An Architectural and Theological Interface

The Dominican Complex at Magnanapoli

by Christopher Longhurst, appearing in Volume 20

The Dominican Complex at Magnanapoli, Rome, is an architectural composite from the mid sixteenth century in the heart of the ancient city currently housing the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum, along with the adjacent monastery, convent and adjoining gardens, and the church of Saints Dominic and Sixtus. Looking purposefully at the Magnanapoli complex and recognizing within it the spiritual impetus of architecture in light of the Thomistic aesthetic theory will demonstrate how architecture can provide a simultaneously theological and aesthetic reading. It will also demonstrate how sound architectural development and organization is, in essence, always inspired by the desire to find a solution to the most important questions of purpose and fulfillment in life.

Santi Domenico e Sisto, Rome, part of the Angelicum complex. Photo:

The Aesthetic Theory of St. Thomas Aquinas

In the thought of St. Thomas it seems that beauty is primarily a transcendental quality, that is, there must be a metaphysical ground for its existence. St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica expounds his definition of beauty in an expression that has become the essence of his aesthetic theory: “Ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur: Primo quidem integritas sive perfectio: quae enim diminuta sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt. Et debita proportio sive consonantia. Et iterum claritas.” 1 These three properties—integrity, due proportion, and clarity—are therefore the qualities that make an object beautiful. St. Thomas explicates, however, that he is not referring to mere abstractions, or what is known simply on the conceptual level, or disconnected from experience, but rather to the physical world around him and to his empirical experience in and of that world. St. Thomas’ beauty, therefore, does not exist by any theoretical means only. It is a quality of being that is transcendent yet it pertains to things in the world, to created things.

One of the key concepts in his aesthetic theory is the idea of form. St. Thomas explains that the form of an object is in fact its beauty—that which “properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause.”2 In the mind of St. Thomas form also is not something static or crystallized but rather coextensive with being. It is the structural principle in things and when it is experienced on account of the subsisting properties of integrity, due proportion and clarity, then the object is said to be beautiful.

Despite such an over-simplification of St. Thomas’ aesthetic theory it suffices to say that the beauty of any existent thing is based on the vital reality of its form. In architecture, according to this theory, the beauty of a building, or composite of buildings, is determined by the complete realization of what the work should be—the proper organization of material, a correspondence among all its parts, and the consequent splendor formae (splendor of form)—as St. Thomas would call it.3 The Magnanapoli site is an ideal example of architectural beauty according to Thomistic system of ideas because it presents an array of architectural elements, planning, design and construction processes and results that all contribute to the complex’s overall splendor formae.

The Architectural Type of the Ordinis Praedicatorum

Before looking at the Magnanapoli complex in detail it is worth considering the particular conception of beauty that characterizes Dominican architecture in general. During its foundational years in the early thirteenth century, the Order of St. Dominic took strict measures to avoid anything suggestive of luxury or affluence in its buildings. In the Order’s churches a distinct seminal feature of the Dominican style resulted from the friar’s own sumptuary legislation which originally excluded decorative architectural works except for in the choir. This architectural austerity, which often went as far as the suppression of capitals on columns and panels under windows, gave great lightness and elegance to the new style of Dominican churches.

Santa Anastasia, Verona, has side altars at the walls of the nave. Photo:

Dominican architecture also acquired its distinction from the aspirations of the members’ foundational communities who turned away from the cloistered regula of early monasticism and embarked upon a more active apostolate of preaching and parochial work. Their verve thus extended outside the monastic center and impacted the social and urban currents of its time. The Dominican style of building came to reflect the community’s socio-religious ideals and fundamental values. Subsequently, on account of the Dominicans’ active apostolate and establishment in large urban areas, a practice that significantly influenced the cultural milieu of the time, and also on account of the rise of churches and convents known as opus sumptuosum, the Dominican attitude towards suppressing richness of expression in its architectural designs subsided. In the chief towns throughout Italy, by the end of the thirteenth century the Dominicans were in possession of the most splendid religious buildings, magnificent monasteries and some of the finest churches with exquisite artworks. This was undoubtedly a consequence of the Order’s increasing importance in the socio-political arena at the time. In point of fact, in the past as in the present-day the Dominicans have occupied some of the finest and most important church buildings and religious spaces across the world.

The Dominicans projected their apostolic zeal and theological erudition into transforming buildings in their possession into structures to accommodate serious scholarship and even to inspire, thereby creating a fusion of aesthetic qualities and religious ideals in a certain architectural type. Such a practice was typical of the Dominicans in general throughout the course of their history. They adopted various styles of architecture and assisted in their diffusion and assimilation for new means and ends. The Order even accepted the style of the Renaissance when it had supplanted the medieval forms and incorporated it into its own. Every architectural medium capable of giving expression to religious beauty was used by the Dominicans to further the ends and needs of their apostolate, for the motto of the Dominican Order is Veritas and as their Angelic Doctor explains, truth and beauty are exchangeable and analogous terms.4 Aspects of the Dominican apostolate, which is characterized by dedication to preaching, the study of theology, the safeguarding of Christian doctrine, and the profession of total fidelity to tradition, conjure a conviction that is concretely expressed in the abstract values of truthfulness, beauty, apostolicity, magnificence, splendor and love. These values become tangible in the physical manifestations of unity, spatial economy, order, grandiosity, practicality, hospitality and even solemn ceremony in the liturgical expression of the Dominican Rite.

