Contemplating the Kingdom: The Need for Re-Iconization in Our Own Time

by Aidan Nichols, O.P., appearing in Volume 28


Church architecture has joined the disputed issues of contemporary Western Catholicism. Indeed, one commentator, the American Michael Rose, does not scruple to speak about “architectural culture wars” in progress today.1 That the same author can vary that phrase by introducing, in place of “architectural,” the neologism “archi-liturgical” should alert us to a fairly obvious fact.2 The debate about architecture is as organically connected with dispute about the liturgy as a Modernist church in the twentieth-century International style is disconnected from the traditional modalities of Catholic worship.

Chiesa di Dio Padre Misericordioso, The Jubilee Church, Rome, designed by Richard Meier. Photo:

Interior, Jubilee Church, Rome. Photo:

The “Jubilee Church,” erected by the Roman diocese in the year 2000 to a plan suggested by the New York architect Richard Meier, might be not the worst place to open an enquiry. That is owing to the high-profile nature of this scheme, which was intended as a pilot for the third millennium of the Church’s story. An external view of the building must mention first its combination of rectangular and curved surfaces with no obvious symbolic resonance; the appropriate adjectives would be “analytical” and “cubist.” Inside, the professor of fine arts at the American University in Rome found a stark interior, raw in its geometry, its furniture banal.3 The altar is an uncovered block of travertine, the ambo a box. No one had provided for the sanctuary either crucifix or image of the Mother of God, so a borrowed version of the one, from a neighboring parish, and a repository version of the other took their place, the crucifix disconcertingly decentered in regard to the altar. Though this observer praises the tabernacle for its color and surface, she implies what a photographer soon confirms: it is a box—another one, if a golden one—with a circle inscribed on the side that opens. She admits that the aspiration of the building to austerity of form impresses, but doubts whether it adds up to a church, exactly—as distinct from a public building of some other kind. Her ascription of “iconoclastic tendencies” to its architect, a secular Jew, would not necessarily be denied by their object. Meier argued that, had the diocese of Rome wanted a traditional church, they would not have invited him in particular to enter the competition to design it.4 That is a perfectly reasonable point. A defining feature of the Modern movement in architecture is to sever, of set purpose, all nostalgic ties with the past of a tradition.5

As the year 2000 came and went, so it happens, an English Jesuit was working on a comprehensive study of probably the greatest of the twentieth century’s liturgical architects, John Ninian Comper, whose vision and technique could hardly stand in sharper contrast to Meier’s. Father Anthony Symondson’s biography of Comper is still awaited, but his study of Comper’s approach to building a church has already appeared.6 It is not only a fastidiously researched, excellently written, and superbly illustrated study (from black and white photographs, many of them early, of these buildings). It is also a declaration of war. For Symondson, architectural Modernism has
resulted in a rash of mediocre churches and the ruination of many old ones which depress their congregations, starve them of transcendence in worship, and deprive them of a sense of place.7

The importance of Comper is that

more than any other English church architect of the twentieth century, [he] endeavoured with passionate conviction to penetrate to the very core of Western civilization by studying the church art and architecture of Europe to find there spiritual values applicable to his own time.8


The “ideological impasse in which modern church architecture sleeps” could be overcome with no compromise of liturgical principle if Comper’s understanding not only of the “indispensability of beauty” but, more specifically, of the “legacy of Christian tradition” were renewed.9 If I say that the overall effect of text and photographs in this book comes as a revelation, I shall also be declaring an interest. What follows in this essay is an attempt to second Father Symondson’s plea, notably by bringing into consort some voices harmonious with his, mainly—but not exclusively—from the United States.

The ground of my partisanship lies in the history of the subject—namely, sacred space as envisaged in Church tradition. Any visit to that history, with a view to drawing out pertinent principles, will prove hard to reconcile with those radically innovatory twentieth-century buildings that reject both structure and content as found in pre-twentieth-century use.

