Editorial: Non Timebis a Sagitta Volante in Die

Saint Sebastian, guard and defend us, morning and evening, every minute of every hour, and diminish the strength of that vile illness which is threatening us. We put our trust in God, in our Lady, and in you, holy martyr. Amen.

Prayers for deliverance are made. Heroic priests visit the sick and dying, and heroic medical personnel serve them. It is a time for the works of mercy. It is also a time for cornerstones.

Architecture responds to human needs and aspirations. Times of plague and catastrophe call for serious responses and now is such a time. A spectacular example is the Pestsäule, a seventy-foot-tall plague column in Vienna, with figures, clouds, and angels leading up to the Trinity. It is one of many such Trinity columns erected in the Austro-Hungarian empire after pestilence.

On a grander note, during the plague of 1713, emperor Charles VI vowed to build a church to his patron saint. One of the first great historians of architecture, Fischer von Erlach, designed a great oval church with references to the history of architecture which the emperor dedicated to the plague saint, Saint Charles Borromeo.

Saint Charles Borromeo

In Milan, before the plague of 1576 lifted, the saintly archbishop Charles Borromeo began construction on a votive church (a church built in thanksgiving) in honor of the Roman soldier, Sebastian, patron saint of plague victims. He spent his fortune and his short life feeding and serving the residents of Milan during the plague, which killed over 25,000 people. His personal sacrifice for the people’s physical and eternal needs explains the large number of altarpieces, side chapels, and churches dedicated to San Carlo throughout Italy.

During the plague, he required his priests to visit the faithful and give them the eucharist. He had altars erected outside the churches so that people could attend mass from their homes. He led three major processions in the manner of Saint Gregory the Great, who had the icon of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani, carried through the streets of Rome in 590.

San Sebastiano is a cylindrical temple with two domes articulated by the Doric order, appropriate for a soldier saint and male martyr. Designed by Borromeo’s favorite architect, Pellegrino Tibaldi, this church gives lie to the belief that Borromeo considered centralized forms as pagan and inappropriate for Christian churches. Attached to the rotunda is a sanctuary where a statue of the Redeemer surmounts the altar. Side altars to Saint Sebastian and the Pietà are particularly poignant.

One of the Borromeo’s favorite interests was the proper care of church art and architecture. Among his major initiatives were the requirement that tabernacles be placed on altars, the creation of confessionals to protect the faithful, and one of the first handbooks on church architecture, Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectillis Ecclesiasticae, published in 1564.

The Churches in Venice

Venice, due to its role as merchant to the world, has had more instances of the plague than other great cities. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the city government built five plague churches as thank offerings to three saints, the Redeemer, and the Madonna.

At San Rocco, his confraternity built a church around the body of the saint who healed the sick during his life and ended the plague of 1414 after his death. The scuola or confraternity building next door was founded to serve the poor and those stricken with plague, and its interior decoration is Tintoretto’s masterpiece. No expense was spared.

Venice built her own San Sebastiano, begun in 1468, dedicated to the saint who survived the piercing of plague-like arrows. The rich iconographical scheme of his life, along with scenes from scripture, martyrdoms, and the Madonna at the main altar were painted by Paolo Veronese.

Madonna in Glory with Saint Sebastian and other saints, Veronese. Photo: Richard Bonaccorso

Madonna in Glory with Saint Sebastian and other saints, Veronese. Photo: Richard Bonaccorso

After the plague of 1575, the Senate hired Andrea Palladio to design one of the most visible churches of Venice. At Il Redentore (the Redeemer), the temple-like façade veils a complex interior with six side chapels and high altar that illustrate the life of the Redeemer in counterclockwise fashion.

The crown of the basin of San Marco and the gateway to the grand canal is Santa Maria della Salute (Saint Mary of Good Health), begun after the plague of 1630 by Baldassare Longhena. Singularly octagonal for Venice, it is a tour de force of sculpture, vaulting, and geometry. Along with side chapels celebrating the life of Our Lady, the high altar has a monumental statuary group of the Queen of Heaven expelling the plague above an icon of Madonna mediatrix. On their feastdays, both this church and Il Redentore are visited by processions across bridges of boats.

Like our forebears, we pray for an end to pestilence, healing for the sick, and heaven for the dead. We offer votive gifts to the Trinity, we ask the saints to intercede, and the Redemptoris Mater to deliver us. We make sacrifices and vows, we commission artwork and architecture, and we visit them in thanksgiving for the end of the sickness. Ora pro nobis peccatoribus.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| The Domed Canopy in Byzantine Church Design

The Domed Canopy in Byzantine Church Design

The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, 532-537. Photo: Getty Images/Tetra Images

The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, 532-537. Photo: Getty Images/Tetra Images

The famous sixth-century Constantinopolitan cathedral of Hagia Sophia epitomized the might of the Byzantine Empire. The empire thrived as a successor to the Roman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean for more than a millennium, from about 300 to 1450. Built in only five years, from 532 to 537, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, this massive domed structure remained closely associated with the Byzantine Empire long after the realm’s historical demise.

Procopius of Caesarea, official historian at Emperor Justinian’s court, recorded that the church was designed to create the impression that it does “not rest upon solid masonry, but [covers] the space with its golden dome suspended from heaven.” The ceiling is “overlaid with pure gold, which adds glory to the beauty, yet the light reflected from the stones prevails, shining out in rivalry with the gold.”

Today, we usually associate Byzantine architecture with its dome, as a generic but highly evocative and culturally invested architectural form. Prevailing opinion is that reflective golden mosaics in the interiors of the domes are the major reason for the dazzling atmospheric light of Byzantine churches. Yet the architecture of the domed canopy, inseparable from the immaterial space it frames, was the overall guiding idea for Byzantine churches. The holistic design also contributed to the style’s plasticity, the quality of being adaptable to different contexts and locations.

A church built 1,500 years later and thousands of miles away illustrates both the centrality of the dome and the way architectural forms and styles can migrate to places seemingly entirely disconnected from their origin. The Church of All Saints in Stuart, Iowa, raises several critical questions about the essence and relevance of Byzantine imperial architecture. The Irish Catholic community built this church between 1908 and 1910. The parishioners, desiring a beautiful church, constructed the building in a Neo-Byzantine style, looking at San Marco’s Basilica in Venice for inspiration.

In 1995, an arsonist set a fire within the altar dedicated to the Mother of God. He wanted “to take the heart and soul of a community,” as one person involved in the restoration put it. Unable to meet restoration costs, the parish sold the building to the Project Restore Foundation, which then led a highly successful community-supported restoration project.

The architects looked at historical precedents in Byzantine architecture and focused on the most critical part of the structure and its design: the massive dome. The crowning moment of the restoration project was when the dome, lifted by a massive crane, was placed onto the top of the structure.

Now restored as a center for religious tolerance, the All Saints Center for Culture and the Arts still carries the “soul” of Byzantine architecture within the community: its massive dome painted in Midwestern sky blue, reflecting natural light and evoking the heavenly realm. The building does not function as a church anymore. Yet the Center continues to respond to the needs of the community and is the preferred place for local family gatherings, wedding ceremonies, concerts, conferences, and school events.

Critical Questions

The All Saints Center is not a mere copy of any specific Byzantine church, even though it is inspired by San Marco. San Marco is already a kind of hybrid, built outside the major Byzantine domain in an effort to compete with the now-lost church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, once the major burial place of Byzantine Emperors. This iconic yet non-imitative quality is inherent to the Byzantine style and complicates a simplistic interpretation of it as Roman imperial architecture that has been Christianized.

Just as the Byzantine Empire was not a mere avatar of its precursor in the West, the Roman Empire, neither were its domed churches mere copies of Roman imperial structures. The treatment of light perhaps best illustrates the major design differences between the Roman Pantheon, as the sacred space par excellence of the Roman Empire, and the Hagia Sophia, as the most sacred architectural counterpart of the Byzantine Empire.

The oculus of the massive dome of the Pantheon was an aperture that channeled the shaft of light into the vast interior below, even as the dome itself remained mostly in darkness. For the Hagia Sophia, the solid Byzantine dome scooped the light from multiple sources in the lower zones of the interior and returned it back toward the dome apex, literally highlighting the dome’s inner shell. But is it the form, materiality, or the particularly articulated presence of light that defines the essential qualities of the Byzantine church?

The radiance of the space of the church of Hagia Sophia was the major concept behind its design. Procopius reported: “Indeed one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it, such an abundance of light bathes this shrine.” The porphyry pillars, recurrently used for Byzantine imperial churches, supported the luminous dome as if suspended from heaven. The effect was especially vivid during evening services when the light of the candles and chandeliers reflected upon gold and silver mosaics and church furnishings.

The famous quote attributed to the envoys of Russian prince Vladimir (d. 1015) recreates the experience of the Hagia Sophia: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.”

When twenty-five-year-old Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine visited Constantinople in 1147, she described the church as resting “lightly as a cloud upon pillars of porphyry.” The canopied form and its materiality in porphyry and light point to biblical references of the pillars of light and fire and the revelation of God (Exodus 13:21-22; Psalm 99:7).

The powerful spatial image of the luminous dome on massive pillars in a way recreated a cloud of light and the divine presence or “Glory of God,” as described in Revelation 10:1. It referenced the presence of God that filled the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, where God met with his people during the desert wandering, and the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem (Exodus 40:34; Ezekial 43:4).

The Byzantine church domes dazzled observers with splendor that represented or replicated the primordial tent, the heavenly house, the promise to liberate all of creation from its burdens, the union of heaven and earth, and a promise to the faithful of a heavenly Jerusalem filled with the divine presence. “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name [i.e. Christ]” (Revelation 3:12).

Plan comparison, left to right: Hagia Sophia, Constantinople; San Marco, Venice; Pantocrator Monastery, Constantinople. Images: wikimedia.org

Plan comparison, left to right: Hagia Sophia, Constantinople; San Marco, Venice; Pantocrator Monastery, Constantinople. Images: wikimedia.org

Form and Iconicity

The form of Byzantine churches—the complex materiality of their solids, the immateriality of the domes’ light-filled voids, and the meanings related to these—emerges as critical for their iconicity. Their form can be understood as a relation between the iconic dome and its evocative representation of the heavenly realm. The highly sophisticated architectural treatment of light as a “cloud of light” signifies to the faithful the divine presence and evokes biblical references.

The domed core of the Hagia Sophia points to refined modeling of both the physical envelope, which consists of four clustered piers merged with the dome via spherical triangular pendentives, and the interior volume wrapped in light and shaped by this envelope, which takes the descriptive form of the pillar of cloud Eleanor of Aquitaine described.

Such an iconic parti dematerialized the physical matter of the building and gave form to immaterial light, treating the material and immaterial aspects as inseparable even in the construction process. The four vertical supports, horizontally connected by middle-zone arches and crowned by the dome, simultaneously constituted the three-dimensional structural core of the church and defined the interior space.

These unique design features point to the designers’ more plastic treatment of architectural modeling. They took into consideration the three-dimensional parti as a holistic structural unit rather than understanding the core and dome as a simple box capped with a lid.

The Byzantine structures that considered the domed core as a holistic unit and the neo-Byzantine structures that re-employed the idea by placing the domical roof on top of the superstructure belong to the same architectural taxonomy. The interiors of these structures are where the differences in design and the search for a holistic approach become evident.

While it was by no means the first or only structure to be defined by a domed canopied core on both the exterior and interior, Hagia Sophia was the largest and most prominent, and it became an icon of the Byzantine Empire and its architecture. The massive structure was never repeated nor would it have been feasible to do so. Instead the church inspired a typology of a centralized structure that would be used to design and build churches of various sizes and complexities.

Byzantine Modeling

Based on the study of hundreds of Byzantine churches, I propose that the Byzantine architects used plastic, three-dimensional modeling to visualize church space by setting the canopy-like domed core on a modular grid. This system, at its most essential level, consisted of a dome centered inside a nine-square grid. By employing plastic treatment of the church space, additional elements can be added to this plan; for example, side chapels, narthexes, and ambulatories.

Process from volume, to canopy, to nine-square design based on canopied parti in Byzantine churches. Image: Alex Blum

Process from volume, to canopy, to nine-square design based on canopied parti in Byzantine churches. Image: Alex Blum

This design system was also subject to exceptions and alterations, the plasticity of which resulted in various solutions. These features allow for both a recognizable expression of three-dimensionality within Byzantine churches and their adaptability to different contexts.

For example, San Marco’s in Venice offers a very systematic adoption of Byzantine church design based on the three-dimensional canopy and the nine-square grid. The current structure is the third church on the site, built between approximately 1063 and 1090, with some later additions. Five independent structural bays arranged in a Greek cross form the core of the church, with a narthex on the west side and a large apse on the east, and a few spatial modifications connect the church to the nearby Palazzo Ducale. The domed cores also have a clear hierarchy: The largest dome is in the center and the smaller domes are situated off of the building’s primary east-west axis.

San Marco, Venice, Italy. The oblique view shows the massive shoulder arches in brick. Photo: Jacob Halun

San Marco, Venice, Italy. The oblique view shows the massive shoulder arches in brick. Photo: Jacob Halun

The imperial Pantokrator monastery in Constantinople, built between 1118 and 1136, shows how flexible this system could be. Two churches use the typical nine-square grid plan with a canopy core at their centers, with one having a relatively flat cylindrical drum and elliptical dome, potentially a post-Byzantine reconstruction.

Section of the Church of Archangel Michael in the Pantokrator Monastery. Image: Heidi Reburn

Section of the Church of Archangel Michael in the Pantokrator Monastery. Image: Heidi Reburn

The most peculiar experimentation had to be implemented when an additional chapel, dedicated to Archangel Michael, was constructed in the narrow space between two churches. It consists of two domed canopies merged together as if they were architectural conjoined twins. Elliptical domes of different sizes share a structural arch on their adjacent edge. Despite the unusual conditions, this unique double arch manages to fully explore the plasticity of Byzantine architecture while maintaining its iconicity and interiority.

The Church of Archangel Michael with two intersecting domes. Photo: Vladimir Božinović

The Church of Archangel Michael with two intersecting domes. Photo: Vladimir Božinović

The designers also experimented with the modeling of light and the notion of the radiant space by focusing on the interior modeling of the surface of the two domes. The western dome, actually the largest in the entire complex, is sixteen-sided with internal ribbing, while the eastern one is twelve-sided with internal scalloping. Today preserved without the original surface treatment—which would have consisted of elaborate mosaics or fresco paintings as seen elsewhere in Byzantine-rite churches—these domes reveal advanced modeling of atmospheric light through architecture.

The Cloud of Light

Prevailing opinion is that the reflective golden mosaics are the major contributors to the dazzling atmospheric light of Byzantine churches. However, recent parametric research shows that the orientation of the windows, the angular cutting of the windowsills, the geometry of the dome and in particular its internal ribbing or scalloping, also significantly increase the effect of the “cloud of light.” These all scoop and direct light back toward the apex of the dome. Such a systemic design represents the very essence of the glorious space and the heavenly Jerusalem.

This principle is evident in the main church in the Studenica monastery in Serbia, set as a domed-canopied cross in the circle of the monastic compound. The construction of the elegantly proportioned church can be dated to 1183-1209. The single-nave church with a domed-canopied square naos combines two types to form what is known as an atrophied Greek-cross church. In such churches, the lateral arms of the cross are reduced to narrow barrel vaults, essentially becoming massive arches that project from structural piers. These piers also support transversal arches that define the square-base domed core of the church.

Additionally, the Studenica church elucidates how the core canopy grew proportionally taller throughout the course of its historical development. Here, like in the Archangel church of the Pantokrator monastery, the domical calotte is internally scalloped and contributes to the modeling of light inside the structure.

The acoustically sound and bright interior of this church is complemented by an equally radiant exterior envelope, because the church was built of ashlars of the finest marble—in some cases up to fifty centimeters thick.

The edifice is crowned by an elevated, canopy-like masonry dome. Its drum is painted red and articulated by white marble colonnettes and carries a calotte sheathed in shiny silver-lustered lead.

Usually, under ideal conditions, construction in marble would grant the structure longevity, aiming for eternity. Sunlight and moonlight cause the white polished marble of the church to glitter, further confirming the sophisticated use of light to create this effect of radiance and evoke the supreme beauty that gives light and is itself represented through light.

The Studenica church elaborated on the concept of the ideal church as the heavenly Jerusalem and is dedicated to the Mother of God, who is the embodiment of the Church and the first resident of the heavenly Jerusalem. The central church, with its twelve-sided canopied dome, symbolizes the heavenly microcosm. It originally housed a sacred relic of the holy cross and a miracle-working image of the Mother of God, thereby advancing its associations with the heavenly Jerusalem on multiple levels.

For the faithful, the biblical New Jerusalem frees all creation from its numerous bondages. This aspiration resonates highly with the design principles used in the Studenica and other Byzantine-rite churches that aimed to dematerialize matter, materialize light, and actualize spiritual experience. We often recognize these features today through the experiential, emphatic, aesthetic, transcendental, and supra-spatial qualities of architecture.

The Crucial Dome

The massive domed structure of the Hagia Sophia required the expertise of the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and the physicist Isidore of Miletus. There are few first-person accounts of architectural practices after the construction of the Hagia Sophia.

This has led to a belief that in Byzantium architects had limited roles as designers and thinkers and that master builders, who essentially controlled the construction on site, had a more pronounced role. Recent comparative analyses of textual sources, archeology, and surviving architecture have revealed the Byzantines’ considerable knowledge and command of math, physics, and optics. This knowledge challenges the older notions of the limited role of architects in Byzantine society.

And this knowledge was not limited to Byzantium and its churches. The domed canopy-like structural skeleton of the fifteenth-century church of Santa Maria delle Carceri at Prato embodies the essence of this church design. It was among the first to use a Greek-cross plan in the Italian Renaissance.

Although little is known about Byzantine architectural practices, the presence of Greek intellectuals and the construction of Byzantine churches in Italy points to possible historical, cultural, and intellectual connections that have been reinforced by the shared Byzantine and Renaissance design of centrally-planned churches. In that light, the Greek-cross plan of Renaissance centralized churches may be related to Byzantine experimentations with church design based on a modular integration of a canopied dome into the nine-square grid.

My research shows that Byzantine design was never done without considering plasticity and interiority. This is perhaps the major reason for the scarcity of Byzantine architectural drawings showing recognizable floor plans, which one can easily recover using modern architectural principles of design and representation.

The Memorable Hagia Sophia

Indeed, the memorable Hagia Sophia—its massive interior framed by the dome that rests on four clustered piers—marks Byzantine architecture with its iconicity, plasticity, interiority, and experiential qualities. The impressive domed canopy set on a nine-square grid would seem to expose the potential of the architectural parti of the Byzantine church, and yet it is the non-imitative qualities and diversity of design solutions of Byzantine imperial architecture that elucidate its complexity and sophistication.

Even though and perhaps because it was never exactly duplicated, the design of the Hagia Sophia and the recurrent, emphatic experiences of its central core as a “cloud of light on a pillar” evoking divine presence, allowed for systemic architectural design. Experimentation with the plastic treatment of typological solutions based on the canopied dome set on a nine-square grid was inseparable from the material and immaterial aspects of the Byzantine church.

Such a systemic design, though simple in its nature, was highly generative and can be observed in various Byzantine-rite and Byzantine-inspired churches. The eleventh-century Venetian cathedral of San Marco’s Basilica, the twelfth-century churches in the Constantinopolitan urban monastery of Christ Pantokrator and the medieval rural monastery of Studenica in Serbia, or the early twentieth-century Church of All Saints in Stuart, Iowa, exemplify the power of the Byzantine domed church to transcend its own geography and time.

These structures show how Byzantine architecture reinvented itself in larger networks of diverse cultural contexts and established itself as a self-sufficient architectural and spiritual stronghold. It is an architecture with an authority that rests on the balance between iconicity and plasticity, here elucidated through the dynamics of architectural design. It highlights the capacity of Byzantine design practices to create architecture that is non-invasive but strongly present, non-imitative but reproducible, spiritual but non-illusionistic, and monumental but humane.

With help and drawings by Alexander Blum, Madeleine Loyd, Nicole Hoke, and Heidi Reburn

Jelena Bogdanović is the author of The Framing of Sacred Space: The Canopy and the Byzantine Church.

Select References

Procopius, Buildings, trans. H.B. Dewing. London and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954.

The Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text. Trans. and ed. S. Hazzard Cross and O. P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Cambridge, Mass.: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953.

Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. New York: Random House, 1962.

Amy R. Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Wassim Jabi and Iakovos Potamianos, “Geometry, Light, and Cosmology in the Church of Hagia Sophia” International Journal of Architectural Computing 2, no. 5 (2007), 303–319.

Discussion with Dick Doherty, leader of the Restoration Project of Historic All Saints as a Community Cultural Center. See also http://www.saintscenter.com and http://www.restoreallsaints.org, accessed December 28, 2017.

| Anomaly of Good Form: A Gothic Church in Shanghai, City of Modernity

Anomaly of Good Form: A Gothic Church in Shanghai, City of Modernity

The Western architecture of the Shanghai Bund, 1930s. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions SAM Collection

The Western architecture of the Shanghai Bund, 1930s. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions SAM Collection

While Beijing is a city of traditional Chinese architecture, identified by its emphasis on horizontality and sloped roofs, Shanghai is a city of Western modernity, marked by bright neon lights that illuminate the heights of soaring skyscrapers and monumental Neoclassical banks. Shanghai is a tribute to progressive thinking and the aspirations of wealth and avant-gardism. Beijing harbors the vestiges of Chinese tradition and the tenacious ideal of a Confucian society.

Nestled within Shanghai’s grasp for tomorrow is an American Gothic church, an anomaly in its busy urban landscape, anchored to the past in the hyper-modern Huangpu district, an area of Shanghai now most famous for the Bund, high-end shopping, and rampant prostitution. Laszlo Hudec’s Moore Memorial Church (named for the donors) represents a sacred space that stands alone in new Shanghai.

Hudec had an abiding commitment to preserving traditional styles, especially Gothic, when designing ecclesial structures, despite his simultaneous aspiration to punctuate Shanghai’s cityscape with contemporary buildings that trumpet modernity and the dream of material prosperity. For him, secularism was best characterized by forms that embody the accomplishments of modern science and commerce, but for his sacred architecture he moored the forms in the styles of the past. His personal interests extended far beyond the modern styles he is best known to have designed.

He was quite prodigious during the third decade of the twentieth-century, designing several ecclesiastical buildings that were mostly inspired by, or entirely designed in, the Gothic style. He was in many ways a classicist who was commissioned to design avant-garde buildings that represented Shanghai’s hysteria for modernity and progress. When he was commissioned to design secular buildings he did so in alignment with secular ideals—unrestraint, forwardness, and ambition —while his church designs were entrenched in the principles of continuity, tradition, and sacredness.

An Architect of Contrasts

Hudec was born into a Lutheran family in the northern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Slovakia). (Much of the history that follows is taken from Lenore Hietkamp’s Laszlo Hudec and the Park Hotel in Shanghai.) His father was a builder who encouraged him to “work in all aspects of the trade,” until he began his training in architecture in Budapest.

His training was typical of the early-twentieth century; he was thoroughly irrigated with the waters of the academic architectural style of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His professors imparted to him an appreciation of the principles of French Neoclassicism, while also teaching the Gothic and Renaissance elements.

His Beaux-Arts training emphasized the use of modern materials such as glass and iron when building classically designed structures. Moore Memorial Church is an excellent example of his implementation of his education. It is entirely Gothic, but constructed with modern materials and with modern conveniences.

After he received his degree in 1914, he joined the Austro-Hungarian army during the advent of the First World War. In 1916, he was seized by the Russians and held as a prisoner of war in a grim Siberian camp. He escaped from a Russian military transport train in Siberia and travelled through Harbin into northern China, finally arriving at Shanghai in 1918 as the war was coming to an end.

Hudec’s architectural career was inaugurated after he had settled in Shanghai and he was hired by the American firm R. A. Curry. He adopted the Chinese name Lang Dake, which appeared on the seal affixed to the corner of his drawings.

Once his genius as a remarkable architect, as well as his ability to speak in several languages, had become known, his home “became a social center for Chinese, expatriate Hungarians,” and other Westerners in the city. He lived the “privileged, extensive social life prized by Shanghailanders.” He was as well-known and respected among the Christian community as he was among the much more influential community of wealthy businessmen.

His network of acquaintances garnered a wide sweep of commissions. By 1941, he had become one of the most celebrated architects in China, and had designed and supervised the construction of hundreds of buildings in Shanghai and surrounding areas.

A Mélange of Styles

Three of his buildings have received the most local and international attention—the distinctive ultra-modern Wu Residence, and two in the Art Deco style: the Park Hotel, once the tallest skyscraper in Asia, and the Grand Theater. After traveling to New York in 1927 and 1928, he returned to Shanghai with an admiration for the technical and aesthetic innovations of Art Deco, and his Park Hotel highlights both.

Hudec’s Art Deco Park Hotel beside the Grand Theater, c. 1935. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection

Hudec’s Art Deco Park Hotel beside the Grand Theater, c. 1935. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection

While Le Corbusier spurned the Manhattan Deco as a kind of “fairy catastrophe,” Hudec viewed it as the quintessential symbol of Western success, precisely the image that Shanghai’s well-heeled financiers wished to convey. His design emphasizes vertical motifs and characterizes the ambitions of affluence and confidence rather than historical continuity and tradition.

It cannot be overstated how out of place these modern Western buildings were in China. Art Deco is a transplant onto Chinese soil that few except Westerners and Westernized Shangailanders recognized.

Two other buildings commissioned in 1930 for Christian use deserve mention as I describe his contrasting styles. The China Baptist Publication Society Building and the China Christian Literature Society Building were built in a Deco Gothic style. They combine the rising streamline pattern of Art Deco with the pointed arch that was valorized by the “Gothicists” of the Gothic Revival Movement as the aesthetic representation of Christian architecture. He also built a Byzantine-style Catholic church on the outskirts of Shanghai.

Somewhat burrowed into the mélange of progressive styles—Art Deco, Bauhaus, and admixtures of both—lies his Moore Memorial Church. It reveals his sense that sacred space, especially space intended for religious worship, should avoid rupture from the past and draw the eyes and soul toward the unbroken history of faith and prayer. It discloses the heart of his sense of the sacred.

An Anomaly of Good Form

Many saw Shanghai as corrupt and degenerate. The few Gothic churches that punctuated the city served as alternative views of human purpose. The creation of sacred architecture within this context of seedy racketeers and meandering idlers was a challenge that Hudec confronted by turning to his long appreciation of Europe’s traditional forms of church design. The vertical nature of Gothic architecture points upward, away from the corruption that eddied through Shanghai’s main streets and alleys.

Such traditional styles of ecclesial architecture as Gothic or Romanesque were already the standard style of church design in greater China when Hudec made his way to Shanghai after his escape from Russian soldiers. Guangzhou’s new cathedral had been designed after Paris’s eminent Basilique Sainte-Clotilde. And Shanghai’s competitor city, Beijing, housed China’s most famous church, a Gothic design inspired by Notre-Dame de Paris. (See “Beijing’s ‘New’ Cathedral” in Issue 34 of Sacred Architecture.)

Gothic architecture in Shanghai represents one of two great exceptions to the city’s configuration and appearance within the greater context of imperial and Republican China. Elsewhere in China, Gothic Revival represented the norm in Western building design.

Shanghai’s most famous Gothic church was already standing when the Moore Memorial Church began construction in 1929. The Jesuit-commissioned Saint Ignatius Church expressed “the aspirations of the French Jesuits in Shanghai, who wanted the church … to exemplify a Gothic order of hierarchies.” (For more on this, see “Building for the Senses” in Issue 25 of Sacred Architecture.)

The dominance of Westerners and Western ambitions was the second great exception. Whereas elsewhere in China, Western diplomats and missionaries occupied the margins of cities and villages, Shanghai’s core was occupied and controlled by Westerners and their interests. Shanghai was perhaps China’s best example of a semi-colony, effectively controlled by Western legates and business elites.

Nordic and Streamline

While Hudec’s plan for his German Evangelical Church, finished in 1932, was not designed with the archetypal elements of Victorian Gothic Revival, it was nonetheless described in the Shanghai Sunday Times as a “Nordic type of Gothic.” It may be more appropriate, however, to simply refer to the design as Teutonic, as one must strain to locate anything remotely like a pointed arch anywhere in the building’s design.

He produced sets of proposal sketches that he hoped would result in two more Gothic Revival Christian buildings, the Roman Catholic Gonzaga College, founded by American Jesuits, and the Roman Catholic Aurora College for Women. His proposed campus for the first featured a dramatic Latin cross Gothic chapel for 1,000 people with a high Gothic tower adjoining the right side of the façade. This is one of the few proposals he was known to have lost to a competitor.

His proposal to design the new buildings for the Aurora College for Women, founded by American Sisters of the Sacred Heart, was selected, though his original plan to erect Gothic buildings was passed over in favor of another architectural style, Bauhaus. The college was at first intended to be named “Sacred Heart College,” and his initial plan designed the chapel as an admixture of Romanesque rounded windows on the tower and pointed arch Gothic windows along the side of the chapel’s nave.

The final appearance was a Streamline Moderne Bauhaus design that is more simple. When the new college was opened in 1939, visitors “were amazed at the beautiful and modern construction” of his final design.

The second commission Hudec received from the Catholic mission in Shanghai was to design a new cemetery chapel in the outskirts of Shanghai at Chapei. Like many of his works, it combined both Byzantine and Gothic. The exterior is clearly Byzantine in style, but the interior is characteristically Gothic with pointed arch windows and ribbed vaulting.

Moore Memorial

When he received the commission to design Moore Memorial Church for one of Shanghai’s most visible locations, Hudec was no doubt conscious of the pervasive modernism that had painted the canvas of the city, but he was designing a church and not a hotel, bank, hospital, or private club. For his non-religious commissions, he had designed according to the ideals of modernity and novelty, but for his ecclesial works he appears to have largely conformed to Pugin’s counsel to “seek antiquity” and to “revive” rather than “invent.”

In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin said of Gothic that, “Gothic is not only the best, but the only rational architecture, as being that which can fit itself most easily to all services, vulgar or noble.” One might add to this that the Gothic style has long been viewed as imminently functional across denominational divides. Thus, Hudec could employ Gothic elements when designing for Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Methodist congregations.

The commission to build the church came from missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The number of Chinese converts to Methodism was rising quickly, and the old Central Methodist Church, built in 1887, could no longer accommodate the large crowds of worshippers.

Construction began at the intersection of Tibet and Hankou Roads, across the racetrack from Hudec’s Park Hotel. The church was solemnly dedicated at a service on Sunday morning, March 15, 1931. It was advertised as the largest Protestant church in East Asia.

The Moore Memorial Chapel interior in 2016. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection

The Moore Memorial Chapel interior in 2016. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection

Keeping an overall English Gothic appearance, the church was quite large, occupying a land area of 4,419 square feet, with a total floor space of 10,295 square feet. Two aisles flank the main nave, and choir stalls were installed below what used to be a simple rood screen surmounted by a large wooden cross above the sanctuary. The cross is no longer present, probably removed during the destructive years of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976.

