Depicting the Whole Christ: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sacred Architecture

by Philip Nielsen, appearing in Volume 16

The theological work of twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has only recently begun to take its proper place in Catholic theology. In his lifetime he certainly took a back seat to contemporaries such as Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and those men who were known as the theological architects of Vatican II. Balthasar never attended Vatican II, unlike so many of his fellow theologians and friends. This absence, combined with the difficulty inherent in classifying such a diverse corpus as his, has slowed his acceptance as a theological authority in the Church. But for the past thirty years—since the election of John Paul II to the Holy See—Balthasar’s star has risen as one of the great theologians after Trent, a status that the election of Balthasar’s close personal friend and theological sympathizer Joseph Ratzinger to the Chair of Saint Peter seemingly stamped with an imprimatur of the highest rank. At Balthasar’s funeral, Henri Cardinal de Lubac described him as “probably the most cultured man in the Western world.” Indeed, when one looks at the cultural topics that Balthasar treated, Cardinal de Lubac’s statement becomes hard to refute: Balthasar wrote his doctoral dissertation on German literature; his first major work was on music; he was one of the foremost patristic scholars of his time; and, thanks to his father’s practice of church architecture in Switzerland, he loved the visual arts and architecture.

It is due to his expansive cultural awareness that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s corpus does not describe a program or system for sacred art; for a system would too greatly limit both the workings of the Spirit and the creative freedom of the artist. Rather, Balthasar persistently meditates upon the first principles of the drama of prayer, and only out of these principles can his understanding of sacred art and architecture be gleaned. Above all, his understanding of prayer begins by placing silent contemplation at the core. Only through this silent contemplation can we hear God’s Word to us and enter into union with his Word. This study of Balthasar’s view of architecture suggests an approach to sacred architecture in the modern world based upon how the drama of prayer inhabits the form of sacred art and architecture.

The natural place to begin a study of Balthasar’s understanding of contemplation is the same place he believes all theology must begin, namely, with the creatureliness of man. Balthasar repeatedly quotes the famous passage of the Fourth Lateran Council that states: “As great as may be the similarity, so much greater must the dissimilarity between creator and creature be preserved.” The distance between God and his creatures should not be brushed aside or taken for granted, because it is the first key to understanding the glory of God. Not surprisingly, Balthasar emphasizes the principle of creatureliness in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. In Presence and Thought, his groundbreaking work on Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Balthasar begins by describing the saint’s habit of beginning his theological works with “spacing,” that is, with an emphasis on the dissimilarity between God and man: “Every time he undertakes a development of the fundamentals of his metaphysics, Gregory begins from the irreducible opposition between God and creature.” Balthasar’s description of his model Saint Gregory could justly be applied to Balthasar himself. Opposition, however, is not something that keeps man from communion with God; rather, it is only through an understanding of God as incomprehensible that the drama can begin to unfold. As Balthasar explains: “‘Incomprehensibility’ does not mean a negative determination of what one does not know, but rather a positive and almost ‘seen’ and understood property of him whom one knows. The more a great work of art is known and grasped, the more concretely are we dazzled by its “ungraspable’ genius.”

The Franciscan Church in Lucerne, Switzerland, was the church Hans Urs von Balthasar attended when he was a child. Photo: Jarvis

The distance between God and his creatures properly silences the worshipping participant. Awe-inspired silence becomes the starting point of the liturgy: “prayer, we can now see, is communication, in which God’s word has the initiative and we, at first, are simply listeners.” Neither is this task of silence too difficult for man. On the contrary, it is that for which he was created: “Since God himself has made us such that, to be truly ourselves, we have to listen to his word, he must, for that reason, have endowed us with the ability to do so.” The danger at the initial stage of the liturgy is all too clear: that the participants may drown out the Word with their chatter, with their opinions, with their noise—with a one-sided conversation originating and ending in man. Not even communal liturgy can substitute for personal silent prayer. Balthasar exclaims:

As if a break of two minutes after the sermon or after communion could satisfy man’s elementary need of silence in God, of communion from heart with him! And who can, as he swallows the Host, “realize” what Holy Communion means? Does he not need for that the unfunctional, silent “adoration of the holy of holies”? Or silent, personal meditation on the Holy Scriptures?

God speaks to man in his silence, and then man is caught up into the heavenly conversation of the Trinity:

In John, Jesus summarizes his whole mission in the “high-priestly prayer” (ch. 17) in which he commends all his work, from his going forth from the Father to his return to him, into his Father’s hands. Even in his dying words he is still in dialogue with God. Christians of all ages, including now are drawn into this prayer. There is no excuse; no evasion will be permitted. Nor may refuge be sought in mere action, nor simply in the liturgy.

God does not simply speak down to man, leaving him in his earthly state; through Christ, he catches the contemplator up with him into heaven. Balthasar’s anatomy of prayer consists, therefore, in three parts: first, the participant is silent; second, God speaks the Word to man in his silence; third, God catches man up into the divine conversation. The liturgy does not replace the personal prayer of the Church, but rather it flows out of it. For Balthasar, action and liturgy ground and manifest the fruits of personal prayer, but they never replace it.

