Address to Conference on Sacred Architecture
The mystery which we gather to reflect upon today is at once timely and timeless. Timely, because as Aimé-Georges Martimort has noted, “In our day the faithful have greater difficulty in achieving prayerful recollection and a sense of God’s presence.”1 The mystery which we gather to reflect upon today is at once timely and timeless. Timely because as At the root of this difficulty is a crisis, a contemporary crisis that surrounds the sacred.
Our topic is also timeless because God never ceases to call man to himself. As God intervenes in human history, he both conceals and reveals himself. He veils and unveils the signs of his presence that we might respond and offer pure worship to his greater glory.2
In the revelation of the divine economy of salvation, God never neglects time and space. As the eternal, invisible, and infinite God, whose dwelling place is in Heaven, reveals himself, he allows and encourages mortal, visible, and finite human beings to call upon his name.3 As he makes known the hidden purpose of his will, he summons us to a sacred space in an acceptable time.4
There are three practical and grounded guiding principles I would like to reflect upon concerning the vocation and mission of the architect and artist in the life of the Church.
First, from the very beginning, Sacred Scripture testifies that architecture and art are linked to the very nature of the plan of God. We can therefore never reduce the service of architects and artists to a mere function. Their important work is not simply an added enhancement to our relationship with God, but it actually serves to express our response to God. From the opening pages of Sacred Scripture, the gift and skill of the architect and artist occupy a recurrent and climactic place in the plan of God.
Second, we are reminded by the Second Vatican Council and the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI that the work of architecture and art takes place in and through dialogue with the Church.
Third, the mission of the architect and artist, which is based in Sacred Scripture and conducted in dialogue with the Church, authentically develops only along the path of true beauty.
Sacred Scripture testifies that the role and mission of architects and artists arise from the very nature of the plan of God. From the very beginning, the talents of artists and architects have been formed and, we could even say, forged by a unique relation to the plan of God. As we know from Sacred Scripture, God is the divine architect. God’s first act after creating man was to establish a suitable place for man to dwell. The book of Genesis tells us, “Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed.”5 God creates the sacred place where the inner state of man, his original innocence, is signified by his external surroundings, the garden of Eden. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the east is the right hand of heaven.6
When man disobeyed and sinned against God, man lost original innocence and was driven from this beautiful place, this sacred location. God banishes man from the garden, and settles him in a different place, “east of the garden of Eden.”7 God places man in a penitential space outside of the garden.
The call of God always reflects his loving design. Under the effects of sin, in the penitential place outside of paradise, the impulse for shelter arises from the human being’s basic instinctive need for safety and refuge from the elements. More wonderfully still, however, the human person moves beyond the mere impulse of instinct to the light of intuition. And here we detect the tremendous value of the work of the artists and architects for the Church: artists and architects open themselves to the light of sacred intuition, and they direct its beam upward to construct and refine the instincts of man so as to prepare a dwelling place that may become a fitting sanctuary.
Classical theology has always emphasized that reason makes the continuous and ongoing effort to grasp what is held by faith so that we might be led to intellectual admiration of the mystery of God and thus be more prepared to offer adoration to God.8 The light of faith inspires the intuition of affection for a sacred place. Thus, while the work of architects and artists is both a science and an art, it is first and foremost an exalted mission. In the mystery of God’s presence, man’s intuition is always to claim a sacred space, a sanctuary from which he worships God for the glory which God has revealed.9
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God—the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who ‘reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,’ in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.’”10 The learning, dedication, skill, and work of the architect and the artist serve to direct us deeper still to the One in whom we find shelter, the One who is our refuge and who sanctifies us: the living and eternal God.
Throughout the Old Testament, God makes use of natural locations and events to signify his presence: God appears on the mountain top, in the cloud, and in the storm.11 He also sanctifies those places made by human hands, the hands of architects: the tent, the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, the temple, and the Holy of Holies.12 At these sacred locations, on the occasion of specific feasts, time and place enter a holy alliance to dispose the people of God to offer fitting worship and sacrifice.
Noah plans and constructs the ark in faithful obedience to the design and measure given by God himself.13 Immediately on stepping forth from the ark, Noah sets forth on another building project: he constructs an altar.14 In fact, throughout salvation history, the people of God mark the central places of their relationship with God by the building of an altar.
