Church as Visible Speech
According to the last few pontificates, the most pressing questions of culture and doctrine are properly about the human person. Beauty and the experience of physical spaces matter: we are embodied; we meet the world through our senses.
For Thomas Aquinas, being embodied means that we live according to appetite or desire. We are drawn to the world as good, and we are in turn formed by the goods we desire. The human capacity to think presupposes a living and functional bodiliness. The human capacity to act and communicate presuppose some corporeal personality: powers, habits, abilities, as well as language and culture.
There are downsides to bodiliness. The body delineates our limits, and thus our feebleness. In our desiring, the body tends to rule us, or at least to oppose us.
In communication, the body is as much a veil as it is a way of revelation. Language and social customs entail as much misunderstanding as they do clarification.
We are formed passively by the world through our bodiliness. It follows from this that we must engage in the hard, lifelong work of formation, bringing the interior self and the exterior self into a greater lived harmony.
The middle or interior senses—imagination, memory, judgment—become all the more important because they are the locus in which the exterior and bodily comes together with the interior and spiritual.
Creativity must be nurtured with perceptiveness and skill; memory must be developed by attentiveness and studiousness; judgment must be deepened through moral formation and practiced virtues.
The arts—including architecture—have a special importance, because they are not merely sensory pleasures: they form the whole person through shaping the interior senses of memory, imagination, and judgment.
This approach to the person explains why, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger begins with the idea that space is for persons. The Catholic tradition approaches liturgy and liturgical space with the understanding that it forms the whole person. The building is a kind of “visible speaking.”
Principles of Beauty
In the classical tradition, beauty has both an objective and a subjective dimension. The subjective dimension is delight or enjoyment. It can be a kind of “gut attraction,” but it should be informed by tradition and reflection. Tradition might dictate that some things are more beautiful than others, whether we like them or not.
The arguments that follows may sound abstract. But it is important to note just how human is this approach to beauty. It begins in the way we are made for, and drawn to, the world as truly “good,” and ends in the more sophisticated joy of truly understanding something in the world.
The objective dimension of beauty is primary and indeed foundational. Beauty describes the reality, the command, of the thing that stands before us and over and against us. Beauty is primarily associated with form. (I will depend primarily on Augustine to explain this.)
Form describes: a) the appearance of a thing, which distinguishes it from other kinds of things; b) the unity of a thing (that it is a “this” or an individual thing); and c), that it has a nature, with an order or proper operation. Form is also a properly aesthetic term.
The initial experience we have of things, their “look,” involves an almost immediate exercise in distinction and in desiring.
We are made for things in the world, and they in turn are made for us. We see that “This is x and not y,” and with this perception goes a fittingness determined by the appropriateness of the object. Our appetite for food is stimulated by food, not only the visible appearance of it, but the smell, the texture, the feel, and so on.
For this reason, Augustine says in On True Religion, things “cannot lie.” What is, is true, because things are “one way and not another.”
Even what we might call “waste” has a place in the visible structure of the whole. This whole is orderly and functional. Even things of little significance, even things truly ugly, have some beauty in light of the whole, because the whole reveals an order or harmonia, and this gives real pleasure.
To summarize: beauty has an objective character that appeals to the intellect, even though we receive the first evidence from our appetites.
Second, it is about the unity of things, or what Thomas Aquinas calls consonantia: complex things have a functionality and end. Their parts work well together, making them to be complete “wholes.”
Finally, beauty is about what Thomas calls claritas: the way in which things reach out to us and reveal themselves.
For Augustine, this third element requires a shift from “intrinsic” to “systemic” order, because we only see the full beauty of a thing when we see it in the context of the whole order of the cosmos. The psalmist expresses this as well: “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (19:1).
This fits the Catholic way of understanding the created world as a revelation of God: everything is good, and because it is good, it is a language redolent with meaning and symbolic potential. When we say that things are beautiful, we observe divine speech reaching out to us through creation.