Some Principles

We can note first the importance of the church building for traditional Christendom. It is hardly to be overestimated. Vera Shevzov writes of Russian Christian attitudes:

Given the meanings ascribed to the temple [i.e., church building], it is not surprising that Orthodox writers and preachers considered it an essential aspect of the Christian life. Without the temple, they maintained, there could be no salvation, since only it could facilitate the formation of the inner spiritual temple. Insofar as believers strove toward union and communion with God, by their nature they needed the structure and stimulus of matter. The church building provided the primary source of nourishment and healing for the human soul in its journey toward God.10


Saint Mary, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, designed by Sir Ninian Comper. Photo: Harris

That tells us of the vital place of the church building, albeit in an idiom somewhat uncertainly positioned between religious rhetoric and social anthropology. Shevzov’s statement needs supplementing by a more theological definition of what a church is. For any reality, after all, ontology underlies function. Preferably, such a definition should draw on both Western and Eastern emphases since although our interest, like the problem, is Occidental, the Church here as elsewhere cannot be healthful unless she also breathes with her Oriental “lung. ”

Writing as an Anglo-Catholic with Rome-ward inclinations,11 Comper comes obligingly to our aid. His prose has late Edwardian lushness, but the saturated quality of this particular passage turns on its richness of allusion to the Bible and Tradition.

[A church] is a building which enshrines the altar of Him who dwelleth not in temples made with hands and who yet has made there His Covenanted Presence on earth. It is the centre of Worship in every community of men who recognize Christ as the Pantokrator, the Almighty, the Ruler and Creator of all things: at its altar is pleaded the daily Sacrifice in complete union with the Church Triumphant in Heaven, of which He is the one and only Head, the High Priest forever after the order of Melchisedech.12

Comper goes on to emphasize the catholic—that is, the ecclesial and cosmic—character of the church building, to the point of arguing that “a Protestant church” (as distinct from meeting-house for preaching) is a contradiction in terms. Only a high doctrine of the ecclesial mystery can explain the existence of the historic church building of traditional Christendom and the attention paid it by the community.

A church built with hands . . . is the outward expression here on earth of that spiritual Church built of living stones, the Bride of Christ, Urbs beata Jerusalem, which stretches back to the foundation of the world and onwards to all eternity. With her Lord she lays claim to the whole of His Creation . . . And so the temple here on earth, in different lands and in different shapes, in the East and in the West, has developed or added to itself fresh forms of beauty and, though it has suffered from iconoclasts and destroyers both within and without, . . . it has never broken with the past, it has never renounced its claims to continuity.13


In his keynote essay “Of the Atmosphere of a Church,” from which I have been quoting, Comper infers from such a conception that “it must . . . reduce to folly” the terms “self-expression” and “the expression of the age,” and most notably so when they are “used to cover such incapacity and ugliness as every age has in turn rejected.” And he inquires, pointedly, “Is there such a supremacy of goodness, beauty and truth in the present age as to mark it as distinct from the past and demand that we invent a new expression of it?”14 A saint or mystic may pass directly to God without any need for the outward beauties of art, or nature for that matter. Most people cannot.

Comper stresses the eschatological setting of worship.

The note of a church should be, not that of novelty, but of eternity. Like the Liturgy celebrated within it, the measure of its greatness will be the measure in which it succeeds in eliminating time and producing the atmosphere of heavenly worship. This is the characteristic of the earliest art of the Church, in liturgy, in architecture and in plastic decoration, and it is the tradition of all subsequent ages.15


Basilica di San Clemente, Rome. Photo: Caroline Rose & Pierre Grimal, Churches of Rome