Abraham builds an altar at Shechem and there he calls “the Lord by name.”15 After crossing the ford of the Jabbock and remaining there alone, Jacob wrestles with a messenger of the Lord until daybreak. Having persevered in the struggle, Jacob purchases the ground and establishes a memorial stone on the sight.16 At Bethel, Jacob dreams of a stairway which reaches from earth to heaven and encounters God who promises to give him the land on which he sleeps.17 Jacob awakens and exclaims, “Truly the Lord is in this spot although I did not know it!” In solemn wonder he cries out: ‘How awesome is this shrine! This is nothing else but an abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven!”18 Jacob then consecrates the stone he was lying on as a memorial stone and he makes a vow of faithfulness to God.19
“Jacob’s Ladder” on the Bath Abbey facade. Photo: wikimedia.org/Jonathan Billinger
All that is foretold and foreshadowed in the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, whose first dwelling among us was the womb of the Virgin Mary.20 He who has no place to lay his head purified the temple, declared that he would rebuild the temple, and suffered, died, and rose again for our salvation.
The Acts of the Apostles says of the early Christians in Jerusalem: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.”21 The early Christians gathered frequently in house-churches to break bread, receive instruction, and offer prayers. When St. Peter was in prison, “many people gathered in prayer” at the “house of Mary, the mother of John who is called Mark.”22 Upon their release from prison, we are told that St. Paul and Silas go to the house of Lydia to “encourage the brothers.”23 In Troas, St. Paul gathers in an “upstairs room” with the brethren “on the first day of the week … to break bread.”24 Again, we hear in the First Letter to the Corinthians that St. Paul writes of the church that is in the house of Priscilla and Aquila.25
When God created man he placed him in a sacred location. When God saves man, he again places man in a sacred location and provides the design by which salvation is accomplished and celebrated.
As we consider this first principle, we come upon a clear truth: the people whom God called, the patriarchs and prophets, the apostles and disciples, were also architects and artists. Not in addition to their call, but on account of their call. They established the places and built the early altars from which God received worship.
The Second Vatican Council and the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI affirm that the work of architecture and art takes place in and through dialogue with the Church. As the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum teaches, “After speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, ‘now at last in these days God has spoken to us in his Son’”26 And his Son speaks to us through his Church. The Church has long engaged in dialogue and sought specialized and strategic collaboration with artists and architects.
As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, “Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art.”27 The Council Fathers continue, “the Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world, and for this purpose she has trained artists.”28
The Holy Father points out that this dialogue has taken place throughout the ages, and is found in the luminous beauty of the great works of art. He emphasizes that the Christian faith gave a beginning to masterpieces of theological literature, thought, and faith, but also to inspired artistic creations, the most elevated of a whole civilization: the cathedrals which were a renewal, a rebirth of religious architecture, an upward surge and an invitation to prayer. In Pope Benedict XVI’s words, the Christian faith “inspired one of the loftiest expressions of universal civilization: the cathedral, the true glory of the Christian Middle Ages.”29 The Holy Father explains that, “All the great works of art, cathedrals — the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches — they are all a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God.”30 The Venerable Servant of God Pope John Paul II also spoke of this when he said, “The cathedrals, the humble country churches, the religious music, architecture, sculpture, and painting all radiate the mystery of the verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine, towards which everything converges in a moment of wonder.”31
The architect develops, coordinates, and contours the natural elements of the visible physical world so that man may be directed to a fundamental awareness of the grace-filled action of God. The ultimate meaning and purpose of sacred architecture is to convey an experience of the mystery of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ.
The revelation of God’s mysterious and awe-inspiring presence always evokes a response from man. This response takes place in and through the Church.32 The Second Vatican Council teaches that “the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine Majesty.”33 The Council makes clear that in considering anything to do with the sacred liturgy, we must always return to this foundation: that within the sacred liturgy we offer worship to the divine Majesty. This is both the premise and the objective of the rich dialogue which continues to take place between the Church and artists.
Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the two central characteristics of the Gothic architecture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: “a soaring upward movement and luminosity.”34 He refers to this as “a synthesis of faith and art harmoniously expressed in the fascinating universal language of beauty which still elicits wonder today.”35 He continues, “By the introduction of vaults with pointed arches supported by robust pillars, it was possible to increase their height considerably. The upward thrust was intended as an invitation to prayer and at the same time was itself a prayer. Thus the Gothic cathedral intended to express in its architectural lines the soul’s longing for God.”36 The Holy Father is equally attentive to the furnishings of the sanctuary: “Certainly an important element of sacred art is church architecture, which should highlight the unity of the furnishings of the sanctuary, such as the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo, and the celebrant’s chair. Here it is important to remember that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist.”37
The teaching of the Holy Father leads us to understand that the mission of the architect and the vocation of the artist bear a direct relationship to authentic liturgical theology founded upon the classical Trinitarian, Christological, pneumatological, ecclesial, and sacramental themes. Formation, education, and study for service in the architectural or artistic disciplines arise from and coalesce around a robust encounter with the authentic teaching of the Church. The Council highlighted the important role of bishops in the dialogue with artists and architects: “Bishops should have a special concern for artists, so as to imbue them with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy.”38 The Second Vatican Council called for every diocese, as far as possible, to have a commission for sacred art, and to have dialogue and appeal to others who share this expertise.39 The Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates, “For this reason bishops, personally or through delegates, should see to the promotion of sacred art, old and new, in all its forms and, with the same religious care, remove from the liturgy and from places of worship everything which is not in conformity with the truth of faith and the authentic beauty of sacred art.”40 Priests, as principal collaborators with the bishop, likewise have a special responsibility to have a vibrant awareness of the gifts which artists and architects bring to the Church. Pope Benedict XVI affirms that “it is essential that the education of seminarians and priests include the study of art history, with special reference to sacred buildings and the corresponding liturgical norms.”41
Beauty, in its inextricable connection to the true and the good, is the center of gravity of all the liturgical sciences. And this is because the liturgy is foremost the work of the Most Holy Trinity, in which we participate.42 Beauty changes us. It disposes us to the transforming action of God and thus is one of the principal protagonists of advancing the universal call to holiness.43 Fascination with the sacred frees us from fixation on the secular. Expressions founded upon purely secularist influence do not refresh us. They exhaust us and fragment our perception. The static and abstract expression of merely functional facades simply does not capture or articulate the brilliant and resplendent mystery of God. Architectural form is never incidental or expendable. Utilitarian styles fail to inspire and so often leave a space barren and bland. We simply cannot tolerate indifference to the healthy traditions. The separation of artists and architects from dialogue with the Church leads to a fragmentation and subsequent breakdown of authentic liturgical renewal. Our starting point in advancing the liturgical renewal is always dialogue, not polemics.
All effective dialogue in the Church continues in the spirit of what Pope Benedict referred to in his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia in 2005 as “the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.”44 The Holy Father continues, “[The Church] is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”45
Two architectural experts recently gave an example of fruitful and effective dialogue with the Church. The Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi, in an article which appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, emphasized that “legitimate progress” must always flow from and not be indifferent to the “sound tradition” of the Church.46 Professor Portoghesi maintains correctly that we must assess the design and model of church buildings so as to preserve and restore architecture which is based on the authentic tradition of the Church, so that the sacred liturgy is celebrated in a fitting manner. The authentic tradition is our guide when we are faced with diverse interpretations of legitimate progress associated with liturgical renewal.
Professor Portoghesi emphasizes, “In recent years the fashion of so-called minimalism has revived a kind of iconoclasm, to exclude the cross and sacred images and to strip the image, outside of any residual analogy with the traditional churches.”47 A style that lacks consistency with the central mysteries of the faith necessarily puzzles us and drains us of our expectancy.
Maria Antonietta Crippa, Professor of History of Architecture at the Politecnico of Milan, has noted that, because of the significant cultural changes in the years since the Second Vatican Council, society has seen fluctuations between outcomes of radical secularism and the recovery of lively religious sense.”48
The mission of the architect and artist which is based in Sacred Scripture, and conducted in dialogue with the Church authentically develops only along the path of true beauty.
Beauty is not simply one path among others. Pope Benedict XVI teaches, “Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty.”49
The Holy Father spoke of a “via pulchritudinis, a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry.”50 During the celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Vatican Museums, Pope Benedict pointed out that the artistic treasures of the Church “stand as a perennial witness to the Church’s unchanging faith in the triune God who, in the memorable phrase of St. Augustine, is himself ‘Beauty ever ancient, ever new.’” 51
In his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that “the profound connection between beauty and the liturgy should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration.”52 Those whose senses are trained for the via pulchritudinis can discern a stirring within the continuous sacred stream of history, an unceasing movement of sublime splendor arising from ancient foundations and inherited in the detail of noble themes down through the ages.
