Building for the Senses
A Resurgence of Sacred Architecture in China
When the Catholic priest and architect Leon Battista Alberti (AD 1404–1472) wrote of the ideal church, he asserted: “I would deck it out in every part so that anyone who entered it would start with awe for his admiration at all the noble things, and could scarcely restrain himself from exclaiming that what he saw was a place undoubtedly worthy of God.”1 And when the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan (343–278 BC) described an architectural space that could “summon a soul,” he wrote: “The ceilings and floors are vermillion, the chambers of polished stone. . . . Overhead you behold carved rafters, painted with dragons.”2 China and the West have shared the historical belief that to stir the human soul sacred architecture must be, as Leland Roth phrased it, “architecture for the senses.”3 In the context of Chinese architecture, sacred spaces have historically been constructed according to an understanding that heaven (tian 天), earth (di 地), and humanity (ren 人) all exist within a correlative cosmology; the physical alignment and proportion of buildings is believed to be directly related to the spiritual alignment of humans. So when Catholic missionaries first began constructing churches in China, the cosmological liturgical orientation of the design was familiar to Chinese Christians, for the correlations of space and worship were already taken for granted in their own indigenous religious architecture.
Xuanhua Catholic Cathedral, designed by Alphonse De Moerloose. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
A problem that Western architects confronted in China’s early tradition of church architecture was the question of cultural style. Should Christian churches in China recall the Western tastes of the European missionaries, or should church structures follow purely Chinese forms of sacred architecture, forms that were already represented in Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist shrines and temples? Our research suggests that despite some attempts to “indigenize” church architecture in the late nineteenth century, and efforts to “modernize” Catholic design in the 1970s and 1980s, Chinese Catholics have consistently preferred to build churches in traditional Western styles. In fact, with very few exceptions, Chinese Christians have primarily chosen to build their churches in either Gothic, Baroque, or Romanesque revival styles, which were, not surprisingly, the principal styles employed by Western missionary architects who first designed churches in China.
Church Architecture in China: Early Influences and Architects
China is a culture of tradition, and ever since Confucius (551–479 BC) described himself as “fond of antiquity,” China’s sensibilities have, until recently, decidedly leaned toward continuity with, and conservation of, the past.4 Once European missionary architects, such as Alphonse De Moerloose, C.I.C.M. (1858–1932), and Alphonse Favier, C.M. (1837–1905), had introduced traditional Western styles of Christian architecture to Chinese Catholics, the local preference for these styles was quickly entrenched. There were many other priest-architects who built in China, such as the Franciscan Barnabas Meistermann, O.F.M. (1850–1923), but the works of Moerloose and Favier are perhaps the most representative examples of church design and construction. Western architects largely preferred to build in Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles until Archbishop Celso Constantini (1876–1958), the first apostolic delegate to China, promoted the use of indigenous Chinese church architecture during his time in China, from 1922 to 1933.
Despite Constantini’s recommendations, China has retained its preference for traditional Western styles. For example, the Belgian Scheut missionary Alphonse De Moerloose studied architecture at Saint Luke’s School in Ghent, where his architecture courses favored the ideals of Augustus Pugin (1812–1852), whose promotion of the Gothic Revival movement influenced John Ruskin (1819–1900).5 Moerloose’s church commissions in China favored a Gothic style for its organic appropriateness with Catholic liturgy, though he also relied on Romanesque-inspired design because of its structural durability, comparative ease in construction, and historic connection to Rome, the center of Roman Catholicism.
Sheshan Catholic Church (pilgrimage site), designed by Alphonse De Moerloose. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
Among Moerloose’s most famous commissions in China is his church in Xuanhua, located in Hebei, 170 kilometers from Beijing. In their description of the “Gothic character” of the church, Thomas Coomans and Luo Wei note Moerloose’s “traditional plan, with a nave of five bays flanked with aisles, a large transept with square arms on both sides of a square crossing.”6 The church retains the Western Latin cross layout, which as Steven Schloeder recalls, alludes to the Cross and the Body of Christ: “the transepts are his extended arms; his torso and legs form the nave, since the gathered faithful are his body.”7 In keeping with his preference for a Gothic style and adhering to the preferred Latin cross design, Moerloose ornamented the Xuanhua church with Gothic traceried windows with quatrefoils, lancets, and transoms, and ordered the vaults painted with stenciled motifs. Moerloose’s design was so successful that he was later commissioned to design the chapel of the Trappist Abbey church at Yanjiaping, dedicated to Our Lady of Consolation, as well as the Jesuit pilgrimage church at Sheshan, which was designed with an early Romanesque-style interior and a late Gothic-style exterior. It remains his most famous work in China today.
