Editorial: Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam et Beatae Mariae Virginis

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 15

The intention of magnificence is the production of a great work. Now works done by men are directed to an end: and no end of human works is so great as the honor of God: wherefore magnificence does a great work especially in reference to the Divine honor. Wherefore the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 2) that “the most commendable expenditure is that which is directed to Divine sacrifices”: and this is the chief object of magnificence. For this reason magnificence is connected with holiness, since its chief effect is directed to religion or holiness. -Summa Theologica

Unemployment is at a high level, and the economy is in recession. In order to give thousands of people jobs, the state embarks on some major infrastructure projects designed by an award winning architect. A parable for how the U.S. government can get the economy back on track? No, the story of how Pope Alexander VII and Gianlorenzo Bernini built Piazza San Pietro, the greatest public piazza in the world.

Behind every great building and its architect there is a visionary patron. Someone who thinks big, takes risks, raises funds, and above all recognizes the significance of architecture. Patrons may be pastors or popes, businessmen or college presidents. What they all have in common is a desire to create a masterpiece and the discernment to find the right people to help them do it.

Every patron is unique, and so their buildings appropriately bear their stamp. I have been fortunate to work with many brilliant and visionary patrons and believe that a building cannot be successful without a patron’s leadership. I had the fortune to work with one such patron for nine years and was edified by his passion for architecture, in service of the Church. When I met him, he already had some experience with building and was saving the best for last. We traveled to Italy together to study the great examples of sacred architecture as a research and development tour. From that point on wherever his travels took him, he availed himself of the opportunity to visit and study great buildings. It might be to experience the proportions of the interior, the size of a cornice, or to look at marble patterns. Like most patrons he was an incredibly busy man, but he found time to do the things that mattered, such as visiting artists’ workshops and traveling to Europe to pick out marble. He was deeply engaged in the design and construction process and thought of the church like it was his own, like a book that people would read for centuries to come. Involvement in every aesthetic detail came naturally to him because he believed that the domus Dei needed to be worthy of the Creator. This drive for excellence meant that he wanted to be convinced through words, drawings and precedent that every design decision was correct.

Early on he asked me to tell him whenever there was something I disagreed with, because he wanted me to be happy with the design. This was a bold and gutsy request that I tried to comply with. Then there were many aspects of the design that he would ask me to change. In the spirit of coauthors we would study the issue and look at alternate solutions, I with my pencil and he with his eyes. Sometimes this led to a better design, other times it convinced us to stay with the original idea. Because he was constantly looking at and thinking about great architecture, he saw that our project would be measured against these exemplars. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “In a peculiar sense he will be aware also that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated, by them; not judged to be as good as, or worse or better than, the dead; and certainly not judged by the canons of dead critics. It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other.”

In this case, the comparisons inspired higher quality in design and materials—mahogany, marble, bronze, and limestone. Higher quality meant that he needed to convince others and raise more funds. This was true of the columns and pilasters of the nave that had been designed as painted plaster, were upgraded to limestone, then to travertine and eventually became single shafts of botticino classico marble. Their significant increase in cost was difficult to stomach, yet when the building was complete everyone saw how right he was to advocate for them. In addition, the length of the nave, the heavenly light from the clear windows and the simple color palette, all flowed from his vision for the church and his own character. It is a very cerebral chapel, most appropriate for a college campus and reflective of the president’s vocation as philosopher.

At the same time that he asked a lot from everyone, he continually told us how appreciative he was of our work. That appreciation made everyone work even harder and gave them a great sense of accomplishment at its consecration. The patron was ecstatic at the dedication mass. “It was better than I ever expected,” he remarked, and he spent hours in prayer and contemplation in the temple that he had brought to life. Nothing made him happier than to hear all the visitors, friends, and students thank him and tell him how magnificent it was. During Holy Week he was there in the front row, and at Easter he was beaming. He had dreamt of a beautiful chapel at the head of the campus dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. The task complete, his vocation fulfilled, one week later he was called home to the Father. Dr. Thomas E. Dillon, philosopher and patron, Requiescat in Pace.