly, and impassioned appeal to you, as did my Predecessor. You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty! Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! — Benedict XVI

[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. — C.S. Lewis

A well-known architect, who was really an artist, was asked to design a cathedral. The project did not go smoothly. He was difficult to work with, had his own ideas, lost his temper when things did not go his way, and kept asking for more money. Sound familiar? Those who have worked with architects may have had similar experiences, and so did the popes and cardinals who hired this fellow. His name was Michelangelo Buonarroti. The creator of the Sistine ceiling, sculptor of the Pieta and the David, and the architect of the New Sacristy and Saint Peter’s Basilica was neither easy to work with nor a great charmer. Yet in his long and passionate life he created some of the greatest works of art and architecture that the world has ever seen.
Everyone knows that architects have big egos, and working with them can be hard work. So why not find a pliable architect without a strong ego, or at least someone you feel comfortable with? I know a story of a parish who hired an architect even though the committee didn’t like his designs. What was the basis of their decision making? The fact that he seemed like the kind of guy they could go out for a beer with. I was shocked, due to the fact that I have always advocated hiring an architect based on his talent and experience. But too often parishes hire an architect simply because he is a fellow parishioner, interviews well, or because he has the lowest fee. This is a missed opportunity. For then you entrust someone with a multi-million dollar project that will have spiritual consequences for generations, simply because he is a “nice guy.” Yet once the church is dedicated, it will not matter if the architect was difficult to work with, nor even who was on the committee. All that will matter is whether it is a good place to pray, and whether it is a worthy house of God.
To do this you need to find a talented architect, and it is likely, if not necessary, that he have a healthy ego. An ego is not the same as egotistical. The egotism of the modernist architect has led many to believe that a church is a great work of architecture insofar as it is the personal expression of the architect. When the Church hires arrogant modernist architects they tell Her that there is no room for a crucifix because it takes away from the architecture. Or that tapestries of the saints will distract from the ethereal space and beautiful concrete walls. The egotistical architect will neither give the parish what they want, nor what they need. One thinks of the client who called Frank Lloyd Wright to complain that the roof was leaking on his desk. “Well, then, move your desk,” Wright said.
Yet a healthy ego is what allows talented artists to survive in a world which tends toward mediocrity and ugliness. It is what enables the architect to set high standards for his work, to think creatively, and to demand high standards from his craftsmen. Having pride in his work means that an architect will suggest alternatives in design and the use of fine and more expensive materials. Ego means that in order to have a better project the architect will try to convince the client to do something they had not thought of. This advice can be incredibly important.
Confidence allows the architect to visualize the church on paper and find the best, not necessarily the easiest, construction methods. During construction, an architect who has backbone will help you get the best quality for your money. And since this is likely to be your one chance to build the building, this is most beneficial.
If Michelangelo Buonarroti were alive today would the average church building committee hire him? Probably not—too much ego. For some it really doesn’t seem worth putting up with a strong-willed architect who is a perfectionist and has unreasonable standards. Fortunately, there are those pastors and prelates, and even committees today, who will put up with the hard work, the headaches, the strong opinions, and the ego that comes with a talented architect. They are true patrons of sacred art and architecture, entrepreneurs, and risk takers for the glory of God. Together, the visionary patron and the talented architect can create works of beauty which offer an image of the eternal to all of us here below.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”—Michelangelo Buonarotti

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.