Moore Memorial Chapel, c. 1935. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection

Moore Memorial Chapel, c. 1935. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection

Hudec was careful to design the church interior to accommodate the growing number of congregants. The downstairs provided room for 560, the upstairs allowed for 380, and the choir stalls could seat another 60 people. Attached buildings had offices, a dormitory, and classrooms.

In a booklet commemorating a Methodist gathering in the Moore Memorial Church in 1935, the new church’s architecture is praised for its conduciveness to Christian prayer: “The auditorium lent itself beautifully to such a gathering. The high-arching Gothic interior lighted by the sunshine-colored windows, the rich stained wood pews, and above the pulpit, the high wooden cross, called one to worship as in a cathedral.”

Gothic Distinction

Both the church’s interior and exterior summoned the attention of those who observed its Gothic style in distinction from what stood around it. The Shanghai Evening Post & Mercury exclaimed about the new edifice: “This latest addition to the ecclesiastical architecture of the port stands out in striking contrast to its neighbors across the way from the race course.” Whatever people’s first impressions as they first saw the church within its larger architectural context, it was an anomaly that identified itself as a sacred space.

Hudec’s early sketches suggest that he first envisioned a non-Gothic exterior with a Gothic interior, similar to his Chapei chapel built in two distinct styles that were distinguished by the interior and exterior. An early drawing of the church tower includes no distinctively Gothic elements; even the main massing of the church as he rendered it in this sketch contains nothing Gothic. Another sketch of his vision of the church interior depicts the sanctuary with a simple rood screen and cross that is entirely in the Gothic style.

In the end, however, he decided that the entire church, interior and exterior, should reflect a harmonious whole that is Gothic in style from every view. Unlike the modern architecture that surrounded the church, architecture that celebrates human invention and human ambition, the Gothic style emulates the splendor and harmony of nature. The Scottish geologist Sir James Hall asserted in his Essay on the Origin, History, and Principles of Gothic Architecture that “the Gothic style is in all its parts nearly connected with nature, and has borrowed its forms from that beauty.”

Today, the Moore Memorial Church is largely enclosed within Shanghai’s twentieth and twenty-first century versions of modernity; its Gothic style is awkwardly framed between monoliths of glass and concrete. Even so, it visualizes something more than the passing trends of aesthetic fancy. It embodies Christopher Wren’s assertion in Of Architecture that “architecture aims at eternity.”

The Moore Memorial Chapel as seen today (c. 2016) stands as a testament to the sacred among its glass and concrete surroundings. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection

The Moore Memorial Chapel as seen today (c. 2016) stands as a testament to the sacred among its glass and concrete surroundings. Photo: Whitworth Univ Library China Christian Missions Collection

The Moore Memorial Church remains a testament to the enduring value of traditional architectural form when designing sacred space for religious use. Art Deco has been called “an architecture of soaring skyscrapers—the cathedrals of the modern age.” Hudec was an architect of many contrasts—a master of modern Art Deco and Bauhaus—but when he was tasked with designing churches, he chose the Gothic of the past rather than the “Gothic of the future.”

The Church a Microcosm

Hudec once wrote of himself, in his unpublished autobiography: “I wasn’t sure if I should become a priest or an architect,” and the designs he produced represent both sides of his personality. “Architecture is applied art; the exterior appearance is the consequence of the interior. It isn’t necessary to create something new, because the new challenges and the new materials are also going to bring new solutions with them.”

He saw no reason to reject traditional design simply because of the prevailing trends or the differences of available materials based on time and location, especially when what is being designed is a church. The English architectural historian William Lethaby wrote: “The perfect temple should stand at the center of the world, a microcosm of the universe fabric, its walls built foursquare with the walls of heaven.”

Laszlo Hudec was an architect who apprehended the special place of sacred architecture, even, or especially, if it emerges from such a fashionable cityscape as twentieth-century Shanghai. The Moore Memorial Church stands as a Gothic example of good design in China’s most modern city.

The author would like to thank the Pamela Parker Memorial Fellowship and the Whitworth University’s Weyerhaeuser Center for their generous support. He would like to thank several individuals for their kind assistance, among them: the director and staff of the University of Victoria’s Special Collections and Archives; Lenore Heitkamp, who shared her mastery of Hudec studies; and Alvin Hudec, who shared scanned images of Laszlo Hudec from the Hudec family’s private collection.

Dr. Anthony E. Clark is the Edward B. Lindaman Endowed Chair and Professor of Chinese History at Whitworth University. His most recent book is China Gothic: The Bishop of Beijing and His Cathedral.

| Horn of Salvation and Symbol of Chastity

Horn of Salvation and Symbol of Chastity

A unicorn is among the medallions of the sanctuary arch of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis. It is located second from the bottom along the left side of the arch. Photo: Author

A unicorn is among the medallions of the sanctuary arch of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis. It is located second from the bottom along the left side of the arch. Photo: Author

In the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis, Tennessee, each side of the arch of the apse has four circular medallions. Descending on the right side are a lamb, peacock, stag, fish, and a flowering plant. On the left side are a pelican, phoenix, butterfly, another flowering plant—and a unicorn. The flora and fauna symbolize Jesus Christ or some aspect of his redemptive power. The pelican represents “atonement in blood” and the phoenix, “resurrection,” for example.

The unicorn represents “our Lord’s Incarnation and sinless life”—a symbol of Jesus Christ and of purity. How did the unicorn come to be associated with Christ and purity?

The Bull and the Unicorn

Association of Christ and the unicorn derives from an admixture of classical sources that attribute indomitable power, strength, and healing to the unicorn and of biblical references to unicorns whose characters will be interpreted as applying to Christ. The first written account of a unicorn is from an early fourth century BC natural historian, Ctesias, a Greek physician at the Persian court. (Much of the history that follows is taken from Odell Shepard’s The Lore of the Unicorn and Lise Gotfredsen’s The Unicorn.)

He describes, from traveler’s stories, a swift and powerful horse-sized, wild ass-type animal living in “India” that has a single tricolored, eighteen-inch-long horn between its eyes. It has a white body, purple head, and dark blue eyes. To drink from this horn as from a cup protects one from diseases and poisons.

Several centuries later, in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn (monoceros) in his Natural History. Native to India, it has a stag’s head, horse’s body, elephant’s feet, boar’s tail, and a three-foot-long horn. It behaves similarly to the unicorn in Ctesias’s account: it eludes live capture.

Surprisingly, early translations of the Bible also refer to unicorns. The second-century BC Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, mistranslates the Hebrew word re’em (wild ox) as monoceros. The translator(s) were not familiar with the kind of animal this word indicated, and likely just substituted monoceros for it, given re’em’s similar characteristics to the animal known from classical reports.

In the fourth century, Saint Jerome translates the Hebrew for wild bulls as unicornis. For example, “Save my life from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of unicorns” (Psalm 22:22). Martin Luther and the King James Bible followed Jerome. Only in the twentieth century did “wild ox” return. (Some scholars suggest a better candidate for re’em would be the aurochs, a wild buffalo extinct since the sixteenth century.)

Jesus the Unicorn

The Church Fathers started to identify Jesus Christ allegorically with the unicorn. The horn was an Old Testament symbol of strength and power, particularly in the psalms (e.g., Psalm 18:3 and 148:18). In the Benedictus of Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah praises God because “He has raised up for us a horn for our salvation” (Luke 1:69). It was translated “He has raised up for us a mighty savior.” Jesus Christ is the horn of salvation.

Tertullian in the early third century interprets “the horns of a wild ox” of Deuteronomy 33:17, a metaphor about the power of the glory of Joseph, to be allegorically about the spiritual power of Christ and his cross. In his Against Marcion, the Carthage theologian identifies the horns as the two axes of the cross.

“In a yardarm, which is part of a cross, the extreme ends are called horns, while the unicorn is the upright middle post,” he writes. “So then by this virtue of the cross, and by being horned after this manner, he is even now winnowing all the nations through faith, lifting them up from earth into heaven, as he will afterwards winnow them by judgment, casting them down from heaven to earth.”

Jesus Christ is the horn, the powerful one, whom no enemy can conquer, the reality to which the creaturely characteristic of the unicorn points. However, this does not adequately explain why the Memphis cathedral medallion associates the unicorn with the Incarnation and sinlessness. The fullness of the symbology requires the introduction of another text, the Physiologus.

This book, the title translated best as “The Natural Historian,” is a third- century Greek text written in Alexandria. It treats of fifty animals, plants, and elements, not only in their natural qualities, but with a Christian moral allegorizing of them.

The sharp-horned unicorn described is fierce and unable to be taken by force, behavior consistent with that described by Ctesias and Pliny. However, it is a small animal, about the size of a kid goat. The goat size explains the Memphis cathedral unicorn’s chin hair.

Additionally, the unicorn is attracted to purity and will approach a virgin, lay its head in her lap and fall asleep as the maiden caresses him. This virgin-unicorn relationship appears to pre-date any Christian influence.

Unicorn and Virgin

An explicit Christological and Mariological interpretation of the unicorn and virgin develops in the Syriac version of the Physiologus (early fourth century). Those hunting the unicorn present a young virgin to it. The fierce beast approaches docilely, suckles from the maiden’s breast, and lays its head in her lap as the girl reaches out and grasps the horn, at which time the hunters capture it.

The Physiologus compares this dynamic of unicorn and virgin to Christ and his virgin Mother. “Likewise the Lord Christ has raised up for us a horn of salvation in the midst of Jerusalem, in the house of God, by the intercession of the Mother of God, a virgin pure, chaste, full of mercy, immaculate, inviolate.” The all-powerful Word of God condescends to be conceived and dwell within the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word who is like us in all things but sin (hence the Memphis identification of the Incarnation and sinlessness), is the unicorn who rests upon/within the lap/womb of the chaste Virgin Mary.

In the early seventh century, the bishop Saint Isidore of Seville wrote a compendium of manifold topics: grammar, law, God, the Church, anthropology, and natural history, among others. Now a Doctor of the Church, he was learned and unsurpassed among his contemporaries.

In the Etymologies he discusses the unicorn, borrowing from the Physiologus: “It has such strength that it can be captured by no hunter’s ability, but, as those who have written about the natures of animals claim, if a virgin girl is set before a unicorn as the beast approaches, she may open her lap and it will lay its head there with all ferocity put aside, and thus lulled and disarmed it may be captured.” (Opening up her lap could be translated as “bares her breast.”)

Isidore’s account, blending the classical and theological, had enormous influence upon future Christian writers, who looked trustingly to him as a learned scholar of the highest quality. He more than any other scholar and cleric houses the unicorn as one animal among many in the menagerie of Christian imagination.

By the fourteenth century, the unicorn hunt theme will be allegorically depicted as the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary in an enclosed garden. Christ the unicorn reaches into her lap, with the Archangel Gabriel blowing a horn and holding the reigns of hunting dogs representing various virtues.

Also, later medieval versions of the Physiologus attribute to the unicorn’s horn the power to purify water contaminated by a serpent’s poison. The unicorn makes the sign of the cross with its horn over the water, immerses the horn in the water, and thus purifies it.

Christ, the sinless one, is the unicorn. He has the power to forgive sin and overcome the works of the evil one. The holiness and sinlessness of Christ are affixed to earlier pagan accounts of the purity of unicorns. Thus, Christ, the pure, is directly connected to the pure Virgin Mary and to all virgins.

Cathedral of Saint Mary

Since apostolic times, women within the Church have dedicated themselves to Christ by a life committed to virginity. From the fourth century onward, women called to such a life entered the Ordo Virginum (Order of Virgins) and were considered brides of Christ. Saints of the Church were grouped according to their manner of life and death: martyrs, apostles, confessors, and virgins. Mary is the Virgin of virgins and is given the title “Queen of Virgins” in the Litany of Loreto.

The stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of Saint Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, illustrate the Litany of Loreto with a window for each title of Mary as queen of angels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all saints.

The iconography of the window for Mary Queen of Virgins has a crown for royalty above a recumbent unicorn beside a lily.

The unicorn and lily are both images of purity and chastity. In contrast to the active, springing unicorn of the Memphis cathedral, the Queen of Virgins’ unicorn portrays a tamed unicorn tranquil before the pure virgin to whom it was attracted.

The meaning is twofold. First, the unicorn represents the Incarnation, as the Word condescends to be conceived and born of the creature, the Virgin Mary. Christ is the sinless one born of the Virgin Mary whose immaculate conception preserved her from original sin and whose life was holy and free from every stain of sin. Mary is the pre-eminent disciple, a type of the Church. She is the first fruits of a redeemed humanity. Mary is “the Virgo virginum (Virgin of virgins), the unsurpassable prototype of consecrated virginity. Thus, Mary is the mother, sister and teacher of consecrated virgins.”

Second, the unicorn also represents the purity and virginity of those women who have espoused themselves to Christ. Through mythic imagery, the unicorn symbolizes the Christological and ecclesiological meaning of human personhood and sexuality.

Saint Peter’s Basilica

Another image of virgin and unicorn in a church, however, lacks the explicit and immediate Christological, ecclesiological, and Mariological context of the Queen of Virgins’ image. Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome depicts a woman and unicorn high above the nave floor in the spandrel of an arch.

One of the Allegory Statues in the nave of Saint Peter’s depicts a virgin and a unicorn. Photo: Author

One of the Allegory Statues in the nave of Saint Peter’s depicts a virgin and a unicorn. Photo: Author

This is one of sixteen female figures, the Allegory Statues, each about twenty feet in size, adorning the spandrels on both sides of the nave arches. Twelve other such figures are located in the transept arches. The sixteen women and their associated implements or figures are allegorical representations of various virtues: ecclesial authority, divine justice, virginity, obedience, humility, patience, justice, fortitude, charity, faith, innocence, peace, clemency, constancy, mercy, fortitude.

The woman and unicorn in the second arch represent virginity or chastity. Niccolo Menghini carved this sculpture in 1647, along with the neighboring “Obedience” or “Faith” in 1649. His representation of virginity reflects Renaissance characteristics, including partial nudity of the human body, while recapitulating the Physiologus’ virgin-unicorn relationship.

The movement from the late medieval period to the Renaissance witnessed a secularizing of the virgin-unicorn image, whose most influential impetus was Petrarch’s Trionfi in the mid-fourteenth century. Drawing upon ancient Roman triumphal processions of conquering army commanders and emperors, Petrarch’s poem presents the triumphal procession of conquering allegorical figures: love, chastity, death, fame, time, and eternity.

His work ignited the imagination of artists across Europe, who presented chastity’s triumphal procession as a woman seated on a platform drawn by a pair of unicorns. Henceforth, unicorns became a standard allegorical attribute of chastity untethered from any necessary Christological connection.

The placement of the statues in Saint Peter’s Basilica situates the allegorical depiction of virginity within an implicit ecclesiological and even Christological framework. However, the initial straightforward understanding is a theological anthropology of human sexuality and specifically virginity.

The woman’s bare left breast and right breast visible through her gossamer garment bespeaks the Physiologus’ virgin who nurses the unicorn. Her right hand grasping the base of the equine horn is a firmer but parallel touch to that seen in the fifth panel of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry two centuries earlier.

The Taming of Desire

The allegorical sculpture also manifests the Renaissance focus on the beauty of the human body, but a body that should never be separated from the person. The human person, as body and soul united together, is the one who loves and is loved. Only in this personal unity can the person reach what Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est called “authentic grandeur.”

Menghini’s unicorn can symbolize the taming of man’s desire and the purity of his intention regarding a woman. The fierce, untamable beast becomes gentle, a tender man of honor, in the presence of purity. The face of the virgin is tranquil, serene, admiring, and contemplative, manifestations of an undivided heart and joy in personal, bodily being.

The allegory of virginity expresses the essence of chastity. That, Pope Saint John Paul II explains in Love and Responsibility, “consists in quickness to affirm the value of the person in every situation, and in raising to the personal level all reactions to the value of ‘the body and sex.’”

The presence of a mythical animal in Saint Peter’s surprises many when they learn of it. Others think the presence of partially nude figures unfitting. (Five of the sixteen allegorical sculptures are bare-breasted women.) Eighty-four years earlier, the Council of Trent decreed that sacred art must be free of superstition, sensual appeal (lascivia), seductive charm (procaci venustate), and the profane (profanum) and unseemly (inhonestum). Only after the council did a papal commission recommend that pictures in churches (like Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel) be covered if obscene or false.

Only after Michelangelo died the next month did Daniele da Volterra begin to paint over the frontal nudity of figures in that painting. After the 1994 restoration of the Sistine Chapel, albeit with Volterra’s discretions still present, Pope John Paul II preached that the chapel was “the sanctuary of the theology of the human body.”

Trent’s decree on sacred images, however, was not primarily about lascivious art. It was foremost a re-affirmation, in the face of Protestant iconoclasm, of the goodness and legitimacy of images, as taught eight centuries earlier at the Second Council of Nicaea in response to the imperial iconoclasm of the day.

Purity and Knowledge

Two unicorn heads flank the door of an outdoor pulpit on the back side of Dillon Hall, an all-male residence hall at the University of Notre Dame. Above the arch over the door is a plaque of a fruiting tree with the words “Scientia Dei” (knowledge of God).

Outdoor pulpit at the University of Notre Dame. Photo: Author

Outdoor pulpit at the University of Notre Dame. Photo: Author

Originally completely enclosed, the central pulpit wall was removed and steps added decades later. The pulpit was most likely not functional but simply a Gothic motif. The pulpit opens off the hall’s chapel and most immediately beside the confessional. This outdoor pulpit and its fruit tree and unicorns represent the relationship between purity and knowledge. Unicorn purity facilitates the pursuit and obtaining of the knowledge of God.

Detail of the unicorn carving. Photo: Author

Detail of the unicorn carving. Photo: Author

Not only does a Catholic university seek to integrate faith and reason in the one human person, but it seeks to educate the entire human person as a spiritual being. Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, whose members founded the University of Notre Dame, understood this holistic education to be of both mind and heart.

He would have been aware of the connection, disbanded by Enlightenment anthropology, between the intellectual ability to understand reality and one’s moral character. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely recognized that lust blinds the mind and gluttony dulls the senses. Catholic teachers do not merely slake human thirst for knowledge but seek to enflame hearts with divine love and vision. “[F]or the Spirit teaches not by sharpening curiosity but by inspiring charity,” writes Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in On the Song of Songs. The student is awarded by the Holy Spirit “with the choice repast of knowledge and the seasoning of grace.”

A Catholic vision of education of the human person, created in the image of God, recognizes that education is also liturgical and ascetical. This outdoor pulpit is a stone and brick manifestation of that truth. The knowledge of God requires a pure heart, symbolized by the unicorns.

Reverend Terrence Ehrman, C.S.C., teaches theology at Notre Dame and was previously assistant director of the university’s Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing.

| Church as Visible Speech

Church as Visible Speech

According to the last few pontificates, the most pressing questions of culture and doctrine are properly about the human person. Beauty and the experience of physical spaces matter: we are embodied; we meet the world through our senses.

For Thomas Aquinas, being embodied means that we live according to appetite or desire. We are drawn to the world as good, and we are in turn formed by the goods we desire. The human capacity to think presupposes a living and functional bodiliness. The human capacity to act and communicate presuppose some corporeal personality: powers, habits, abilities, as well as language and culture.

There are downsides to bodiliness. The body delineates our limits, and thus our feebleness. In our desiring, the body tends to rule us, or at least to oppose us.

In communication, the body is as much a veil as it is a way of revelation. Language and social customs entail as much misunderstanding as they do clarification.

We are formed passively by the world through our bodiliness. It follows from this that we must engage in the hard, lifelong work of formation, bringing the interior self and the exterior self into a greater lived harmony.

The middle or interior senses—imagination, memory, judgment—become all the more important because they are the locus in which the exterior and bodily comes together with the interior and spiritual.

Creativity must be nurtured with perceptiveness and skill; memory must be developed by attentiveness and studiousness; judgment must be deepened through moral formation and practiced virtues.

The arts—including architecture—have a special importance, because they are not merely sensory pleasures: they form the whole person through shaping the interior senses of memory, imagination, and judgment.

This approach to the person explains why, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger begins with the idea that space is for persons. The Catholic tradition approaches liturgy and liturgical space with the understanding that it forms the whole person. The building is a kind of “visible speaking.”

Principles of Beauty

In the classical tradition, beauty has both an objective and a subjective dimension. The subjective dimension is delight or enjoyment. It can be a kind of “gut attraction,” but it should be informed by tradition and reflection. Tradition might dictate that some things are more beautiful than others, whether we like them or not.

The arguments that follows may sound abstract. But it is important to note just how human is this approach to beauty. It begins in the way we are made for, and drawn to, the world as truly “good,” and ends in the more sophisticated joy of truly understanding something in the world.

The objective dimension of beauty is primary and indeed foundational. Beauty describes the reality, the command, of the thing that stands before us and over and against us. Beauty is primarily associated with form. (I will depend primarily on Augustine to explain this.)

Form describes: a) the appearance of a thing, which distinguishes it from other kinds of things; b) the unity of a thing (that it is a “this” or an individual thing); and c), that it has a nature, with an order or proper operation. Form is also a properly aesthetic term.

The initial experience we have of things, their “look,” involves an almost immediate exercise in distinction and in desiring.

We are made for things in the world, and they in turn are made for us. We see that “This is x and not y,” and with this perception goes a fittingness determined by the appropriateness of the object. Our appetite for food is stimulated by food, not only the visible appearance of it, but the smell, the texture, the feel, and so on.

For this reason, Augustine says in On True Religion, things “cannot lie.” What is, is true, because things are “one way and not another.”

Even what we might call “waste” has a place in the visible structure of the whole. This whole is orderly and functional. Even things of little significance, even things truly ugly, have some beauty in light of the whole, because the whole reveals an order or harmonia, and this gives real pleasure.

Objective Beauty

To summarize: beauty has an objective character that appeals to the intellect, even though we receive the first evidence from our appetites.

Second, it is about the unity of things, or what Thomas Aquinas calls consonantia: complex things have a functionality and end. Their parts work well together, making them to be complete “wholes.”

Finally, beauty is about what Thomas calls claritas: the way in which things reach out to us and reveal themselves.

For Augustine, this third element requires a shift from “intrinsic” to “systemic” order, because we only see the full beauty of a thing when we see it in the context of the whole order of the cosmos. The psalmist expresses this as well: “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (19:1).

This fits the Catholic way of understanding the created world as a revelation of God: everything is good, and because it is good, it is a language redolent with meaning and symbolic potential. When we say that things are beautiful, we observe divine speech reaching out to us through creation.

When we praise the beauty of the house of the Lord, or the beauty of the Lord himself, we affirm the completion of the dynamic of revelation in the secure presence of God, of life with God.

As Psalm 27:4 puts it: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”

The Church Historical and Mystical

Jesus Christ came to found a Church. The Church is prepared for in Israel, the holy people of God, marked off from other peoples by a relationship of covenant. At the heart of Israel’s worship is the tent of meeting, and eventually the Temple. Christ identifies himself with the Temple, even as he tears asunder the veil in the Holy of Holies that stands between the people and the presence of God. When we consider the church building, we must have these elements of the continuous and the radically new in mind.

It is common in ecclesiology to balance two approaches to the Church: the more horizontal, sociological, and historical reality of the people, and the more vertical, mystical reality of the presence of God. Lumen Gentium summarizes this by the familiar terms of “people of God” and “mystical body of Christ.”

Theological priority is given to the Church as “Body of Christ,” to highlight its mysterious and mystical dimension. This priority emphasizes the way in which the Church is unlike ordinary institutions, given that its founding and its ongoing life arises from the presence of God himself in the Church.

There is important continuity between Old and New Testaments, from the ark to Jesus. In the central place in the tent (or tabernacle) was the ark, upon which Yahweh would descend in a cloudy pillar, to speak to his people. The opening of the gospel of John says that the Word of God became flesh and “dwelt among us.” The Greek word for “dwell” means to “pitch one’s tent.” So, Christ is the new “tent of meeting”: he is the true mediator, the true priest.

There is also a shocking discontinuity in Christ’s identification of himself, or of his body, with the Temple/Church, because it includes an element of “tearing down” and re-building. In Colossians, we read that, in Christ, the “fullness of the Godhead dwells” in a visible, bodily way. Moreover, each Christian is said to be a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” Ephesians says that, united with “Christ as the cornerstone,” all the saints make up the new “household” of God, a living temple.

These biblical texts make sense of the priority of Church as “mystical body” in Lumen Gentium: the Church is the people of God, but only insofar as they are called by God, to worship and to be constituted into this new, living temple of Christ’s body, with God the Father as the architect. Christ is the Kingdom of God that he announces, and he is now and always in our midst.

The Church Building

The church building expresses both these elements of the continuous and the radically new. It must accomplish a great deal with respect to its meaning and to what occurs in the liturgy—nothing less than the building up of the Body of Christ on earth, making the divine presence known and adored, and translating this same body to the heavenly banquet.

Human creativity shares in the dynamic of revelation in a unique way. No one style of building is necessarily better or worse for signifying or accomplishing all that the church building must. But upon entering a church, there should be no doubt: this place is not like other places—God is present. And seeing the church in action, in the liturgy, there should also be no doubt: the veil has been torn, and the way to God has been opened once and for all.

The church building should communicate what it is and does by appealing to the whole person. It must appeal to the whole person by its beauty. The building must speak and be heard.

The principles of beauty according to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas resonate strongly with the classical principles of architecture we know from the Roman engineer Vitruvius’ De Architectura. His principles help us understand how church buildings work, how they “speak visibly.”

The Vitruvian Triad includes as principles for building: Firmitas (solidity, structural soundness, durability); Utilitas (functionality: what the building is for); and Venustas (beauty: quality of craftsmanship, materials; attention to detail).

Alberti, a Renaissance student of Vitruvius who wrote the first major treatise of his time on Vitruvius’ model, translates venustas as a kind of pleasure. He divides this into beauty (pulchritudo) and decoration (ornamentum). Finally, he defines beauty as proportion, or harmony, comparable to the mathematical rigor of musical harmony.

Proportion is objective beauty, and decoration is subjective beauty, because it depends on the judgment of the builder. The challenge of this distinction within the idea of beauty is that it problematizes something that may have been Vitruvius’ intent: the original three principles of building are inseparable one from another; they are not confused with each another, but rather overlap and mutually support each other.

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in Saint Louis, Missouri, has a domed baldacchino and sanctuary dome above the altar. Photo: Sherrie Jackson

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in Saint Louis, Missouri, has a domed baldacchino and sanctuary dome above the altar. Photo: Sherrie Jackson

The Triads

This overlap allows me to bring Vitruvius’ triad of building closer to Augustine and Aquinas’ triads of beauty. Vitruvius’ “solidity” and Augustine’s “forma” argue for the veracity of things, what a building actually says; “utility” argues for the effective operation of a thing, or how well a building accomplishes its intended purpose. These first two terms are not only the basis for the third term, beauty, they are essential to it.

It follows that beauty, whether understood as proportion or as decoration, is in fact the first and most important aspect of a building. Buildings say something, and they speak a language that addresses the appetitive and rational nature of persons.

The beauty of buildings lies in the clarity of their speaking, the order and proportion which appeals mathematically to the human sense for symmetry—there is a real delight in this. Their beauty also lies in the power with which they communicate.

Finally, their beauty lies in the effectiveness by which they accomplish their end. A comparison could be made to good, effective preaching. A good sermon might employ rhetoric and poetry well; it is never just a “message,” and ultimately, it should stir the hearer to devotion and action. Without its underlying substance, its teaching, we have a homily that sounds lovely, but feels empty—and fails.

Perhaps the best example to make sense of the interpenetration of the elements of beauty is revelation itself: God could have saved humanity any way that he wished, as Athanasius observed. He could have redeemed humanity by command, by some other sacrificial ritual, or by any other means than “pitching his tent” among men, for a lifetime that ended in suffering and humiliation.

However, God does things “in style”—through ridiculous generosity, through the solidarity of a lifetime of teaching and example, through the kindness of a multitude of gestures, such as healing by spittle and comfort by touching. Jesus never “just teaches”; he shows, and he invites: come, and see.

A Visible Speaking

If the church building is a “visible speaking,” and if beauty that appeals to the mind and heart is essential to its dynamic and success, what are some elements of its speech?

One is proportion and order. Vitruvius famously modeled an ideal series of ratios on the structure of the human person. Most churches in some manner reflect the idea of Christ as the ideal man. The heart is at the center, where the altar would be located, and the head in the sanctuary with the bishop’s throne and the tabernacle. The body itself extends into the nave and the crossing, giving us a cruciform layout.

The key idea is a visual clarity and rhythm that sooths the mind, while drawing the focus of the viewer naturally toward the altar as the center of the building. Why the altar? After the pattern of the tent of meeting, the altar is the place where the boundary between the earthly and the divine is traversed.

This may be signified by a dome over the altar. This represents either the whole cosmos (creation), with Christ at the center as the new Adam, or the breadth of divine providence over the whole of creation. The circular form is, geometrically speaking, perfect. It is eternal in a metaphorical sense, given that it has no start or end—it is an arch, rotated 360 degrees.

Apart from the structure of the whole building, the most important element for creating a sense of proportion, rhythm, and order, which also serves to direct the gaze forward to the altar, are pillars (or pilasters), which may or may not be linked by arches or an entablature. They also communicate strength and solidity.

Pilasters in the nave of Saint Peter’s articulate the space and draw attention forward to the altar. Photo: wikimedia.org/joselomba

Pilasters in the nave of Saint Peter’s articulate the space and draw attention forward to the altar. Photo: wikimedia.org/joselomba

Columns are beautiful because they are impressive, solid, and grouped well, and articulate space to a human scale, in contradistinction with the relatively massive ceiling. They frame the people in a space with a uniquely human purpose. They also direct the eyes to a point of visual convergence in the sanctuary.

When you enter, your eyes are indeed drawn forward, and eventually, you go forward: the focus is always on the altar. Whether in a cruciform or in a centrally-planned church, the directionality of the building should be the same, pointing those who worship to the place where the human and the divine come together.

Orientation and Placement

Three liturgical elements help in this regard. First, the orientation of the church to the east. Particularly when in exile, but even after the building of the first Temple, Jews pray facing Jerusalem, to remember the Temple, the place of God’s “earthly presence.”

Christians face east, and ideally all churches have altars at the eastern side of the building. The theological justification for this is the historical link between the rising sun and the new life embodied in the risen Lord Jesus, linking Easter (the yearly celebration of the Resurrection) with the last coming of Christ in judgment.

It is more about looking forward than remembering backwards. The altar is the place where this new life is actually shared by the faithful.

Finally, the required presence of a crucifix makes clear that mediation is a divine work, accomplished through the cross.

Second, the placement of the altar: this echoes the structure of the Temple, and the fact that the altar is for sacrifice.

In Leviticus, the ceremonial precepts show that the Law must be lived out; holiness and justice require total conformity of life, through thanksgiving, offering, propitiation and purification. All of these elements are richly present in the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.