Beijing's North Church (Xishiku Church), designed by Alphonse Favier. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
Beijing’s late-imperial French bishop Alphonse Favier was also an architect of note in China, and his North Church—formerly North Cathedral—is perhaps the most famous church in China, often featured on Chinese book covers and calendars. Favier’s successful relationship with China’s imperial court facilitated his negotiations for the construction of several churches and French diplomatic buildings under his design supervision. In this way, he participated in France’s political mission civilisatrice, or the colonial impulse to “civilize” China through social, devotional, and architectural conventions based firmly on Western models. As Richard Madsen describes the overall French missionary approach, the Lazarists, Jesuits, Missions Étrangères de Paris, and Marists “saw themselves as propagating a faith that was intimately linked with what they considered the essence of French life. They built Gothic cathedrals that were named after French saints and adorned with French-style iconography.”8
One result of the mission civilisatrice was that Favier’s designs consciously represented an overall French caractère, or innate “Frenchness” in Catholic church design, in the intellectual vein of the Beaux Arts tradition. The outcome of this ideal was his North Church, built in Gothic Revival style and boasting an elaborate façade and a richly ornamented Gothic interior.9 One notable characteristic of Favier’s design, however, was that he supplemented the church grounds with the placement of two Chinese-style pavilions (tingzi 停子) that flank the façade. Balustrades installed on the entrance steps were carved in a Chinese style from local white marble. The final effect is a synthesis of a Western church building, accented at the entrance with Chinese pavilions that cover two grand memorial steles. While Favier shared the general attitude of the mission civilisatrice, he nonetheless made efforts to honor China’s native culture in his design program.
Gothic interior of St. Ignatius Church, Shanghai, designed by William Dowdall. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
In the footsteps of missionary architects such as Moerloose and Favier, other Western architects designed churches in China after the ideals of Augustus Pugin, John Ruskin, and the exponent of French Gothic Revival, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879). One of China’s enduring examples of Gothic Revival church design is Saint Ignatius Church in the center of Shanghai’s Xujiahui district, formerly owned by the Jesuit mission and administered by French Jesuits. This monumental Gothic Revival structure, completed in 1910, was designed by the Scottish architect William Dowdall (b. 1842), and is celebrated as one of Shanghai’s most-visited and photographed historic buildings.10 Dowdall’s design responded to the aspirations of the French Jesuits in Shanghai, who wanted the church—named after the founder of their order, Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556)—to exemplify a Gothic order of hierarchies.
Catholic architecture in China, especially church construction designed by French missionaries, sought to exemplify the sentiments of Abbot Suger (ca. 1081–1151), who envisioned the Gothic church as a celestial city on earth, “a spectacle in which heaven and earth, the angelic hosts in heaven and the human community in the sanctuary, seemed to merge.”11 Perhaps one of the more striking French Gothic Revival churches in China is the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Guangzhou. With funds provided by Napoleon III (1808–1873), the cathedral church was designed by Léon Vautrin (1820–1884) with a monumental façade modeled after Paris’s famous Basilique Sainte-Clotilde. With the exception of this one example, all church buildings discussed here were envisioned and designed in China, then constructed by local laborers. These Gothic Revival churches punctuating China’s Catholic landscape have retained their aesthetic appeal, as present-day Chinese architects continue to build churches after the French Gothic style.
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart at Guangzhou by Léon Vautrin. Photo: History of Christianity in China Archive, Spokane, Washington.