When we praise the beauty of the house of the Lord, or the beauty of the Lord himself, we affirm the completion of the dynamic of revelation in the secure presence of God, of life with God.
As Psalm 27:4 puts it: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”
The Church Historical and Mystical
Jesus Christ came to found a Church. The Church is prepared for in Israel, the holy people of God, marked off from other peoples by a relationship of covenant. At the heart of Israel’s worship is the tent of meeting, and eventually the Temple. Christ identifies himself with the Temple, even as he tears asunder the veil in the Holy of Holies that stands between the people and the presence of God. When we consider the church building, we must have these elements of the continuous and the radically new in mind.
It is common in ecclesiology to balance two approaches to the Church: the more horizontal, sociological, and historical reality of the people, and the more vertical, mystical reality of the presence of God. Lumen Gentium summarizes this by the familiar terms of “people of God” and “mystical body of Christ.”
Theological priority is given to the Church as “Body of Christ,” to highlight its mysterious and mystical dimension. This priority emphasizes the way in which the Church is unlike ordinary institutions, given that its founding and its ongoing life arises from the presence of God himself in the Church.
There is important continuity between Old and New Testaments, from the ark to Jesus. In the central place in the tent (or tabernacle) was the ark, upon which Yahweh would descend in a cloudy pillar, to speak to his people. The opening of the gospel of John says that the Word of God became flesh and “dwelt among us.” The Greek word for “dwell” means to “pitch one’s tent.” So, Christ is the new “tent of meeting”: he is the true mediator, the true priest.
There is also a shocking discontinuity in Christ’s identification of himself, or of his body, with the Temple/Church, because it includes an element of “tearing down” and re-building. In Colossians, we read that, in Christ, the “fullness of the Godhead dwells” in a visible, bodily way. Moreover, each Christian is said to be a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” Ephesians says that, united with “Christ as the cornerstone,” all the saints make up the new “household” of God, a living temple.
These biblical texts make sense of the priority of Church as “mystical body” in Lumen Gentium: the Church is the people of God, but only insofar as they are called by God, to worship and to be constituted into this new, living temple of Christ’s body, with God the Father as the architect. Christ is the Kingdom of God that he announces, and he is now and always in our midst.
The Church Building
The church building expresses both these elements of the continuous and the radically new. It must accomplish a great deal with respect to its meaning and to what occurs in the liturgy—nothing less than the building up of the Body of Christ on earth, making the divine presence known and adored, and translating this same body to the heavenly banquet.
Human creativity shares in the dynamic of revelation in a unique way. No one style of building is necessarily better or worse for signifying or accomplishing all that the church building must. But upon entering a church, there should be no doubt: this place is not like other places—God is present. And seeing the church in action, in the liturgy, there should also be no doubt: the veil has been torn, and the way to God has been opened once and for all.
The church building should communicate what it is and does by appealing to the whole person. It must appeal to the whole person by its beauty. The building must speak and be heard.
The principles of beauty according to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas resonate strongly with the classical principles of architecture we know from the Roman engineer Vitruvius’ De Architectura. His principles help us understand how church buildings work, how they “speak visibly.”
The Vitruvian Triad includes as principles for building: Firmitas (solidity, structural soundness, durability); Utilitas (functionality: what the building is for); and Venustas (beauty: quality of craftsmanship, materials; attention to detail).
Alberti, a Renaissance student of Vitruvius who wrote the first major treatise of his time on Vitruvius’ model, translates venustas as a kind of pleasure. He divides this into beauty (pulchritudo) and decoration (ornamentum). Finally, he defines beauty as proportion, or harmony, comparable to the mathematical rigor of musical harmony.