A key difference, however, is that the sacrifice of the altar is a work of God (not of the priest), and it is has already been accomplished in time.

As Joseph Ratzinger says in The Spirit of the Liturgy, the Eucharist “brings heaven into the community assembled on earth, or rather it takes that community beyond itself into the communion of saints of all times and places.”

The twelve apostles are positioned on the colonettes of Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, France. Photo: frompariswithloveblog.wordpress.com

The twelve apostles are positioned on the colonettes of Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, France. Photo: frompariswithloveblog.wordpress.com

Third, the honored place of the Book of the Gospels: this can be seen in the placement of the pulpit in some churches in Europe sometimes halfway down the nave, and in some solemn liturgies that involve a Gospel procession, because the proclamation of salvation is made in the midst of the people.

In early liturgies, the people gathered around the bishop proclaiming the Word; then all turned to the altar, for the Eucharistic celebration.

This made it clear that the bishop (or priest) is a servant of the Word—like all the people around him—but he then stands at the altar for the people, distinct from them in his capacity of ministerial priesthood.


A second element of the church “visibly speaking” is the particular symbolism of the church building. This is a complex matter, seen for example in the column, which combines tree-like naturalism with human solidity (for Vitruvius), linking the twelve tribes of Israel to the idea of the people of God as constitutive stones of the edifice of the body of Christ.

The symbolic character of almost every element of church architecture, not to mention liturgical furniture, such as priestly garments, is rich and instructive, and should be known by the people, in order to appreciate the remarkable coherence of meaning in the liturgy, together with the dynamic functionality of the building.


A third and final element of the church “visibly speaking” is functionality. The obvious architectural model available for early church design was the Roman temple. The problem with the temple is that it was not made for people. It was occupied by significant statuary, and the enclosed space protected the statuary and votive offerings.

The Roman basilica, with its practical and unstructured simplicity, became the model for churches, in large part due to its functionality. A church is for the people of God to assemble: to hear the Word preached, and to worship the Lord in the “beauty of holiness.”

The “Liturgical Movement” which arose in the mid-nineteenth century aimed at restoring liturgical claritas. The purpose of the liturgy, and therefore the functionality of the church building, is ordered to divinization, according to Denis McNamara.

Its goal, he says in Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, is “to help people drink more deeply from the springs of divine life found in the Church and her sacraments by sharing in the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ: offering the self to God as a sacrifice and in turn receiving the divine life of sanctification.”

The altar, and especially the tabernacle, was given greater clarity and prominence. The floating altar, detached from a reredos, is one example.

Baptisteries were situated more prominently, or given distinct chapels. Central aisles were opened up for more processions.

Private devotions, essential to traditional Catholicism, were seen to separate believers from the mass. Designers deliberately subordinated them to the mass through deliberate church design, for example, by removing or repurposing darkened side-chapels.

The overall intended stylistic effect of liturgical reform, in the eventual words of the Vatican II document, has been “noble simplicity” or clarity, and “noble beauty.”

Whether these goals have been attained or even articulated well, to implement the will of the Council fathers, remains an open question. A classical sense of architectural beauty, understood in the deeply humanistic terms of the last three pontificates, remains central to the theological meaning and the spiritual end of the Catholic liturgy.

This article is a shorter version of an academic paper delivered for the Thomistic Institute and Columbia University Catholic Ministry.

Paige Hochschild is associate professor of theology at Mount Saint Mary’s University.

| The Café is No Substitute for the Chapel: A Lesson from the Munich Airport

The Café is No Substitute for the Chapel: A Lesson from the Munich Airport

Munich Airport Terminal Two was voted the world’s best terminal, not so long ago, by a global survey of fourteen million travelers. Its spaces are bright and airy, efficiently and thoughtfully designed, advertised as offering “a wide range of shopping and dining options amid pleasant surroundings flooded with natural light.” Waiting areas are blissfully quiet.

Even quieter is the Meditation and Prayer Room. As its name suggests, it is not exactly a chapel, but rather something more along the lines of an interfaith space. The symbols of five different religions are arrayed in nonchalant disorder at the end of the corridor, and reproduced in a different order on the plastic sign by the door.

Room 05.2194

From a distance the symbols may be hard to recognize, because this corridor is not one of the bright and airy spaces for which MUC T2 is famous. But yes, room 05.2194 is there, past the elevators. Munich Airport processes forty-five million passengers annually, but the Meditation and Prayer Room can be located where the corridor narrows, because we are not anticipating large numbers.

The corridor leading to the Meditation and Prayer Room at Munich Airport. Photo: Author

The corridor leading to the Meditation and Prayer Room at Munich Airport. Photo: Author

Yes, we build such spaces; but they are hardly central to the institution of the contemporary airport, that great monument to modernity’s mobility. If anything, they are fringe elements—serving, perhaps, to screen from view the potential embarrassment of prayer in public spaces. In Munich, a phone is provided by the door in case of emergency. After all, you never know who might use this sort of place. Inside, they may be calling on God; outside, they are calling security.

The architect in Munich, Maximilian Kinseher, certainly made a brave effort. Working with the artist Erwin Wiegerling, he invoked the powers internal to his discipline to address the challenge of the project. Within the perfect cube of the Meditation and Prayer Room, grids are carefully aligned, materials and colors carefully chosen. But there is also a predictable barrenness to this windowless space.

It possesses none of the characteristics that might mark the architectures of any one of its intended constituencies. And this absence is deliberate. It is difficult, after all, to agree on what such a shared space should contain.

Maybe some empty shelving upon which to rest the baggage of our worldly possessions. Perhaps some quotations from assorted texts, carefully chosen so as not to contradict one another. Probably a compass or arrow, pasted to floor or ceiling, offering, within the placeless environment of the international airport, orientation toward the Holy City of Mecca, far away.

Such rooms sit disconsolately in airport terminals around the world, populated with plastic candles that will never be lit, displays of printed brochures that will never be read, photocopied notices respectfully asking weary travelers not to sleep here. The architectural space of devotion and prayer, a space into which humanity has for millennia poured its longing for that which might transcend the alienation and pettiness of earthly existence—that space has finally been reduced to abject desolation.

The Problem of Meaning

The room in Munich is more deliberate than most. In the absence of natural light, convenient metaphor for all things spiritual, the architect has instead installed within the room the trunk of a tree that once grew in the forested mountains of Bavaria—doubtless maneuvered into place with some difficulty, and now standing disconsolately beneath the suspended ceiling of this fifth–floor space. It is intended, no doubt, to speak of that which is shared among all people of good faith: a respect for the wonders of nature, perhaps, or for the rootedness that may be drawn from the ground of ancient traditions.

But this tree has been uprooted. It is a dead tree.

A tree trunk is featured in the Meditation and Prayer Room of Munich Airport. Photo: Jake and Meridel

A tree trunk is featured in the Meditation and Prayer Room of Munich Airport. Photo: Jake and Meridel

Does this matter?

As a diverse society, we badly want to believe in the promise of such shared spaces—spaces where those of differing convictions might sit in quietness together, where Muslim might pray alongside Jew, where atheist and Christian might share a moment of doubt, or even (miracle of miracles) where conservative and liberal might meet in peace.

Is this not an attractive idea? An idea that is more attractive today, perhaps, than ever before? In a society that is increasingly divided, such spaces matter, do they not?

Yet these spaces belong to nobody. Instead of illuminating the promise of common ground, they illustrate the wretchedness of a no-man’s-land.

But that is Europe, I hear you say. This is America.

With few exceptions, America is hardly different. Test it for yourself on your next layover.

The reasons are predictable. In the United States, airports are typically property of the state, which is understandably reluctant to invest heavily in such quasi-religious institutions. But even if it did, it is not clear how it might best do so without defeating the purpose of the exercise. Indeed, if architects have historically worked hard to imbue their work with meaning, the most self-conscious examples of this more contemporary typology labor, instead, to strip such spaces of meaning.

As Andrew Crompton has noted in The Journal of Architecture, “the most important issue in multifaith design has become how to prevent a space becoming meaningful in an inappropriate way.” Content, after all, is potentially divisive. And the very premise of a shared space means that no one constituency can fill the gap or assert its convictions. The resulting poverty of content is palpable—spiritually, metaphorically, literally.

Taste and See

Ironically, in airport terminals around the world, it is precisely when you step back out into the departures area that you encounter experiences of the most transcendent richness, that adopt almost all the traits of more conventional sacred architectures.

Take the airport café, for example.

Even in the most unfamiliar of territories, the very sight of your favourite coffee shop is welcoming, a safe space in a hostile world of artificial lighting and invasive security procedures.

A warm interior highlights moments of delight that entice with their visible sweetness, an invitation to taste and see that this is good. Music filters through from unseen sources, blended with sounds of comfort that bear the promise of a deep and fully personal satisfaction. A rich aroma complements the appeal to the senses. A smile greets your approach, introducing the familiar words of a ceremony that millions repeat each day with religious devotion: call, response, expression of gratitude, closing blessing.

These spaces elicit an extraordinary dedication from the faithful, for whom regular attendance is an obligation that lends strength to face the trials of the day, perhaps even the tribulations of air travel. And in the best examples of their kind, there is open seating, an invitation to linger, to talk, to build community, a promise that all are welcome—as long as the sacred transaction is preserved: payment in exchange for service.

We are aware of this constraint. We know that our spaces of consumption are not as welcoming as we might hope, and we applaud efforts to respond. In the face of protests and boycotts, one company has established a new policy: “any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces . . . regardless of whether they make a purchase.”

But we also know that the café is representative of much larger patterns of segregation. Outside the airport, certain neighbourhoods do not have access to these places, simply because profits would be insufficient. The spaces of contemporary consumer culture cannot, it turns out, viably substitute for all other functions. The coffee shop cannot fully substitute for the space of prayer.

A Larger Failure

Which is why it is critical that we pay attention to the misery of the airport chapel. It points to a larger failure. As a society we desperately need spaces that take seriously not only our similarities but also our differences—spaces where pieties can be nurtured and challenged, where conflicts of conviction can provoke not a cheap violence but a costly forgiveness, where the wretchedness of our increasingly hostile, disorienting world of segregated mobilities can be aired in a context that is genuinely welcoming.

We must invest in these spaces. The cost of not doing so is prohibitive.

Kyle Dugdale is an architect, critic, and historian. He teaches history, theory, and design at Yale School of Architecture and at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

| The Natural World Imbued with Meaning

The Natural World Imbued with Meaning

Roger Scruton is without peer among contemporary philosophers. His range of intellectual, aesthetic, and practical interests is extraordinarily wide and is matched by corresponding abilities and knowledge. As a critical thinker he is acute in perception, imaginative in reflection, and lucid and illuminating in expression.

He is also highly productive: with books on general aesthetics as well as on architecture and music, on philosophy and its history, the environment, politics, and sexual desire. In recent years he has added religion as a subject of his distinctive style of humane reflection, both in the form of a particular tradition, viz. The Church of England in Our Church (2012), and as a general mode of human consciousness and activity. The present book and a predecessor, The Face of God (2012), are contributions of the latter type.

The World’s Richness

Reflecting on the growth of modern science and its impact on our experience, the sociologist Max Weber wrote in 1920 of “the disenchantment of world,” and in the following decade the philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote of the “the mathematization of nature.” In sympathy with such observations, but in spirited defiance of scientific reductionism, Scruton seeks to find a way of restoring the value and meaning of the world, its qualitative richness and its particularity without denying the power and success of scientific methods of quantitative analysis and causal generalization.

He yields to the sufficiency of Darwinian biology so far as it concerns the mass of living things. He draws the line, however, at human-mindedness, seeing in our self-consciousness and its intentional products something that is undeniably real but escapes capture within the nets of scientific, and specifically evolutionary and neuro-physiological, explanations. He argues that our modes of experience and thought involve conceptions, affective responses, and evaluative judgments that transcend the mere causal impingement of the world upon our senses, or animal instinct, or evolutionary adaptation.

Thus we interpret and enter into the givens of human experience as realms of meaning and value, and in so doing we find there orders of significance that engage our own nature not as animals but as subjects. The primary locus and sustaining ground of this form of thought is the interaction between persons in and around the phenomenon of mutual recognition.

For Scruton the human world is rooted in the natural order as the face in a portrait is rooted in the pigment of the painting, but it is only visible to one who can see this aspect of things. Wittgenstein wrote that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul” and Scruton extends that idea focusing on the human face to develop a notion of sensitive subjectivity (my expression).

“I lie behind my face, and yet I am present in it, speaking and looking through it at a world of others who are in turn both revealed and concealed like me.” He links this approach to what he earlier termed “cognitive dualism,” the idea that “the world can be understood in two incommensurable ways, the way of science and the way of interpersonal understanding.”

Scruton’s “personalism” is then extended in the direction of a sacralized understanding of nature. Just as we respond to a human face as a locus of expressive meaning and dignity so we respond to aspects of the natural world as imbued with meaning. This is an example of cognitive dualism. Nature can be apprehended under two guises: as material and as meaningful, and the latter is the object of our aesthetic, ethical and spiritual appreciation.

Home, Hearth, and Place

The first five of the eight chapters develop and elaborate the general approach (occasionally repetitively) but in the remainder he appears to move from the human to the transcendent: “Facing the Earth,” “The Sacred Space of Music,” and “Seeking God.”

In these chapters Scruton engages ancient notions of home, hearth, and place as linked to ideas of social and cultural identity; then explores (brilliantly) the phenomenon of musical order as inhabiting an audible space above and beyond that studied by physics; and finally considers that the subjectivity first understood in the mutual recognition of self and other reappears in the sense of reality itself as something given in which a giver is not so much rationally inferred as sensed at the edge of reason.

Readers may find special interest in a discussion of the mythic origins of the temple and the city and of the demythologized utilitarian character of modern architecture. He writes: “The ‘reference beyond’ of sacred architecture reflects the overreaching intentionality of our interpersonal attitudes. The ‘I’ of God resides in this place, and architecture makes us aware of that. It is not simply stone that surrounds us, but a witnessing stone, stone brought alive by carving, molding, light and shade, so as to stand beside us in an observing stature.”

I wrote of Scruton appearing to move from the human to the transcendent because there is a doubt whether the ideas of the sacred and the divine, and the intimations of these, are not for Scruton just aspects of our own rich consciousness, “overreaching intentionality,” spreading itself across the surface of things and producing in that shimmering layer reflected images of our own subjectivity. It sometimes seems that, for him, the sources of meaning and value we “discover” beyond ourselves are objectifications of human psychology.

Even if that is so, however, it is not individual psychology but that of encultured humanity, what one might call “The Soul of Man.” Whatever the source of meaning and value, Scruton’s great philosophical, imaginative and literary gifts help us to see their reality and to understand their importance. For that as for much else in his work we have reason to give thanks.

Editor’s note: This review was written before Roger Scruton’s death in January 2020.

John Haldane is J. Newton Rayzor, Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Saint Andrews, and Chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London.

| The Value of Beauty

The Value of Beauty

Philosophical aesthetics tends to bend immediately to a discussion of beauty in the arts. The initial volume of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics (translated into English for the first time in 2016) takes up a distinctive approach to the question of beauty. Instead of beginning with poetry, literature, or architecture, von Hildebrand argues for a metaphysics of beauty. Beauty pertains not only to experience of the arts but immerses men and women into a world of value, the gift of creation itself.

His prolegomena to aesthetic judgment, though often difficult for the philosophical novice, is important for those involved in sacred architecture to consider. Although the second volume (published in 2018) discusses architecture directly, the first volume of the Aesthetics inoculates the architect against the fallacies arising from hyper-Platonism, functionalism, and subjective aestheticism.

Major Missteps

Hyper-Platonism treats beauty as reducible to ideas, detached from the sensible encounter with nature or a sculpture. Functionalism is focused exclusively on how the object is used, essentially bracketing the question of beauty at all. Aesthetics is, though, most focused on responding to the problem of subjective aestheticism.

In most twentieth-century philosophy, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The first chapter of Aesthetics lays out its major missteps. Namely, the belief that beauty cannot be determined objectively, but is related to the subjective perception or affections of the one who perceives that which is “beautiful.” Those of us familiar with the state of the liturgical arts, especially architecture, in the last fifty years will recognize many of these arguments.

Not so, cries von Hildebrand. The beautiful object is not merely a matter of perception, of the senses, reducible to the experience of the encounter. Instead, beauty exists as a metaphysical value, a value that transcends the physical order. Aesthetic values are “that which shines out in the beauty of moral value, the morally good, and the individual virtues as splendor, as fragrance, as an irradiation of the moral value.” We can recognize the irradiance of courage, truth, and purity.

But, there is beauty that is sensed, perceived by the subject. It is the beauty of the human face, of art and poetry, of architecture, and of nature itself. Von Hildebrand calls this the beauty of the second power. This beauty is a mystery, since that which is visible and audible manifests a beauty that both pleases one’s senses and initiates one into a deeper spiritual beauty. Color, form, material, and sound all contribute to this beauty of the second power.

This beauty of the second power is von Hildebrand’s unique contribution to the field of philosophical aesthetics. He takes the middle way between the Scylla of a hyper-Platonism and the Charybdis of a subjectivism that reduces beauty to the experience of the beholder. Not surprisingly, functionalism is not considered within the work insofar as it dismisses the existence of beauty at all.

The first volume slowly unwraps this argument through attention to the way that the senses recognize beauty, an account of a hierarchy of beauty, and a deeper analysis of the “spiritual” fullness made possible through the beauty of the second power.

Thisness and Beauty

Aesthetics begins to bear fruit as he turns his phenomenological gaze to nature and human life. A cloudless, blue sky over a sun-kissed ocean provides the viewer with an experience of joyfulness that points toward metaphysical values that can only be expressed through this precise landscape. The “thisness” of the landscape mediates an encounter with that which is beyond perception. The beauty of the second power makes possible an appreciation for the sensible world as the “incarnation” of these values.

The beauty of the second power is concerned with truth. It points one toward metaphysical values that are nonetheless instantiated in this human person or landscape. Beauty is not subjective but is instead the way that human beings come to experience the gift of truth. Although it’s objective, von Hildebrand notes, that doesn’t mean everyone sees it. It is often only the lover who can recognize beauty. One must take the time to gaze with wonder at what is given truly to see it.

There are areas in which one may quibble with von Hildebrand. He seems far too secure in arguing for a hierarchy of beautiful creatures, for example. The slug or hippo is determined to be “less” beautiful than the butterfly or the lion. Perhaps, this may be the case for the viewer who has not been attuned to the beauty of these creatures.

After all, one must recognize that the ultimate measure of beauty for the Christian is revealed in the kenotic, self-giving love of the Word made flesh. Von Hildebrand knows this, of course. Aesthetic values don’t replace the gift of the saint, who manifests moral values integral to the process of religious conversion. Perhaps there’s something in the beauty of a slug that may actually attune us to see an aspect of beauty that the lion does not possess, a beauty that is revealed in Christ alone.

Gift and Creation

For those studying or working in sacred architecture, von Hildebrand’s first volume of the Aesthetics is an important read. It bestows a philosophical framework whereby those designing sacred architecture may learn to distinguish between the beauty of the second power offered by the church itself, and the beauty of the Christian assembly gathered for worship.

The latter is beautiful, because of the gift of Christ. The former is beautiful because God has created a world that can manifest the beauty of Christ. Much of the confusion in post-conciliar architecture, as it turns out, is really a philosophical problem.

Timothy O’Malley is managing director of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life and the author of Bored Again Catholic: How the Mass Could Save Your Life and other books.

| Church Building in Sri Lanka

Church Building in Sri Lanka

Thanks to Portuguese missionary activity in the sixteenth century, the Catholic faith took root among the people along the seacoast of Ceilão (as Sri Lanka was known). The Dutch conquest of the Portuguese possessions on the island in 1658 resulted in a particularly harsh persecution of Catholics, and many of them retreated into the central regions belonging to the Kingdom of Kandy. In 1687, Saint Joseph Vaz (1651-1711), the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in Goa, and other Fathers of his community began to minister to the dispersed Catholic communities in Jaffna and later moved to Kandy.

Part of this outstanding missionary work was the construction of churches, which, according to Sagara Jayasinghe, the main author of Remains of Dark Days, are examples of an Indo-Portuguese style that integrates native artistic traditions into the broad stream of Christian sacred architecture.

Jayasinghe, an architect teaching at the University of Moratuwa, describes his work as focusing on issues of cultural heritage, colonialism, and missionary movements. This small book opens a wide perspective by introducing the reader to the churches of Portuguese influence built in Sri Lanka by Oratorians from India. It is published by ARTIS—Instituto de História da Arte, Faculdade de Letras, Universidade de Lisboa—and sponsored by the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

A Remarkable History

Two preliminary chapters elucidate the background to this remarkable history. In “Portuguese Missionaries in Sri Lanka During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Hélder Carita, one of the co-authors, documents the significant extent of church building under Portuguese dominion, which was undertaken above all by Franciscans and also by Jesuits.

The monumental scale and exuberant decoration of these edifices must have been imposing, as a contemporary observer, Fernão de Queiroz, attests: “the majority of these parish churches were as magnificent as the best in Goa.” Only the ruins of the Jesuit Church of the Holy Trinity in Chankanai on the Jaffna peninsula remain as a visible testimony to the strength of the Catholic communities before the Dutch conquest.

In “The Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in Portuguese territories,” Joaquim Rodrigues dos Santos offers an overview of the historical Oratorian houses in Portugal, Brazil and Goa, with special attention given to their church buildings.

The main section of the book by Sagara Jayasinghe is dedicated to “Oratorian Missionary Churches in Sri Lanka.” The Fathers of the Goa Oratory constructed places of worship as part of their ministry to the scattered Catholic communities on the island. This building activity was extended when in the early nineteenth century the arrival of British rule saw a gradual relaxation of anti-Catholic restrictions. From this period 280 churches and chapels are documented.

Jayasinghe identifies a specifically “Oratorian church model,” which integrated native elements and enriched the Indo-Portuguese style of church architecture. Such Oratorian churches follow the type of the Christian basilica, with a longitudinal nave divided into a central aisle and two side aisles. Distinctive elements are a triumphal arch leading to a narrow square sanctuary, and two rows of wooden columns on either side of the central aisle.

Saint James Church in Killaly, Jaffna, uses wooden columns with decorative brackets. Photo: Sagara Jayasinghe
Saint James Church in Killaly, Jaffna, uses wooden columns with decorative brackets. Photo: Sagara Jayasinghe

The author surveys churches of this model in the historical Kingdom of Jaffna in the northern part of Sri Lanka, where the population consists mainly of Tamil Hindus. The most conspicuous feature in the interior of these buildings are the wooden columns: “These columns are surmounted by mortised capitals with four-sided decorative brackets, which carry the load of the large beams, thereby preserving a building method typical of the ancient Hindu tradition.”

Some Oratorian churches were furnished with a retablo altarpiece of Indo-Portuguese origins, with gilded woodwork, painted reliefs and sculptures. Jayasinghe argues that this pattern of church building, by integrating characteristics of vernacular architecture, was more sensitive to local practice than the Gothic style favoured by European missionaries in the nineteenth century.

A Sober Note

This illuminating book ends on a sober note, as Jayasinghe notes how little care has been shown to the remaining Oratorian churches in Sri Lanka. Of the few buildings that retain some vestige of this religious and cultural encounter (twenty-one were surveyed by the author), some have been damaged in the civil war, while others have been demolished and replaced with churches of a style that has no historical roots in Sri Lankan Catholicism.

This publication makes this remarkable patrimony known to a wider public. May it also help its maintenance and restoration for future generations.

Reverend Uwe Michael Lang is a priest of the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in London and teaches at Mater Ecclesiae College, Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham. He is the author of Turning Towards the Lord.

| Tota Pulchra Es

Tota Pulchra Es

An old Catholic prayer dating to the fourth century extols the incomparable beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the words Tota Pulchra Es, meaning “You are completely beautiful.” It is no wonder that the spiritual and moral beauty of the woman who is “completely beautiful” has taken the form of the beautiful in masterpieces of sacred art.

In Regina Coeli: Art and Essays on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Father Michael Morris, O.P., offers an inspiring collection of writings on Marian art, drawn from the pages of Magnificat and three additional art reflections. Morris, who died in 2016, taught at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley.

The essay collection is a tour de force journey, featuring over forty Marian masterpieces from artists like Giotto, Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Titian, Raphael, Velasquez, van der Weyden, and Juan de Flandes. The volume’s full-color large-scale renderings take the reader on a Marian pilgrimage through the life of the Mother of God. And since Mary’s life is inextricably bound to the life of Jesus, this Marian pilgrimage is a Christ-centered pilgrimage.

The compilation also includes essays on works of sacred art that depict the distinctly Marian prayer of the rosary and the Marian devotion of saints and religious orders, such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Carthusians, and Saint Sixtus and Saint Barbara.

The reader will find particularly insightful numerous essays on artistic masterpieces that trace the life of Jesus. For instance, in reflecting on a work by the Netherlandish painter Juan de Flandes titled The Wedding Feast at Cana, Morris writes that his picture of Mary “reinforces our notion of her as a powerful intercessor exercising enormous influence with her son. … Christ may have felt that his time had not yet come, but he responded immediately to her plea. And so she pleads our cause as well. As we say over and over again in the Hail Mary, may she be an advocate for us sinners especially at the hour of our death, so that we too can enjoy that eternal feast that is prepared for us in heaven.”

Each reflection invites the reader to ponder the heavenly liturgy where the Blessed Virgin Mary sits enthroned as Queen of Heaven in the company of all the saints. One is reminded of Dante’s contemplation of the Mother of God among the brilliant splendors of Paradise as, “beauty that was joy in the eyes of all the other saints.”

To His Mother First

Rogier van der Weyden’s Miraflores Altarpiece depicts the appearance of the resurrected Christ to his Blessed Mother. “While the Gospel says nothing,” Morris notes, “Christian tradition has long taken it for granted that Christ appeared to his mother first. For it is logical that she who had shared most in his passion should also share in his glory. … For at the Annunciation she was the means by which he entered the world; likewise she would be the first to witness his entry into glory. Bathed in that glory of the risen one, she anticipates the Church’s splendor.”

The Miraflores Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden. Image: wikimedia.org
The Miraflores Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden. Image: wikimedia.org

The book’s concluding essays highlight masterpieces depicting historical events linked to the intercession and presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. First, Paolo Veronese’s intricately detailed historical painting, Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, that captures the decisive sea battle victory that turned the tide against Ottoman naval superiority in the Mediterranean.

Then, a stirring essay on the Icon of Our Lady of Cambrai, in which Father Morris recounts the dramatic moment when Bernadette Soubirous, visionary of Lourdes, claimed that this icon was the image closest to the heavenly woman she saw in the grotto. The ethereal icon invites our contemplative gaze as it highlights the affectionate intimacy between the Mother of God and the child Jesus.

Finally, a concluding essay on the iconic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The author concludes his Marian pilgrimage by leading the reader to the heart of Marian theology in art, captured in the endearing words of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, “Am I not here with you who am your Mother?”

Father Morris’ reflections on Marian art convey his keen knowledge as an art scholar and his deep devotion to the Mother of God as a Dominican priest. Mary was not only a figure of art historical interest to the author, but a spiritual mother and companion on his life’s journey. In this collection of essays, he invites the reader to see the person and life of Mary both in her physical motherhood of the Son of God, and in her spiritual motherhood of every baptized Christian.

In the foreword, Father Morris’s long-time close friend Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., describes his sudden death as he collapsed to the floor in front of him on the afternoon of July 15, 2016. Father Cameron notes of this book: “what started out as a heartfelt, personal tribute to the glorious Queen of Heaven turned out instead to be a great, last love letter.”

Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, contributes essays on art to Magnificat.

| Artistic Asceticism

Artistic Asceticism

The Cistercian Arts provides a one-stop catalog that at once nourishes sufficiently and leaves one desiring more. The essays in this fine book do not disappoint in depth of artistic exposition and exploration of topics—save the essay titled “Cistercian Architecture of the Twentieth Century,” which traffics in the usual hagiography of Le Corbusier (enough has been written in recent years to debunk the legend).

Cistercians or Trappists write five of the thirty-nine essays. Full-page photographs, most of superb quality in both full-color and black-and-white, generously populate the 432 semi-gloss pages.

Cistercian Contradictions

The subject matter not only covers the timeframe denoted in the title but also a vast geographic range across Asia, North America, and, of course, Europe. The diverse topics include the aesthetic influences of Saint Bernard’s theology, Cistercian plumbing and irrigation, construction techniques and abbey building typologies, metallurgy and seal-making, preservation of archaic book and manuscript collections, floor tile fabrication, and more.

The photographs dispel associations of visual reductiveness with the stereotype of Cistercians’ harsh simplicity. They showcase the vast range of Cistercian artistic expressions that, refined as they were across various epochs, we can’t help but view today as downright sumptuous. We admire intricately-laid stone and brick cloisters with hand-sculpted colonnettes; finely painted devotional pictures; brilliantly detailed metalwork; brilliantly-stained glass; and richly adorned liturgical vestments—to name only fragments of the wonderful scope of offerings.

The Cistercian history is one of lives surrounded by contradiction—usually in regard to the ways of the world, but often even from monastery to monastery. The opening essay introduces the reader to the origins of the Cistercian Order, origins that were firmly rooted in a desire to return to the ordering power of ratio. Their medieval artworks strove first to satisfy the intellect. This Cistercian artistic tradition of reform and asceticism for the benefit of the intellect withstood the buffering winds of the world’s fleeting styles across centuries.

Their art was sometimes an overt expression in support of the status quo, at other times quite the opposite. For example, the Cistercians rejected the extravagance of late Romanesque church forms that competed for greater length, width, and quality of furnishings. We are told that they rejected anything that would be a banquet for the eyes rather than of needful use (but today we observe a banquet!).

They shunned the architectural forms of new empires, cities, and corrupted religious communities. However, through the vicissitudes of time one perceives a constant: they infused their arts by hand with intelligible integrity, clarity, and proportion, or, Aquinas’ chief qualities of beauty.

A Limited Catalog

In later chapters a perceptible change transforms the nature of the showcased artwork. Essays that cover the latter half of the twentieth and the dawn of the twenty-first centuries reveal a limited catalog of figural imagery in art and architecture. The breadth of materials reserved for artistic expression wanes. After witnessing the handsomely-crafted treasures of previous centuries, the modern product reveals too few details of the layered Cistercian story.

Gone are the hand-hewn, dimensional stone bearing walls and vaulted ceilings, replaced by smooth-as-glass plastered expanses. Raw concrete, machine-faced stone, or whitewashed walls provide backdrops to assembly-line-produced beams and mass-produced furniture.

The familiar-yet-evocative shades and shadows of their old stone abbeys give way to modern interiors that glow unnaturally with diffuse or randomly-scattered light sources. In some modern abbeys light seeps into naves and cloisters from unexpected crevices on or between walls and roofs.

In others, conversely, bright and expansive landscape views now freely and without filter broadcast deep into church naves through large plate-glass windows. Artificial lighting and forced spatial sensations overpower rooms to the extent that the odd hand-crafted adornments seem out of place. Little remains to help spur the human soul toward direct contemplation of Saint Bernard’s imago Dei, or his special devotion to Mary the Mother of God.