China in Church Architecture: The Question of a “Local” Style
China’s Christian architecture is not all modeled after the West; some church designers have consciously accommodated more indigenous tastes. In his encyclical, Maximum Illud (On the Propagation of the Faith Throughout the World), Pope Benedict XV (1854–1922) asserted, “The Catholic Church is not an intruder in any country; nor is she alien to any people.”12 His desire was that Catholic missions grow sensitive to non-Western sensibilities. The Pope’s encyclical translated into a new movement in the Catholic Church that considered how Christianity could be grafted, rather than imposed, onto Chinese society. Responding to this proposal, Celso Constantini, apostolic delegate to China, published an essay in the Bulletin of the Catholic University of Peking, requesting that Western missionaries develop a “Sino-Christian Architecture” that would appeal to Chinese tastes.13 Constantini encouraged architects to employ Chinese rather than Gothic or other Western styles, and some French architects made strong attempts to employ this new ideal. Perhaps the most famous example of a Catholic church built in an entirely Chinese style is the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Yunnan Province, at Dali, designed by a French missionary and built by experienced local contractors who understood Chinese architectural forms. This church was erected in 1938 and features spectacular, Chinese-style sweeping curved roofs supported by brightly painted and elaborate bracket systems.
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart at Dali, Yunnan. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
There were, however, a few rare examples of Chinese-style churches built before Constantini’s 1927 essay; Guiyang’s Saint Joseph Cathedral, built in 1849, for example, followed the style of southern Chinese ancestral temples. Its grand clock tower (zhonglou 鐘樓)—in China clock towers replace bell towers—was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), but was restored to original specifications in 2004. In Western churches, the aspiration for heaven was often symbolized by a stretching vertical tower, and since the nearest Chinese equivalent was the pagoda, the resulting form of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral would have appeared as a logical synthesis. Today, this popular church is frequently photographed. Constantini actively advised the construction of more Sino-Christian churches, but missionaries and native Chinese persistently preferred churches with a Western aesthetic.
In 1924, Constantini assembled China’s first nation-wide synod of Catholic bishops to discuss Maximum Illud, which met (similar to council gatherings) in the Gothic Revival nave of Saint Ignatius Church in Shanghai.14 During the synod, Constantini determined to commission a Chinese-style church at Sheshan, but Alphonse De Moerloose, as noted above, designed the basilica in an admixture of Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles; the church was decidedly Western. In one essay, Celso Constantini complained that “it is a mistake to import [to China] European styles such as Romanesque and Gothic,” but these styles were already so popular with both local Chinese and Western missionaries that Constantini, despite his disagreements, presented Moerloose with the celebrated Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (For Church and Pope) cross award in 1928.15 The debates among European missionaries regarding whether China’s sacred architecture should be Gothic Revival, Romanesque, or “Sino-Christian” disappeared after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when all Western missionaries were expelled from China in the turbulent 1950s. The future of sacred architecture in China was then entirely in the hands of the Chinese, either the state or the Christians who used these churches for worship.
Saint Joseph Cathedral at Guiyang, 1849. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
Sacred Architecture during Mao: An Era of Church Destruction
The history of Christianity in China changed radically after 1949, and so did the history of church architecture. China’s new communist government under the leadership of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) was decidedly anti-Church, though it did ostensibly allow for religious freedom as long as it functioned openly under the supervision of the State Administration of Religious Affairs. On June 28, 1949, the general secretary for publications of the YMCA in China, Y. T. Wu (Wu Yaozong, 1890–1979), was appointed mediator between the Communist Party and the National Christian Council. Wu urged all China’s Christians to openly support the communist movement, and he promoted the separation of Chinese churches from foreign involvement. This was disastrous for Catholic Christians, who viewed this as an act of disobedience to the Pope; Mao and his fellow cadres, on their part, insisted that Catholics, like Protestants, conform to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. All Chinese Christians were expected to be self-promoting, self-governing, and self-supporting. The end result was that after 1957, Roman Catholic worship was expected to be conducted in state-approved church structures overseen by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Catholic edifices, old and new, were now controlled by the state. As Mao’s anti-Church policies grew more aggressive, the prospects for church buildings in China became more uncertain. Throughout the subsequent Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), sacred architecture in China was openly attacked; splendid examples of Christian church architecture were closed, demolished, or confiscated by state authorities for government secular uses.
