Editorial: Hoc Ipsum Dei Genetricem Sanctam Virginem

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 9

These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.  Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Book of Hebrews lists the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and whom we honor.  Under the Christian dispensation we recognize an even greater cloud of witnesses, martyrs and saints, a fraction of whose feast days we celebrate or include in our churches through iconography.  Included in this mix of feast days are special ones not dedicated to a saint per se but to the Chair of Peter or to the dedication of a church.  One such feast is the dedication of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major) in Rome on August 5.  Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the great and most ancient churches in the eternal city, and it is seemingly most appropriate that the Church celebrates a mass in her honor.  In one of her earliest appearances as a patroness of architecture, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a wealthy patrician, Giovanni, and to Pope Liberius asking them to build a church on the Esquiline Hill where they would find snow.  Snow in August!  Romans today remember this feastday with the next best thing, a snowfall of rose petals.  The building we honor today was built by a later pope, Sixtus III, immediately after the Council of Ephesus in 431, which was called to combat the teaching of Nestorius and at which the Virgin Mary was given the name of
Theotokos.  This wonderful three-aisled basilica is said to be the first church named in honor of the Virgin.

This feast of Our Lady of the Snows and the dedication of Santa Maria Maggiore also offer us a number of examples of architectural patronage.  First is the patronage of God or of the saint who inspires people to build by inspiration, miracles or direct request.  Second is the patronage of the pope, bishop, cleric or religious who develops the vision to build a structure in honor of the Lord and to support devotion of the faithful.  Finally, come the community leaders who as patrons employ the fruits of their labor to make an offering of praise.  The history of architecture is full of stories of these patrons and their architects.  In fact, behind every great church, chapel or altarpiece one can find patrons with vision and funds to do something of great worth as well as talented artists who are moved by the project and the demands of their patrons to produce their finest work.  Thus, the Sistine Chapel, Hagia Sophia, Chartres Cathedral, the Brancacci Chapel, Lourdes and many other examples came into being.

Recently, the idea of patronage has fared better in the public realm than in the Church.  Think of the new sports arenas, museums, concert halls and university buildings paid for with generous funding of corporations, individuals and families after which these buildings are often named. Yet I believe we are also seeing the concept of patronage making a comeback in the Church.  There are stories of churches from Atlanta to California in which the generosity of one or more family allowed these parishes to be more than just functional structures; of Catholic schools from Minneapolis to Texas being started and made possible only because of the vision of laity; and of Catholic university buildings all over the country being paid for by alumni, as we say at Notre Dame, by the “subway alumni.”  In the best of these examples, there is a desire on the part of the patrons to make a gift that can serve humanity and honor the Lord.  There is also the awareness that quality architecture is worth paying for, and that architects should be encouraged to think boldly.

In Chicago, a particularly creative patron of Catholic architecture has dedicated himself to saving and restoring the city’s great ethnic churches.  John Powers has committed himself, his time and his resources to finding innovative ways to keep “dying” churches open.  These once flourishing parishes are often in well-built, beautiful buildings designed by talented architects such as Joe McCarthy, Worthman and Steinbach, and Henry Schlacks (the first professor of architecture at Notre Dame).  One of Powers’s most recent solutions has been to find new religious orders to inhabit these structures, pay for their basic upkeep, and thus save them from the wrecking ball.  History reminds us that the population of Rome decreased from one million in the time of Constantine to as low as 30,000 in the sixth century, and many of the churches were unused for centuries.  During the time of Gregory the Great the city may have grown to 90,000 people, and its population ebbed and flowed during the medieval period and especially during the papal “exile” to Avignon.  It was during the Renaissance that the “centro storico” of Rome had a major increase in numbers and many churches were refurbished or enriched.  It is our hope that in the long run these inner city parishes in Chicago and other cities will become vibrant again.  To help garner support for these churches, John Powers has embarked on producing a beautiful book on the Catholic churches of Chicago working with Dr. Denis McNamara of the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein and English photographer James Morris.  He is also responsible for Sacred
Architecture making the jump to technicolor.  We thank him and all of you for your support of the sacred in architecture and pray to the ultimate Patron to continue to raise up patrons of art and architecture for His glory.