Editorial: Regulae Americanae
“Piety towards God and the saints, praise, imitation, fear, pain and hope are just the soul’s feelings aroused by the sacred images, which could be said to be alive and inspiring when they will excite our minds ... In fact, painting is a language painters speak not to men’s ears but rather to men’s souls.” – Federico Borromeo
Have you ever noticed the incredible number of ways Catholic churches include iconography? From signs and symbols to images of the saints and angels, from paintings of the Trinity to sacra conversazione, biblical scenes, and even historical scenes (i.e., the battles of Lepanto and Vienna), the imagery of Catholic churches is rich and varied. So, when a colleague recently journeyed to Rome in search of sacred architecture, I challenged him to find one church with the “American church formula.” What is the American formula? A life-size crucifix centered behind the altar, with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the left and Saint Joseph on the right. Many American Catholics see this as the “traditional” solution for a church layout, because it is all that they know. Yet in over five hundred historic churches I have studied in Rome, Florence, and Venice, I have seldom seen the formula (so ubiquitous in the U.S.) employed.
There are certainly theological and devotional reasons for the Mary + Cross + Joseph formula, yet its overuse has led many faithful to the false belief that this is an ancient tradition and a rule of church architecture. My review of Geoffrey Webb’s The Liturgical Altar in Sacred Architecture 23 gives a hint at how we developed a formulaic mentality. Instead, the Western Church has always allowed for a great variety of styles and forms in the design of her temples. She has promoted creativity and inventiveness in her architecture while also honoring Tradition. So should we attempt to do in our iconography as well.
So I ask, where is the life-size crucifix at Saint Peter’s Basilica? There isn’t one, although there are small bronze crosses on each of the twenty-five altars. In the apse, instead of the American formula, we find a giant cathedra supported by the Doctors of the Church, appropriate to a shrine in honor of Saint Peter. Where are the statues of Mary and Joseph in Saint Peter’s? There are none. Instead, there are five different Marian chapels off the side aisles which have paintings and mosaics of the Virgin and a certain statue of the Pietà. The only image of Saint Joseph is a mosaic altarpiece in the left transept. Not the symmetrical formula with a Blessed Virgin Mary statue on the left and a Saint Joseph statue on the right that one finds in the average ethnic church.
We need to get beyond the American formula and embrace the more difficult task of developing a unique iconographic program for our churches. To encourage creative innovation does not mean that we are Modernists who reject tradition and seek to strip our churches of beautiful and recognizable art. Rather, as we learn from the two-thousand-year tradition of art and architecture, we are thrilled to find that there are infinite ways to beautify and imbue our churches with meaning.