The Modern Abbey

The modern abbey construction looks and feels less a product of material transcendence and more of material starvation. The former hierarchical progression of less to more richly-adorned rooms has been replaced by a series of nearly nondescript spaces.

Originally Cistercian art and architecture reflected a counter-cultural spiritual movement, one of either renovatio or reformatio. Today, the characterisitcs of the art and architecture of recently-constructed Cistercian communities looks markedly similar to that of everywhere else, independent of geographic location.

The book leaves a challenge not only for the Cistercians, but for every Catholic who wishes to participate in Saint Bernard’s spirituality of renewal: is there not another Church reform waiting to be instigated that might differentiate itself from the secular fashions of afigural minimalism?

John Haigh, who worked at the side of sacred architect Thomas Gordon Smith for almost a decade, teaches architecture at Benedictine College.

| Contemplating the Body of Christ: Caravaggio’s Entombment

Contemplating the Body of Christ: Caravaggio’s Entombment

As the lights dimmed on the Jubilee year of 1600, Caravaggio’s star was on the rise. After years of small private commissions, the Milanese painter had captivated Rome with his astonishing works in the churches of San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo. He was then snapped up by the Oratorians, who commissioned his Entombment for their new church (Chiesa Nuova) of Santa Maria in Vallicella, dubbed by artist Peter Paul Rubens as “the most famous and frequented church in Rome.”

Caravaggio’s painting, one amid ten altarpieces commissioned for the lateral chapels of Chiesa Nuova, stood out for its focus on the significance of the Eucharist in the liturgy. The physicality, monumentality, and centrality of the Body of Christ in the Entombment illustrated the real presence in the sacrament in a new and arresting fashion during an age when this dogma had been called into question by the Protestant Reformation.

Oratorian Circles

This monumental altarpiece (120 by 80 inches) moved Caravaggio’s contemporary Giovanni Bellori to describe it as “his best work.” It bears the distinction of being the only of his paintings to be requisitioned by the French under the treaty of Tolentino in 1797. Returned to Italy in 1815, the Entombment was placed in the Vatican Museums. There, though well preserved, it languishes far from its proper context, while a poor copy in Chiesa Nuova subdues what was once a clarion call to holiness and the sacraments.

Caravaggio received the commission for the Entombment in 1602 through the Vittrice family, close friends and supporters of Saint Philip Neri. Its destination, the Pietà chapel, was part of Philip’s plan to enlarge Chiesa Nuova with side chapels dedicated to the mysteries of the Blessed Virgin. This emphasis on side chapels dovetailed with the Oratorian focus on the Eucharist, Saint Philip Neri having introduced the Forty Hour’s devotion a few years earlier. To add to its distinction, Pope Gregory XIII conferred an indulgence upon the chapel for a soul in purgatory.

At that point, Caravaggio had been moving in the Oratorian circles for several years. His Cardinal protector, Francesco Maria del Monte, belonged to Philip’s Archconfraternity of the Pilgrims. Del Monte resided in the Medici palace in Rome. His landlord, Cardinal Alessandro de’ Medici, later Pope Leo XI, was one of Philip’s earliest disciples and laid the foundation stone of Chiesa Nuova. Most of Caravaggio’s commissions came through these Oratorian connections.

Conferred Grandeur

It is an intriguing exercise to imagine what Philip, who died in 1595, might have thought of Caravaggio’s provocative painting. Many viewers were startled by the rugged simplicity of the work: the calloused feet of Nicodemus, the dirty toes of Christ, the middle-aged Virgin, the rough garb of the ensemble.

It bore little resemblance to Barocci’s angelic Visitation across the nave, a symphony of pastel so delightful it had been the catalyst of one of Philip’s famous ecstasies. Among all the altarpieces, it was the starkest, darkest and least charming, yet in its dissonance, it harmonized with Philip’s charism—underscoring his love of humility, the poor, and especially the Eucharist.

Saint Philip Neri began his ministry in Rome caring for the poor, particularly the pilgrims arriving for the Jubilee years. With his companions, he set up a house for the destitute pilgrims where they ministered to them, serving them at table and washing their feet. Through Philip’s eyes, the ungainly feet and the coarse tunic of the laborer Nicodemus (probably a portrait of the patron Pietro Vittrice) would likely recall the many barefoot pilgrims who had come through his center. Centuries earlier, Saint John Chrysostom had written that Christ “made himself not only a man, but a poor man; for this he chose a poor mother and modest dwelling.”

Instead of painting the silks and velvets that had catapulted him to fame in his Saint Matthew cycle at San Luigi dei Francesi, Caravaggio employed muted colors and simple fabrics. With his monumental figures, however, Caravaggio conferred a grandeur upon the men and women of the Entombment that paralleled the dignity Saint Philip and his companions bestowed upon their pilgrims.

Humility certainly did not feature among Caravaggio’s gifts; his biography is punctuated with arrests for drawing his sword at any offense to his pride, real or imagined. It would seem that this swaggering Milanese painter could never find common ground with the Florentine saint who was ever repeating, “Be humble, be lowly.” In the Entombment, however, he overcame his own vices and produced an innovative composition that evoked the virtue of humility at every turn.

A Supernatural Light

Caravaggio removed any background in the work, placing his figures against a formless dark backdrop. Eschewing scenic distractions and perspectival flourishes, he presented a deceptively simple and focused scene, much like Philip Neri “shocked and mortified a courtly world with insistent reminders of the religion of the streets.” The austere apostolic simplicity of Philip’s sermons found its parallel in the reductive, realistic figures of Caravaggio.

The striking use of what had become his signature chiaroscuro light effect adds to this impression. A group of unremarkable people, neither idealized nor elegant, are bunched together on a ledge. They are lowering an unwieldly corpse into a grave. Caravaggio’s light, however, transforms the scene from its humble presentation. There is nothing natural in that light: no lamp, moon or sun produced it. It is a supernatural light that reveals the extraordinary amid the ordinary.

The beam illuminates the face of the woman in the upper right, transforming her into a visual beacon. Her hand leads the eye downwards, first to the bent heads of the two Marys and then to the bent bodies of Saint John and Nicodemus. Our heads bow down, instead of tilting up, as we gaze at the work, inviting us to meditate on humility as “the cornerstone of the Christian virtues,” in the words of Cardinal Agostino Valier, another of Philip’s disciples.

The painting has virtually no perspectival depth; instead the slab of the tomb seems to penetrate into the viewer’s space. The block recalls Psalm 118:22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This psalm was part of the Easter liturgy and alluded to Jesus—humiliated, rejected, and executed—who will become the foundation of the church.

The tombstone leads the viewer into Caravaggio’s greatest illustration of Saint Philip’s spirituality: the centrality of the Eucharist. Philip Neri, born in the midst of the Protestant Reformation when the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was called into question, became one of its greatest advocates. His love of the mass and his hours of adoration are reflected in Caravaggio’s masterpiece.

Piero Vittrice died and was buried in the crypt below the altar before the painting was installed. Among his many bequests, he asked for masses to be said there for his soul. The Entombment, now hanging on a sterile museum wall, was intended as a backdrop for those masses.

Meaningful Spaces

Caravaggio’s work irritated his contemporaries not only for its “excessive realism,” but also for its disregard of compositional rules. Blank spaces and dark sections offended his peers with their carefully organized canvasses. Yet Caravaggio’s empty spaces were often more meaningful than the clutter of symbols favored by his age.

Under the protruding stone, Caravaggio painted a shadowy gap, anathema to seventeenth-century painters. Furthermore, instead of hiding it, he emphasized it. The array of bodies leading the eye downwards culminates in the fleshy body of Christ barely contained in Saint John’s grasp. A brilliant swath of white seems to cascade onto the stone, an allusion to the shroud, but also reminiscent of the altar cloth.

Jesus’ hand slips loose, falling downwards so that his three fingers lie softly at the edge of the stone. While they count off the days before the resurrection, they also point to the murky space below. Like an unresolved musical chord, the composition hangs heavily, waiting for the final note.

That complementary chord was meant to be the priest, celebrating mass at the altar, who would step into the space and complete the painting with the re-presentation of Christ’s salvific sacrifice. Nicodemus’ direct stare above the yawning chasm added a sense of urgency to the work, as if the whole scene hinges on the faithful’s participation in the mass.

Careful study reveals two plants on either side of the opening: one, grazed by Christ’s shroud, is green and florid, while the other has wilted. Jesus’ promise of resurrection resounds through this space in the light, in the mass, and even in the name of its patron—Piero Vittrice, which translates into the “rock of victory.” Caravaggio masterfully illustrated how the body of Christ, present in the mass, brought eternal life to those who prayed in that chapel, those buried there and those fortunate recipients of the indulgence.

It might be fair to say that Philip Neri would have approved.

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian who teaches, studies and writes in Rome with a special focus on Renaissance and Baroque art. Her most recent book is How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art.

| Instaurare aut non Instaurare

Editorial: Instaurare aut non Instaurare

Sometimes an architect should conserve what other architects have done, promote an architecture from the past and seek to bring it back to life. To do that, he needs to have humility in regard to historic monuments, but an ego in regard to the cultural elites and architectural profession who will battle him. In the mid-1800s, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the great nineteenth-century restorer of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, was one such architect. It was his flèche, an original design brilliantly in keeping with the rest of the cathedral, that burned and crashed through the ceiling in April. And he has been both lauded and vilified, in his life and since, for making Gothic architecture live again.

The fire in Paris during holy week has caused us to rediscover this self-taught architect and early father of the preservation movement. He was a prodigious artist, a talented archeologist, a defender of tradition, and a promoter of Gothic art and architecture. He was the great champion of a living Medievalism, yet he was an anti-clerical monarchist—who spent most of his career restoring Catholic churches. Go figure.

Viollet, according to Martin Bressani in his brilliant biography Architecture and the Historical Imagination, needs to be seen as an architectural revolutionary who allied himself with the leaders of the Romantic movement to reform French culture. These included architects Henri Labrouste, Louis Duc, and the other V’s (Félix Vauban and Léon Vaudoyer), as well as the highly influential author, Prosper Mérimée, who gave him the career-making commission to restore Vézelay Abbey. Viollet was not particularly successful in designing contemporary buildings. We can be thankful that his anemic scheme for the Paris Opera lost to Charles Garnier’s.

There is much to laud about Viollet, especially his championing of and restoration of Gothic monuments in France. The French and all the world are in his debt for his careful if controversial restorations of Notre-Dame, Amiens, Vézelay, Saint-Denis, Mont Saint-Michel, and Sainte-Chapelle. There is still much to be learned from the quality and methodology of these restorations, even if one disagrees about the necessity of erecting a hundred stone monsters on the roof of a cathedral. He was a man of many ideas empirically tested, and I offer three for your consideration:

First, buildings are not just a reflection of history, but are historical events in and of themselves. This means that less advanced cultures sometimes built greater monuments than their advanced cousins (who may never have built greatly). Thus during the Middle Ages, people built the greatest monuments in history, the Gothic cathedrals, in spite of the superstitiousness and misguided religiosity of their time. Whereas the enlightened modern age had produced mediocre and slavish imitations of Greek and Roman architecture.

Second, great buildings, especially the Gothic, need to be restored and appreciated anew. The goal of the restorations is not to express our modern age. The goal is to express the Medievalism that created them. To do this well, the architect has to give himself the mind and affections of the Gothic masterbuilder. Only when the contemporary architect becomes a Medieval can he design legitimate fourteenth-century additions to a thirteenth-century cathedral, or design new Gothic altars and monstrances, or rebuild an abbey church’s vaults or a Gothic nave in an earlier style.

Third, there are great practical challenges in reviving a lost style. Viollet writes that there will be copies and even bad copies until architects relearn how to speak the architectural language as their own. Reviving a style such as the Gothic includes reviving the methods of the construction, the ways of decoration, and training artists who can sculpt or make stained glass as well as the Medievals. It includes challenging the consensus. Whereas the Classicists of his day believed in the permanence of tradition and the Romantics believed in continual progress, Viollet advocated a break with recent practice and a reconnection with the medieval past.

Viollet was a pugilist. He fought for the revival of Gothic and against the academic Classicism of his time. In the realm of sacred architecture in France he was wildly successful, and the Gothic revival spread around the world. His theories of history, structure, and style influenced succeeding generations up through the founding fathers of Modernism.

Viollet’s written and built work is so important that it deserves to be seriously analyzed—and criticized—but also lauded today. His breakthrough restorations at Notre-Dame and elsewhere are historical events which need to be appreciated and restored. And we should give Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, this champion of medieval restoration, respect for reviving a dead language, even if it meant some mistakes along the way.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| Notre-Dame and Modern Secular France

Notre-Dame and Modern Secular France

The marble Pietà in the sanctuary of Notre-Dame was erected by King Louis XIV in honor of his father, Louis XIII. Statues of both kings kneeling in devotion are on either side. Photo: flickr.com/Marie Thérèse Hébert
The marble Pietà in the sanctuary of Notre-Dame was erected by King Louis XIV in honor of his father, Louis XIII. Statues of both kings kneeling in devotion are on either side. Photo: flickr.com/Marie Thérèse Hébert

Early in 2019 the spire of the Paris cathedral had disappeared under scaffolding as it was undergoing restoration. A fire started there for still unknown reasons at the end of the afternoon of Monday, April 15th. It quickly spread to the roof. The original thirteenth-century oak beams burned down to charred stumps and ashes, and the lead sheets they supported melted. The flames and black smoke rose higher than the spire and after nightfall the intense red glow of the furnace could be seen from miles away. Crowds rushed to the scene to stare in dismay.

The spire eventually collapsed, piercing the stone vault of the transept crossing. The firemen’s water hoses protected the stained-glass windows and the façade’s twin towers. Most of the masonry seemed to have been spared when the fire was finally put out the following day at dawn. The Crown of Thorns was saved by the firefighters’ chaplain and sent to the Louvre. All the statues on the spire had fortunately been removed for renovation shortly before the fire.

President Macron had come to the site after canceling a televised speech and solemnly vowed to rebuild Notre-Dame of Paris within five years. Fundraising began at once and was amazingly successful.

This proved that Notre-Dame meant more than was thought, not only for Catholics, but for all Parisians and French people, whatever their religion or lack of faith, and even for millions around the world. The cathedral was perceived as the lasting symbol of the historic national and European identity, based not on flags or institutions, but on the vitality of a common soul that inspires everyone, including the fiercest materialists.

Recent Prestige

As a matter of fact, the cathedral’s prestige is rather recent. The French kings were anointed in Reims, not Paris. When the pious Louis IX got hold of Christ’s Crown of Thorns, he erected the Holy Chapel to harbor it, not far from the cathedral which was then being built.

The precious relic was entrusted to Notre-Dame only after the Revolution by Bonaparte. He chose to crown himself there as Napoleon 1st, though the place had been abandoned and vandalized. Only hasty luxurious decorations, and nothing of the architecture, can be seen in pictures of the coronation like Jacques-Louis David’s monumental painting at the Louvre.

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, 1808. Image: wikimedia.org
The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, 1808. Image: wikimedia.org

So far, only some official ceremonies (royal weddings and baptisms, funerals of glorious generals such as Turenne and Condé) had been celebrated at Notre-Dame. Also, King Louis XIII had consecrated himself, his dynasty and his kingdom to the Virgin Mary in 1638, and his vow was commemorated by the white marble Pietà erected at the bottom of the choir by his son Louis XIV, with the statues of both kings on either side. But few cared in the age of Enlightenment which led to the fall of the monarchy.

Attention focused on the cathedral again thanks to Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, which described it as a Gothic labyrinth sheltering and nurturing wild passions. The cathedral’s reputation as a religious high place was established not by the Crown of Thorns, which did not attract crowds, but by the success of Father Henri Lacordaire’s annual Lenten lectures, launched in 1835.

When listening to him, Marie-Eugénie Milleret de Brou rediscovered faith and founded the female branch of the Assumption Order. She was beatified in 1975 and canonized in 2007. (Another famous convert at Notre-Dame was the poet Paul Claudel, on Christmas Day 1886.)

Nineteenth-Century Gothic

After Hugo and Lacordaire came Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who directed badly needed repairs under Napoleon III. Centuries of neglect had left the cathedral nearly crumbling.

The medieval spire was now rickety and had to be dismantled. Viollet-le-Duc designed a new, taller one, with his own statue as Saint Thomas admiring the work while the other apostles faced the city.

He certainly saved Notre-Dame (as well as many other churches in France), but he also refashioned it extensively in a style influenced by Hugo’s romantic vision of medieval art but too rigidly symmetrical and at the same time adding numerous arbitrary ornaments. (A good definition of the creative freedom of Gothic builders is given in John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice.)

Only a few of the original stained-glass windows remain. Many had been removed by the eighteenth-century clergy, who found the place too dark. A number of new, more modest ones were introduced under Viollet-le-Duc and more (some modern) were added later.

The “alliance between the throne and the altar” was wiped away first by the revolutionaries and then by growing anticlericalism in the nineteenth century, culminating in the separation of Church and State in 1905. The First World War, in which Catholics proved to be unconditional patriots, made reconciliation possible, but under the form of negotiated compromises and empirical solutions.

A National Shrine

Notre-Dame really became a national shrine only in the twentieth century, with a Te Deum celebrating the 1918 victory. The government, then dominated by atheists and freethinkers, abstained. Radical-socialist prime minister Georges Clemenceau forbade moderate but then constitutionally powerless President Raymond Poincaré to attend and only allowed the latter’s wife to represent him. But in 1940 all ministers, even the staunchest secularists, attended a mass to implore God’s help when it became obvious that there was nothing else to do as Hitler’s troops were steamrolling into France.

A few days after Paris was liberated in August 1944, Charles de Gaulle did not just walk down the Champs Élysées from the Napoleonic Arch of Triumph in the middle of a jubilant crowd. He strode past the presidential palace at the bottom of the avenue and went on for another two miles along the Seine past the Louvre and up to Notre-Dame. Once there he led the singing in Latin of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s hymn of thanksgiving (Luke 1:46-55).

Soldiers outside Notre-Dame following the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Photo: wikimedia.org/Malindine E G (Capt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit
Soldiers outside Notre-Dame following the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Photo: wikimedia.org/Malindine E G (Capt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit

Because no more significant or appropriate venue could be thought of, national funerals have since been held in the cathedral: for him in 1970, and for his successors Georges Pompidou in 1974 and François Mitterrand in 1996. The only precedent had been President Marie François Sadi-Carnot, assassinated by an anarchist in 1894. He belonged to the “reasonable” left and had married religiously.

The cathedral is likely not to be available for funeral services for former Presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (born in 1926) and Jacques Chirac (born in 1932). Their successors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande (born in the 1950s), have a better chance, not to mention Emmanuel Macron (born in 1977). When the time comes, however, the question might well be whether a mass is actually needed.

Secularized France

This is because secularization has indisputably gained dramatic ground in France since World War II. Church attendance on a regular Sunday is now approximately two percent of the population. Catholics themselves tend to acknowledge that they are but a minority and that faith is no longer part of the ambient cultural heritage, but a matter of individual choice.

This is not only because of the progress of godless worldviews corroding belief from outside. Most historians argue that the “revival” after Vatican II demanded more personal in-depth involvement and that reforms (especially liturgical ones) disoriented average people who could have stuck to minimal, formal, and occasional religious practice.

In the second half of the twentieth century, even before Vatican II, rank-and-file Catholics rediscovered the Bible, previously abandoned to Protestants. This in turn led to greater reliance on Scriptures and less on philosophy, dogma, and formal traditions in the fields of theology and rituals. It also gave way to a more positive approach to Judaism. Simultaneously, improved standards of living encouraged soul-searching, and personal religious experience became decisive under the name of “spirituality”—a word that had hardly been used so far.

All these advances disconcerted the masses who saw Catholicism as unchangeable, and churchgoers became a dwindling elite blaming “popular piety” for being superficial.

One consequence is that the basic doctrines of the faith are no longer fully transmitted to the younger generations. They struggle to understand cathedrals and more broadly the religious art that is predominant in churches, abbeys, and museums everywhere.

To make things worse, sex abuse scandals, like almost everywhere else in the West, have undermined confidence in the clergy. They have spread the notion that Christian ideals are too radical or unrealistic and fatally generate hypocrisy.

Notre-Dame’s Plight

With such a background, it is amazing that virtually no one dared declare being indifferent to Notre- Dame’s plight. But the situation is not so gratifying and remains worrying.

What has faded is the conviction that religions in general and Christianity in particular are doomed to disappear in the long run. The devaluation of Marxism and the worldwide surge of Evangelical Protestant, Muslim, Hinduist, and even Buddhist fundamentalisms has discredited that illusion. Militant atheists are definitely much more marginal than Catholics in France, even though they sometimes manage to be noisy.

The freedom of conscience is not challenged, but it is so simplistic that it tends to consider any public explicit expression of faith as disturbing, if not offensive or threatening.

This has consequences for the future of Notre-Dame: the cathedral is welcome and even cherished as a harmless sacred or spiritual reference planted in the landscape—something historic, unique and impressive but not intrusive, imposing no obligation.

In the same way, most people expect a priest to be available when they feel that some kind of blessing would help. But they will not keep going to church afterwards. This means that, while all agree that the cathedral should be rebuilt, whether it remains a place of Catholic worship and pilgrimage is a minor matter.

The Archbishop of Paris has already had to remind people that Notre-Dame is much more than a tourist attraction or a landmark like the Eiffel Tower. The state owns the cathedral as a listed patrimonial monument.

He insisted that the state must not turn it into a museum, open mainly to hordes of visitors, incidentally at the government’s disposal for exceptional national ceremonies, with the clergy just allowed to celebrate outside of business hours.

The archbishop’s point was that liturgical services are not performed behind closed doors. They are the best guarantee that the cathedral remains accessible to all (provided they don’t behave as if they were on a beach or in a pub) all day long and every day of the year, as a place that is not just a gigantic remnant of times gone by, but animated by the life given from on-high that inspired its construction and can still be shared.

In other words, Notre-Dame reveals a gratuitousness that exceeds economic, social, or cultural requirements. That is precisely what makes it so dear to all, whatever they believe or don’t believe.

How Will it Be Rebuilt?

Concretely, the question is whether the cathedral will be rebuilt as much as possible as it was before the fire, or whether some visible sign of its twenty-first-century restoration will be added. For example, whether it will be given a new “contemporary” spire instead of Viollet-le-Duc’s (which had always been criticized). Or whether “abstract” art, or trees and plants (like Mario Botta’s Évry cathedral, the only one built in France in the twentieth century), or even a swimming pool will be put on the roof.

The government has already raised suspicions when announcing a competition for the design of a new spire, and that, in order to save time, decisions might be made without consulting competent experts as required by law. Msgr. Patrick Chauvet, the cathedral’s rector, Archbishop Michel Aupetit and the Archdiocese of Paris will obviously fight against any creation or addition that would be foreign to legible Christian symbolism.

Anyway, specialists don’t think Notre-Dame can be fully restored as quickly as President Macron promised, even if administrative hurdles are kicked aside. In the meantime, the funds are coming in very slowly, since big donors wait to see how their money will be used.

It is already significant that the huge but simple shining gold cross that Cardinal Lustiger had erected in 1994 above the Pietà commemorating Louis XIII’s vow should have been spared, as was a marvelous fourteenth-century statue of the Virgin carrying the child Jesus on the south-eastern pillar of the transept crossing. The two pictures were widely circulated, suggesting that Notre-Dame is seriously wounded but not dead, and still an emblem of living faith.

The Practical Questions

Several months after the disaster, many more practical questions remain unanswered. The origin of the fire remains a mystery. More importantly, will the roof be rebuilt with oak beams and lead sheets, or will more up-to-date lighter materials be used?

Will the bold modern altar installed by Cardinal Lustiger in 1989 be repaired and reinstated? It was not placed exactly in the middle of the transept crossing as is generally the case nowadays, but closer to the choir’s entry, leaving ample space for liturgical action on the elevated central stage. It was partly crushed by falling stones. It had both admirers and detractors.

A more fundamental problem remains to assess the harm done to the stone structure, not only by the flames and the fall of the spire and roof beams, but also by the tons of water poured all over by firemen to control the blaze. The water seeped between and even inside the stones. Not only was some of the old mortar washed away but also parts of the tender chalk of the stones are likely to have invisibly turned into lime.

It will take time to ascertain whether the architectural frame is still strong enough to stand up straight enough and sustain the weight of the new roof. Another difficulty is that the burning lead of the roof has produced toxic emanations everywhere inside and also all around on the ground, including the square in front of the cathedral where visitors used to queue up in long winding lines before they could enter.

Finally, removing the scaffoldings that surrounded the spire proves arduous: the metallic bars were twisted and welded together by the intense heat.

Is Notre-Dame Different?

All this trouble is not unprecedented. This is not the first time a cathedral has burnt: it happened every now and then in the Middle Ages, and the list of latter-day fires is longish: in France only, Rouen in 1822, Chartres in 1836, Metz (then German) in 1877, Reims in 1914 (because of the war), Nantes in 1972. The vault of the Cologne Dom fell when the city was bombed at the end of World War II. York Minster in England burnt no fewer than five times over the last millennium, most recently in 1984.

They have all been rebuilt. There is no reason why Notre-Dame de Paris should not. The difference is not technical, but what this cathedral means and all the buried questions that its wounds unearth. The answers that will have to be given will bring useful clarifications.

Jean Duchesne is Emeritus Professor of English at Condorcet College in Paris. A founder of the French edition of Communio, he was Cardinal Lustiger’s Special Adviser and is now his literary executor.

| A Damaged House to Be Restored

A Damaged House to Be Restored

The west façade of Notre-Dame remains intact after the fire. Photo: Steven W. Semes
The west façade of Notre-Dame remains intact after the fire. Photo: Steven W. Semes

After Notre-Dame burned, most non-specialists assumed that a monument of its importance would be restored to its former state. The architectural community argued for “innovative” designs intended to transform radically the physical form and the meaning of the cathedral. The different reactions reveal once again how far the contemporary architectural community has diverged from any possibility of cultural consensus, even with respect to one of the world’s greatest monuments.

Emblematic for the debate was the nineteenth-century spire (or flèche) that formerly rose above the crossing and collapsed in flames at the height of the fire. Should this “modern” element be reconstructed along with the medieval timber roof structure or be replaced by a new design…or by nothing?

Scholarship and Design

The spire was designed by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) as part of the twenty-five-year-long restoration project he and Jean-Baptiste Lassus began in 1844 to repair the extensive damage suffered by the cathedral and its sculptural decoration following the French Revolution and decades of neglect. An earlier spire had been removed in 1786. Viollet-le-Duc’s design for the new spire was, in part, based on a meticulous study of this and other cathedrals from the same time in the Ile de France and, in part, a pure product of his skills as a designer.

This dual character of the design is important. While his reputation has waxed and waned over the years, Viollet-le-Duc was unquestionably the principal authority on French Gothic architecture in the nineteenth century and a skilled designer and restorer. Historical scholarship and new design were inseparable aspects of his métier.

In his extensive writings, he describes how restoration and design ideally form a continuity in which the restorer must enter the mind of the original designer-builder in order to create whatever new work is needed, as if that original designer had simply returned centuries later to finish the job. This is no esoteric “channeling” of an ancient spirit, but the fruit of years of patient study and hands-on experience, working with the same materials and methods as the original builders.

It is a way of designing “from the inside” rather than as a detached, and presumably culturally remote, observer. This, more than any other difference, separates Viollet-le-Duc’s approach from his present-day peers.

Work began immediately after the fire to assess damage and protect the cathedral. Photo: Steven W. Semes
Work began immediately after the fire to assess damage and protect the cathedral. Photo: Steven W. Semes

The Restorers

Viewing the damage, many people assumed what we have been told for many decades by modernist architects: that there are no craftsmen capable of restoring such a structure, the technical and artistic know-how to direct such a project no longer exists, and that the materials required are no longer obtainable. But perhaps the only silver lining in this tragedy is that it happened in France, a country with some of the most capable conservation specialists in the world.

While critics have rightly criticized the national and local governments’ deferred maintenance of Notre-Dame and other monuments throughout France, the French program of training and cultivation of traditional building skills is second to none. (It was that criticism that finally prompted the major maintenance and preservation work that was in progress when the fire broke out.)

Among the resources available is the Compagnons du Devoir, the present-day descendant of the medieval guilds that promotes excellence in the building trades and whose member masons, stone-carvers, timber framers, stained-glass artists, plasterers, and metalworkers continue to pursue their ancient crafts. Of all countries, France is probably in the best position to solve the technical challenges of rebuilding the roof and spire, consolidating the masonry structure, and restoring the entire cathedral to its historic state.

Fashionable Proposals

The true challenge for the future of Notre-Dame is not technical, but cultural, and concerns not how to restore it but why. While a faithful restoration of the previous state is surely what most non-specialists want to see, a substantial segment of the political-cultural elite have argued against restoration and in favor of innovation. The French Prime Minister, in announcing a design competition, called for a Notre-Dame “even more beautiful than before.”

In response, a steady stream of architects’ proposals appeared, from established names like Sir Norman Foster to dozens of young designers hoping to catch the eye of the decision-makers, almost entirely politicians. (The cathedral, like almost all Church-related sites in France, is property of the state.) These design concepts fell into familiar categories reflecting current fashions in architecture:

Glass-clad structures assumed to be transparent (but are so only at night) and seen as metaphors of “transparency” and “openness.” Some schemes seemed to suggest that the glass roof would bring daylight into the cathedral’s interior, but this would only happen if the vaulted ceiling were removed or the gaping holes created by the falling spire were to remain unrestored.

Gossamer-thin engineered structural systems, usually depicted in renderings that greatly underestimate the bulk of the members needed to resist horizontal as well as vertical loads.

“Green” building taken literally: the glass structures become greenhouses in which plants—including mature trees—will be cultivated, rainwater collected, and carbon extracted from the air. One scheme promised “carbon net-zero” performance and energy independence. There are no indications of how the medieval walls and vaulting would be able to support the load of the soil and trees, or how these would be irrigated.

The search for new and bizarre shapes: Contemporary architecture is the first in human history to promote the search for intentionally meaningless forms. In contrast with the spires of the Gothic or Viollet-le-Duc, the replacement towers so far suggested are abstract shapes without reference to any previous architecture, or anything else.

Whatever the aesthetic merit of these proposals, the practical difficulties soon became obvious. In most of the schemes the designers gave no indication of the potential visual impact of the elevators, emergency stairs, rest rooms, and mechanical services that would be required to serve a vast public space hundreds of feet above street level, not to mention the cafés and gift shops that are de rigeur at historic sites today. Like much contemporary design, these renderings are essentially still-shots from an architectural video game in which such banal factors as building codes, human needs, or even gravity are far from the designer’s mind.