Dominican architecture may be described as theocentric, contemplative, monastic and didactic. The last two qualities set it apart from the architecture of almost any other kind as Dominican architecture has a strong overtone of “educational space” befitting rigorous scholarship in the context of a spiritual environment. This scholastic quality is the essence of the Order’s charism and it is reflected in the arrangement of its architectural structures as conducive to serious research, learning and teaching. On account of the Order’s emphasis on study, practical elements such as large windows in the buildings’ spacious study halls allow for more light to enter and to accommodate the contemplative aspect of its apostolate, wide hallways were built to create an atmosphere conducive to prayer and silence. In general Dominican churches have large naves because of the importance of public preaching, and oftentimes they are without side aisles. Lateral altars were usually at the walls of the nave instead of in chapels. The church of Santa Anastasia in Verona is a prime example.

One of the most innovative aspects of Dominican architecture was the orientation of the buildings towards the exterior by means of façades, porticoes, staircases and fountains. A greater involvement in the life of its urban surroundings evolved. Extended to all of its building designs, this architectural dynamic has produced an expression of the ideals of Dominican religious life and has gone on to assume its own unique style, which may be called the architectural type of the Ordinis Praedicatorum. Its prototype is recognizable in the Dominican complex at Magnanapoli, Rome.

The Dominican Complex at Magnanapoli Rome

It is no coincidence that Blessed Pope John Paul II writes in his Letter to Artists: “[…] where theology produced the Summa of Saint Thomas, church art molded matter in a way which led to adoration of the mystery.”5 Conforming to the principal idea of categorization of St. Thomas’ theological discourse on God, man and nature, the Magnanapoli complex is an architectural manifestation of the Thomistic system of ideas by extension of those same categories into its external architectural designs. In the words of the Pope: “the functional is always wedded to the creative impulse inspired by a sense of the beautiful and an intuition of the mystery.”6 The architectural arrangement of the Magnanapoli complex is therefore designed towards creating a single environment conducive to both religious life through prayer and community, and to academic scholarship through study and education. The two modes of human activity―to praise God and love Him and each other in the spirit of Christian charity, and to know God and understand Him through the truths of the Christian faith―are characteristics of one spirit. To achieve these goals in architecture the Magnanapoli complex is unified, in proportion, and above all directional, that is, it has purpose: making space holy—building to uplift the mind and the heart to spiritual matters.

Courtyard of the Magnanapoli complex. Photo:

Like the scope of both the Order’s theological purpose and academic goals, the architecture of this complex does not conform to any one particular age or style but rather unites the legitimate styles of its respective ages into a comprehensive whole. On account of the Dominican friars’ capacity to unify diverse architectural designs to supplement religious ends and ideals, the complex comprises an interplay of architectural morphemes that combine into more inclusive forms. While the Magnanapoli complex can be used for a variety of purposes such as communal living, religious formation, and educational development, the unified composite surpasses each one of these purposes. It thus expresses a correlation in time and space of the physical, intellectual and spiritual strengths of what it means to be fully human. One may describe it as a microcosm of the civitatis Dei—the peaceful dwelling place of all believers.

The Magnanapoli complex also achieves its purpose by a harmonious relationship with the natural surroundings of its physical environs. It conforms architecture to nature by taking nature as its inspiration, or rather, as its solution to the complexity of its building projects. In nature the Dominicans find the answers to life in general and from a translation of the language of nature they find value in architectural designs. In fact the emulation of nature is the goal of Dominican architecture, for from nature is taken the material and from nature is learned the systems, processes and aesthetics by which the buildings are integrated to create a sound and healthy environment. Nature reveals an underlying order and the entire aesthetic theory of St. Thomas is said to be based on the principles of nature which display an ordered hierarchy of structures. In architecture, as the Dominican architectural typology displays, this order is combined with functional properties and aesthetic expressions, a kind of reliance on self-assembly, fitting form to function.

The architecture of the Magnanapoli complex not only reveals the character of a spiritual force, it also elicits a reaction to this force. Prescinding from St. Thomas’ system of ideas, the complex demonstrates how the human intellect perceives the attributes of form, in this case an architectural composite, which satisfies the senses upon being seen due to its inherent properties of integrity, due proportion and clarity constituting the splendor formae contained within. The faculties of the human mind then sense the quality of these properties and the observer is drawn into the space by the beauty of the integral structure. This process is achieved by the aesthetic appeal of the building being appreciated upon being perceived and its image impressed upon the external sensory receptors of the observer. The properties intuited by the mind then arouse visual appreciation that is passed to the interior intellectual senses. The observer subsequently enjoys their reception in the internal sensory faculties and this is why the human spirit finds itself simultaneously at peace and inspired in such a space.