This need exclude no genuinely “beautiful style.” But the basic layout must be “in accord with the requirements of the liturgy and the pastoral needs of those who worship within it,” while “the imagery [found within it] must express the balanced measure of the faith.” For these purposes it is necessary to “look to tradition.” It is no more satisfactory to suppose, so Comper argues, that one can properly interpret these needs without reference to tradition than were we to neglect tradition in interpreting the New Testament or the creeds of the Church. Anti-traditionalists are, generally speaking, consistent since “modernism in art is the natural expression of modernism in doctrine, and it is quite true they are both the expression of the age, but of one side of it only.” And Comper goes on with frightening prescience: “Rome has condemned modernist doctrine, but has not yet condemned its expression in art. The attraction of the modernistic is still too strong.”16

Contemporary Difficulties

It would be hard to imagine a manifesto in more brutal contradiction to Comper’s principles than the United States Bishops’ Conference Committee on the Liturgy document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, produced exactly thirty years after he wrote. The 1978 text declared the assembly of believers the most important “symbol with which the liturgy deals.” The document thus relegates all other elements of Catholic worship—not only the ordained ministry but the rites themselves, and so, inevitably, their artistic and architectural elaboration—to a secondary status.17 In due course, this text stimulated a robust counterreaction in the American church.

Thus, for instance, the liturgical theologian Francis Mannion found behind its extraordinary choice of controlling option an attitude he called theological “experiential-expressivism.” That is his term for a situation where liturgical forms serve chiefly to express the inspirations of a group. The role of art in exploring, after the manner (we might add) of Comper, the “Christologically founded rites” of the Church’s “sacramental order” can only have the most precarious future, so Mannion opined, if such a view of the Church’s worship should come to prevail.

The most frequent visual embodiment of “experiential-expressivism,” at least in North America, is probably the domestication of church interiors. The only “model” appeal to group self-expression one can readily find in the paradigm of contemporary Western culture turns out to be the living room or, more institutionally, the doctor’s waiting room or, yet again, the hotel foyer. Comfortable or plush, these have it in common that they are always tame. Such accommodation to secular space is hardly unknown in Britain either. In the words of one English commentator (like Comper, an Anglo-Catholic, at least at the time of writing): “The sanctuary became less a place to worship God than the apotheosis of 1960’s man’s homage to G-Plan furnishing and his own immanence.”18 Mannion’s critique was equally severe, if more soberly expressed.

The kind of hospitality appropriate to worship is not psychological intimacy in the ordinary cultural sense: it is theological intimacy, that is, the bonding of persons of all degrees of relationship by their participation in the Trinitarian life of God through sacramental initiation. By the same token, transcendence does not mean divine remoteness from the communal, but the embodiment of divine glory in communal events.19


An alternative organization of space to the domestic could bear a closer resemblance to the garage. But, as the closing sentence of this citation indicates, the Bauhaus style of stripped-down simplicity is scarcely more helpful than Biedermeier cosiness. In total if unwitting conformity with Comper’s essay, Mannion comments: “there exists considerable difficulty in reconciling the principles of aesthetic modernism and those of the sacramental tradition of Catholicism.”20

That is the artifice of understatement. How can they possibly be reconciled if architectural Modernism seeks, as it does, to expunge symbolism and memory whereas the sacramental sensibility of Catholicism is founded on precisely these things? Helpfully, Mannion points for guidance to the post-Conciliar rite for the dedication of a church and altar and the relevant sections of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.21 Given the Second Vatican Council’s movement of ressourcement in matters of early Christian Liturgy, it was certainly extraordinary that the bishops and the pert expressed so little interest in the recovery of the forms of ancient Christian architecture and art, forms which are the matrix of all the subsequently developed styles the Church has known. In the post-Conciliar period, some assistance was granted, however, to the recovery of sanity by these ceremonial and catechetical documents.

In the year 2000 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States approved a replacement set of guidelines for Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. Built of Living Stones, for such was its title, represents a considerable advance on its predecessor. It does so by conceiving the church building as chiefly a function of the Church’s rites. But there is a price to be paid in terms of devotional purposes, as distinct from liturgical goals strictly so defined.22 For the document did not do justice to a swinging—but not wholly unjustified—judgment passed by the Swiss dogmatician Hans Urs von Balthasar on how we live now.