The campanile in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice suddenly collapsed in 1902. Photo: wikimedia.org
The campanile in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice suddenly collapsed in 1902. Photo: wikimedia.org

Reconstruction of the campanile, 1911. Photo: Library of Congress
Reconstruction of the campanile, 1911. Photo: Library of Congress

Authentic Restoration

A repeated argument against reconstruction centered on the issue of authenticity: rebuilding the roof and spire would only produce a copy or, indeed, a fake. This line of thought has a history.

In 1902, the campanile of San Marco in Venice suddenly collapsed into a pile of rubble and was subsequently reconstructed dov’era com’era (where it was, as it was). In 1963, the Italian theorist Cesare Brandi complained in his book Theory of Restoration that the tower should not have been reconstructed but should have been replaced by an abstract “vertical element” that would have maintained the role of marker between the Piazza and the Piazzetta while having no resemblance to the previous tower.

Brandi was among those in the conservation field who from the 1930s onward insisted on a sharp difference between historic and new construction for the sake of correct “historical consciousness.” Any new construction or restoration in the style of a previous period was seen as a “falsification of history.” Generations of glass buildings juxtaposed with historic masonry structures have flowed from Brandi’s slender book.

Most of the proposals for Notre-Dame followed this idea. The proposed “vertical elements” range from the roughly pyramidal spike suggested by Foster, to needles emerging seamlessly from the slopes of the roof, to the more “parametric” designs for shapes vaguely resembling shards or flames.

At an urban scale, the modernist proposals promote the further de-contextualization of the monument, a process begun in the nineteenth century, when the historic context around this and many other cathedrals was changed so that the monument would stand alone in a vast open space, cleared of the much lower and more modest buildings that originally crowded around it. The medieval builders intentionally kept the open space around the cathedrals limited and intimate, shortening and narrowing the possible views, thereby emphasizing the vertical lines as opposed to the more “panoramic” vistas so prized today.

This change is the physical correlative of the transformation of the cathedral from a place of devotion to one of artistic contemplation and, later, tourism. The sight of a glass roof and spire would complete this process, changing the appearance of the cathedral itself and juxtaposing the medieval and the contemporary in ways that will inevitably be to the detriment of the historic meaning of the cathedral.

Indispensable Work

Some will claim that international conservation norms prohibit reconstruction of the previous spire and require construction of modern elements in place of those destroyed. They will quote the 1964 Charter of Venice, drawn up by conservation professionals to guide the restoration of historic buildings, and still taken by many as authoritative. It says “any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and bear a contemporary stamp.”

But this does not mean the new spire must be a shard of glass. It is a requirement that anything that must be added to a restoration be identifiable as added and be datable by knowledgeable observers. For example, if the original timber roof framing were to be reconstructed, it would have to be marked to identify it as a twenty-first-century addition, but there is no requirement in the Charter for contrasting style or materials within the restoration itself. (This is clearer in the original French text which, presumably, the French architects are reading.)

The same article of the Venice Charter says “restoration must stop where conjecture begins,” but at Notre-Dame, no conjecture is needed. Indeed, few monuments in the world are as extensively documented as Notre-Dame. Nineteenth-century drawings show Viollet-le-Duc’s work in detail, recent digital 3-D scanning is the most precise form of recording yet devised, and the sculptures from the base of the spire that had been removed before the fire can be returned to their places. All this allows complete restoration without guesswork.

Those of us with a professional interest in conservation of cultural heritage have expressed the need to consider Notre-Dame a damaged house in need of repair, not a marketing opportunity for the would-be architects of the New Notre-Dame or for the commercial interests who, like President Macron, want the cathedral reborn in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024. (Viollet-le-Duc spent twenty-five years restoring the cathedral. The current situation might require ten or more to do the job right.)

The former director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, Francesco Bandarin, noted the “outstanding universal value” of the cathedral, including its nineteenth-century restorations, and called for the monument to be restored precisely to its pre-fire appearance. Organizations like UNESCO, the World Heritage commission, and Europa Nostra have clearly stated their support for a thorough restoration program, a position supported by over a thousand conservation experts in an open letter to President Macron. Other thoughtful responses on the American side of the Atlantic were offered by Mark Allan Hewitt in Common Edge and Peter Pennoyer in The New Criterion.

A Restored Culture

Will these arguments persuade those in whose hands the cathedral’s fate rests? The track record of the political leadership, both in Paris and in France, gives one pause. The mayor of Paris has said that Paris must be “reinvented” if it is to compete with other world cities. The government has approved new skyscrapers within the peripherique (the central city) and highly contrasting modernist buildings in the heart of the historic center, including the new Welcome Center for the Prefecture de Police a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame. The city is removing traditional kiosks and public drinking fountains that are smaller-scale emblems of the city.

If any city in the world did not need reinventing, it is Paris. Even less does Notre-Dame have to be reinvented. Cathedral and city alike need only the loving care that will ensure their health and beauty into the distant future. The decision of the French Senate to restore the cathedral to its previous condition may have settled the question in this direction.

“A Vision for Notre Dame” Reconstruction Proposal. Photo: www.AVisionForNotreDame.com by Renaildo Hernandez, Jacques Levet, and Rene Salas
“A Vision for Notre Dame” Reconstruction Proposal. Photo: www.AVisionForNotreDame.com by Renaildo Hernandez, Jacques Levet, and Rene Salas

One design proposal presented by three recent graduates of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture presents an inspiring vision of a future Notre-Dame. This is the only design proposal seen so far that calls for both complete restoration of the cathedral and a systematic training program at the site to promote the traditional crafts and skills that can ensure long-term survival of our historic cities and buildings.

It looks beyond the monument itself to the building culture as a whole, in which the skill of the restorer and the art of the craftsman are once again widely diffused. Such an architectural proposal is, ultimately, a cultural project to overturn the presumptions of the international cultural elites and architectural establishment.

As we patiently await further news from the brave investigators who are now assessing the damage to the cathedral’s structure and the means necessary for its stabilization, we can hope that imagination and faith will prevail over commercial and political interests. At its best, the restoration of Notre-Dame can be a laboratory and school for a restored building culture, a place where the architectural embodiment of transcendent ideas is once again conceivable.

Steven W. Semes is Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation (W. W. Norton & Co., 2009).

| An Art Worthy of its Name

An Art Worthy of its Name

The catastrophic fire that damaged Notre-Dame in April was not the first event that afflicted the great cathedral. The building was neglected during the Renaissance, vandalized by the Huguenots, classicized under Louis XIV, and subjected to countless modifications. After the Revolution, the radicals attempted to de-Christianize France, and the wholesale desecration of Notre-Dame followed.

The heads of the kings of Israel and Judah were lopped off (these were found in 1977 when excavators uncovered them among foundation rubble), and the nave was stripped of statuary and ornaments. The cathedral was then renamed the Temple of Reason, until it was dubbed the Temple of the Supreme Being by Robespierre’s cult. The statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by the Goddess of Liberty. The cathedral then fell into disrepair, but was spared the fate of such structures as Cluny Abbey, which were pulled down, stone by stone, as a source of building materials for new, non-religious projects.

The day after the fire, President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt and be “even more beautiful than before.” The next day, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced an international competition to design a new spire “suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” He unleashed a popular exercise freed of the encumbrances of the inherently less colorful approach of replicating what was lost.

Designers, artists, and architects responded with a range of proposals that make for striking Instagram posts, from Norman Foster’s glass roof and spire to Clément Willemin’s flat-roofed “High Line”-style walking deck. These designers invoke buzzwords like sustainable, humane, inclusive, recycled, biodiverse, and transparent.

Durable Heritage

In 1830, heritage proved more durable than revolutionary fervor. The government sought, in a typically centralized and rigorous manner, to document its great cultural treasures and begin the process of preserving historic monuments.

A new interest in the Middle Ages took hold, colored by Romantic ideals. Destruction of older buildings was condemned. In 1825, Victor Hugo published a pamphlet called “War on the Demolishers!,” and his 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) was a huge success. It made the long-neglected cathedral a beloved treasure.

Design for the renovation of a chapel in Notre-Dame by Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, 1843. Image: wikimedia.org/Metropolitan Museum of Art
Design for the renovation of a chapel in Notre-Dame by Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, 1843. Image: wikimedia.org/Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1844, Viollet-le-Duc, at age thirty already an accomplished artist, illustrator, and architect, along with his partner Jean-Baptiste Lassus, won the competition to restore Notre-Dame. The drawings and documents they produced to win this commission form a dazzlingly complete and perceptive record of every part of the building—entire elevations drawn to the last stone. The partners’ proposal included some new elements but was generally respectful of the existing fabric.

The restoration, which lasted until 1864, was a magisterial accomplishment that included the new spire to replace the original that had fallen into disrepair and was removed in 1786. The Viollet-le-Duc spire is the one whose design, though completely documented, is likely to be ignored in the forthcoming rebuilding.

The reason Viollet-le-Duc’s approach to preservation later came to be condemned sheds light on why today’s France may consider his work at Notre-Dame to be expendable. As one of the founding theorists and practitioners of preservation, his philosophy, for which he has been unjustifiably pigeonholed, was as deeply controversial in his time as it is in ours.

Among his thousands of pages of writing, he recorded a definition in his Dictionary of French Architecture that bedeviled his career: “Restoration: both the word and the thing are modern. To restore a building is not to maintain it, to repair it or redo it; it is to restore it to a complete state that may never have existed at any given moment.”

A narrow reading of his text suggests that he was unconcerned with authenticity. In practice he cared deeply about the many monuments he restored and adapted his approach to each building and even each stone, exercising judgment rather than restricting himself with abstract rules. As he later observed, “absolute principles lead to absurdities.”

Underlying Methods

He only designed missing elements without the benefit of documentary evidence as a last resort. Typically, he preferred to respect existing fabric—even when an element he restored was a non-original intervention in an otherwise consistent building. Bringing each element of a building to its highest form, his burnishing of certain parts inherently obviated the possibility of a simple, linear history.

In Notre-Dame, he only edited out as necessary, removing the classicizing elements that were introduced under Louis XIV. These barely integrated non sequiturs, such as the white glass in the nave windows, were an ill-conceived concoction of a period that was immune to the spirit of the Gothic.

In executing the restoration, Viollet-le-Duc stepped back from the proposals for more radical changes that had been part of his and Lassus’s successful bid. For example, in his first rendering, the team had proposed spires atop the bell towers on the western façade. He decided against these, saying they “would be remarkable but would not be Notre-Dame de Paris.” But his design for the central spire, though clearly his creation, was supported by its inclusion in the original cathedral structure, as recorded in a painting by Jean-François Garneray.

Where he did design new elements—including the details of his spire—he started with documentary and physical evidence. Where no direct evidence was available, he drew on his deep knowledge and extensive collection of drawings of relevant, contemporary monuments. His exceptional artistic talent allowed him to translate his grasp of precedent into new designs.

Viollet-le-Duc’s drawings are vivid, alive, and compelling compared to the more formalized ones favored by his contemporaries at the École des Beaux-Arts. Behind his knowledge of precedent was his passion for underlying structures, materials, and methods. For example, before preparing a drawing of a fig leaf for an architectural ornament, he explored the structure of the leaf and noted how its fibers cause it to curve, then considered how the artist can interpret these curves, and lastly studied how the stonemason abstracts these lines and simplifies the textures to make a representation of a leaf that could be read at the scale of a cathedral ornament.

Unnerved Critics

Though Viollet-le-Duc has been accused of creating design fictions, it is more likely that his successful channeling of the spirit and practice of medieval architecture and artisanship unnerved and confused his critics. He resuscitated long-dead designs; once infused with life, they were treated as ghostly visions by his disapproving colleagues.

Perhaps unaware of the nature of Viollet-le-Duc’s practice, Macron now perpetuates this misunderstanding of the architect’s work, effectively dismissing the lost spire as a fictive addition. But Viollet-le-Duc’s spire was a work of transcendent beauty, a soaring burst of Gothic plasticity that combined the organic, fluid structure that he understood so well with appropriate decoration and sculpture, drawing together the creative and spiritual strands of this cathedral. The loss of the spire voids an essential emblem of the Gothic.

While his approach to preservation is now thought to have produced a false sense of historical development, Viollet-le-Duc’s real commitment was to historical truth as much as to memory. His reflections on artistic expression in the thirteenth century reveal an understanding that is essential to his success as a designer, and notably absent today.

Then, he wrote, art was “a type of freedom of the press, an outlet for intellects always ready to react against the abuses of the feudal society.” Its secular sculpture revealed “a pronounced democratic sentiment” and a “loathing of oppression.”

He explained: “What is most noble, what makes it an art worthy of its name is the liberation of the intellect from the theocratic and feudal swathes. Consider the heads of the figures decorating Notre-Dame’s portals. What do you see? The stamp of intelligence and moral strength in all its forms. . . . Several heads animated with unadulterated faith have illuminated features, but how many others express doubt, ask a question and mediate?”

Valid Embodiment

A restored Notre-Dame with a perfect replica of the spire would be a valid embodiment of history. A newfangled version risks reducing the monument to a secular theme park exhibit. The new design will likely interrupt the mysterious glory of Notre-Dame with elements as glossy as the pyramid at the Louvre.

Given our relentlessly solipsistic design culture, it is unlikely that an inspired architect will find truth in the Gothic language and abstract its essential transcendent qualities. Without the requisite knowledge and spiritual attachment, a contemporary designer is likely to indulge in the all-too-common brand of illiterate abstraction.

The threat will be greater if new designs touch more of the cathedral. A scheme for the roofscape and spire may spread to new ideas for damaged portions of the nave. A secular France may no longer provide the constituency with the power and confidence to protect Notre-Dame.

The revolutionary zeal that stripped the cathedral of its statuary and ecclesiastical furnishings and chiseled “To Philosophy” over the portal is not entirely dead. As Patricio del Real, a professor of art and architecture at Harvard, observed: “The building was so full of meaning that the fire seemed an act of liberation.” A design competition for a “more beautiful” Notre-Dame is the sort of “liberation” that conceals the same destructive impulse of the Revolution.

Peter Pennoyer is an architect, historian, and teacher, and the author, with Anne Walker, of Harrie T. Lindeberg and the American Country House (The Monacelli Press). This article is a shortened version of “The Past and Future of Notre Dame,” which appeared in the June 2019 issue of The New Criterion.

| The Cathedral and the Island

The Cathedral and the Island

Reconstruction according to a divine masterplan is the key to life. Without it there can be no life: a cessation of reconstruction means death. A dead body ceases to reconstruct. Death of an individual means that its organic matter and organization is entering a cycle of irreversible transformation. Instead the essence and soul of an individual building, contrary to the sanctity of a living being, lies not in its original materiality but in the originality of its design.

Contrarian Debates

The contrarian debate about possible futures of the roof and flèche of Notre-Dame focused worldwide attention on the meaning of reconstruction. It has culminated in the opposition of the French parliament to the expressed will of the president of France. It has thematized the smouldering contradictions between a modernist establishment and civil society in general.

The many reconstruction projects around Germany, in Dresden, Berlin, Potsdam, and Frankfurt, for example, were without exception undertaken by civic initiatives and international support against staunch oppositions by the modernist architects, administrators, and politicians.

In France, it is useful to remember, the wide oppositions against the nonsensical transformations for the Grand Louvre were bulldozed by President Mitterand against the then-director of the Louvre, André Chabaud, against articulate public opinion, and not least against the architecte en chef des Monuments Historiques, Jean-Claude Rochette. In 1984, when the commission Rochette presided over was scheduled to debate the matter, a special envoy of the Elysée Palace forbade the matter to even be discussed one hour later.

In the aftermath of the Notre-Dame fire, the French government’s rash reaction to open an international architectural competition for “inventing a better future” for Notre-Dame was the monumental mistake not to commit. The graphic discharges by famous architectural offices which hit the screens unrequested and unrequited in the following days demonstrated the absurdity of ever trusting modernist professionals with a task clearly beyond their horizon.

The Ile de la Cité

The decision by the French Parliament to reconstruct the roof and flèche dov’era e com’era (where it was and how it was) opens the debate to a wider field, namely to the future of the Ile de la Cité. Over the past twenty centuries the island evolved from the scale of a provincial capital to that of an administrative center for an imperial metropolis.

Haussmann’s monumentalization of the Ile de la Cité’s physical fabric obliterated the monumentality of Sainte-Chapelle and Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, demeaning their spiritual and physical pre-eminence. The drastic depopulation that ensued drained the economic and social vitality of the island.

Occupying roughly two-thirds of its surface, the recent transfers of the institutional mastodons and the vacated Palais de Justice, Prefecture de Police, Tribunal de Commerce and Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, confront the venerable island with a weighty historic change. A global reflection on a possible future for the epi-central real estate was pressing.

In 2016 a presidential “Ordre de Mission” correctly diagnosed the Ile de la Cité to be in an unsatisfactory state with a diminutive resident population. Alarmingly, the architect Dominique Perrault was appointed by President François Hollande and Mayor Anne Hidalgo to “reflect” on the future shape and use of the Ile de la Cité, the heart of Paris.

The presidential declaration of intent could be interpreted as a wish of returning the Ile to a more civic future. The choice of architect assured the exact opposite result.

Perrault is also the architect for the 2024 Olympic Village. He publicly affirmed that the the completion of Notre-Dame for that date would only be possible by using new building materials and construction techniques.

The proposed “Mission Ile de la Cité” project by architect Dominique Perrault. Image: DominiquePerraultArchitecte
The proposed “Mission Ile de la Cité” project by architect Dominique Perrault. Image: DominiquePerraultArchitecte

The Uber-Scale Architect

The acceleration of the Ile de la Cité project by President Macron following the Notre-Dame fire, the promise to have it all done in five years, and the colossal gifts by French plutocrats draw attention to the economic involvement in the operation of multi-national companies. The published project, called “Mission Ile de la Cité,” transforms the whole island into a glittering tourist mall.

Monsieur Perrault is not only the architect of the TGB (Très Grande Bibliothèque), but the sans-pareil of XXL-sized mono-use mega-structures. He is, so to speak, the Proconsul of Uber-scale, of machine-scale and spirit. I witnessed him on a shared round-table solemnly proclaiming that his was a “Mission Nationale.” No less.

Perrault is expert at exalting mechanical repetition to a degree of otherworldly sublimity, cold, alien, maybe exciting as anti-contextual abstractions, but always deadly for the geographic or human context into which they are, with violence, unloaded. His experience with traditional urban fabric and architecture is non-existent.

The scandalous choice is a reminder that nothing has changed in French cultural shock-politics. Despite the sterile Grands Travaux, the still-born La Défense, and the notorious failures of remodeling the Grands Ensembles, the “fear of backwardness,” methodically injected into the body politic by Mitterrand and his cultural inquisitors, still permits no deviation.

The last two mayors of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë and Anne Hidalgo, compulsively declare the need for Paris to be reinvented. Disregarding the numerous referenda that massively decided against high-rises, Hidalgo perforce propagates, permits, and now erects scale and character-breaking buildings within central Paris.

Since the powerful Commission du Vieux Paris was emasculated by Mayor Delanoë, citizen consultations and protests have become, if not a farce, a futile struggle, their small wins regularly overturned by the Conseil d’Etat. Even a state-minister is powerless against the calamitous trend. In 2012 Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira attempted to stop the construction of the 160-meter-high Palais de Justice mammoth on the péripherique, merely achieving a short delay in its delivery.

Ruinous Projects

Once contracted, ruinous projects can neither be stopped nor shorted like toxic investments. Links between giants of development, construction, finance, politics and administration are no secret. The astronomical cost-overruns at the Philharmonie de Paris, the Ciudad de la Cultura de Galicia, the Centro Congressi in Rome and the hysterical expressions of the monumental follies stand as symbols of ethical and aesthetic corruption.

The Assemblée Nationale’s decision of July 2019, which overturns the presidential order in this architectural cause célèbre, signifies a long overdue paradigm shift. It is to be hoped that the resurrection of France’s most iconic building will also lead to an integral re-conception of the Ile de la Cité in its pre-imperial urban and architectural splendor.

Leon Krier is considered the godfather of the New Urbanism movement. He has served as a visiting professor at Yale School of Architecture and has created masterplans for several communities, including the Prince of Wales’ New Town of Poundbury. He received the inaugural Richard H. Driehaus Architecture Prize in 2003, given by the University of Notre Dame to the architect whose work embodies the highest ideals of traditional and Classical architecture in contemporary society.

| A Return to the Source: Gothic Material and Meaning

A Return to the Source: Gothic Material and Meaning

“The fashions have in fact done more mischief than revolutions. They have cut into the quick; they have attacked the osseous system of the art; they have hacked, hewn, mangled, murdered the building, in the form as well as in the symbol, in its logic not less than in its beauty. And, then they have reneweda presumption from which at least time and revolutions have been exempt.”

-Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831

Set against the evening sky, the fiery plunge of the copper rooster that had crowned the lead-encrusted flèche of Notre-Dame de Paris seemed to herald a dreadful nightfall for the cathedral church, which for centuries has endured weathering, cataclysm, violence, and caprice.

Numerous government leaders, architects, academics, and critics seized upon the tragic conflagration of the medieval roof and nineteenth-century spire as an opportunity to overlay the Catholic sacred building with secular signification. Prompting the consequent volley of revisionist notions were intentions neither remote from the materialist motivations of the Revolutionary despoilers nor dissimilar to the vogue attitudes of the Baroque kings and clergy who preceded them.

The Controversy

The present crisis posed by the decapitated Cathedral of Paris resembles more acutely the predicament of the church’s dilapidated state in the first half of the nineteenth century when a thirty-year-old architect named Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and his friend Jean-Baptiste Lassus won a competition to restore its west front. While the prevailing taste of the time favored Classical models, Viollet-le-Duc championed the rationale of medieval French architecture as a basis for modern French invention.

His talents and energies as a practicing architect were sympathetic to the deprecations voiced by Hugo, and his understanding of Gothic architecture profound. Yet, while Viollet-le-Duc went on to replace many of the missing or damaged details of Notre-Dame, his intention was not to return its appearance to a particular point in its history.

Instead, as he explained in his 1854 work, Dictionnaire Raisonne de l’Architecture Francaise du XI au XVIe Siecle, he wanted to correctively “reestablish it in a complete state which may have never existed at any given moment” using a practical methodology founded on archaeological accuracy, structural efficiency, reasonable adjustment, and historical integrity.

Following the collapse of Viollet-le-Duc’s controversially handsome spire, the ensuing debate focused on the appropriateness of rebuilding those parts which were turned to ash on April 15, 2019, versus replacing them with something expressive of a twenty-first century l’esprit nouveau. Proposals to alter essential components and experiential properties of Notre-Dame with modernist interpretations deny the actual historical continuity of custom and craft in favor of a historicist narrative of epochs.

The architectural historian Vincent Scully asserted in his Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade that “the fundamental reason for being of Gothic architecture, as of any architecture, is not technical or structural, or even functional in a restricted physical sense. It is symbolic; its builders want it to mean something.”

Like Viollet-le-Duc, we should seek to understand the meat and marrow of Notre-Dame as well as the building tradition from which the medieval church came to be so that we may work along its grain—and not against it—in the endeavor to make the edifice whole once more.

The organic and intuitive transformation of the basilica eventually led to Notre-Dame de Paris. Image: Daniel P. DeGreve
The organic and intuitive transformation of the basilica eventually led to Notre-Dame de Paris. Image: Daniel P. DeGreve

An Organic Building Tradition

The Gothic cathedral churches of the Ile-de-France are remote descendants of the early Christian basilicas of Rome. The Roman basilicas themselves were subjected to a series of earthquakes and fires during the Middle Ages, but they were successively rebuilt over the course of a millennium according to the same structural paradigm and material palette of stucco-faced clay brick walls, marble columns, and internally exposed timber roofs. Brilliant figural decoration spanning a basilica entrance façade was a foretaste of its dazzling, column-lined interior that filtered light from windows of translucent alabaster.

Paradigm shifts did occur over time, however, especially north of Rome, as a response to liturgical enrichment, monasticism, local craft, and sporadic contact with the Byzantine East.

Whereas the early basilica encompassed a series of parallel wall planes braced by the roofs that they supported, builders of later basilicas proliferated the use of transverse arches for spanning between these walls in order to improve their stability. The resultant compartmentalization isolated the damage to nave walls caused by disasters while poetically enhancing the processional rhythm and numerical symbolism of the church interior.

The compartments—or bays—between the transverse arches eventually made feasible for medieval builders the construction of masonry vaulted ceilings in primitive emulation of Roman Antiquity, which significantly altered the basilica church model.

The otherworldly grandeur of a continuous interior masonry shell, boldly painted and fire-resistant, discouraged a conservative rebuilding of the more barn-like and fire-prone basilicas throughout France.

In order to bear the weight of a masonry vaulted ceiling, walls were thickened. Windows became smaller and less frequent, but the contemporaneous development of stained glass made them gleam like inset gems. The increased heft was often accompanied by a continuous circuit of vaulted aisles and galleries that helped to counteract the compressive thrust of the round-arched nave and choir vaults.

Experimentation with the pointed arch—a triangulated form generated by the symmetrical intersection of two circles and related to the mystical vesica pisces—liberated bay geometry and vertical proportions, ultimately leading to its pervasive employment.

Builders subtracted mass from the walls wherever dead loads could be reduced with blind arcades and triforia. Through the concentration of bulk at the base of the building into which loads from the structural elements above were channeled, an equilibrium of forces and an economy of construction were progressively honed.

Opus Francigenum—French Work

This inventive momentum occurred in varying degrees throughout medieval western Europe producing outcomes that were regionally distinctive. Nevertheless, it was in the heart of northern France—the curbed and clumsy demesne of the French kings hitherto unremarkable for architectural advancement—where twelfth-century synthesis in several abbeys and cathedral towns near Paris fomented a marvelously cogent vision of the Christian temple.

Neither as an invalidation of older models nor as a ruptured departure from the preceding architectural convention did the opus Francigenum originate, but rather as an ongoing condensation aimed at reconciling the muscular monumentality of the cellular vaulted bay with the numinous luminosity and airiness of the planar basilica.

The language that historians call “Gothic” architecture was, both in its structural logic and symbolic meaning, the refinement of a grammar used to describe with anagogical radiance and augmented durability the image of the domus Dei as civitas Dei.

Unlike contemporary practitioners of zeitgeist who deliberately innovate within a self-referential conceit of modernity to achieve originality, medieval architects and builders intuitively innovated within a vibrant tradition of forms, materials, and meaning in order to represent the New Jerusalem—and achieved originality in the process.

Materials Substantiating the Immaterial

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is a critical example of early French Gothic architecture, having been begun in 1163—some twenty years after the pivotal additions to the nearby royal Abbey of Saint-Denis— and completed a century later.

Unlike its slightly older peers in Noyon and Laon or the somewhat younger ones in Chartres and Reims, the new cathedral church of Paris was not warranted by the fiery destruction of an earlier structure, but by the grandiose vision of the bishop, Maurice de Sully.

The transcendent drama of dim polychromatic light and reverberant acoustics in Notre-Dame is grounded in an assortment of terrestrial materials that include limestone, sand, lead, iron, and wood.

Foremost among these is limestone, a sedimentary rock made up of calcite from the remains of marine organisms such as coral and mollusks. Relatively easy to quarry and soft to cut with the proper tools, it is also durable, making limestone a very suitable building material for dressing ashlar blocks and carving ornaments.

Derivative products include hydraulic lime mortar that sets wet as a soft and porous bonding agent, non-hydraulic lime putties, lime plaster, and air-setting hydrated lime.

Limestone ashlars joined with hydraulic lime mortar make up the faces of the walls and external buttress piers while their cores are filled with rubble and hydrated lime, which chemically reacted with the air to bond to the ashlars.

The cylindrical piers that bear the weight of the walls are built of solid stone. Lime-based cement coats the attic-side of each stone masonry ribbed vault to protect the construction while lime putty seals the lead-plated wrought iron pins that join the thin pieces of stone window tracery.

Sand and a variety of metallic oxide powders were combined to produce the stained-glass windows which illuminate the five-vessel church interior in neither a glaring nor even light, but rather punctuate it with a subdued glow of jewel-like reds and blues. Pliant lead cames clinch the individual pieces of glass while supple wrought iron rods embedded in the stone jambs and tracery hold fast the panes.

A thousand oak timbers dating from four separate construction campaigns once spanned the nave, choir, apse, transepts, and crossing to carry seamed lead sheets which sheltered the limestone vaulting.1

Fréderic Épaud, a specialist in medieval wooden frameworks, has recently dispelled in an essay several common inaccuracies regarding the size of the wood members and the age of the oaks from which they were hewn, citing a digital scan of the famous attic and surveys of comparable thirteenth-century French church roofs.

Likely harvested from less than ten acres of local forest, most of the oaks used at Notre-Dame were ten to twelve inches in diameter with an average age of sixty years. The larger old-growth oak, accounting for only three percent of the structure, measured about twenty inches across and was used for the horizontal tie-beams girding the topmost portions of the walls.

Each felled oak comprised a single structural member. The wood was not dried, but still green when hewn by axe and incorporated into the equilateral trussed lattices. Squaring by axe, rather than saw, preserved the natural curvature of the wood and maximized the amount of usable heartwood. Joined with pegs, the many pieces of timber framing and sheathing essentially functioned as a single unit with a consistent rate of shrinkage and movement.

The resultant structure was sturdy, yet relatively flexible in resisting the lateral wind loads enacted on its steep pitch.

Also framed in wood and clad in lead sheets was Viollet-le-Duc’s crossing spire. While he advocated a straightforward use of iron in theoretical designs for new construction, he embraced a traditional material palette for building a taller and more wind-resistant flèche.

Theory Without Practice

Ars sine scientia nihil est.” These words were uttered by a frustrated French architect working in fourteenth century Milan, but the gist of his retort—art is nothing without the science to underpin it—well applies to proposals for re-roofing Notre-Dame with steel and glass shells or preserving the holes in the weakened ceiling vaults.

Limestone and wood are superbly compatible. Both consist of organic material and are inherently exempt from significant movement caused by normative thermal cycles or loading conditions. Neither material is excessively rigid so that the minimal movement naturally occurring in one can be absorbed by the other without damage.

Steel, in contrast to wood, is heavier, stiffer, and less stable. Its rate of thermally induced dimensional fluctuation is considerably greater, in fact, and the stress produced by its exertion on a limestone bearing structure can lead to cracking.2 While steel does not burn, it does lose its strength when exposed to the high heat of fire and can melt, exacerbating the resultant damage to a stone building. Timbers, however, will sustain surface charring before succumbing to combustion.

Durable limestone becomes susceptible to fissure when protractedly exposed to the heat of fire as demonstrated by the process of deriving quicklime. The quenching effect of water exacerbates the threat of material failure due to the leaching of salts deep in the stone, which can weaken masonry joints.

After careful monitoring over the course of years, the stability of the vaults will require mending with stones locked in compression. Any roof loads eventually placed on the limestone fabric of Notre-Dame will need to be carefully weighted to prevent further trauma.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, and Cologne were retrofitted with innovative roof assemblies made of cast and wrought iron, precast concrete, and steel respectively. Although research has not revealed problems associated with these installations, they are relatively new and untested compared to the former “Forest” of Notre-Dame.