The entire environment becomes fully enjoyable, and one in which thought, feeling, and the transcendence of the human spirit is expressed. Thus St. Thomas’s definition of beauty as “pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent” is fulfilled. This experience approaches a movement which is both natural and supernatural. An emergent and interconnected encounter between material and nonmaterial properties is experienced. Moreover, given the unifying characteristics of this Magnanapoli complex, it is no surprise that one feels at peace in this environment for peace is “the tranquility of order” as St. Augustine expressed.

The Dominican complex at Magnanapoli is also an example of the splendor veri in architecture. Splendor veri is a platonic term referring to the relational qualities among material things. It was revisited by the Schoolmen and upheld by St. Thomas in his goal of presenting a methodology to consider the relationships among all things, however, primarily between form and matter on the one hand, and idea and truth on the other. In relation to the Magnanapoli complex, beyond the exterior appearances of its buildings the concepts of truth and beauty united with knowledge and space are brought together through an intimate association between architecture and theology. Behind its walls these two disciplines transcend the rational confines of the human mind penetrating to the sensitive and emotional appetites of the human soul. A spiritual and material communication is achieved through the converging and interacting of architecture and theology, an experiencing of how both depend substantially on the deeper meanings of a reality envisioned in and above the material limitations of physical space and the immaterial limitations of the human mind. The Magnanapoli complex thus possesses the conditions of beauty that make it attract the observer when attention is concentrated on the complex’s formal structure. The architecture itself does not “create” this beauty, for the objective conditions of beauty really only subsist in things, though it is reasonable to confirm that it manifests beauty on account of the equilibrium between a formal perfection and the intellect’s apprehension of its physical forms.

The undergirding theological impetus of the architecture is founded in a mind-based knowledge of God, a rationalistic logic, and in the human person “ad imaginem Dei” as the center of human existence. This impresses upon the physical surroundings the criterion for a religious ideal, incorporating into the environs the architectural homogeneity of form and matter where the characteristics of order and unity dominate over variety. It thereby offers a source of architectural wealth and organization that is relevant in the context of a religious vision.

Scholastic and monastic activity are so well unified in a reciprocal relationship of studying and learning on the one hand and sanctification and preaching on the other, that one does not exist without the other. In this harmony a material, intellectual and spiritual formation unfolds, exposing an insightful occupation with the notions of beauty, order, unity and integrity. In the architecture, beauty is experienced in the congruency of buildings and their parts, and through the perception of order and unity, while in the theology beauty is seen through the radiance of the truth on its subject matter. In both contexts, unity is upheld in the cohesion of the relational quality of practical and theoretical contexts, that is, in the form and matter, while integrity is maintained through the uncompromising adherence of each discipline to the values of their respective canons. Each of these properties—beauty, order, unity and integrity, become inseparable and, while remaining interdependent, form unique manifestations of the dynamism of one spirit.

Aerial view of the Magnanapoli buildings and gardens. Photo:

The Magnanapoli complex thus serves as a prototype to respond to questions about the spiritual vitality of architecture, and to understand architecture’s structural methods as a model for, or conformity with, sound theological principles. It is the ideal form of architecture functioning for theological purposes and of theology providing the language for the structural design of its buildings; thereby it affords a profoundly religious and architectural interface. What can be seen here is how architecture “lives” in a religious body and how its religious message is incarnate in masonry. As such, the Magnanapoli complex is an example of an encounter between the science of theology and the art of architecture, and a theological ideal inspiring an architectural design. This is the embodiment of the Dominican ideal of truth and beauty simultaneously identifying the one subject.

The integral structure, from the potency of its architectural forms to the dynamism of its pedagogical and religious functions, inspires not only those who live within its walls and the students who partake of the instruction afforded by its professors, but even the ordinary passer-by who has the opportunity to see the beauty of its buildings with magnificent panoramas, or walk within its halls and gardens. The grandness of scale, the harmony of layout, the attractiveness of the grounds, and the overall sense of relational order, with an integration of the visible and invisible, the spiritual and material, generate a sense of assimilation into both the natural and supernatural spheres.


Characterized by an emphasis on cohesive unity among variety, the Magnanapoli complex achieves a harmony between form and matter in which they are brought together in spatial relationships and striking sensory effects to contribute in a meaningful way to the overall message of a theological dialogue with contemporary culture. It is a remarkable testimony to how architecture reflects theology and how theology inspires architectural beauty. In the end this complex celebrates the evidence of a tradition and a history of faith that points to the conviction that the human person is a partaker of something grand, engaged, as it were, in a dialogue between creation and the divine, and this dialogue is well seen in an encounter between theology and architecture. The Dominican Complex at Magnanapoli Rome provides that encounter.