Only in an age when man gives up his personal prayer and contents himself with being simply a communal animal in the church can one design churches which are determined purely functionally by the services of the congregation.23

The Need for Re-Iconization

Fronleichnamskirche, Aachen. Photo: Zhang

Steven Schloeder is an American architect who takes as his points of reference the dedication rites and the Catechism, as well as texts from the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II. What he terms Modernist “whitewashed barns”—examples such as the Fronleichnamskirche at Aachen date from so early as the late 1920s24—proved, he reports, influential models for reordered, as well as newly built, churches in the post-Conciliar epoch. The emphasis of the Modernist movement on “universal space” tallied only too well with the antihierarchical communitarianism which was a temptation of the mid-twentieth-century liturgical movement, just as aesthetic reductivism dovetailed into notions of liturgical simplicity. The ruling maxim became “assembly is all.” Emphasis on the meal-aspect of the Eucharist at the expense of its more primordial sacrificial dimension25—the “meal” is enjoyment of the fruits of the sacrifice—followed naturally. In their worst (i.e., their most consistent) examples, writes Schloeder:

[The Modernists’] buildings have been incapable of addressing the deeper, mystical knowledge of the faith, much less the human soul’s yearning for the mystery of transcendent beauty. Rather, they have fallen into a reductionist mentality, stripping the churches of those elements, symbols, and images that speak to the human heart. Their buildings speak only of the immanent—even as their liturgies studiously avoid the transcendent to dwell on the “gathered assembly”—and thus have departed from the theological and anthropological underpinnings of the traditional understanding of Catholic church architecture.26

By the early 1960s, some commentators were resigned to soulless churches as all that a supposedly inescapable architectural modernity would provide. “Apart from the community which gathers in these churches,” wrote R. Kevin Seasoltz with seeming equanimity, “the buildings have little meaning.”27

For Schloeder, in striking contrast, the church building is an icon of the spiritual reality of the Church.28 Here he has, I believe, rightly identified the nodal issue. Schloeder outlines briefly how in the East and West this “iconic” character of the church building worked out. Given the authoritative role of Church tradition in these matters, this is in fact an indispensable exercise.

For the East: drawing on such Fathers as Theodore of Mopsuestia, Maximus Confessor, and Germanus of Constantinople, as well as later divines like Nicholas of Andida, Nicholas Cabasilas, and Symeon of Thessalonica, Schloeder produces an overall identikit Byzantine interpretation of the church building. At the church entrance, the narthex signifies the unredeemed world: here in early times the catechumens and penitents foregathered. By contrast, the naos or central space represents the redeemed world crowned by a dome whose primary task is to recall the heavens, where Christ the Pantokrator, figured there, sits in His risen humanity at the Father’s right, holding all things together in heaven and on earth. But, writes Schloeder:

The dome also gives a sense of immanence, and suggests that the naos is also the Womb of the Virgin, as well as the Holy Cave of Bethlehem and the Holy Cave of the Sepulchre. Thus the building evokes many images of places where the Spirit vivifies the Church, which is born into the world, and redeemed into the Glory of the Lord.29

Continuing his analysis, Schloeder describes the developed icon screen of late medieval and modern Byzantine-Slav churches as veiling the sanctuary, which is “the fulfillment of the Mercy Seat of the Mosaic tabernacle, . . . the perfection of [the] Holy of Holies, and . . . even the sacramental representation of the very Throne of God.”30 The multiple “layeredness” or rich complexity of such symbolic interpretation of the church building, even at a comparatively early stage of Greek Christian reflection, is shown in Schloeder’s summary of three chapters from the Mystagogia of the seventh century doctor Saint Maximus:

The entire church is an image of the Universe, of the visible world, and of man; within it, the chancel represents man’s soul, the altar his spirit, the naos his body. The bishop’s Entrance into the church symbolizes Christ’s coming into the flesh, his Entrance into the bema [the sanctuary] Christ’s Ascension to heaven.31

Turning now to the West, such high medieval treatises as the canon regular Hugh of Saint Victor’s Speculum de mysteriis Ecclesiae, the black monk Abbot Suger’s Libellus de consecratione Ecclesiae sancta Dionysii, and Bishop William Durandus’s Rationale divinorum officiorum furnish an analogical treatment to that found further east. The themes of the Body of Christ and the Heavenly City bespeak divine order in its integrity and fullness, which buildings shaped for the celebration of the liturgy should reflect.

As Schloeder points out, the most common schema in the Western Middle Ages is the cruciform church as representation of the Lord’s own body on the Cross. In, for example, a medieval English cathedral with a black monk chapter,

Christ’s Head is at the apse which is the seat of governance represented by the bishop’s cathedra; the choir is his throat from which the chants of the monks issue forth the praise of God; the transepts are his extended arms; his torso and legs form the nave since the gathered faithful are his body; the narthex represents his feet, where the faithful enter the church; and at the crossing is the altar, which is the heart of the church.32

That is not without a biblical basis. Saint Paul had called Christ the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20), and Christians members of his body (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12), so it was natural for Christians to see the church building as an expression of the body of the Lord. There was here a kind of Gospel transfiguration of the ancient conviction, classically expressed in Vitruvius’s De architecture, that the wonderful proportions of the human body—confirming in the microcosm the macrocosmic harmony of nature—are architecture’s proper measure. On such an understanding, nothing is more natural than to cover church walls with frescoes of the saints, or punctuate them with statues, since these remind the faithful how they are indeed part of Christ’s “mystical” body. A church is, in Schloeder’s phrase, “built theology.”33

Postmedieval churches continued to be designed to markedly symbolic plans. So Schloeder reminds us how Francesco Borromini, when remodeling the nave of Saint John Lateran, set up the twelve apostles in monumental statuary with the consecration crosses by their side, to bespeak the city of the Apocalypse which “stood on twelve foundation stones, each one of which bore the name of the one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Apocalypse 21:14).34 Although Saint Charles Borromeo’s influential treatise Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae, which sought to summarize Catholic traditions of church design, shows a markedly practical bent, Borromeo began his work with these words:

This only has been our principle: that we have shown that the norm and form of building, ornamentation and ecclesiastical furnishing are precise and in agreement with the thinking of the Fathers…35


That could not but ratify patristic (and post-patristic) theological symbolism—not least for Borromini.

The Instructions were reprinted, largely unchanged, on at least nineteen occasions between 1577 and 1952.36 They remain pertinent to post-Conciliar Catholicism, since, in a passage from the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” of the Second Vatican Council highlighted by Schloeder, in any aspect of liturgical life, “care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.”37

That passage furnishes the leitmotif of his comprehensive 1998 study Architecture in Communion, just as it does for a more general study of liturgical principles which appeared a few years later, Alcuin Reid’s The Organic Development of the Liturgy.38

Schloeder’s exposition itself indicates that the tradition of symbolic interpretation was not uniform. It had variants, stemming from differences in both architectural style and theological background. Comper had increasingly sought to maximize the advantages of such pluralism by a policy of “unity by inclusion”: Gothic and Classical styles, for instance, are not, in Christian use, opposites.39 Enough is in common to call this, in broad terms, the Tradition (of iconic interpretation of architecture, q.v.).

It is a tradition which requires reinstatement in our own time, above all through the construction of buildings that actually call for a reading along some such lines. Indeed, the post-Conciliar rite Dedication of a Church and an Altar demands it, explicitly calling the church building a representation of the heavenly Jerusalem.40 If that rite bears any authority, then the shapes and volumes of sacred space need relating to ecclesial functions within an organic composition, and both massing and decoration must be allowed to recover their full symbolic valency. This in turn will permit the personal, devotional inhabiting of space as well as its corporate liturgical equivalent.