Red Guard destruction of Xikai Cathedral at Tianjin, 1966. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
Once Mao had launched his Cultural Revolution in 1966, radical Red Guard youth organized demolition parties to attack China’s most monumental churches. In Beijing, Alphonse Favier’s famous Gothic Revival North Church was besieged; its crosses were pulled down, the interior was gutted, and from 1966 to 1976 it served as a middle school. The Baroque-style South Church, where the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) had lived and constructed his modest chapel during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), was seized by Red Guards and used as a toy factory. Beijing’s famous East Church, built in a dramatic Romanesque style, was similarly attacked and converted into the Wangfujing Primary School, where children studied Maoist thought under classically inspired Corinthian capitals. Shanghai’s Gothic Revival Saint Ignatius Church, designed by William Dowdall, was victim to a particularly dramatic attack in 1966. Red Guards tore down its two spires, smashed all the stained glass windows, demolished the stunning high altar, and destroyed all the sacred art and furnishings. For the next decade, Shanghai’s architectural Gothic gem housed a state-operated warehouse. It was reopened as a Catholic church in 1979, and the spires were rebuilt according to Dowdall’s original vision in 1980.
One of the more tragic accounts of church destruction in China during the Cultural Revolution was the Red Guard attack on Saint Joseph Cathedral in Tianjin, also called the Xikai Cathedral. Using brick shipped to China from France, construction for Tianjin’s Romanesque Revival building was begun in 1913, and by 1917 the French Lazarist, Bishop Paul-Marie Dumond, C.M. (1864–1944), consecrated it as the new cathedral church of Tianjin. Beneath the cathedral’s three large domes, each surfaced with green copper, the church’s interior clearly displayed French tastes; the nave, with its fourteen square piers that led to an octagonal dome, was adorned with Western-style murals depicting biblical stories. In August 1966, Tianjin’s “Destroy the Four Olds Movement,” a state-supported campaign to wipe out “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas,” was inaugurated in the city’s commercial district, near Saint Joseph Cathedral. As Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao describe the first moments of the movement, “drums, gongs, and firecrackers sounded from morning to night,” and the signs of streets, shops, and schools were all changed to “revolutionary names.”16 When the Red Guard crowds in Tianjin turned their attention toward Saint Joseph’s, the movement had grown into a massive incident. Jiang Jiehong recounts what happened:
In the summer of 1966, this Roman-styled building was seen as a symbol of imperialist and colonial power and was besieged by thousands of Red Guards. Believers were criticized publically and church properties were assembled and burned in front of the cathedral. A couplet (duilian 對聯) was placed on both sides of the west façade, ‘Smash old thoughts, bomb the black church,’ while a portrait of Mao hung from the center of its arches.17
In a series of photographs taken during the attack, Red Guards are seen destroying the high altar, which had been removed to the main steps of the church, and the three green domes were demolished. Xikai Cathedral was restored in the 1980s and is presently one of the most popular historic attractions in the city.
By 1976, the year of Mao’s death, China’s remaining Christian churches were in terrible disrepair; those that had survived the Red Guard attacks and seizures of the “Destroy the Four Olds Movement” were being reused as state warehouses, schools, factories, or restaurants. Their towers and spires had been removed, their interiors had been gutted of any vestige of sacred use, and in many cases their façades had been reduced to a flat surface or were covered with temporary veneers that obscured their religious distinction. While buildings can be rebuilt, there was one profound difference—after open worship was once again legalized and churches were allowed to reopen in the 1980s, there were no longer any Western missionaries in China to oversee church construction. Chinese Catholics were free to choose their own designs, and to restore and build churches according to their own tastes and sensibilities. What is perhaps most interesting about this era of reconstruction is that China’s unprecedented growth of Christian architecture turned decidedly toward traditional Western styles. The Gothic Revival, Romanesque, and Baroque styles that had been preferred by Western missionaries were the styles now favored by the Chinese who were rebuilding their sacred architecture out of the ashes.