The Word God speaks to man is the Logos of Scripture—Jesus Christ himself. As the Word spoken by God to Man, Christ is the perfect “image” of God because he is God, the visible mediator of the invisible Creator. For this reason, when Balthasar asks the question whether contemplation should be “Image-filled” or “image-less” he is able to answer simply: “In this much—discussed matter all depends on whether the contemplator is a Christian or not. If he is not a Christian, he will from the beginning strive for imageless contemplation. ... For the Christian all is different.” He goes on to explain that that, in this sense, Christianity is unique in the world, in that it is based upon Christ who is the “Son, radiance, reflection, Word, Image.” Not only is Christ the Image of the Father, he surrounds himself with images of himself in the form of parables. Christ, in his parables describes common things, rocks, wheat, sheep, and his use of them causes “even the rocks to cry out.” These stories provide a key part of the Image of the Father that Christ presents. The Church too, as the body of Christ, acts as an image of Christ. Parables, Christian art, even the lives of the saints, are thus, images of the Image Christ.

Saint Joseph with the Infant by Guido Reni, 1635. Image: Public Domain

For Balthasar, a Church totally devoid of images is not something that could concentrate the eyes of the congregation purely on Christ (as many Protestant and even some Catholic thinkers would assert), but is rather much more akin to a Gospel in which half the parables of Christ were removed. It is against the justification of iconoclasm that Balthasar writes: “If a people were to be incapable of creating genuine religious images or statues for the churches, it should not say that empty walls concentrate the spirit more effectively upon what is essential. If we have become a small people we should not seek to reduce the mystery we celebrate to our dimensions.” We should make no mistake, however; the incapacity of “creating genuine religious art” would be a huge loss in Balthasar’s mind. The Church would lose in art one of the fundamental images of Christ. And yet, if the image were to become ugly, then they would no longer be a truthful image of Christ. Guido Reni’s Saint Joseph with the Infant, for example, illustrates the image of Christ in a way [32] that adds depth to the story alone. A blank canvas represents a loss for the Church, but an ugly painting would have conflicted with the image of Christ and been worse than a blank canvas. Christ is the Word, and sacred architecture, Sacred Scripture, and the liturgy reveal the Image of Christ in their unique ways, so that they must all work in unison to provide a fuller image.

In the wake of Balthasar’s expression of the principals of prayer, especially distance, silence, dialogue, and image, the direction that sacred architecture should take becomes clearer and its pitfalls less hidden. First, sacred art and architecture should avoid taking on merely human dimensions, seeking rather to preserve the “dissimilarity” between God and his creatures. Sacred architecture’s first duty is to create a sense of “spacing” between God and man. The church, but especially its sanctuary, must clearly depict a distance between God and his creatures. A church that looks like a living room makes an awareness of the difference between Creator and creature more difficult to perceive—it makes it an act of near heroic virtue. “Spacing” can be achieved first and foremost by scale, ornamentation, art, and architectural cues such as rails, screens, stairs, or curtains. All of these elements, insofar as they make the glory of God more clear to the participant, express true beauty. This beauty must lead to God, however, not simply to an aesthetic experience. “The awareness of inherent glory,” writes Balthasar, “gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God.” Architecture, just like sacred music or art, must fulfill its highest calling, aiding the participant in seeing the glory of God.

Saint Giles Catholic Church rood screen in Cheadle, Staffordshire, designed by August Welby Pugin in 1841. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP

An architecture that is ordered to fulfill only its human, or even liturgical use, fails its higher purpose: “For good reason the people of the Middle Ages built cathedrals larger than a liturgy could fill. Only in an age when one gives up personal prayer in order to be simply a communal animal in the church can one design churches which are determined purely functionally by the services of the congregation.” Balthasar’s “good reason” is twofold: the medieval cathedrals were built on a grand scale to glorify God and preserve distance—but they were also built to accommodate personal devotions, reverence of relics, and personal prayer beyond the scope of the public liturgies. God brings himself near to man through these encounters even as distance creates awe. Sacred architecture must accommodate these personal devotions if it is to fulfill Balthasar’s expectations. The danger of an architecture that does not accommodate personal prayer and devotion, or Eucharistic adoration, is not, within Balthasar’s drama of prayer, one that fails in merely a “secondary” purpose. For, though Balthasar would certainly not deny the centrality of the Mass, the spiritual benefits for the person attending Mass depend upon one’s own personal devotion. To deepen the public prayer of the Church, architecture must accommodate personal devotions as well.

For a Balthasarian Church to witness both to the distance between God and man, and accommodate the personal devotions of the participants, its guiding principle must be the silence and rest that are the beginning of prayer. A double danger exists here: first the architect might create a space that is silent, not with a living silence, but with the silence of the tomb where there is nothing to inspire awe, longing, or the understanding that the repose should lead to prayer. Secondly, the architect might create a loud architecture that wars with contemplation. The architect might create the necessary “spacing” between God and man through a wholly unique and even strange church without accompanying this distance with the necessary repose. This “spacing” without repose might, for example, occur in a poorly executed baroque church, a non-tectonic church, an anti-symmetrical church, or any sacred architecture that disregards the principles that allow the architecture to rest.