Proportion is objective beauty, and decoration is subjective beauty, because it depends on the judgment of the builder. The challenge of this distinction within the idea of beauty is that it problematizes something that may have been Vitruvius’ intent: the original three principles of building are inseparable one from another; they are not confused with each another, but rather overlap and mutually support each other.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in Saint Louis, Missouri, has a domed baldacchino and sanctuary dome above the altar. Photo: Sherrie Jackson
This overlap allows me to bring Vitruvius’ triad of building closer to Augustine and Aquinas’ triads of beauty. Vitruvius’ “solidity” and Augustine’s “forma” argue for the veracity of things, what a building actually says; “utility” argues for the effective operation of a thing, or how well a building accomplishes its intended purpose. These first two terms are not only the basis for the third term, beauty, they are essential to it.
It follows that beauty, whether understood as proportion or as decoration, is in fact the first and most important aspect of a building. Buildings say something, and they speak a language that addresses the appetitive and rational nature of persons.
The beauty of buildings lies in the clarity of their speaking, the order and proportion which appeals mathematically to the human sense for symmetry—there is a real delight in this. Their beauty also lies in the power with which they communicate.
Finally, their beauty lies in the effectiveness by which they accomplish their end. A comparison could be made to good, effective preaching. A good sermon might employ rhetoric and poetry well; it is never just a “message,” and ultimately, it should stir the hearer to devotion and action. Without its underlying substance, its teaching, we have a homily that sounds lovely, but feels empty—and fails.
Perhaps the best example to make sense of the interpenetration of the elements of beauty is revelation itself: God could have saved humanity any way that he wished, as Athanasius observed. He could have redeemed humanity by command, by some other sacrificial ritual, or by any other means than “pitching his tent” among men, for a lifetime that ended in suffering and humiliation.
However, God does things “in style”—through ridiculous generosity, through the solidarity of a lifetime of teaching and example, through the kindness of a multitude of gestures, such as healing by spittle and comfort by touching. Jesus never “just teaches”; he shows, and he invites: come, and see.
A Visible Speaking
If the church building is a “visible speaking,” and if beauty that appeals to the mind and heart is essential to its dynamic and success, what are some elements of its speech?
One is proportion and order. Vitruvius famously modeled an ideal series of ratios on the structure of the human person. Most churches in some manner reflect the idea of Christ as the ideal man. The heart is at the center, where the altar would be located, and the head in the sanctuary with the bishop’s throne and the tabernacle. The body itself extends into the nave and the crossing, giving us a cruciform layout.
The key idea is a visual clarity and rhythm that sooths the mind, while drawing the focus of the viewer naturally toward the altar as the center of the building. Why the altar? After the pattern of the tent of meeting, the altar is the place where the boundary between the earthly and the divine is traversed.
This may be signified by a dome over the altar. This represents either the whole cosmos (creation), with Christ at the center as the new Adam, or the breadth of divine providence over the whole of creation. The circular form is, geometrically speaking, perfect. It is eternal in a metaphorical sense, given that it has no start or end—it is an arch, rotated 360 degrees.
Apart from the structure of the whole building, the most important element for creating a sense of proportion, rhythm, and order, which also serves to direct the gaze forward to the altar, are pillars (or pilasters), which may or may not be linked by arches or an entablature. They also communicate strength and solidity.
Pilasters in the nave of Saint Peter’s articulate the space and draw attention forward to the altar. Photo: wikimedia.org/joselomba
Columns are beautiful because they are impressive, solid, and grouped well, and articulate space to a human scale, in contradistinction with the relatively massive ceiling. They frame the people in a space with a uniquely human purpose. They also direct the eyes to a point of visual convergence in the sanctuary.
When you enter, your eyes are indeed drawn forward, and eventually, you go forward: the focus is always on the altar. Whether in a cruciform or in a centrally-planned church, the directionality of the building should be the same, pointing those who worship to the place where the human and the divine come together.
Orientation and Placement
Three liturgical elements help in this regard. First, the orientation of the church to the east. Particularly when in exile, but even after the building of the first Temple, Jews pray facing Jerusalem, to remember the Temple, the place of God’s “earthly presence.”