Liuhecun Catholic Church at Liuhecun Village, Shanxi. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
Sacred Architecture after Mao: Looking to the Past and Building for the Future
Catholic architecture in modern China can be said to have passed through three historical stages: the pre-1930s, when churches were designed by Western missionaries, mostly French-speaking, who often sought to build in French Gothic Revival; the 1930s to 1950, when the apostolic delegate to China, Archbishop Celso Constanini, urged Catholic architects to design in a “Sino-Christian” style that reflected “Chinese aesthetic tastes”; and the post-Mao period of reconstruction from 1980 until the present, during which Chinese architects and builders have chosen to restore and build new churches in modified traditional Western styles. In preparation for this article, the authors visited several churches in Shanxi Province, where the Catholic population has grown steadily since the 1980s and church re-construction has punctuated the vast plains of the province with soaring spires and towers. With the exception of a pilgrimage church at Dongergou Catholic village named after Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, and the Hall of Martyrs at the newly built church at Guchengying village, all of Shanxi’s church restoration and new church construction has been designed according to traditional Western architectural expressions. In an interview with the rector of Tianjin’s Xikai cathedral, Father Zhang Liang, we were told: “We Chinese Catholics prefer Western classical designs to highlight our connection with the Catholic and universal Church; to build only in a ‘Chinese style’ would make us feel even more disconnected from the rest of the Church, and even with the historical past of the Church.”18
The Catholic clergy and larger community of Shanxi share Father Zhang’s attitude about the preservation of Western-origin ecclesial architectural forms in China. Notably, following the Maoist era of church seizure and destruction, the Chinese faithful were without the presence of embedded Western missionaries to influence their church planning, so they turned instead to the aesthetic desires of their congregations. For example, after the Red Guards seized the old Franciscan church in the Catholic village of Liuhecun in 1966 and filled the nave with Maoist slogans on long, white banners, the entire structure was demolished. When it was rebuilt in the 1980s, the local architect responded to three wishes of the village of more than nine thousand Catholics. The new structure had to accommodate three thousand people in attendance at each of the three Sunday Masses, it had to somehow reflect the Catholic connection to the Pope in Rome, and it had to satisfy the local expectation of what a “Catholic church should look like.” The outcome of these requirements is what Denis McNamara calls a massive “Eclectic Revival” church with an unusually long nave; the façade is Gothic Revival while the sanctuary is crowned with an enormous Baroque dome modeled after the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.19
Portiuncola Catholic Church (pilgrimage site) at Bansishan, Shanxi. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
Another example of a post-Maoist church reconstruction in Shanxi is the pilgrimage Portiuncula Church at Bansishan, north of the provincial capital city of Taiyuan, demolished in 1966 by the Red Guards. From the late nineteenth century, this Western-style Franciscan church had been the annual gathering place for thousands of Catholic pilgrims. Built in an agrarian area where constant threat of drought has plagued the population, the Portiuncula Church at Bansishan continues to serve as a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics praying for rain and a bountiful harvest.20 After Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) restored freedom to China’s Catholics to rebuild their churches, local clergy settled on a Baroque-inspired plan for the reconstructed Portiuncula Church near the summit of Bansishan mountain. On May 17, 1988, Fathers Li Yuwen and Li Jiantang inaugurated the process of transporting the building materials from the base of the mountain to the location of the old church’s ruins; Catholics hand-carried most of the church materials on foot to the building site.21 By August the Neo-Baroque façade was largely complete, and framing of the nave was well underway. At present the Portiuncula Church at Bansishan hosts annual pilgrimages each August, with approximately twelve thousand Catholic pilgrims visiting the church for Mass and Confessions per day; new guesthouses are being built to accommodate the rising number of visitors.
Catholic Church of Guchengying, Shanxi. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
Southwest of Taiyuan lies the village of Guchengying. Its newly rebuilt Catholic church, dedicated to Christ the King, now includes an attached Chinese-style structure dedicated to the martyr saints of the Boxer Uprising (1898–1900).22 This church, under reconstruction when the authors first visited the village in 2008, was rebuilt in a Neo-Baroque style, though with a Gothic-influenced pointed-arch portal. The Hall of the Martyrs, completed in 2010, features indigenous architectural design, a notable exception to the post-Maoist decision to build Catholic architecture in a Western style. Built to honor the martyrdoms of Shanxi’s local saints, the hall is topped with a Christian cross to identify its religious affiliation. From a Chinese-style colonnade at the front of the structure extends an elevated walkway with a white marble balustrade; this bridge passes through a tinzi pavilion in which is installed a commemorative stele in the Chinese style, resting on a stone turtle. The setting of a Chinese-style pavilion next to a Western-style church is inspired by Beijing’s North Church, though in Guchengying there is also a Chinese hall that highlights China’s rich tradition of elaborate eave bracketing and overhanging roof design. Unlike the foreign-designed CCTV tower or National Theatre in Beijing, for example, these new church buildings are being conceived exclusively by local Chinese architectural firms and building contractors.
