To Make These Stones Live

Aesthetics is Not Enough

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In his “keynote” delivered last Monday [January 17] to the Faculty of Architecture of the University La Sapienza of Rome by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture issued a warning, among other things, regarding contemporary church architecture: “We think of lifeless buildings, inhospitable and fragmented, and the obscure structures that have been pulled together without regard to the voice and the silence present within the liturgy and the assembly; without regard to the sights and sounds—the ineffable and the Church in communion… Churches in which you are lost as in a conference room, as distracted as in a sports arena. “

Probing the issues, Giacomo Galeazzi reported the words of Cardinal Ravasi in the newspaper La Stampa on January 19. La Stampa also included articles by Vittorio Sgarbi (proposing a Vatican presence at the Biennale of Architecture), by Mario Botta (highlighting the best that has been built recently, from Le Corbusier to Alvaro Siza), and Massimiliano Fuksas (who defends his much-criticized project of the church of San Giacomo in Foligno). Within this context, I contribute an article on the subject, starting from the critical analysis of a church built in Modena, with reference to the clear prescriptions of the Second Vatican Council.

The Modena exterior lacks visible marks that distinguish it as a church. (Photo: archisquare.it)

The Church of Jesus the Redeemer in Modena deserves detailed discussion, both for the undoubted quality of the architectural work and the extremely innovative liturgical arrangement. The Church of Jesus the Redeemer is part of a pilot competition launched by the Italian Bishops Conference in 2000. This competition includes the new churches of Modena, Foligno, and Catanzaro; won respectively by Mauro Galantino, Massimiliano Fuksas, and Alexander Pizzolato.

The “piazza” consists in a slab surrounded by white walls and the looming form of the church. (Photo: wikimediacommons.org)

The organization of the project clearly demonstrated Galantino’s will to see the church as part of a system of functional spaces that serve parish life. However, in order to do so, he sacrificed the recognizability of the Church as such. The liturgical arrangement, prepared with Monsignor Joseph Arosio as liturgist, contains some novelties that merit examination. To this end, the work sees the community of the faithful divided into two opposing armies with a huge void flanked by the altar and the ambo. In this innovative position, which regardless of bipolarity might recall the choir of the monastic churches, the designers embodied a series of aspirations often highlighted in the debate of recent decades: to imbue the lectern with an equal or greater dignity to that of the altar as center of the liturgy of the word; to surround the presbytery, according to the demands of the German movement of liturgical innovation; and to give greater “dynamism” to the liturgical event.

The structure slopes down to its lowest point above the altar. (Photo: www.archisquare.it)

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However, the impression of one attending Mass is deeply disappointing. The two “opposing armies” and the celebrants wandering between the two poles bring a crisis not only to the traditional unity of the worshiping community, but also what was the great achievement of Vatican II: the image of God’s people meeting in procession. Why are the people looking into each other’s faces? Why are they not looking at all the key places of the liturgy and the image and face of Christ? Because the pews are flanked and opposed to the liturgy, rather than side by side? Imprisoned in the pews, divided into areas such as the cohorts of an army, the faithful are obliged to remain stationary and to change the direction of their gaze, now to the right, now to left. The figure of the Crucified, in order to avoid the “banality” (holy “banality,” I’d like to say!) of the central location, is located on the side of the altar and end of the left row, with the inevitable consequence of being removed from the line of sight of many of the faithful, while other risk stiff necks.

The utilitarian plan emphasizes mere parish functionality over any compositional hierarchy or urban considerations. (Photo: archiwquare.it)

Benedict XVI, in a passage of his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (now included in the eleventh volume of the complete works, just released), quotes Josef A. Jungmann, one of the fathers of the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican II, to discuss the original shape of the liturgical assembly: “They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another, but as the pilgrim people of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.”1 And Benedict’s thinking about the value of tradition is not just conservation but an exhortation to new heights. He asks:

“But is this not all romanticism and nostalgia for the past? Can the original form of Christian prayer still say something for us today, or should we try to find our own form, a form for our own times? Of course, we cannot simply replicate the past. Every age must discover and express the essence of the liturgy anew. The point is to discover this essence amid all the changing appearances. It would surely be a mistake to reject all the reforms of our century wholesale. When the altar was very remote from the faithful, it was right to move it back to the people … It was also important clearly to distinguish the place for the Liturgy of the Word from the place for the properly Eucharistic liturgy … A common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential.”2

The “Jordan River” baptistery and water tank. (Photo: archisquare.it)

The “Jordan River” baptistery and water tank. (Photo: archisquare.it)

Even in recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis and Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI offered food for thought and valuable guidance for religious architecture that betrays the futility of experiments that go beyond what the Second Vatican Council recommended. He affirms the compatibility of tradition and progress, urging that:

“There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.”3


Indeed, Sacramentum Caritatis states that:

“Certainly an important element of sacred art is church architecture, which should highlight the unity of the furnishings of the sanctuary, such as the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo and the celebrant’s chair.”4


Verbum Domini also addresses the problem of the relationship between the altar and ambo, emphasizing that special attention should be given to revealing the ambo as the liturgical space from which the word of God is proclaimed:

“It should be located in a clearly visible place to which the attention of the faithful will be naturally drawn during the Liturgy of the Word. It should be fixed, and decorated in aesthetic harmony with the altar, in order to present visibly the theological significance of the double table of the word and of the Eucharist.”5


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Hopefully these timely interventions by the Chair of St. Peter will help liturgists and architects understand that re-evangelization is the corporate work of the Church and requires the effort of creative innovation alongside a careful consideration of tradition. This tradition has not always been simply conservation; it also includes the passing on of a legacy that can inform future building.

Liturgical Developments in the life of the Church represent, certainly represent a sign of vitality, but the Catholic Church should be above fads , striving to find and express the essential truth.

With respect to the architecture of the church of Modena, Galantino stays true to the spirit of rationalism, but his language, programmatically indifferent to the location, evokes recent church architecture of the Netherlands in its ostentatious horizontality. The Netherlands, particularly, has seen the rise of minimalist architecture through the work of Mondrian and van Doesburg and that process of abstraction and decomposition of volume which informs the De Stijl movement. Galantino, in particular, evokes the refined compositions of volumetric Dudok that mediate between abstraction and the technical, and employs harmonious volumes in his composition. Where are the saints, however? Where are the signs that make it recognizable as a church? The only sign, the presence of the bells, could equally indicate a town hall. No attention is paid to the symbolic values ​​of the entrance, while inside, the beautiful crucifix by Zelma Bert Van is ​​placed, as we have seen, in the background.

The “Garden of Olives” behind the guitar band (Photo: wikimediacommons.org)

All iconological weight is entrusted to two images that define consumerism: a “garden of olive trees” placed behind the altar in a small courtyard where trees suffer from the poor light, and the “waters of the Jordan” reduced to a channel of stagnant water squeezed between two walls ending in the baptistery. Inside, the roof curves down, just where the sanctuary is located, and light, having lost all symbolic meaning, shines down to the shoulders of the faithful from above where the ceiling is raised. Despite the pleasant and balanced proportioning and the sharpness of the design, the space is that of a beautiful meeting room where nothing evokes the transcendence and the path of the pilgrim people traveling toward their refuge.

The church of Modena is a clear demonstration that the aesthetic quality of architecture is not enough to make a real church, a place where the faithful are helped to feel the living stones of a temple in which Christ is the cornerstone.

Reprinted with permission of the author from L’Osservatore Romano, “To Make These Stones Live, Aesthetics is not Enough,” Thursday, January 20, 2011, 4.

Paolo Portoghesi is an Italian architect, theorist, historian and professor of architecture at the University of La Sapienza in Rome, author of multiple books and frequent contributor to L’Osservatore Romano.

1 The Spirit of the Liturgy, 80.
2 Ibid., 81.
3 Sacrosanctum Concilium, III, 23.
4 Sacramentum Caritatis, II, 41.
5 Verbum Domini 239.