A war on silence could include [33] either agitated architecture designed only to excite or unsettle, a merely communal architecture that does not allow for any places in which personal devotions may be practiced in solitude, or an architecture that is constantly in flux with renovation and fuss. On this final point Balthasar acknowledges that renewal may sometimes be necessary, but that it can fall into change for the sake of change: “What a welcome alibi it provides for a new clerical dirigisme, for a busy clerical activity which never stop moving the altar around, fumigating churches, buying new vestments for the servers and a thousand other oddments, while all the time it is putting the emphases in the wrong place.”

If bustle and noise are the wrong place, what is the right place? An ideal Balthasarian church building has shown the distance between God and his creatures. It has awed and silenced the faithful. It has enfolded them in its side chapels to await the Word from God, the Logos. But where in the architecture is the image of Christ to be found? Balthasar answers—everywhere— every image of the life of Christ, every station of the cross, every statue of a saint, every stained-glass window works as an image of Christ. The architecture must orchestrate as much imagery as it can without destroying the “repose” of the building. These images are the image of Christ who bridges that “spacing” or gap that first brought the faithful into awareness of their need for God. The rood screen separates man from God, but it is called a rood screen because it is surmounted by an image of Christ on the “rood,” or cross. The altar rail divides men from God, but that is exactly where Christ meets them in his own Body and Blood. When iconoclasts destroyed the images and whitewashed the cathedrals (whether the Protestant iconoclasts of the sixteenth century or the modernist iconoclasts of the twentieth), they preserved the question in the stones and mortar, but hid the answer that existed in the images. When the crucifix is removed the rood screen does become simply a barrier. When the icons are removed, the iconostasis becomes a wall.

The nature of these images must, ultimately, depict the “whole” Christ, not simply a part of him. Thus, sacred art and architecture must not reflect only a few sides of Christ’s nature and mission. Balthasar writes, “Every element calls for the other, and the more penetrating the gaze of the beholder, the more he will discover harmony on all sides. If one essential element should be broken off … all the proportions will be distorted and falsified.” Christ must be depicted in a vision that is as whole and multisided as possible, and a church that makes reference to only a part of Christ necessarily presents a distorted view of Christ: “The eschatological theme, taken on its own, is incomprehensible without the cadence of Christ’s suffering. The vertical form of the Son of God who descends from the Father and goes back to him illegible without the horizontal form of historical fulfillment and the mission entrusted to the apostles.” The goal of an art or architecture that strives to depict the “whole of Christ” summarizes Balthasar’s understanding of appropriate forms of sacred architecture.

No architectural form or program can depict the “whole” of Christ. Clearly some sacred buildings do not live up to Balthasar’s expectations of a church, but not even the best church can perfectly fulfill the mission of sacred architecture. Some churches are more silent than others (many Cistercian monasteries for example), [34] and some churches inspire more awe (Saint Peter’s and Chartres), but no single church perfectly expresses the glory of Christ. A program for perfect architecture is always attractive: some have claimed that decorating the sanctuary with the scenes of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb constitutes the proper backdrop to the mysteries being celebrated; or that the saints should never find their way into the images of the sanctuary; others have suggested that every church should be built in a Gothic, classical, or Romanesque manner. But as John Henry Cardinal Newman, a particular hero of Balthasar, put it, “There is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the contents of a real idea, no one term or proposition which will serve to define it; though of course one representation of it is more just and exact than another.” Balthasar opposed “systematic” studies of either theology or art—not because these fields are not full of truth, or because this truth is unintelligible, but because systems tend to reduce that which they study to their dimensions.

In Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, Balthasar returns to Newman’s concept of the many-sided nature of an idea. Balthasar develops the idea of a symphony as an analogy for Christian doctrine: “The difference between the instruments must be as striking as possible. Each one keeps its utterly distinctive timbre, and the composer must write for each part in a way that this timbre achieves its fullest effect.” This analogy can be applied to architectural styles with ease: Byzantine Church architecture, in order to achieve its full effect, must become even more distinct from other styles, not less. When John Paul II spoke of the Western Church needing to “breathe with both lungs” as regards the East, for example, he did not mean that the West should somehow become quasi-Eastern, but that both should work in concert with a distinctive timbre, expressing the oneness of God’s truth through their unique traditions. Architecture, like creation, is a facet of the doctrine of plenitude: the distance between God and his creation, of the goodness of his creation, and even more of His goodness in coming to his creation through Christ, the Image of the Father: “In the Symphony … all the instruments are integrated into one sound.” The breadth of sacred architecture constantly grows, just as theology grows; but art and architecture cannot lose contact with the reality of silence, creatureliness, beauty—or the Word.