In the Field

How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture

by Denis R. McNamara
2011 Rizzoli , 256 pages

This book is self-described as a “pocket primer for decoding the structure and purpose of ecclesiastical buildings.” One would expect this to be a rather daunting task for any author to tackle, as buildings of this typology are perhaps the most symbolically infused, stylistically diverse, and programmatically varied structures of the western tradition. Yet this book—the second in a series of architectural ‘crash course’ pocket guides released under the premier architectural publishing imprint Rizzoli New York—manages to address the issues in question with economy and precision.

A chimera is different than a gargoyle in that it does not channel water.

As with any book, one must understand the purpose of the material and the author’s target audience. Those seeking a didactic discourse on the finer points of ecclesiastical theology may well be disappointed, as this book is far removed from the barrage of academic inquiries that spurred the recent renewal in liturgical studies. Indeed, this book intentionally avoids the more complex, multifaceted and deep-seated concerns that directed the evolution of ecclesiastical design through history. Instead, the selected material is intended to be a strictly visual guide, a reduction of a genre—with all its complex forms and myriad components—into a handy tome made accessible to those who either lack a grounding in the subject matter or who wish to synthesize their already nebulous knowledge of the material through the author’s bullet-point exactitude. 

And so this book is highly effective for its intended purpose: that is, as a field guide, heavily illustrated with short paragraph entries on a variety of subjects organized into a recognizable progression from encompassing concepts to constituent components. Such parameters, however, do not mean the material is superficial or of no interest to professionals. While most of the author’s selections are well within the realm of ordinary architectural discourse, even longtime practitioners will be tasked with obscure entries on topics ranging from the ‘rundbogenstil’ and ‘misericord’ to ‘fictive shingles’ and ‘billet moldings.’ Admittedly, some of the author’s terminology is of his own invention, and hardly any topic is addressed comprehensively. After all, one could hardly expect the author to distill sweeping topics with much debated boundaries—topics like ‘Neoclassical Architecture’ or ‘Centralized Plans’—into a two-page entry containing roughly six paragraphs and five illustrations, without consciously embracing the required reduction in the subject matter’s complexity. Yet nothing in recent years comes close to synthesizing the full breadth of ecclesiastical architecture so effectively.

Comparison of different Classical Orders

To achieve his objective the author follows a logical progression from large themes to specific examples. Organized into clear categories, the author begins with thematic concepts pertaining to building type, transitioning into church type and style before moving into an analysis of building materials and a formalist consideration of floor plans. The book is then subdivided into compositional categories, beginning with spatial considerations pertaining to the nave, apses, sanctuaries, choirs, and stalls. Specifically structural components next enter into consideration, providing a survey of vaulting and buttresses, domes and cupolas, and facades and portals. The guide ultimately concludes with a variety of headings pertaining to furnishings, accompanying structures, decorations, and iconography. Each of these categories is then subdivided into whatever topics the author feels are worthy of deeper illumination, with a handful of examples provided to flush out the subject matter in each case. Each heading is described through a two-page introduction, with each specific subcategory assigned its own two-page section. The result is a straightforward and intuitive organization of material easily navigated by virtually anyone. As the written material is fully illustrated, this guide is especially accessible to younger readers and perhaps most appropriate for those developing a nascent interest in ecclesiastical design and theology.

Those seeking a book for themselves, a friend, or a loved one—especially those with limited knowledge of the subject—will find this to be an effective and charming introduction that would do well to find itself in a traveler’s luggage, particularly when en route to Europe.

 

A Minnesota native, Thomas M. Dietz received his education in the history, theory, and criticism of architecture and art at MIT.  He is currently an architect in Chicago.