Francis Mannion relaxed his characteristic iron discipline of under-statement when he wrote:

A future generation of historians will make a stronger connection than we do today between the early iconoclastic movement, the Reformation “stripping of altars,” and the post-Vatican II treatment of the historic heritage of Catholic art.41


Three years previously, in the unlikely context of the London Tablet, the stained–glass artist Patrick Reyntiens had entered a similar plea.

It begins to become more and more obvious that the exact ambience and cultural context of the visible elements in the interiors of modern churches should be thought out and acted upon in far greater seriousness and depth than hitherto . . . The sacred space has been violated since Vatican II very much as it was first at the time of the Reformation, and this must be rectified for the health of the Church.42

And so, Quo vadis? As if with prophetic insight into the ravages of architectural Modernism, the American Neo-Gothic builder Ralph Adams Cram wrote in the opening year of the twentieth century:

We must return for the fire of life to other centuries, since a night intervened between our fathers’ time and ours wherein the light was not.43

That was Comper’s message too, but in his case it came to entail a comprehensive openness to all the great stylistic epochs of the Church as builder. That was possible owing to both the ontological character of beauty as a transcendental determination of being and the fundamental internal coherence or organicity of the Church’s tradition. The unifying element in any particular building comes from the architect’s contribution. A church must be not only a rationally designed liturgical space but a unified work of art.

Saint Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate, London, designed by Sir Ninian Comper. Photo: Iliff

John Henry Newman, in the nineteenth of the Parochial and Plain Sermons (volume six), took as his text Psalm 78:69, which in the Authorized Version reads, “He built His sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which He hath established for ever.” Newman used the homiletic opportunity to argue against the opinion that Jesus’s prediction to the Woman of Samaria—future worshippers “shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23)—nullifies the psalm in question (and in so doing renders trivial the topic of this essay).

Our Saviour did not say to the Samaritan woman that there should be no places and buildings for worship under the Gospel, because He has not brought it to pass, because such ever have been, at all times and in all countries, and amid all differences of faith. And the same reasons which lead us to believe that religious edifices are a Christian ordinance, though so very little is said about them in Scripture, will also show that it is right and pious to make them enduring, and stately, and magnificent, and ornamental; so that our Saviour’s declaration, when He foretold the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, was not that there should never be any other house built to His honour, but rather that there should be many houses; that they should be built, not merely at Jerusalem, or at Gerizim, but everywhere; what was under the Law a local ordinance, being henceforth a Catholic privilege, allowed not here and there, but wherever was the Spirit and the Truth. The glory of the Gospel is not the abolition of rites, but their dissemination; not their absence, but their living and efficacious presence through the grace of Christ.44

A church building, says Newman, represents

the beauty, the loftiness, the calmness, the mystery, and the sanctity of religion . . . and that in many ways; still, I will say, more than all these, it represents to us its eternity. It is the witness of Him who is the first and the last; it is the token and emblem of “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and for ever.”45


That is why they are

happy . . . who, when they enter within their holy limits, enter in heart into the court of heaven. And most unhappy, who, while they have eyes to admire, admire them only for their beauty’s sake, and the skill they exhibit; who regard them as works of art, not fruits of grace; bow down before their material forms, instead of worshipping “in spirit and in truth”; count their stones, and measure their spaces, but discern in them no tokens of the invisible, no canons of truth, no lessons of wisdom, to guide them forward in the way heavenward!46

We enter these iconic buildings aright if, as we do so, we contemplate the mystery of the Church and, through the Church, the Kingdom. Go to the greatest of Comper’s churches—to Saint Mary’s, Wellingborough (Northamptonshire), or Saint Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate (London)—and you will learn how.47