The medieval timbers of Notre-Dame’s “Forest” retained their strength for centuries. Photo: Notre-Dame de Paris
The medieval timbers of Notre-Dame’s “Forest” retained their strength for centuries. Photo: Notre-Dame de Paris

Following a fire, the iron roof of Chartres Cathedral was built in 1840. Photo: wikimedia.org/StuartLondon
Following a fire, the iron roof of Chartres Cathedral was built in 1840. Photo: wikimedia.org/StuartLondon

A new wood-framed roof and spire for Paris will harmonize with the material properties of the building. Sources of comparable oak are available and specially trained carpenters with the Compagnons du Devoir are eager to ply the skills of their traditional craft.

A variety of intumescent coatings can enhance the fire resistance of wood while fire barrier compartments can contain the ravages of Vulcan without causing detriment to the building armature.

Dead Artifact or Living Symbol

In an exchange of letters published in Viollet-le-Duc’s 1846 manifesto, Du style gothique au dix-neuvième siècle, Désiré Raoul Rochette, Perpetual Secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Artes, opined that, “Monuments, which belong to a whole system of belief, civilization and art that has provided its career and accomplished its destiny, must remain what they are, the expression of a destroyed society, an object of study and of respect, according to their own merit or national interest, and not as an object of servile imitation and impotent counterfeiting.” Rochette, unlike Viollet-le-Duc, did not find Gothic architecture suitable for building modern churches.

Today, some architects and literati question whether it is even suitable to rebuild medieval Gothic churches in the Gothic style. Perhaps this quandary stems from an idolization of built patrimony as mere historical artifact from a “destroyed society;” nay a headstone memorializing, preferably without anachronistic creep, a defunct epoch that nobody living remembers—yet some would like to forget.

In his reply to Rochette, Viollet-le-Duc wrote, “To form a new art, we need a new civilization, and we are not in this case. Architecture is of all the arts the one that proceeds the most by transition, and that is very simple; but when the architect has corrupted the types, and let them loose, he must go back, return to his source.”

In the eyes of the new secular civilization trying to be born, the Christian message intrinsically signaled by the bones of Notre-Dame is an inconvenient memento from the old civilization being eclipsed. For the rest of us, we need to return to our source.

Indeed, we should endeavor to make Notre-Dame more beautiful—not as has been duplicitously promised, but as Viollet-le-Duc devotedly accomplished. Perhaps the time is come for remaking the sanctuary jubè to frame Holy Mass at the proper high altar.

With integrity, clarity, and consonance, natural elements and flora were selected, shaped, and incorporated into Notre-Dame. In her emergent shadow abided Saint Thomas Aquinas and Pérotin, witnessing the chivalrous construction being raised on the almond-shaped Ile de la Cité upon the Seine to the glory of God, the honor of the Queen of Heaven, and as crystalized conductus for the generations.

Daniel P. DeGreve, R.A., practices traditional architecture in Columbus, Ohio. He has worked for Classical architects in Washington, D.C. and Columbus, earning his Master of Architectural Design & Urbanism from the University of Notre Dame and Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Cincinnati.


1. Épaud, Fréderic, The Framework of Notre-Dame: Putting an End to Stereotypes, CNRS News, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris, June 27, 2019

2. Regarding flying buttresses of Beauvais Cathedral, when steel tie-rods replaced historical wrought iron rods: Murray, Stephen, Beauvais Cathedral, Architecture of Transcendence, Princeton University Press, 1989

| It Ought to Be Gothick

It Ought to Be Gothick

Image: wikimedia.org/British Library
Image: wikimedia.org/British Library
Christopher Wren’s bell tower was added to the Christ Church gatehouse at Oxford in 1681. Photo: flickr.com/Timothy Burling
Christopher Wren’s bell tower was added to the Christ Church gatehouse at Oxford in 1681. Photo: flickr.com/Timothy Burling

In 1681, the great Christopher Wren was called upon to add a bell tower (today known as Tom Tower) to the unfinished gatehouse of the Great Quadrangle of Christ Church in Oxford. The college had been built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey 150 years earlier in the castellated Late Gothic style that was then popular. By 1681, such architecture was definitely out of fashion and Wren, who was Britain’s leading architect and an active proponent of Renaissance classicism, might have been expected to add a classical tower to Christ Church. Instead, he chose to fit in rather than stand out. As he succinctly explained, the tower “ought to be Gothick to agree with the Founder’s worke.”

I was reminded of Wren during the events that followed the calamitous four-hour fire that destroyed the roof and spire of Notre-Dame de Paris this April. A few days after the fire, the government of Emmanuel Macron announced that it intended to hold an international architectural competition to rebuild the cathedral.

The Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, emphasized that the spire should be restored in a manner “suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” President Macron himself promised that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt within five years (in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris), and that it would be an “inventive reconstruction,” a “contemporary architectural gesture” that would leave the cathedral “more beautiful than before.”

The architectural community, reading between the lines, saw an opportunity. Soon, dozens of proposals flooded the internet. Many unknown architects—and a few well-known figures such as Norman Foster—had a go. Since glass is the material du jour, many of the ambulance-chasers proposed putting a glass roof over the nave. Maybe it would be a greenhouse, maybe a viewing platform, whatever. Predictably, the replacement spires tended to be glass shards or steel spikes, although a pair of Italian architects proposed a Baccarat crystal.

The rest of the world looked on in growing disbelief—and concern. The official architect of the cathedral, who had been supervising a painstaking renovation over the past six years, pointed out that a five-year schedule was unrealistic. Le Figaro published a protest letter calling for a more measured response, not an “architectural gesture.” The more than one thousand signatories included a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the two chief curators of the Louvre, and a number of prominent French preservationists.

On May 28, the French Senate, the country’s prime legislative body, passed a resolution stipulating that any rebuilding must abide by existing planning, environmental, and heritage regulations—in other words, no rush. Moreover, the result should be faithful to Notre-Dame’s “last known visual state”—no steel spikes. Before it became law, the resolution had to be approved by the National Assembly.

The debate there was lively, much of it centering on the difference between rebuilding and restoring. “I don’t want it to be more beautiful than before,” proclaimed one deputy, “I want it to be identical!” Finally, on July 16, after the Senate and the National Assembly failed to reach agreement on a common text, the National Assembly, where Macron’s centrist party has a majority, passed a reconstruction bill. The legislation does not address the actual architectural form of the rebuilding, one way or the other.

A Peculiar Art

A few days after the fire, Slate posted a rather silly article titled “Let’s Not Rebuild Notre-Dame.” The gist of the article was that any reconstruction of the medieval building would be inauthentic, so it would be best to leave it alone. “Just like we visit ruined castles, let’s visit Notre-Dame and be conscious that with it, a part of our civilization has gone up in smoke,” wrote the author, a Parisian translator named Bérengère Viennot, “that we must accept it, with its scars and its losses, because that’s what’s left.”

Viennot’s article reflects the common view that great buildings are like inviolable works of art; if an arm breaks off the Venus de Milo you don’t stick on a new one. But architecture is a peculiar art. As soon as a building is finished, it begins to change. Practical considerations intrude, people move things around. Unlike paintings, buildings are left out in the rain (as Frank Lloyd Wright used to say), they weather, things break or wear out and are repaired or replaced. And it’s not just the users and the elements—buildings are subject to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and fires, as well as manmade destruction such as military bombardment, vandalism, and insensitive alteration. The last is hardly the least dangerous. An owner’s desire to remain up-to-date, no less than a fire, is always a potential threat to an old building.

Buildings last for centuries, and are routinely altered to accommodate changing functions. The Great Mosque of Córdoba, for example, was enlarged three times between 784 and 987 to accommodate the growing population of the city. There was no master plan, but over two centuries successive generations of builders and craftsmen copied what was there, even as they rebuilt the minaret and introduced domes and lanterns. The result, like so many great buildings, is a palimpsest; layers of history—including lots of reused Roman columns—and all the more compelling for it.

The corner stone of Notre-Dame de Paris was laid in 1163. As was common practice, construction began with the choir and proceeded westward—that way mass could be said in the unfinished church. The construction, which proceeded in several bouts, took a hundred years. When the nave was complete the clerics concluded that the altar area was too dark and a transept was added. In the mid-thirteenth century the transept was enlarged and remodeled with lacier stonework and dazzling rose windows. By then the towers of the west façade were complete. They are not identical, although not as different as those of Chartres Cathedral, one of which is Romanesque, the other Gothic.

Over the years, Notre-Dame has suffered many slings and arrows: Huguenot rioters sacked the church in the sixteenth century; in the seventeenth, Louis XIV rebuilt the rood screen, opened up the choir, added a new high altar, and replaced many of the stained-glass windows with clear glass; during the French Revolution the church was looted and its west front was damaged—the sans-culottes decapitated the statues of the Kings of Judah believing them to represent French monarchs. Napoleon had himself crowned in the cathedral, reinstating the building as a national symbol, although he didn’t repair it, just slapped on a coat of whitewash.

An engraving by Jean-Baptiste Scotin shows the interior of Notre-Dame in the early eighteenth century, before Viollet-le-Duc’s renovation. Image: wikimedia.org
An engraving by Jean-Baptiste Scotin shows the interior of Notre-Dame in the early eighteenth century, before Viollet-le-Duc’s renovation. Image: wikimedia.org

The old church was not in great shape, and in the mid-nineteenth century it underwent a major rehabilitation. The work was overseen by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, in many ways the inventor of the modern practice of historic preservation. He removed the neoclassical features added in the seventeenth century, restored much of the stained glass (that work was only completed in the 1960s), and replaced looted statuary. He also built a 300-foot flèche, or spire, over the crossing, the original having been removed in 1786 and never replaced. “To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair, or rebuild it,” he once famously wrote, “it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.” This somewhat cryptic statement underlines the paradox of restoration, which is that “completeness” is not a natural condition of architecture, and that a restored building represents something new as well as something old. Viollet-le-Duc’s work on Notre-Dame was sometimes creative, such as the famous roof gargoyles that were not a part of the original medieval fabric. But whatever he did was carried out in the Gothic spirit; “What would a medieval master builder have done?” was his ruling principle.

Why a Question?

So why is there even a question of how Notre-Dame should be rebuilt? To understand, one has to go back to the early 1900s and the emergence of architectural modernism, one of whose founding principles was that every age requires its own unique architecture. As the field of historic preservation developed it adopted the same doctrine: When old buildings were added to, or substantially altered, the new work should be distinct from the old—“of its time” was the phrase often used. That is what Macron meant by “inventive reconstruction.”

The idea that an old building becomes inauthentic if it is seamlessly restored is a credo that has been repeated so often it’s easy to forget that this was not the way that buildings were repaired in the past. It was the custom among the ancient Chinese, when an important building was damaged or destroyed by earthquake or fire, to simply rebuild as if nothing had happened. For example, the largest building in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was originally built in 1406. Over the years it was destroyed by fire (usually caused by lightning strikes) no fewer than seven times. Each time it was faithfully rebuilt, the most recent reconstruction dating from the end of the seventeenth century. Thus the building that is there today is slightly more than 300 years old, although the design is 300 years older than that. No one has ever called it a fake.

Europeans, while not as dogmatically wedded to tradition as the ancient Chinese, were similarly conservative. When the Doge’s Palace in Venice suffered a major fire in 1577, the architect Andrea Palladio proposed a major makeover. Why not replace the old-fashioned façade, built in the fifteenth century, with something new, something modern, he argued? In Palladio’s case, something modern meant all’antica, in the style of the ancients. But the Venetians liked their quirky Gothic building with its squat pointed arches and colorfully patterned walls, and that is what they rebuilt.

Andrea Palladio’s Classical design for rebuilding the Doge’s Palace in Venice after a fire in 1577 was rejected in favor of reconstructing the Gothic façade. Image: The Drawings of Andrea Palladio by Douglas Lewis
Andrea Palladio’s Classical design for rebuilding the Doge’s Palace in Venice after a fire in 1577 was rejected in favor of reconstructing the Gothic façade. Image: The Drawings of Andrea Palladio by Douglas Lewis

Saint Mark’s campanile, the bell tower that stands in front of the Doge’s Palace, was completed in 1511. In the following four centuries the 400-foot tower survived fires and several lightning strikes until 1902 when, for unexplained reasons, it suddenly collapsed. The collapse was total—contemporary photographs show a mound of debris in the Piazza San Marco. What did the Venetians do? It took them less than a day to decide to rebuild it exactly as it had been before (adding only structural reinforcement and an elevator). Today’s architecture critics would call it Disneyfication, but to the Venetians it just seemed like good sense.

Modern warfare, with its artillery bombardment and aerial bombing, has been the scourge of architecture. During the First World War, Ypres in Belgium was the site of five separate battles and suffered inestimable damage—by the end of the war the entire city was reduced to rubble. The old market square included a thirteenth-century cathedral and the medieval Cloth Hall, one of the largest secular Gothic buildings in Europe—both now lay in ruins. Both buildings were subsequently meticulously rebuilt according to their original design, a project that took forty years. The modern-day visitor would be forgiven for believing that the immense Cloth Hall with its tall central belfry is a survivor of the fourteenth century, and in a way it is—even though it was built in the twentieth.

In the past, when a beloved old building suffered misfortune, the common practice was to rebuild what was there before. This is what the citizens of Ypres did in their town center, just as after the Second World War Poles would rebuild the medieval Old Town in Warsaw, Germans would rebuild the historical center of Dresden, and the British would restore the bomb-damaged House of Commons in London. Nostalgia was certainly involved, but also a spirit of defiance: history is not destiny, it can be reversed, things can be put right.

The Best Way to Rebuild

The best way to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris would be to restore what was there, as if the fire never happened; there is no need to commemorate a senseless accident. The structural damage will have to be repaired first. Gothic cathedrals were built with belt-and-suspenders: the nave was spanned by a ribbed stone vault, but the actual weight of the roof with its heavy lead covering was carried on an independent wooden structure of rafters, braces, and tie-beams. The Notre-Dame fire, which started in the attic of the north transept, totally destroyed this structure.

A recent report in the New York Times suggested that had the fire not been prevented from spreading to the wooden structure that supports the eight giant bells of the north tower, the damage might have been much, much worse. But it was bad enough. The roof is gone, the spire is gone, and three large portions of the thin stone vault collapsed under the weight of the falling 750-ton spire. Establishing the integrity of the surviving vault is the most pressing question. The twenty-one flying buttresses of the choir have been temporarily reinforced and work is currently underway to ascertain what damage the heat of the fire—and the massive quantities of water—may have caused to the stone. Replacing and repairing the vault will be a challenging task.

Whether it is necessary to replicate the heavy oak framing of the roof itself is debatable. Wouldn’t a fireproofed steel structure—lighter and more fire-resistant—be a better option? The lead roofing of the nave and the spire could be replaced by something environmentally safer (the melted lead roofing has caused serious levels of toxic contamination in the area surrounding the cathedral). The design of a new flèche will undoubtedly be the subject of much debate. Viollet-le-Duc built a distinctive and beautiful two-story wooden spire that was taller and more ornate than the medieval original. This has led some to describe it as superfluous. But the nineteenth-century spire, like Viollet-le-Duc himself, has become a part of the history of the cathedral, no less than the iconic gargoyles, and it deserves to be replaced. And whatever its exact design, it ought to be Gothic.

Efforts to “improve” Notre-Dame should be resisted. There is a place for steel spikes and Baccarat crystal, just not here.

Witold Rybczynski is emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City. This essay appeared in The American Interest, Vol. 15, No. 1, and is used with permission.

| The Throne of Paris

The Throne of Paris

Portals on the west façade of Notre-Dame with statues of the kings of Judah above. Photo: wikimedia.org/Zairon
Portals on the west façade of Notre-Dame with statues of the kings of Judah above. Photo: wikimedia.org/Zairon

Imagine a re-enacted processional route to escort Jesus’s crown of thorns from Sainte-Chappelle, commissioned by Saint Louis IX King of France, to its new home in Paris’s Catholic cathedral a few blocks away. Accompanied by bishops and priests and a congregation of faithful, the crown is taken out into the street corridors.

The procession follows behind in a trail of incense and chant, ultimately breaking into the openness of Place Jean Paul II, before the commanding presence of the familiar and iconic façade of Notre-Dame Cathedral. They see the façade with its harmonious geometrical frame, housing a rich tapestry of sculpted iconography. Each element plays its part: the triumphal entry arches, a band of niched royal kings of Judah, a rose window.

This whole ensemble is book-ended and capped on both sides by the ascent of two robust towers. Just beyond the towers and between them, a glimpse of the flèche is a foretaste of the interior. All amounts to a triumphal building, hinting ever inward and upward.

Triumphal Entry

As the procession gets closer to the church they see the striking details of the triumphal entry portals. On the north and south portals, exquisitely carved reliefs of Marian imagery.

The central portal, like the others, has a community of figures funnelling our gaze toward the center doors. There, a statue of Christ welcomes each member of the procession while supporting the tympanum arch with scenes from the Last Judgment culminating in Christ enthroned.

Once inside, the verticals force our gaze upward, while the repetition of bay openings and ethereal light emanating from the brilliant stained-glass windows keeps us moving forward through the crossing transepts with their splendid glowing rose windows and ultimately past the bishop’s exquisitely carved wooden throne, through the choir and to the high altar in the apse. There sits Our Lady at the foot of the cross, where the crown of Christ is brought for veneration and a celebration of the Eucharist.

This description only scratches the surface of the people’s sacred experience, the experience they would actually encounter through the other senses: smelling the incense, hearing the organ and choir, and feeling the stone. All present are blessed to partake, with awe and reverence, in the magnificence of the cathedral.

Place of Primacy

The depiction of this extraordinary liturgical event illustrates the place of primacy the cathedral holds within the Catholic community in Paris and beyond, first and foremost as a house of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a cathedral as “the official church of the bishop of a diocese. The Greek word cathedra means chair or throne; the bishop’s ‘chair’ symbolizes his teaching and governing authority, and is located in the principal church or ‘cathedral’ of the local diocese of which he is the chief pastor.”

We saw Christ enthroned on the façade at the entry of the cathedral in the central portal tympanum. The same furnishing, a throne, is re-presented for the bishop within the cathedral, alluding to Christ in carrying on his mission as leader and shepherd of the Church.

Further, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, provides a qualitative description of what is expected from the cathedral. “The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent,” it says.

“Therefore, all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same Eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.”

The cathedral’s purpose, by these definitions, is to be an authority and a shepherd, meant to set an example for the faithful to follow and be a part of, as a community in procession. The cathedral building itself has a critical role to play as well. It is very much an act of community from its construction to its liturgy, an inclusive endeavour and an achievement of communal pride.

Pope Benedict described this quality in a general audience. “Another merit of Gothic cathedrals is that the whole Christian and civil community participated in their building and decoration in harmonious and complementary ways. The lowly and the powerful, the illiterate and the learned; all participated because in this common house all believers were instructed in the faith.”

Evident Splendor

These definitions of a cathedral, however, cannot capture and justify the evident splendor of Notre-Dame. It is not accidental that the cathedral appears as it does. The sensate experience that occurs in encountering the cathedral is theologically intentional. Its purpose goes well beyond functional aspects of accommodating particularly large and elaborate liturgical celebrations, and providing a place of prominence for the cathedra.

The cathedral rises much further with theological purpose, in being intrinsically responsive to the purpose and spirit of the liturgy. It is the liturgy in stone, not just its container. With this calling, the cathedral provides a distinct place that nourishes the mind, elevates prayer, reveres the liturgy and sacraments, and transcends the mundane on an exemplary level. In sum, it provides a worthy intercessor between heaven and earth, God and man, and points toward truth, goodness, and beauty.

The fulfillment and result of this relationship is, as it should be hierarchically speaking, an exceptionally beautiful church—a cathedral. Saint Thomas Aquinas, a contemporary with Notre-Dame’s Gothic culture, makes a case for the significance of beauty as something more profound than aesthetic taste.

He points out that we are of body and soul and as such have interior and exterior spiritual needs. God comes to us through the facility of our senses. Further, we have a tendency to treat things with decorum, in dressing up objects that are important. As corporeal beings, we build beautiful things for God, for our sake. As Giles Dimock, O.P., wrote in Sacred Architecture 3, Aquinas points out, “Through the virtue of fortitude we overcome obstacles like expense in order to produce magnificence.”

Image of Heaven

This is what we have at Notre-Dame: a human effort to exercise great fortitude in building an image of heaven. In speaking of the cathedral as an image of heaven, or house of God, it is even more necessary for the success of the cathedral to make its theological point.

Here again we can defer to the mind of Aquinas, who says that in order for something to be beautiful—a thing that gives the viewer knowledge of the inner logic of its being—three different elements need to be accommodated: wholeness, proportion and clarity. (Here I draw upon Denis R. McNamara’s Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.) The cathedral largely meets these expectations through its exceptional provisions for comprehensive structure, including its verticality and directionality, iconographic content and crafted materials to enrich reading, cosmic unity through perfect geometries in emulating God the divine architect, and luminosity through stained glass that allows us to perceive the beauty.

Viollet-le-Duc’s design for a new flèche, completed in 1859. Image: Viollet-le-Duc
Viollet-le-Duc’s design for a new flèche, completed in 1859. Image: Viollet-le-Duc

For Notre-Dame, Gothic architecture plays no small part in helping to achieve this goal. Gothic architecture, as Abbot Suger’s liturgically inspired creation, has in its DNA the purpose of accomplishing beautiful religious architecture. This was primarily achieved in creating an architecture that saw a direct relationship between light and God. As the historian Otto Von Simson said in his The Gothic Cathedral, “Light and luminous objects, no less than musical consonance, conveyed an insight into the perfection of the cosmos, and a divination of the Creator.”

Here at Notre-Dame, the manifestation of cathedral theology succeeds in meeting expectations of “cathedral-ness,” in creating a beautiful sacramental house of God for the city of Paris, intent on helping lead souls to eternal salvation. It then further transcends time and space as a universal icon capable of continuing to be a source of sacred sustenance and a model for emulation for all.

Conservation of Beauty

It is for these reasons that, in the aftermath of the most recent fire destroying the roof and flèche, the powers-that-be should consider the conservation of this cathedral’s inherent beauty as the top priority. Rebuilding the cathedral fully to its previous state, especially given the availability of thorough documentation, is the right thing to do. To restore with anything alien would be to undo its success as a unified beautiful composition.

Comparative flèche design diagram. The “proposed” flèche design by the author is intended to be larger than the previous spire, being 40 feet taller and 10 feet wider at the base. Image: C. J. Howard
Comparative flèche design diagram. The “proposed” flèche design by the author is intended to be larger than the previous spire, being 40 feet taller and 10 feet wider at the base. Image: C. J. Howard

The other alternative would be to participate in the continuum of the Gothic tradition by offering a design that dares to exceed what was once there, just as Viollet-le-Duc had done. Today, with the atrophy of traditional building and design culture, it is hard to imagine surpassing those that were steeped in it. Nevertheless, I offer here a conjectural design for a new Gothic flèche as a more prominent beacon of the cathedral in Paris. The charge here is that if a design is congruent with the criteria of beauty for this cathedral and its purpose, then it too could be successful in helping Our Mother to thrive and inspire again.

Sketch of a new “proposed” flèche design by the author. The proposed flèche is elevated from early Gothic and Rayonnant styles to a chronological successor, the Flamboyant style. Image: C. J. Howard
Sketch of a new “proposed” flèche design by the author. The proposed flèche is elevated from early Gothic and Rayonnant styles to a chronological successor, the Flamboyant style. Image: C. J. Howard

C. J. Howard is an assistant professor in Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning. As lead project architect for McCrery Architects, he led the design and construction of ecclesiastical projects like the Newman Student Center at the University of Nebraska and the Christ the King Chapel at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

| Stones Calling to Conversion

Stones Calling to Conversion

This homily was preached at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the parish church of Saint-Eugène Sainte-Cécile, Paris. This selection begins after an introduction.

The fire occurred on April 15, 2019, the Monday of Holy Week. Photo: wikimedia.org/Cilcée
The fire occurred on April 15, 2019, the Monday of Holy Week. Photo: wikimedia.org/Cilcée

Seen from the sky the contrast was striking: an immense plume of smoke rising to dizzying heights from the city’s glowing heart, while the metropolis was bathed in a soft evening light. The city seemed to continue its tranquil course while its spiritual heart was dying. The next day we could contemplate the spiritual heart of Paris burned to a cinder in the midst of a body—the city with its fine Haussmann buildings—that remained intact.

The event suddenly brought to light the spiritual reality of our civilization, which wants to be adult and autonomous: a body the soul has gradually deserted, or rather evaporated from. As we all know, without needing to read many books, our religious buildings have been quietly emptying for at least half a century. Our churches, especially in the provinces, are no more than remnants, the half-buried vestiges of a vanished civilization. Life has deserted these sacred buildings that we do not know what to do with.

The slow and continuous process does not attract attention, except that of disillusioned historians, powerless prophets, or frigid technocrats. The media holds forth at regular intervals against this terminally ill patient that never dies and who continues to inconvenience the busy heirs of postmodernity with its eccentricities, and sometimes its inadequacies.

And suddenly, the most iconic of the churches of the capital, and not only of the capital but of France and even of Europe—as the reaction showed—went up in smoke! Intense emotion was felt throughout the world. Immediately after the news broke I received grieving messages from Ireland, Spain, Italy, Germany, and England. You have seen the reactions of so many people: all are heartfelt. Faced with this worldwide emotion, I thought of the sack of Rome by the Vandals or the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans.

But why this emotion coming from all sources—from those furthest from the Church, and from the grandest and most religious? Why this tremor in a country, a continent even, where nine out of ten Christians have deserted our worship? Why this sincere attachment to churches that one no longer frequents except for cultural purposes, to visit and listen to concerts?

Postmodern and Neo-pagan

If we observe, with a ruined cathedral in the middle of a prosperous city, our true spiritual character of a postmodern neo-pagan civilization, we also observe that this same postmodern society cannot manage without the tutelary presence of the church made of stones. This is how the Catholic Church in France seems to me to provide a public service of transcendence. It inscribes with its spires and its towers a verticality which questions while simultaneously reassuring the horizontality of the agitation of the cities and the torpor of the countryside.

People who do not pray have discovered that they need people beside them who do pray: The disappearance of Notre-Dame suddenly reveals a need. The world, though distant from the Church, needs the Church. It certainly sees there—with the critical detachment of which it is so proud—a mysterious power of intercession. And in a certain way, the world is not mistaken, because what do we do, throughout the whole Mass, if not pray for this world and those who compose it?

The emotion of people in the street, and perhaps also of those who claim to be the elite, is a clear sign that the Church must not be satisfied with being pushed back into the sphere of private life, and that, on the contrary, it has its proper place—sometimes like itching powder—in the sphere of the public life of nations.

And this sentiment, rooted in an indissoluble history of Christianity, also means that we cannot make a clean sweep of the past.

So that although at Easter, as at Christmas, the Church is accustomed to taking criticism, there has been in recent days a rebalancing that has occurred, a compassion that has manifested itself. I would like to quote a few lines that one of my colleagues, Guillaume de Menthière (a canon of Notre-Dame who teaches theology at the École Cathédrale de Paris and the Collège des Bernardins), wrote on the night of the fire:

What unanimously magnificent words the media have persistently and uninterruptedly relayed! From tourists, onlookers, journalists, politicians, ecclesiastics, aesthetes, firemen … People of all ages, from all backgrounds, from all origins, and of all beliefs … A mysterious communion finally seemed to reign over this people of France, who in recent months have so sadly shown the world fragmentation and fractures.

This unity, which a presidential message, planned for the same evening, would probably not have succeeded in renewing. Our Lady, the Holy Virgin, managed it before our stunned eyes. And what if once again it was the supernatural intervention of the Mother of God that restored to our beloved and ancient country the surge of hope?

A Sign of Providence

The moment when this event occurred, at the beginning of Holy Week, is certainly a sign of Providence. We cannot remain with our sorrow—we are stimulated by holy hope.

We know, by faith, that Christ entered triumphantly into Jerusalem (and let us recall the 850th anniversary of Notre-Dame celebrated so ostentatiously not long ago), that he will be put to death before rising on the third day, and that he will come in his glory to lead us into the heavenly Jerusalem of which all our churches here below are but imperfect models, however sublime they may be.

In the same way we are hopeful that our cathedral, devastated by the flames, will be rebuilt and will resume its guard on the banks of the Seine near the tutelary statue of Sainte Geneviève, our patron.

But our hope must be more incisive. It is an entire people who must make the new Notre-Dame their home, and no longer just live in the shadow of its towers. If for fifty years life has withdrawn from our churches, it is also the fault of pastors.

Canon de Menthière stressed this during his last Lenten conference, held the day before the fire. Commenting on the Gospel of Palm Sunday, he highlighted Jesus’s response to the Jews who blamed his disciples: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). And he asked how many times in recent history “the stones—the stones of our churches—have shouted for him, in place of disciples who have become voiceless.”

Charred today, those stones call us to a profound conversion, because we now know how deeply our contemporaries are attached to them. It is up to us to reveal their meaning, to invite those people to enter our churches, and to follow the hundreds of catechumens who will be baptized there at the Easter Vigil. They have to take their place as “living stones” in the spiritual building that is the Church, the body of Christ. Yes—“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2: 4-5).

By washing the feet of twelve of the faithful, I will today symbolically renew Christ’s gesture of humility, the sign of the greatest love. Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est: the revelation of the great mystery that is the fusion of the two commandments of the new and eternal covenant—the love of God and the love of neighbor.

This world, which seems so remote and hostile to us and sometimes so despicable, yet which has nevertheless shown evidence of closeness and compassion even if only for a moment, is waiting for this fraternal charity which leads to the furnace of divine charity.

This task is entrusted to us: it is up to us to fulfill it, with the grace of God, and assured of the highest protection of the Virgin Mary!

Abbé Eric Iborra is the vicaire of the parish church of Saint-Eugène Sainte-Cécile in the 9th Arrondissement of Paris. The church, erected in 1855, is known for its music and for its use of the traditional liturgies of the Church. This homily was translated from the French by a friend of the parish and appeared in First Things Online on April 30, 2019.

| We Must Rebuild it as it was Before

We Must Rebuild it as it was Before

The following is an abridged version of a conference given by Robert Cardinal Sarah at Église Saint François-Xavier in Paris, May 25, 2019, just hours after he visited the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Robert Cardinal Sarah pauses in front of the statue of the Virgin of Paris during his visit to the cathedral in May 2019. Photo: twitter.com/Robert Cardinal Sarah
Robert Cardinal Sarah pauses in front of the statue of the Virgin of Paris during his visit to the cathedral in May 2019. Photo: twitter.com/Robert Cardinal Sarah

Just hours ago I was at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. As I entered the gutted church, and contemplated its ruined vaults, I could not help but see in it a symbol of the situation of Western civilization and of the Church in Europe.

It is a sad fact: today the Church seems to be engulfed in flames on all sides. We see her ravaged by a conflagration much more destructive than the one that razed the cathedral of Notre-Dame. What is this fire? It is our loss of faith and the spirit of faith, a losing sight of the objectivity of faith and thus a loss of the knowledge of God.