Hall of the Martyrs of China at Guchengying, Shanxi. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
One of China’s dramatic examples of post-Mao Chinese-style church design is located on a tall hill next to the Shanxi Catholic village of Dongergou, approximately thirty kilometers south of Taiyuan. Dongergou claims to be the oldest Roman Catholic parish in the Diocese of Taiyuan, boasting a continuous history of worship for more than 220 years. The first church on top of the hill next to the village was erected in 1924 and dedicated to Our Lady of Seven Sorrows; today it is referred to as “Seven Sorrows Mountain” (qikushan 七苦山, mentioned previously). In 1966, Red Guards razed the original church, and it remained a ruin until 1992, when Father Augustine Li Jianhua, S.V.D., received permission from the bishop to rebuild the church in a Chinese style.23 Father Li’s vision to replace the previous Gothic Revival chapel with a grand Chinese-style church is striking. A wide, stone staircase now leads pilgrims through a monumental Chinese-roofed archway to the summit of the hill, where they first catch sight of an open-air altar beneath a massive baldacchino, here modeled after the imperial Altar of Heaven, famously used in Beijing by historic emperors to make annual offerings to heaven (tian 天). The Dongergou baldacchino consists of three ascending, circular roofs, tiled in imperial yellow. Behind the Chinese-style baldacchino is a monumental church designed to resemble the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperors of China’s last two dynasties held their enthronement and wedding ceremonies.24 Flanking the roof of this church are two golden dragons facing a large, centralized cross; the two dragons, which symbolize China, represent China turning toward Christianity.
Overwhelmingly, however, Shanxi’s recent trend in sacred architecture is to emulate Western-style church construction, and to reproduce as closely as possible the hallowed examples of Catholic design in the West. One of the most ambitious recent commissions in China is the red brick replica of the celebrated Sacré-Coeur Basilica on Montmartre, Paris, built in a Roman-Byzantine style.25 While the French original, completed in 1914, was built using white travertine quarried in Château-Landon, the Chinese reproduction was constructed with red brick, making it a towering landmark on a vast, flat plain. Local Chinese architects not only desire their church architecture to assert a continuity with traditional Catholic design in the West, but they are also increasingly interested in producing direct analogues. And while the local government often provides seed money to help fund the construction of such churches, most of the capital for Shanxi’s Sacred Heart church was provided by local peasants. As Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801–1890) once wrote, Christians will lay out their resources not only to feed the hungry or clothe the naked, but also “to build and decorate the visible House of God.”26
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Shanxi. Photo: Antony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.
In his book Images of Hope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) reminds us that a church is a “building in which God and man desire to meet: a house that unites us, in which we are attracted to God, and being with God unites us to one another.”27 As translations of Ratzinger’s writings began to appear in Chinese church bookstores, China’s clergy and faithful grew more confident in their impulse to build churches in which “we are attracted to God.” They held more firmly that the revered Gothic and Romanesque Revival styles not only succeed in this aim, but also provide aesthetic evidence of a “hermeneutic of continuity.” In this view, such Western styles call attention to the catholic nature of the Catholic Church, and thus the present trend in church design in China is encouraged to imitate as closely as possible the monumental churches of the West. China’s sense of architectural space has always affirmed the connection between our environment and our senses. Winston Churchill expressed this well in 1943, when before the House of Commons he said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”28
Quoting a little-known article by Lewis Mumford, Leland Roth wrote of the American architects McKim, Mead and White: they “made their buildings monuments in the sense that Mumford used the term—‘buildings of permanent value, enriching the eye, sustaining the spirit’—for them this was what all architecture should be.”29 This same idea is expressed today as China’s sacred architecture continues in the vein of its long history of “building for the senses,” a tradition that is now expressed as a “theology of beauty.” When the Scholastic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) reflected on the relationship that beauty has to God, he wrote that “God is beautiful,” and therefore all that is beautiful derives from and points to God.30 China’s current movement seeks to build according to the Church’s long history of making its sacred architecture an instrument through which prayer and the sacred liturgy connect the faithful to God. As Saint Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580–662) said of church architecture, “it reestablishes what had been in paradise and what will be in the Kingdom of God.”31
Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church (pilgrimage site) at Dongergou Village, Shanxi. Photo: Anthony & Amanda Clark Collection, Spokane, Washington.