Christians face east, and ideally all churches have altars at the eastern side of the building. The theological justification for this is the historical link between the rising sun and the new life embodied in the risen Lord Jesus, linking Easter (the yearly celebration of the Resurrection) with the last coming of Christ in judgment.
It is more about looking forward than remembering backwards. The altar is the place where this new life is actually shared by the faithful.
Finally, the required presence of a crucifix makes clear that mediation is a divine work, accomplished through the cross.
Second, the placement of the altar: this echoes the structure of the Temple, and the fact that the altar is for sacrifice.
In Leviticus, the ceremonial precepts show that the Law must be lived out; holiness and justice require total conformity of life, through thanksgiving, offering, propitiation and purification. All of these elements are richly present in the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.
A key difference, however, is that the sacrifice of the altar is a work of God (not of the priest), and it is has already been accomplished in time.
As Joseph Ratzinger says in The Spirit of the Liturgy, the Eucharist “brings heaven into the community assembled on earth, or rather it takes that community beyond itself into the communion of saints of all times and places.”
The twelve apostles are positioned on the colonettes of Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, France. Photo: frompariswithloveblog.wordpress.com
Third, the honored place of the Book of the Gospels: this can be seen in the placement of the pulpit in some churches in Europe sometimes halfway down the nave, and in some solemn liturgies that involve a Gospel procession, because the proclamation of salvation is made in the midst of the people.
In early liturgies, the people gathered around the bishop proclaiming the Word; then all turned to the altar, for the Eucharistic celebration.
This made it clear that the bishop (or priest) is a servant of the Word—like all the people around him—but he then stands at the altar for the people, distinct from them in his capacity of ministerial priesthood.
A second element of the church “visibly speaking” is the particular symbolism of the church building. This is a complex matter, seen for example in the column, which combines tree-like naturalism with human solidity (for Vitruvius), linking the twelve tribes of Israel to the idea of the people of God as constitutive stones of the edifice of the body of Christ.
The symbolic character of almost every element of church architecture, not to mention liturgical furniture, such as priestly garments, is rich and instructive, and should be known by the people, in order to appreciate the remarkable coherence of meaning in the liturgy, together with the dynamic functionality of the building.
A third and final element of the church “visibly speaking” is functionality. The obvious architectural model available for early church design was the Roman temple. The problem with the temple is that it was not made for people. It was occupied by significant statuary, and the enclosed space protected the statuary and votive offerings.
The Roman basilica, with its practical and unstructured simplicity, became the model for churches, in large part due to its functionality. A church is for the people of God to assemble: to hear the Word preached, and to worship the Lord in the “beauty of holiness.”
The “Liturgical Movement” which arose in the mid-nineteenth century aimed at restoring liturgical claritas. The purpose of the liturgy, and therefore the functionality of the church building, is ordered to divinization, according to Denis McNamara.
Its goal, he says in Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, is “to help people drink more deeply from the springs of divine life found in the Church and her sacraments by sharing in the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ: offering the self to God as a sacrifice and in turn receiving the divine life of sanctification.”
The altar, and especially the tabernacle, was given greater clarity and prominence. The floating altar, detached from a reredos, is one example.
Baptisteries were situated more prominently, or given distinct chapels. Central aisles were opened up for more processions.
Private devotions, essential to traditional Catholicism, were seen to separate believers from the mass. Designers deliberately subordinated them to the mass through deliberate church design, for example, by removing or repurposing darkened side-chapels.
The overall intended stylistic effect of liturgical reform, in the eventual words of the Vatican II document, has been “noble simplicity” or clarity, and “noble beauty.”
Whether these goals have been attained or even articulated well, to implement the will of the Council fathers, remains an open question. A classical sense of architectural beauty, understood in the deeply humanistic terms of the last three pontificates, remains central to the theological meaning and the spiritual end of the Catholic liturgy.
This article is a shorter version of an academic paper delivered for the Thomistic Institute and Columbia University Catholic Ministry.