Pointing at Heaven

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame had a spire that was like a finger stretching out toward heaven, pointing us toward God. In the heart of Paris, it spoke to every man about the ultimate meaning of human life. Indeed this spire symbolized the one and only reason for the Church’s existence: to lead us to God, to point us toward him.

A Church that is not pointed toward God is a Church collapsing, already in the throes of death. The spire of the cathedral of Paris has fallen, and this is no coincidence! Notre-Dame of Paris symbolizes the whole West, buckling and crumbling after turning away from God. It symbolizes the great temptation of Western Christians: no longer turned toward God, turning inward upon themselves, they are perishing.

The great cathedrals of the West could have been built only by men of great faith and great humility who were profoundly happy to know that they were sons of God. They are like a song of joy, a hymn to God’s glory sculpted in stone and painted in glass. They are the work of sons who love and adore their heavenly Father.

All were glad to carve into stone an expression of their faith and love for God, and not for the glory of their own name. Their art works were meant to glory and praise God alone.

The Church should be like a cathedral. Everything in her should sing to the glory of God. She must unceasingly direct our gaze toward him, like the spire of Notre-Dame pointed toward heaven. My dear friends, we must rebuild the cathedral. We must rebuild it exactly as it was before. We do not need to invent a new Church. We have to let ourselves be converted so that the Church can shine once more, so that the Church can be once more a cathedral that sings God’s glory and leads men to him. What is the first thing to do?

The Vaults: Adoration

We must get on our knees. A cathedral is first of all a place where men can kneel, a cathedral is where God is present in the Most Holy Sacrament. The most urgent task is to recover a sense of adoration. The loss of a sense of adoration of God is the source of all the fires and crises that are rocking the world and the Church.

Try to imitate the humility of God and let your heart, your will, your intelligence, your self-love and your whole interior being kneel. It is God’s exclusive domain. A man on his knees is more powerful than the world. He is an unshakable rampart against the atheism and folly of men. A man on his knees makes Satan tremble in all his pride. Your mission is great. It is to “prevent the world from destroying itself.”

I speak especially to you who are sick, weak of body or mind, you who suffer a handicap, whom society finds useless and wants to suppress: when you pray, when you adore, you are great. You have a particular dignity because you uniquely resemble Christ crucified.

A cathedral no longer makes sense if no one goes there to adore, to prostrate themselves before God’s face. A cathedral no longer makes sense if the liturgy we celebrate there is not entirely meant to orient us toward God, toward the cross. Therefore, our cathedral needs priests who will celebrate the Liturgy of the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours in it.

If the people of God are to adore, then priests and bishops must be the first adorers. They are called to hold themselves constantly before God’s gaze. Their existence is meant to be an unending prayer, a permanent liturgy.

I want to repeat to you priests and religious who are hidden and forgotten, you whom society often despises, you who are faithful to the promises of your ordination, you make the powers of this world tremble. You remind them that nothing can resist the force present in the gift of your life for the truth. You remind them of the vital and indispensable presence of God for the future of humanity. Your presence is intolerable to the prince of lies. Without you, dear brother priests and consecrated people, humanity would be less great, less radiant, and less beautiful. Without you our cathedrals would be useless buildings without life.

The Pillars: Catholic Doctrine

And then, dear friends, what else does our cathedral need? It needs solid pillars to support the vaults. What are these pillars? What foundation is needed to support the graceful slenderness of the Gothic rib-vaults? The Catholic doctrine we have received from the apostles is the only solid foundation we can find.

Our unity is forged around the truth of Catholic doctrine and the moral teaching of the Church. Do not fear. What greater gift is there for humanity than the truth of the Gospel? What more precious treasure than the light of the Gospel and the Wisdom of God, who is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:24)?

Jesus himself told us: “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” What an honor, but also what a responsibility. What a duty. To renounce being the salt of the earth is to condemn the world to remain bland and tasteless. To renounce being the light of the world is to condemn it to darkness and abandon it to the shadows of its rebellion against God. We must not let this happen.

Indeed let us turn toward the world: in order to bring it the only light that does not deceive. When the Church turns toward the world, this cannot entail that she hides the scandal of the cross, but only that she makes it accessible once again in its naked reality.

Dear friends, I was deeply moved spiritually by a photograph published the day after the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris. In the photo, the interior of the church is visible, heaped with debris and still smoking. But above these heaps of shattered stones, the luminous cross installed by Cardinal Lustiger is still standing. “Stat crux, dum volvitur orbis—the cross stands while the world turns.” The world is turning and falling, only the cross remains stable and shows us the way to salvation. Only the truth of the cross remains, the truth of Catholic doctrine.

Faith is not a merchant’s booth where we choose the fruit and vegetables we like. When we receive it, it is God that we receive, whole and entire. I solemnly call upon Christians to love the dogmas and articles of faith, to cherish them. Love our catechism. If we accept it with our hearts and not only with our lips, then the formulas of faith let us enter into true communion with God.

Remember the clear and firm testimony of Peter: “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved, than by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Acts 4:10-12). Let us think of all the Christians of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East who are butchered for the name of Jesus.

Our faith informs our love for God. To defend the faith is to defend the weakest and simplest, and permit them to love God in truth. Dear friends, we must burn with love for our faith. The day we no longer burn with love for our faith, the world will be cold, deprived of its most precious good. It is our task to defend and announce the faith.

The faith enlightens our family, professional and cultural life, not only our spiritual life. In the West, some call for tolerance or secularity, and impose a form of schizophrenia between private and public life. Faith has its place in public debate. We must speak of God, not to impose him but to reveal and propose him. God is an indispensable light to mankind.

The rose window in the north transept of Notre-Dame
The rose window in the north transept of Notre-Dame. Photo: wikimedia.org/Bradley Weber

The Stained Glass: Fellowship with the Saints

My dear friends, to finish our cathedral, we still need the stained glass. The windows let in the luminous presence, joyful and multi-colored, of the saints in heaven.

We need saints who dare to look at all things with the eyes of faith, who dare to be enlightened by the light of God. My friends, will we be these saints the world awaits? You, Christians of today, will you be the saints and martyrs the nations groan for, will you lead a new evangelization? Your homelands are thirsting for Christ. Do not disappoint them. The Church entrusts this mission to you.

I think we are at a turning point in the history of the Church. The Church needs a profound, radical reform that must begin by a reform of the life of her priests. But all these means are at the service of sanctity. The Church is holy in herself. Our sins and our worldly concerns prevent her holiness from diffusing itself. It is time to put aside all these burdens and allow the Church to finally appear as God made her.

Some believe that the history of the Church is marked by structural reforms. I am sure that it is the saints who change history. The structures follow afterwards, and do nothing other than perpetuate what the saints brought about. When God calls, he demands something radical. He goes all the way, down to the root.

Dear friends, we are not called to be mediocre Christians. No, God is calling our whole being, asking for a total gift even to the martyrdom of our body and soul. He is calling us to sanctity: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2).

Today from the bottom of my heart as a pastor, I wish to invite all Christians to conversion. It is a very simple decision, both interior and concrete. It will change our life in its smallest details. It is not about going off to war. It is not about denouncing enemies. It is not about attacking or criticizing. It is about staying firmly faithful to Jesus Christ, to his Gospel and to the mystery of the Church.

Though we cannot change the world, we can be changed ourselves. If each person would take this resolution humbly, then the system of lies would crumble of its own accord, because its only strength is the place we give to it in ourselves.

Work to stabalize the vaults and flying buttresses was in progress over the summer. Photo: Pool AFP via AP Images
Work to stabilize the vaults and flying buttresses was in progress over the summer. Photo: Pool AFP via AP Images

Build the Cathedral

My dear friends, the West has built awesome cathedrals. Today they are in danger of becoming museums without a soul. But the day when the cathedrals will have become mere carcasses of stone will be a sad day, and the world will lose all sense and purpose.

Let me conclude by citing Benedict XVI: “Man needs an appeal, addressed to his soul, that can carry and sustain him. He needs a place for his soul. That is what a cathedral symbolizes. But a building only becomes a cathedral thanks to men who construct this space for the soul, men who transform the stones into a cathedral and thus open for everyone a way to the infinite, an appeal without which man suffocates. Humanity needs ‘cathedral builders’ whose pure and disinterested life makes God credible.”

My dear friends, I invite you, for my part, to be these cathedral builders.

The full address, offered for the launch of Cardinal Sarah’s book The Day is Now Far Spent, can be found at Catholic World Report (June 21, 2019). The address was translated from the French by Zachary Thomas.

His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah is Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

| The Gothicness of Gothic

The Gothicness of Gothic

By any account, the Gothic period of sacred architecture is extraordinary in its scale and kinaesthetic impact on the viewer. It did not have a “big story” or “master narrative” to gloss and nuance its meanings, as did the “Renaissance” in the Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari.

Instead, scholars of Gothic art, and particularly architecture, carefully analyze building accounts, vernacular and Latin treatises (when they exist), saints’ lives, poetry, and other texts for descriptions, rationalizations, theorizations, or simply reactions to the Gothic cathedral as a way to translate its awesome physical, aesthetic, and historical presence into intelligible stories.

This act of response and translation stands at the center of Stephen Murray’s Plotting Gothic. Murray, the Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor of Medieval Art History at Columbia University, has written ground-breaking monographs on the architecture of Troyes, Beauvais, and Amiens, and an account of the façade sculpture of Amiens in relation to the medieval sermon, A Gothic Sermon: Making a Contract with the Mother of God, Saint Mary of Amiens.

Building Through Words

Plotting Gothic explores the very practices of narration and storytelling of the Gothic through examination of the writings of its most famous and loquacious interlocutors. These include Gervase of Canterbury, a choir monk at Christ Church, Canterbury, who recounts the tragic fire at Canterbury and the rebuilding campaign by the French architect William of Sens and his successor William the Englishman. Another is Villard de Honnecourt, the Picard draughtsman whose “portfolio” or “sketchbook” records a range of Gothic buildings and works of art from France to Hungary. The third is Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, near Paris, who chronicled the building of the east and west extensions of Saint Denis, and whose text was famously read by Erwin Panofsky and others as a proto-humanistic account of high medieval aesthetics.

Plotting Gothic is premised upon a compelling analogy: the three-dimensional layout of the space of a great church—its plot—is not only constructed through a geometric schema charted by a series of ropes and stakes on the ground, but it is also textually and rhetorically constructed by its many interlocutors who describe, interpret and “build” the cathedral through words and images. “Plot” here has a range of meanings, each of which are at play in the book: it may refer to the act of setting out a building in space, it may allude to the invention of a narrative; or to a stratagem or collusion cooked up by its patrons or interlocutors.

Murray’s focus here is with the languages of description employed by interlocutors and the rhetorical commonplaces or topoi in particular which translate Gothic architecture into language and images. For him, such textual constructions counter any kind of tyrannical “master narrative” of the Gothic. Inspired by the computer’s interactivity and synchronicity, the book is offered as a “spatial mechanism” capable of correlating the act of storytelling and the act of building within its covers.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Murray introduces us to the three interlocutors and offers a fresh and lively reading of their texts in the light of current and past scholarship. He explains, for example, how Gervase of Canterbury based his account of the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral after the fire on the very origins of the world in Genesis: it was built literally and textually on Biblical precedent.

In the second, “Staking out the Plot,” he seeks to correlate the evidence of the three interlocutors and to locate that evidence within the economic, masonic, and historiographic contexts of Gothic architecture. The core of this section is chapter five, “Material Contexts: The Means of Production.” In it we see Murray at his best, where he integrates his discussion of architectural description with the physical act of quarrying, designing, plotting, and building.

The third part, “Animating the Plot,” positions the great church as an “Object of Desire.” He looks at the church as the subject of complex and occasionally conflicting desires on the parts of its patrons, builders, and interlocutors.

Part of the Game of Description

There is much to praise in this remarkable book. Murray is himself one of the greatest interlocutors on the Gothic, and his command of the buildings and their literary sources and historiography is dazzling. Plotting Gothic offers the most compelling and accessible account of this vital material currently available between two covers, and it will offer much to specialist readers and to graduate students who will rightly encounter it on many university syllabi.

While it was not the author’s intention to write a history of response to the Gothic great church (something famously attempted by Paul Frankl), his focus on the three most famous and well-studied interlocutors deserves comment. On one hand, this might be seen as a re-imposition of the canonical narrative of medieval architecture by focusing on its most familiar protagonists, but this is not the case.

But the book as it is structured does point to the need for a fuller critical account employing the very contextualizing strategies Murray lays out to encompass a wider range of textual material. In Britain alone I am thinking of Henry of Avranches’ Metrical Life of Saint Hugh (noted by Murray), which offers a lengthy account of Lincoln Cathedral (in the context of hagiography), and the same author’s De Translatione Veteris Ecclesie Saresberiensis et Constructione Nove on the translation of Salisbury Cathedral, the rich history of description in Welsh bardic poetry, the English royal accounts, and other sources.

In all of this, the significance of antique topoi is vital. The language of description employed in accounts of Gothic architecture was largely borrowed from the antique world of Horace, Ovid, Virgil, and Vitruvius. The process of viewing the building led to inspiration, and to an indexical search for appropriate rhetorical commonplaces from ancient authors and their application to the building in the space of the text.

The inherent but generative slippages that occur in this process between the building and its referent, which may be simply a linguistic tag such as materiam superbat opus or may refer to ancient or Byzantine buildings such as Procopius’s account of Hagia Sophia, is very much part of the game of description, of the creation of the cathedral’s plot, so to speak. Mary Carruthers’ The Experience of Beauty and Paul Binski’s Gothic Wonder explore these issues in depth, but because they were published almost simultaneously, they were unfortunately unavailable to the author at the time of publication.

Unity as Aesthetic Ideal

At the core of this book is a search to define the aesthetic and social phenomenon of church building in Northern Europe—and in France and England in particular—now known as Gothic. It insists on the Gothicness of Gothic, upon the unity of the Gothic as a high aesthetic ideal of later medieval culture, or perhaps even of culture generally.

Although radically different from the canonical books on the subject by Panofsky, Bony, Sedlmayr, and Frankl—a scholarly genealogy in which this book must be placed—or the pre-academic historiography on the Gothic by Walpole, Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc, and Adams, this book shares a palpable emotional and aesthetic commitment to the Gothic. There is in these books a yearning to return to a complete pre-modern (pre-Revolution or pre-Reformation) condition of the Gothic, to a sense of a complete musical, artistic, and social environment, which the authors readily acknowledge is impossible.

This short-circuiting of the author’s desire, this acknowledgment that the author’s own quarry is desired but ultimately ungraspable, points toward two ghosts in the shell of Plotting Gothic, neither of which are referenced in the notes. Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, a deeply romantic account of architecture and memory prefaces Murray’s account of the cathedral as an assemblage of texts and their topoi—a textual edifice—while Michael Ann Holly’s work on the process of mourning in art historical writing parallels Murray’s own.

Throughout Plotting Gothic Murray quietly but carefully pressures the status of disinterestedness as a language of art historical criticism in which an author cleaves their aesthetic appreciation of their subject from their writings on it, a stance that has ultimately extended the longevity of formalist approaches to the Gothic. The result is a powerful and perplexing book and one that will need to be visited and revisited by scholars and enthusiasts alike.

Matthew Reeve is associate professor of art history at Queen’s University in Ontario. His Gothic Architecture and Sexuality in the Circle of Horace Walpole will be published next year.

| Triumph of Beauty

Triumph of Beauty

The use and role of art in the Catholic faith is boundless and intentionally so. As we can trace it from the graffiti of the catacombs to the great cathedrals of Europe, art has always stood as both sign and symbol of our faith. Catholic artists are called to use their gifts and talents to best reveal the truth and beauty of the faith. For the Church of Rome, the role of art and architecture was and has remained a tool of testimony.

In her latest book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, noted art historian Elizabeth Lev takes us through passages that art historians often neglect. That is, how art assisted the Church and helped restore the faith with the Council of Trent.

The book is divided into three sections, addressing the Protestant challenge to Catholic teaching on the sacraments, intercession, and the human place in salvation. Each chapter examines an issue and then presents and explains art (mostly from Italy) created to address that issue. The last chapter examines Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which Lev calls “the ultimate Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.” The book also includes a twenty-page set of short biographies of the major artists Lev discusses.

After the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and its destruction of sacred art, the Church had to defend its art. The Council is rarely discussed by art historians, and if discussed, almost always treated as an oppressive menace to the artists of the time, rarely as a call to action. Lev points out what Trent and the Counter Reformation meant to artists and the renewed responsibility it gave the artist. To frame her insights, she describes the influence of the saints on the artists of the time including Saints Philip Neri, Charles Borromeo, and Ignatius of Loyola.

As Franciscan spirituality was the inspiration of the Renaissance, the study of the body as the divine in our space and time remained a constant reminder of Christ with us. For the Protestant, the portrayal of the body of Christ became problematic.

With Jesuit spirituality, the stimulus for the artists shifted from the presence and place of the sacred to witness and transcendence. If the Renaissance focused on Christ as the Word made flesh, the artists of the Counter-Reformation were now charged with the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Those very points disputed and rejected by the Protestant Reformation now became central.

Though mostly referred to by art historians as “Mannerism,” the art of the Reformation that followed Luther’s revolt is rarely examined as a statement of faith and as the bridge from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation. Starting with artists of the Reformation such as Michelangelo, Del Sarto, Bernini, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Peter Paul Rubens, and Reni, all working with fever and fervor, Lev carefully shows us how the sacramental faith and the witness to the Most Blessed Sacrament become central in the Counter-Reformation.

With the theme of metamorphosis and the use of tenebrism and deliberate ambiguity of form and void, the painters and sculptors as well as the architects of the Counter-Reformation depicted the Sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Penance, guiding the Church and her faithful to both personal and communal transformation. As Lev tells us, “The debates of the present called upon these witnesses from the past and the artists were expected to close the gap of the centuries between those lives and the present through the employment of their prowess.”

Importantly, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith both answers those unanswered questions of Catholic art history and tacitly asks where we are now. As she writes, “The challenges and circumstances that the Church faced 500 years ago bear a striking similarity to the ones the faithful face today.”

As we find ourselves coming out of a severely mannered period of church art and design, we must ask: Was Modernism indeed our Mannerism? If so, how do we as Catholic artists and architects respond? Elizabeth Lev sheds new light on both the past and perhaps our future as we approach what may be a Second Counter-Reformation in sacred art and architecture.

Anthony Visco is the director of the Atelier for the Sacred Arts where he designs and produces works for the liturgical environment. He also teaches courses in sacred art both in Philadelphia and Florence, Italy.

| House Churches and Sacred Space

House Churches and Sacred Space

This engaging book offers a fresh perspective on how Christians understood and embodied their liturgical worship in the first three centuries. The author questions the conventional narrative that the early Church identified itself exclusively as an eschatological body of believers that rejected ideas of sacred space prevalent both in Second Temple Judaism and in the pagan environment, and saw no need for places dedicated specifically to ritual and worship.

The first generations of Christians did not have buildings set apart for liturgical celebrations, but assembled in domestic settings. Such “house churches” are the focus of this study, and Cianca defines them as unrenovated, private living space used for Christian worship. The author, who teaches classical studies at Bishop’s University in Canada, distinguishes early house churches from the later domus ecclesiae, buildings that were renovated and adapted in a more enduring fashion for liturgy and sacraments.

The mixed social structure of early Christian communities was reflected in the different types of housing where they met. These ranged from the domus and country estates of the upper classes to apartments of different sizes, as well as shops used for commercial and residential purposes. These varied forms of urban dwelling provided the setting for the daily life of the familia, the Roman household that could include extended family members, slaves, and visitors.

Cianca elucidates cultic and ritual practices in these domestic spaces, for which there is ample literary and archaeological documentation, including portable altars and shrines. The worship of household deities, such as the Lares and Penates, was an integral part of Roman family life. In the earliest stages, Christian communities would by necessity have met in inhabited spaces where pagan domestic cults had a visible presence. She is aware that much of her argument is hypothetical, and she is careful in making her claims.

According to Cianca, many Christian households, including those that hosted meetings for prayer and worship, would have continued to practise at least elements of Roman domestic cult. This claim is surprising, given that a stream of Christian apologists, such as Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Lactantius, and Arnobius of Sicca, unequivocally reject pagan worship (both public and domestic) and exhort Christians not to take part in it.

Cianca muddles the waters by arguing that in earliest Christianity “attitudes toward the domestic gods were not always consistent.” While some authors considered these deities harmless and others saw in them a real threat, all condemned their worship. Cianca observes that domestic cults could not easily be set aside, because they were so essential to what being Roman meant. However, the same can be said of public sacrifices, from which Christians were bound to abstain.

The material evidence the author cites for the enduring adherence to, or perhaps rather tolerance of, pagan domestic cults in Christian settings is very slight: a bacchic frieze in the assembly room of the building in Dura Europos, commonly identified as a mid-third century domus ecclesiae, and material remnants of ancestor cult in the chapel complex of the villa at Lullingstone in Kent from the second half of the fourth century. Both cases, coming from the peripheries of the empire, are later than the period of house-church Christianity under scrutiny in this book.

The paucity and ambiguity of the available data does not support the weight of Cianca’s argument. Many believers made some compromise in times of persecution, and it is quite likely that even in Christian households, vestiges of Roman domestic cult continued. This may also be concluded from the fact that Christian authors continued to rail against it. In general, however, Cianca seems to underestimate the distinct self-identity of early Christians and their consciousness of being separated from the outside world.

At the center of this study is the thesis that, “despite a lack of materially articulated or physically separate space, the house-church Christians were indeed meeting in sacred space.” This sacred space was, by practical necessity, temporal not permanent, and it was constituted through and in ritual performed by the body of believers, especially the Eucharist.

Here Cianca draws on the insights of social anthropology and ritual studies, including the contributions of Arnold Van Gennep, Jonathan Z. Smith and Catherine Bell. The study would benefit from a more in-depth consideration of Victor Turner’s work on liminality and communitas, where he offers a complex description of the sacred that accounts for the important role of ritual.

Cianca’s non-theological perspective offers new insights into a field often obscured by denominational controversies, but also falls short of an adequate analysis of, above all, the meaning of the Eucharist for early Christians. The choice of endnotes makes the scholarly use of the book more difficult. For this reviewer, the significant contribution of this relatively short study lies in its conception of ritually constructed sacrality, which “allows for an organic, slower-moving development of early Christian sacred space, rather than reading a sea change into the building of the Lateran in Rome.”

Reverend Uwe Michael Lang is a priest of the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in London and teaches at Mater Ecclesiae College, Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham. He is the author of Turning Towards the Lord.

| Paradox: Gothic Becomes Classic

Paradox: Gothic Becomes Classic

Anne-Marie Sankovitch’s opus stands tall in its purpose to demolish tired narratives based on dichotomies between structure and ornament, and the Gothic vis-à-vis the Italian Renaissance, as she does in The Church of Saint-Eustache in the Early French Renaissance, a careful study of the most important French Renaissance church and the only parish church in Paris to be raised in the sixteenth century.

First begun as a chapel in the early thirteenth century, the present building was constructed from 1532 to 1632. The church’s website says that we don’t know the name of the first architect. Sankovitch’s thesis is that Jean Delamarre became chief architect when work began in 1532.

He springs to life by her nuanced demonstration of how his Italianate forms and use of the orders were not merely fixed onto a Late Medieval fabrique in hybridization, but rather evolved with “agility” and expressivity so as to create a unique synthesis—which she refused to nail with a label. She argues that his presumed knowledge of both the Quattrocento and Serlio’s Seven Books of Architecture is crucial, but shows little of it and does not fully cite the latter anywhere.

The book’s timeframe is largely restricted to political and urban dynamics in the reign of Francis I. The king sponsored Saint-Eustache and self-identified with Philip II, who constructed Notre Dame, so that Notre Dame may be showcased as model for the grandeur and plan of the new church.

What of symbolic values? National historicism, or retrospection, is well recognized, and I like her idea that Cluny III provided a Romanesque model for Saint-Eustache’s framework due to “perception of a shared antique heritage,” which underlies the so-called Renaissance of ca. 1200. This was indeed Delamarre’s solution for embracing “the classical concept of a system of autonomous elements” in order to effect coherence—while serving as authentically French means for rejecting the anti-classicism of the Flamboyant style. This point, struck at the end of the book, at long last explains Sankovitch’s opening sentence that Saint-Eustache is “paradoxical.”

This book is Sankovitch’s published Ph.D. dissertation of 1991 from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. It was brought to fruition a decade following her death in 2005 at the age of 47, at the initiative of Marvin Trachtenberg, Edith Kitzmiller Professor of the History of Fine Arts at NYU, who also wrote an introductory essay.

His contribution was complemented by pithy contributions from Jean Guillaume, who wrote the foreword, and Étienne Hamon, who responded to it. They must be read altogether as portals into the book as it unfolds in seven thematic chapters and in 354 black and white photographs. The fact that her life’s (ultimate) work was produced by Brepols under these circumstances testifies to its importance.

However! It is not a monograph, from Alpha to Omega. The book does not contend with later construction campaigns; nor does it address questions of decoration, fenestration, space and light, theology and liturgical practice. The martyred namesake saint is dropped into a footnote; anecdotes on parishioners and tombs are nonexistent; and Sankovitch ignored the Wars of Religion (1562-1598), which destroyed the Valois monarchy and its Renaissance in France. Quotations were not translated.

The distinguished ad hoc team assumed Sankovitch’s readership would consist of architecture purists and French Renaissance specialists. What justified their work was her revised dating and alternative discourse on the complex origins of Early Renaissance architecture in Paris in the 1530s, via rigorous formalist description, especially of the support elements—piers and columns, capitals, and consoles—which she developed with laser-beam focus.

No one had done this before, and as a result, Sankovitch was empowered to dismiss the “ossified” oppositional criticism, not merely react against it. Viollet-le-Duc’s diatribe, the loudest of all, is happily muffled. Sankovitch’s method necessitated the retrieval and editing of her detailed photos, which are virtual eyes into her thinking—although one is tested by the inability to “see” the whole, and the constant flipping through pages.

Be warned that the formatting was left unfinished. There is no index or list of illustrations (and the in-text captions are brief); archival documents are excluded from the bibliography; and a first name is not always identified. An appendix of the chronology, at least up to the dedication of the church, in faraway 1637, would have been helpful in rescuing blocks of information from ponderous footnotes. In the end, however, a sympathetic reading is finely rewarded.

Simone Zurawski, Ph.D., is associate professor in the department of history of art & architecture at DePaul University. A member of the board of the Vincentian Studies Institute, she is writing a book on the iconography of Saint Vincent de Paul with the foundlings in nineteenth-century French art and architecture.

| Mystic Cave

Mystic Cave

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of Christendom’s most eminent and ancient houses of worship, is unique among the loca sancta of the Holy Land. Like the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, also erected by Constantine under the special patronage of Saint Helena, it bears both the ornaments and scars of its exceptionally long history.

Unlike the tangled and truncated structure that now enshrines Christ’s tomb, however, the monument to the birth of the Savior has almost miraculously survived seventeen long centuries of earthquakes, fires, and wars. Thus, despite a series of significant refurbishments and the lamentable decay ensured by the senseless stalemate of the status quo, the church has essentially preserved its original architectural genius intact.

In order to assure that this exceptional patrimony remains preserved—for the deterioration had reached a crisis state—a long-overdue cooperative effort of restoration was initiated in 2009. A team of experts began a thorough survey of the building in 2013.

As an outgrowth of this undertaking, Michele Bacci, historian of art and special consultant in the project, has addressed the remarkable lack of systematic studies of the shrine with The Mystic Cave: A History of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. (Among his other books is The Many Faces of Christ: Portraying the Holy in the East and West, 300 to 1300.)

The nicely clothbound text is richly illustrated in color and enormously well-researched and documented. It is a shame that the bookmaker’s art was not always equal to the contents (pages 43–58 mysteriously reappear after page 306, for example).

The curious title—“Mystic Cave”—is a phrase lifted from Eusebius of Caesarea, who used it to describe the holy grotto designated by tradition as the site of Jesus’ birth: “God’s second home after heaven,” as a medieval author quaintly called it. A mysterious energy somehow infuses the place, absorbing the grace of the Incarnation and making it accessible to pilgrims. The architectural rendering of this cave into a coherent cultic space forms the leitmotif of Bacci’s text, which stresses the rich interplay between the humble grotto and the sumptuous upper church serving as its liturgical crown.

The book follows a simple chronological order, tracing the development of the church in three great acts of mise-en-scène: the sequential staging of the Constantinian shrine, its sixth-century renovation, and the magnificent twelfth-century joint redecoration by the Crusader Latins and Byzantine Greeks. The fourth and final chapter is a sad and extended tale of lost cohesion, passing through Muslim encroachments, ugly Christian factionalism, and the multiplication of devotional distractions.

Certain major features of Constantine’s basilica remain a mystery. Excavations in 1934 rediscovered the original mosaic carpet, a luscious pavement which lies several feet below the present floor. The sanctuary itself was an octagonal space, placed at the eastern end of the long nave and installed on a vertical axis directly over the grotto.

An oculus seems to have been cut into the floor, boring down into the cave so that worshippers might gaze down during services. This layering of the locus sanctus established the essential coordinates of the church, while subordinating the cave to the public eucharistic liturgy above.

After suffering damage, perhaps by riotous Samaritans or perhaps through a fire, a major reconstruction program was undertaken in the mid-sixth century, most likely under the emperor Justinian. Without altering the essential layout, much lovely ornamentation (still visible) was added. The critical innovation, however, was the opening of the grotto to the private devotion of the pilgrims, who could now descend beneath the bema into the holy grotto itself, entering from the southern transept and re-emerging in the north end of the church.

A climax of the story comes in the third chapter with the Crusader period, above all the gorgeous mosaics dating from the 1160s. Bacci expertly exposes the design of the vast pictorial program, executed in classical and dynamic Comnenian style.

One element missing in his discussion, however, is the observation of the placement of Passion scenes in the south transept and Resurrection scenes in the north. This reinterprets the pilgrims’ descent into and ascent out of the “mystic cave” as a baptismal-like passage from death to new life, crossed by way of the Lord’s Incarnation.

Bacci is correct that for many pilgrims today the upper church has unfortunately become a non lieu, a mere transitional space leading to the grotto below. Since the time of his writing the renovations have happily continued, however, and having visited the basilica frequently before, I can testify that the wonder of the newly uncovered upper church at Christmas 2018 promises a new era in the history of this august sanctuary.

Rev. Anthony Giambrone, OP, is a Domincan friar of the Province of Saint Joseph, assigned to the École biblique et archéologique francaise de Jérusalem, where he is professor of New Testament.  Besides his academic publications, he is a regular contributor to Magnificat and Catholic Digest.

| The Making of Church Screens

The Making of Church Screens

All Saints Church in Kenton, England
All Saints Church in Kenton, England

The eleven essays collected in this volume study the partitions separating the nave from the chancel or choir. A common feature of medieval churches, they are now mostly lost, casualties of the Reformation and early modern shifts in taste toward more open, unified interiors. Occasioned by a 2012 conference convened by the Cambridge University Medieval Panel Painting Research Center, which brought together scientists, conservators, historians of religion, and art historians, the papers vary widely in their scope and methods.