In his Address to Artists last fall, the Holy Father stated, “Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy ‘shock’, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum–it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.”53
God the “divine architect” as depicted by William Blake in “Ancient of Days.” Photo: wikimedia.org
The Holy Father continued, “Authentic beauty … unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day.”54
Contemporary society believes at times that beauty can come from a product one buys in a store, or can be won in a contest. Authentic beauty is immune to age, it is always young, and it can never be contained by a mere title. Beauty attracts us as it charismatically aligns itself in symmetry and proportion, congruent with its primary characteristics of authentic truth and goodness. The durability and permanence of the structures which mark our solemn celebrations draw the eye to hope and lead the heart to reflection. In 2004, then-Monsignor Bruno Forte, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Naples, Italy, and consultant to the Pontifical Council for Culture was called upon by Pope John Paul II to offer the annual retreat and spiritual exercises to him and members of the Curia. In the midst of his reflections, Monsignor Forte noted, “the God of Jesus Christ … is anything but a God of total and tactless manifestation.”55 In his most recent published work, now-Archbishop Bruno Forte notes, “through beauty’s brightness … the splendor of the Whole bursts forth in the fragment, and lays hold of the believer.”56 As great depictions express the mysteries of the faith, they inspire and sustain devotion within the depths of our hearts. In such a setting, the believer is led to gather impressions through a unity of perception and to grasp more fully an experience of the totality of the divine mysteries. As Pope Benedict noted less than one year ago in his homily for the reopening of the Pauline Chapel, “The paintings and decorations adorning this chapel, particularly the two large frescoes [which depict the conversion of St. Paul and the crucifixion of St. Peter] by Michelanglo Buonarotti, which were the last works of his long life, are especially effective in encouraging meditation and prayer.”57
The revelation of the splendor of God is never ambiguous. It changes hearts and renews lives. The many styles and forms from specific periods and regions are all part of the rich heritage of sacred art and architecture. As Duncan Stroik has noted, “art from the past is a window onto the faith and practice of a specific time, but it can also speak to all ages. To reject periods, other than our favorites, as either primitive or decadent is to miss out on the rich tapestry of art and architecture that the Church has fostered.”58 Beauty has an immediate and direct relation to culture. As the Council explained, “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved.”59
The creative intelligence of artists continually seeks to draw forth vibrant forms from the material structures which surround us. Prayerful reflection, study of classical motifs, knowledge of the various schools of design, meditative architectural planning, extensive and specific development of a systematic understanding of the importance and role of architecture nourishes faith. The thoughtful design and strategic placement of sculpture, painting, decoration along structural elements of the body of the interior facade and exterior face are meant to evoke prayerfulness, foster meditation, and aid reflection. The use of natural light, historic styles, and noble design are meant to point us deeper into the mystery of Jesus so that we contemplate the words of St. John with renewed awareness: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”60
In preparation for the Great Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II wrote a Letter to Artists. Ten years later, Pope Benedict XVI met with artists in the solemn setting of the Sistine Chapel on November 21, 2009. The Holy Father took that opportunity “to express and renew the Church’s friendship with the world of art,” noting that “Christianity from its earliest days has recognized the value of the arts and has made wise use of their varied language to express her unvarying message of salvation.” Today we fulfill in some measure the Holy Father’s invitation to “friendship, dialogue and cooperation” between the Church and artists. Our conversation today serves, in the words of Pope Paul VI, to render “accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself. And in this activity, you are masters. It is your task, your mission; and your art consists in grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colors, forms – making them accessible.”61 Together we seek to cultivate a sense of wonder and anticipation and to pursue a strategy of recovery and renewal.
Artists and architects are composers who play a unique and irreplaceable role as the narrative of salvation history unfolds. Their talents usher the senses into an experience of the mystery of God. Through maximizing extraordinary gifts of their God-given genius, artists and architects are called to construct and restore an avenue into the luminous depth of God’s revelation and convey the continuing presence of the sacred in buildings meant for worship. The Church values deeply your specialized education gained from the periods of apprenticeship and the long years of professional service in the expertise of your various disciplines.
We come together today from our various vocations and specialties of skill for fruitful and effective dialogue: architects, theologians, faculty of the various schools, artists, liturgical consultants, engineers, students—clergy, religious and laity. As we gather to consider the role and mission of those who serve the formation of sacred architecture, we ask the same question that St. Peter and St. John asked the Lord Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke, “Where do you want us to make the preparations?” And we gather to listen to the answer of Jesus: “When you go into the city, a man will meet you carrying a jar of water. Follow him into the house that he enters and say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ He will show you a large upper room that is furnished. Make the preparations there.”62
Jesus sends us in the same life-giving direction, to the place that is furnished by the Holy Spirit and prepared by the Church to receive the Word made flesh who dwells among us. Not only do the beautiful creations of artists and architects lead us to contemplate the mysteries of the faith, but the very manner in which these men and women pursue their most practical and sublime science of architecture and art casts a more distinctive radiance on our path—the path of the Church, and leads us to the One who has emptied himself for our salvation and has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us. St. Paul tells us in the First Letter to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”63 St. Paul also tells us, “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”64
As we await and prepare for that eternal moment in which the divine Architect will invite us to meet Him, may we, in the words of St. Peter, become “like living stones…[and] be built into a spiritual house to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”65