Though designed to demarcate and preserve the sacred nature of the space surrounding the altar and control lay access to it, these screens constituted a porous barrier. Extending laterally across the east end of the nave at its junction with the chancel, they typically feature a central opening, often furnished with a gate or door, situated on axis with the main altar and “signed” above by a large crucifix—the “rood” in England. Arguably the single most important representational image in medieval churches, such crucifixes were a particular target of Reformation iconoclasts, usually destroyed and replaced by panels bearing scriptural texts.

The essays reveal the varied terminology for these screens across and within countries, a range that reflects their diverse functions and forms. In addition to separating the nave (the church of the laity) from the chancel (restricted to the clergy), the screen structure also provided an elevated platform for preaching, liturgical reading, and the performance of religious drama.

“Screens” are an appropriate characterization of the wooden partitions in English parish churches and Dutch churches. The major item of furniture in such interiors, they generally were comprised of a solid dado topped by open tracery or arcading in the upper section and a rood loft. The monumental stone structures discussed in the papers on German and Italian churches were much more imposing: in Italy they are sometimes referred to as “bridges.”

The first seven essays, four of which are technical in nature, concern English rood screens in parish churches. One provides an overview. In addition to the Crucifixion, iconographic programs often included the Last Judgment in the chancel arch and, on the dado, apostles and local saints or saints favored by the patron. Such programs both reinforced church doctrine about the salvific economy and also promoted social cohesion while enhancing the prestige of the donor.

Other papers examine such features as wood types, moldings and jointing, pigments and paint application in screens. Among the interesting discoveries: costlier materials were used for the creation of the crucifix, and the account books of churchwardens provide a rich source of evidence of material and labor expenses.

The remaining two essays on English screens situate them within their social and cultural contexts. One interprets the Reformers’ effacement of their images and Latin inscriptions, supplanted by scriptural texts in the vernacular, as an effort to impose uniformity on the textual diversity of the late medieval church interior. The other relates the series of English royal saints depicted in the dado of a Norfolk screen to the late medieval appreciation of genealogical diagrams.

The remaining four essays turn to Europe. Focusing on a selection of German and French screens, one rejects the charge that they obstruct vision and reframes them as a key factor in the creation of a dynamic environment. The innovative paper demonstrates how the screens were “animated” by the performance of the liturgy and of religious drama, and by the movement of the worshipper during the mass and when walking about the nave.

A paper on Dutch screens notes their survival (sans imagery) through the Reformation and describes how they were adapted for the Calvinist celebration of the Lord’s Supper, held four times a year and restricted to the “truly converted.” Another essay, by Donal Cooper, summarizes recent scholarship on Italian screens, mostly in urban mendicant churches, and the sociological significance of their restriction of access to the altar in which both gender and social status are implicated. The final essay, on choir screens in Scandinavian parish churches before 1300, suggests that thirteenth-century developments on eucharistic teaching influenced the trend toward lighter, more transparent structures.

Geared to specialists, this collection presents a wealth of fresh material, including color photographs, mostly of English parochial screens and their carpentry details. Readers looking for sustained reflection on the theological and religious function of screens, and on how they could serve both to separate and unify, may be disappointed. Of the themes specified in the subtitle, the volume is more satisfactory in exploring the “making” and “preserving” of medieval church screens and less in plumbing their “meaning.”

Dianne Phillips is an art historian specializing in late medieval Italian art. She lectures on religious imagery to parish groups and college classes.

| Churches of Tomorrow

Churches of Tomorrow

In 1961 the Anglican Peter Hammond famously addressed in his book Liturgy and Architecture the relationship of church design to a reassessment of the church’s purpose. But until recently, the relationship between modern architecture and liturgy has still been largely overlooked. With its focus on the culture of American Catholicism, this new volume by Catherine Osborne makes a highly valuable and scholarly addition to a rising awareness of the connections between modern church architecture, liturgy, and the sacred arts in the twentieth century.

Broad in scope and researched over many years, this illustrated volume focuses on the contributions of American “Catholic modernists” in the last century. Osborne, who most recently taught in the department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, draws on holdings in libraries and archives from universities and dioceses, as well as interviews with many architects, artists, priests, and church members across the country.

She focuses on such questions as: How did many American Catholics come to believe that modern church design could help shape a discussion of modernization within the Church at large? What criteria did twentieth century American Catholics—especially those educated in theology and liturgical practice—use to judge sacred art?

At the center of her story is the work of Maurice Lavanoux (1894-1974), the editor of the journal Liturgical Arts, who served for forty years as secretary of the Liturgical Arts Society, a New York-based group which promoted the “advancement” of the Catholic arts. Amplifying and translating theological debates from Europe into an American context, he was influential in promoting the application of modernist design principles in Catholic church architecture, and for understanding the cultural manifestation of the Church as a living, changing body rather than a timeless and fixed entity.

As Osborne points out, his efforts helped many American Catholics see the necessity of moving beyond redundant discussions of the Neo-Gothic Revival. He urged instead the view that modern church architecture can be a means of engaging with deeper theological questions about the role of the Church in changing societal movements, values, and technological and material innovations.

In particular, Osborne documents an alignment between the advances in building technology that followed the Second World War and the Catholic Church’s embrace of a more modern theological perspective. Church leaders hoped that a more contemporary approach to church design would also spark a renewal of Catholic congregational life: advances in engineering would have theological implications. Undergirding Osborne’s far-ranging investigation is her argument that this collective sense of progress laid the groundwork for the social importance of modernist church design, which in turn helped to account for the reciprocal advocacy of creative change in sacred art and theology.

This reviewer would have liked a closer description of actual built projects, and an analysis of how the many issues described by the author could be read in terms of a church buildings’ spatial ordering, circulation, structure, and details. Osborne does for instance include intriguing details of new, even experimental forms of Catholic worship space at mid-century, including Mark Mill’s surreal proposal for a Chapel on the Moon (1967); Cardinal Bea’s proposal for a submarine chapel; or Paolo Soleri’s 1970 study Arcology: The City in the Image of Man.

Such visionary projects illustrate what Osborne calls the “Teilhardian moment in American religion and architecture.” She extends her exploration of Catholics’ concern for their physical environments into a discussion of urbanism and theology, as well as Catholic interpretations of Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965).

The book helpfully expands our understanding of the works of American architects and artists who built and designed for Catholic worship (including Marcel Breuer, Pietro Belluschi, and Barry Byrne), and the arguments that shaped an evolving understanding for the role of religious art and architecture. A valuable and fine-grained account of a broad subject, it will be a useful resource to architects and artists engaged in designing contemporary Catholic worship spaces, as well as those interested in the history of modern church architecture, liturgical arts, and the patterns of change in American Catholic culture.

Karla Britton is a Professor of Art History at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona. She wrote Auguste Perret, the first monograph in English on the French architect, and edited Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture.

| Protecting Sacred Sites in the Secular Age

Protecting Sacred Sites in the Secular Age

In 2014, I had the opportunity to pass through Durham to finally see in person the cathedral I had particularly admired from afar. That experience confirmed that Durham Cathedral was the apogee of the English Romanesque, but I also felt a certain hollowness, as if something was missing. More than a house for the tombs of Saints Cuthbert and Bede, the cathedral itself was a corpse, a building unensouled.

The fear of this reality inspired Marie Clausén to write Sacred Architecture in a Secular Age: Anamnesis of Durham Cathedral. Picking up her book, I was thrilled by the title. Here is someone, I thought, with a keen interest in saving Durham Cathedral from the emptiness an irreligious society has imposed on it.

In fact, Clausén, an academic book editor and poet, accepts that Christianity is passing away and will soon be gone. Christianity cannot save Durham or other ancient churches. What can, she asks? Is there a way that Durham can rise to new life when Christianity loses its significance?

At the core of the problem is the reality of a mechanistic modernity. The world has become desacralized in an attempt to tame nature and utilize it to seek pleasure and power. She is extremely perceptive in her portrayal of the ills of the modern globalist economy and draws on a variety of sources such as the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist to demonstrate the ways our world oppresses the human person. Her most compelling passages describe the urban and architectural expressions of post-industrial neoliberalism, which are the antithesis of buildings such as Durham Cathedral.

Aware that this post-industrial neoliberalism is the face of secularism to most people, she finds a moral imperative in presenting the spiritual nature of the world so that with the collapse of Christianity she expects, the modernists will not win. If we are not careful, she warns, the transition from a Christian world to a secular one will empty our sacred buildings of meaning.

If we are to save our ancient sacred architecture, as Clausén emphatically believes we should, we must understand the nature of a properly secular spirituality. With its status as the most beloved building in Britain, she uses Durham Cathedral as the cornerstone on which to build a case for this post-Christian religion.

For what she proposes is not irreligion but a new religion. As David Foster Wallace says, “Everybody worships, the only choice we get is what to worship.” For Clausén, there may be a spiritual realm or there may not be, but our minds perceive something “numinous” about certain ancient piles of stone and it is our duty to connect with and protect these places, if only for our own sakes.

Although she is clear that nothing she says necessitates an actual deity, hiding behind her rhetoric of transcendent reality, “ghosts” within our sacred buildings, and the timeless nature of historic structures is Being itself, a philosophical god, an Unknown God. If Durham Cathedral is to be the centerpiece of a new religious worship, it will be at most what classical Christian thinkers call “natural religion,” the worship due to God understood through natural reason, not based on divine revelation.

Will this be enough to save Durham Cathedral? When it became clear that the ancient pagan gods were mythological and the stories about them were fabricated, the atheistic rulers attempted to maintain the pagan cults to no avail. If our worship is a lie, we soon grow tired of the duty. Clausén believes this is the fate of Christianity, but will a spirituality predicated on the unknown fare any better? Will not the disillusioned of the secular age reject the imposition of a religion based on vague personal perception?

Perhaps the only hope for Durham Cathedral is not in a vague, secular, natural religion, but in a clear statement of the truth of a divine being that became flesh and fills our sacred spaces and our souls. Clausén herself admits that anything less than traditional Christian worship at Durham Cathedral will appear inauthentic.

Without it, Durham will remain a museum piece, and not the spiritually pregnant edifice she wants. In this secular age of skepticism and existential mystery, Durham Cathedral needs to be a solid place to stand where we know our myths are true.

Can we save Durham Cathedral? Should we even try? These are, ostensibly, the questions at the heart of Sacred Architecture in a Secular Age. Flitting methodically between an apologia for secularism and a lament for a more numinous age, Clausén looks through her architectural subject to the existentialism that haunts modernity. Ultimately, though, the question is not “Can we save Durham Cathedral,” but “Can Durham Cathedral save us?”

Nathaniel Gotcher is an ecclesiastical designer and studies the theory of liturgical space with a focus on the Gothic tradition. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Notre Dame with a minor in Medieval Studies.

| Mundum Pulchritudo Salvum Faciet

Editorial: Mundum Pulchritudo Salvum Faciet

“Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! ... What beauty saves the world?”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

Saint Vitus, Rome
Saint Vitus, Rome

The list of artists, architects, and dancers who are canonized saints is not very long. Yet the artists who tried to live saintly lives is. I knew one myself. Catholic artists live to make the world a more beautiful place and to allow Christ to be present in man’s highest creation. That creation is an art which edifies man and glorifies God.

I knew a ballerina who tried to portray joy in all that she did. She knew that it seemed natural to make dance about oneself, about novelty or eroticism. Her goal instead was to sanctify the art form, to reject the worldly and revive the good, the true, and the beautiful. The finest ballets share this with great art and architecture: a profound story is told, the music uplifts, and the performance is a work of excellence.

She was devoted to her craft, spending countless hours practicing and studying the works of great ballerinas. She pushed her body like an athlete to be the best physically and like a musician to be the best technically. Like all classical artists she sought out great teachers both living and dead, and wanted to bring new classical works of choreography to the public.

She was not a prodigy in high school, but pushed herself to improve and each year she gained technique and roles. She disliked mediocrity, especially in herself, and wanted to be perfect as her Heavenly Father is perfect. Her strength, like many Catholic artists, came from daily Mass and its extension, Eucharistic adoration.

Like some of the greatest artists and even saints, she died young, at twenty-three. She is my daughter, Raffaella Maria Adelaide Stroik. This was the prayer she wrote:

God, the Most High, I thank you for this opportunity to use my gifts that you graciously bestowed on me. I praise you and bless you for this expertise. May I use them to help glorify your holy name. May the talent and beauty I possess point to the exquisiteness that you bestow on the world. May all those that see it glorify your loveliness, for all things flow from you. Jesus, the searcher of minds and hearts, I invite you into my heart today. Create a new one within me. Replace my stony heart with one that beats only to love you. I want nothing, if not you. Send forth the Holy Spirit, the Bearer of love, joy, and peace, to rest upon me. Keep me free from harm, pure in heart. Keep me joyful in mistakes, passionate in holy desires. Keep me strong in adversity, confident in fear. Remind me that my soreness and bruises are proof that I loved fiercely. Help me to not let the suffering go to waste, and to offer it up to you as purification for my shortcomings. Saint Vitus and Saint Genesius of Rome, pray for me.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| S.O.S: Save Our Spire

S.O.S: Save Our Spire

Viollet-le-Duc's Gothic spire. Photo: Charles Marville, AIA/AAF Collection, Library of Congress
Viollet-le-Duc’s Gothic spire. Photo: Charles Marville, AIA/AAF Collection, Library of Congress

The French people have a lot of experience in rebuilding churches. World War II, World War I, various nineteenth-century governments, the French revolution, the Huguenots and before that, the barbarian hordes, all took a toll on these heavenly palaces. Not to mention fires and damage due to the travails of time. This latest fire, watched by tens of millions on the internet, calls for the rebuilding of the roof, the spire, and part of the ceiling of Notre Dame in Paris. Other elements such as stonework, stained glass and the magnificent organ are likely to be restored.

What is turning out to be the most controversial aspect of the vaunted restoration is the spire. In 1793 the original spire of Notre Dame cathedral was mutilated and taken down by the revolutionary government. For sixty years artists recorded the grand old dame without it.

Then in the 1850s, it was redesigned and rebuilt as part of a major conservation and rebuilding of the cathedral by the influential gadfly Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

One hundred sixty years later the French government had erected scaffolding and was commencing to restore the spire when it perished in a horrific conflagration. There was a huge outpouring of sympathy and donations, up to $1 billion, for the cathedral.

Why would people care about a cathedral in our modern secular age? It is clearly because Notre Dame is a beloved monument, a symbol of France and one of the best-known and most visited works of architecture in the world. But even more importantly, though perhaps not consciously felt by all, Notre Dame Cathedral is a sacred place.

Sometimes the goal is to rebuild the building similar to the way it was, and at other times the goal is to rebuild it bigger and better. In the case of the Notre Dame spire (or flèche) that burned, it was a nineteenth-century replacement. Designed by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the preeminent Gothic architect of the nineteenth century, the spire was larger and taller than its predecessor.

Viollet’s spire was an octagonal flèche which rose 305 feet from the ground and 146 feet above the roof. According to Viollet, the wood structure weighed 550 tons and the lead covering was 275 tons.

What did Viollet do? He enlarged the spire by adding a second level to the base and stretching the central conical roof. He enlarged the base and modified the interior structure so that it could better withstand the storms that are the enemies of towers. After one such storm, Viollet verified that the spire had only moved twenty centimeters.

Interestingly, the octagonal base of the spire was rotated so that four of its corners aligned with the roof ridges. This allowed Viollet to arrange larger-than-life copper statues of apostles and evangelists above where the roofs meet. These are the sixteen statues sculpted by Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume that had already been removed for restoration when the fire struck. The statues stepped up the roof toward the base of the octagon with its columnar buttresses.

Beyond the buttresses, eight gothic arches with tracery like the windows of the nave supported a first level. A second level with smaller arches supported gables with tracery and gargoyle downspouts. The corner buttresses held pinnacles which are like miniatures of the central spire.

This conical spire was beautifully ornamented with hundreds of croqs or crockets on its ridges which soared ninety-five feet up in the air. On top there was a large cross with a weather-vane rooster containing relics: a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns and relics of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve, patron saints of Paris.

So why not replace Viollet’s spire with something new and improved? If the purpose is to do something that contrasts with the cathedral, a modernist spire will succeed. If the purpose is to be taller or made out of modern materials, many architects would be only too happy to oblige.

But what if the requirement is to do something better than Viollet, something more beautiful than the iconic spire at the crossing of one of the most well-known churches in the world? Using the Gothic language, that would be difficult to achieve. Nothing Gothic on this scale has been done since the completion of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in 1988, and there are few architects adept at its syntax.

If that were the goal, it would disqualify all of the designs heretofore proposed. Of course it is conceivable that someone could design a new spire more beautiful than Viollet’s, but why should we even consider it?

The only criticism of Viollet’s spire I have heard so far is that it wasn’t original. Its youth, only 160 years old, is not a sin or a reason to replace it as if it were a nonfunctioning plumbing fixture. Unless someone can convince Parisians that Viollet’s spire was not in keeping with the cathedral’s architecture, had some functional structural flaw, or was ugly, then why not rebuild Viollet’s spire in all its Gothic glory?

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| Spiritual Exercises: Muziano’s Circumcision Altarpiece

Spiritual Exercises: Muziano’s Circumcision Altarpiece

Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Alessio Damato
Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Alessio Damato

Built right after the Council of Trent, the Church of the Gesù (1568) stands in the heart of Rome on what seems to be an island flanked by streams of busy streets. The stark imposing façade proudly displays the monogram “IHS,” representing not only the name of Jesus in Greek but in Hebrew, the name the angel defined as “He who saves his people from their sins.”

Inside, with its eclectic array of artistic styles, one is greeted by an exuberance of angels and saints, biblical scenes, and relics, most notably the body of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the arm of Saint Francis Xavier, and the arm of the martyred Saint Andrew Bobola—all underneath a ceiling that portrays the Name of Jesus resplendent in heavenly glory.

The interior of the Gesù as it appears today with the Circumcision painting by Capalti, which replaced Muziano’s in 1846. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Fczarnowski
The interior of the Gesù as it appears today with the Circumcision painting by Capalti, which replaced Muziano’s in 1846. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Fczarnowski

Photo: akg-images/Andrea Jemolo
Photo: akg-images/Andrea Jemolo

From the busy streets of Rome, the Gesù is a retreat into sacred beauty. But most importantly, it presents the visitor with the itinerary of a spiritual pilgrimage leading to union with God through means of the visual, so that he may be filled with the love of Divine Mysteries. It offers a moment of edification that can lead to conversion from sin.

Saint Ignatius’ Influence

One of the greatest influences in the decoration of the Gesù was the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, published in 1548.1 These meditations were a means toward union with God and his saints using the imagination. Ignatius writes: “When the contemplation or meditation is on something visible, for example when we contemplate Christ our Lord, the representation will consist in seeing in the imagination the material place where the object is that we wish to contemplate.”2

This representational meditation is an anamnesis, a remembrance of and participation in a sacred event. The mystery becomes alive, by adding color, architecture, emotion, and landscape. The meditation thus becomes a point of encounter between the soul and Christ and his saints. Sacred imagery becomes the visualization of the spiritual pilgrimage to the divine union the Spiritual Exercises pursue. It emphasizes not the anger of God at sinful humanity, but the merciful redemption of mankind through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, by the shedding of his blood.

The Circumcision is the Gesù’s patronal feast, celebrated on the first of January. It is important especially due to the admiration for martyrdom during the era, as it unites the name of Jesus with the blood of Christ as the only means of salvation. In his circumcision, Christ first sheds his blood, prefiguring his eternal sacrifice on the cross. It is one of the first moments proclaiming that man has the hope of participating in the triumph to come, which is eternal life with Christ.

Muziano’s Biblia Pauperum

At the Gesù, from 1587 to 1589, Girolamo Muziano (1532-1592) portrayed the Circumcision of Christ at the church’s high altar. It depicts two important themes: that the Son of God, born of the Virgin, is given the name Jesus; and that this was the first moment that the salvific blood of Christ was shed, in expectation of the crucifixion which he willingly received out of love for man.

The Gesù represents the Jesuit tradition of designing churches as catechetical, devotional, and liturgical edifices in which the true teaching of Divine Revelation was enshrined in its decoration. The decoration acted as a “biblia pauperum,” where the visuals were “books for the poor or unlearned.”3 The altarpiece was a means of teaching and edification, or moving the senses, to desire invisible divine mysteries much in the style of an evocative sermon. The Holy Name and redemption is further emphasized by two other important chapels in the church: the left transept’s chapel originally dedicated to the crucifixion, the right one to the Resurrection.4

In light of the biblia pauperum, an altarpiece must be a faithful portrayal of the life of Christ. Muziano’s masterpiece is a pictorial commentary and meditation on Luke 2:21: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

Another source of the biblia pauperum can be found in liturgical sources such as the Breviarium Romanum, which usually gives the feast a spiritual or moral interpretation. The readings for the Matins of the Circumcision emphasize that Christ humbled himself as a small child, being born under the law. Like any child, he is circumcised to be dedicated to God, although he is in truth the holy and consecrated one of God. The breviary instructs the worshipper to circumcise his heart from sin, based upon Saint Paul’s teaching in Romans. As Christ underwent circumcision according to the law, he prefigured the forgiveness of sins which would be accomplished by the shedding of his blood and the Resurrection.

Fidelity to sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the liturgy is the foundation for the simple meditations of the Spiritual Exercises. These divine sources provide the first step for the representation prescribed by Ignatius. It is this tradition that Muziano follows while using artistic imagery and a holy imagination.

The visual technique of the Spiritual Exercises emphasizes that the Christian use his imagination to see the events in Christ’s life more spiritually and even mystically. Christ’s presence is in the here and now, and through this divine union, the soul can have a foretaste of transfiguration through grace.

Much like the Spiritual Exercises, Muziano’s art draws men closer to God. It goes beyond the catechetical purpose of merely educating the unlettered. Paintings are truly an educazione, that is, a formation beyond mere intellectual understanding. It is one that develops the interior life of the soul’s union with God.

The Circumcision

Muziano’s Circumcision. Photo: The Jesuits and the Arts 1540-1773
Muziano’s Circumcision. Photo: The Jesuits and the Arts 1540-1773

The original painting of the Circumcision by Muziano takes place in a loggia or a balcony of the Temple of Jerusalem, with the main figures situated on an orthogonal platform like actors on a stage.5 Christ is lying on a table/altar, which can be seen as a pictorial commentary on the Gesù’s actual high altar, situated below the painting which shall contain the unbloody sacrifice.

The child Jesus is not surrounded by a large crowd of figures that could distract from his place. The Son of God Incarnate with the humility of a child is the protagonist6 among a group of individuals supporting his role. The Mother of Jesus, the high priest, attendants, and pious men and women observe the scene.

The loggia or balcony opening up to a paradisaical vision of hills and valleys, trees and the heavens, and the setting of the sun, encourages the contemplation of the truth of the beauty of nature from which one can see something of the beauty of God.7 The landscape by its ideal beauty represents the presence of the numinous, while a liturgical and devotional dimension is given by the vertical perspective of the altarpiece and especially those of its figures.8

This altarpiece’s place within the greater plan of the Gesù also adds to its imaginative representation. The beauty of lapis lazuli, the gilding of sacred vessels, the painted ceilings, and the overall plan of the nave, point beyond themselves to the ineffable and divine beauty of God as earth leads to heaven. The beauty of creation becomes a meditative way to attain to a union with God whose beauty goes beyond human conceptions or symbols, which ultimately lack in the ability to describe this transfiguring reality.

Matter and divinity are united as if reflecting what Muziano’s biographer Ugo da Como describes as his artistic philosophy, that “art cannot be separated from life.”9 As art imitates the beauty of the various material aspects of life, it gives visual expression to the invisible and spiritual. Art cannot separate itself from the portrayal of life united to divine grace even during this earthly pilgrimage. Materiality is not negated but celebrated in its beauty, which is ultimately found in God.

Art That Portrays Life Eternal

Worshippers first gaze as they enter the Gesù ad orientem towards the Circumcision, with various mysteries of Christ’s life in the side chapels. As they lift their gaze skyward, a celestial fresco of the Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1679) by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639-1709) gradually transforms vibrant color that fades into the light of heavenly glory. Art then starts to portray life eternal.

Its founding principle is the humanity of Christ, which can be portrayed, and thus his earthly history becomes the door through which man can fulfill his desire to see, touch, hear, and taste Jesus’ divinity. Images make present in a mediative way the divine presence in a very incarnational manner. The senses find consolation, a flourishing of sanctified desire, in the portrayal of the sacred, rather than desolation of a deprivation of the beauty of God—a sensual and spiritual desolation where there does not seem to be love or hope by the seemingly palpable absence of God.10

In the altarpiece, the high priest is performing the rite of Circumcision, assisted by a Levite holding Jesus. Joseph looks on from the left, leaning on his staff, while the Virgin’s sorrow is evident.11 As Ignatius of Loyola observes, the beseeching child looks “to his mother, who has compassion for the blood that flows from her son.”12 Such sorrow reminds us of the prophesied sword that shall pierce her heart, and her witness while standing beneath the cross where Christ’s blood was shed.

The surrounding figures are in awe and grief, especially the prophetess Anna, the old woman standing in contrast to the youthful and sorrowful face of Our Lady.13 The gesture of the hands is eloquent of the apprehension of Mary and Anna; these gestures also reflect a spiritual elegance and modesty promoted in the artistic style of the era.14 Nearby are attendants carrying ointment and oils for the wound, and water to wash the hands of the priest.15

The figures have a sense of balance and proportion. The bodies resemble classical stylization, showing an ideal beauty understood in the Renaissance era to emphasize what is good, and thus what is true. The painting never separates the three transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty.

In the altarpiece, there is no exuberance or variety of emotion or color, decoration, or figures, that would distract the viewer from contemplating the sacred event. The painter’s prudence is evident. His painting unites the beauty of the human figure, the dramatic landscape of varying colors of blue revealing the dimming sunlight, the fine architecture of the High Renaissance, and divine history common to sacred art of the era.16

Muziano’s Way of Beauty

Through this via pulchritudinis, this way of beauty, Muziano reveals the dynamic of grace. The human condition is not negated, but divinized, thereby beautifying it, perfecting it, and ridding it of the stain, ugliness, and distortion of sin.

The Circumcision is a depiction not simply of one episode in Jesus’ life—it is a visually expressive moment where the Lord speaks to the soul of the individual looking at the painting. In it, the Lord reveals the mysterious and divine meaning of the historical event as spiritually relevant for the present. The Jesuit Jeronimo Nadal (1507-1580) points out that what is asked is not circumcision in the flesh or by the rule of the law, but of one’s heart.17 Circumcision of the heart means that the Christian should fiercely battle against temptations and the disordered passions of the flesh, which lead to perdition.

Without this battle, there is no union and interior beauty given by God’s indwelling in the soul. The circumcision of Jesus in the life of the believer is about the shedding of sins in order to rise to the heavens while on earth. A foretaste of Heaven would be the transformation of one’s interior life into a true tabernacle of God’s presence.

The Triumph of the Name of Jesus by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, 1679. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Marie-Lan Nguyen
The Triumph of the Name of Jesus by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, 1679. Photo: Wikimedia.org/Marie-Lan Nguyen

Muziano’s altarpiece was replaced with one of the same subject in 1846 by Alessandro Capalti (1810-1868). When it stood in its original place above the high altar, contrasting to the luminously magnificent ceiling painted by Gaulli with the triumph of the name of Jesus glorified in the heavens, the two together revealed the whole expanse of creation and pointed to its redemption through the blood of Christ, who was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and who was given the name Jesus at the moment of his circumcision.

Alphonso Lopez Pinto is a theologian who researches sacred art. He is passionate about bringing the richness of the Catholic heritage to the faithful.


Dr. Pinto recommends as a good introduction to the history on the Church of the Gesù Aurelio Dionisi’s Il Gesù di Roma: breve storia e illustrazione della chiesa-madre dei gesuiti, third edition, updated and revised by Gualberto Giachi, Rome: ADP, 2005).

1. See Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Italian Renaissance and Baroque Painting under the Jesuits and its Legacy throughout Catholic Europe, 1565-1773 in The Jesuits and the Arts (1540-1773), edited by John W. O’Malley SJ, Gauvin Alexander Bailey, and Giovanni Sale SJ (Philadelphia: St Joseph’s University Press 2005), 123-198.

2. Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on studies in the language of the autograph, translated and edited by Louis J. Phul (Mansifeld CT: Martino, 2010), 170-171.

3. Howard Hibbard, “Ut picturae sermones: The First Painted Decorations of the Gesù,” in Baroque Art: The Jesuit Contribution, edited by R. Wittkower and I. B. Jaffe (New York: Fordham University Press, 1972), 40.

4. Bailey, “Italian Renaissance and Baroque Painting under the Jesuits,” 143.

5. Patrizia Tosini, Girolamo Muziano 1532-1592: dalla maniera alla natura (Rome: Ugo Bozzi, 2008), 456.

6. For the protagonist in Muziano’s paintings, see: Paola di Giammaria, Girolamo Muziano: Brixien pictor in urbe da Brescia a Roma, Acquafredda: Banca San Paolo di Brescia, 1997), 80.

7. Ugo da Como, Girolamo Muziano: note e documenti (Rome: lstituto italiano d’arti grafiche, 1930), 29-35.

8. Patrizia Tosini, Girolamo Muziano 1532-1592: dalla maniera alla natura (Rome: Ugo Bozzi, 2008), 289.

9. Como, Girolamo Muziano, 15.

10. Ignacio de Loyola, Ejercicios Espirituales (Santander: Sal Terrae, 1990), n. 317.

11. See Jeronimo Nadal, Adnotationes et meditationes in Evangelia quae in sacrosancto Missae sacrificio toto anno legvntur : cum Evangeliorum concordantia historiae integritati sufficienti : accessit & index historiam ipsam euangelicam in ordinem temporis vitae Christi distribuens (Antwerp: Martinus Nutius, 1595), 29.

12. Ignacio de Loyola, Ejercicios Espirituales, n. 266; See, Nadal, Adnotationes et meditationes, 29.

13. Tosini, Girolamo Muziano 1532-1592, 456.

14. Ibid.

15. See Nadal, Adnotationes et meditationes, 29.

16. Paola di Giammaria, Girolamo Muziano, 82.

17. Nadal, Adnotationes et meditationes, 31.

| Comfort or Beauty? Assessing Aesthetics and Mission in Protestant Church Design

Comfort or Beauty? Assessing Aesthetics and Mission in Protestant Church Design

Over the past several decades Evangelical Protestant churches have sought to build buildings that differ from traditional church architecture in order to attract unchurched individuals to the church. (I use George Barna’s definition of an unchurched individual as someone who has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months, excluding special services.)

This missions-based theory of church design is known as architectural evangelism. It proposes that traditional church architecture acts as a barrier for the unchurched and thus churches should build buildings rooted in secular typologies, using few or no ecclesiological markers, and constructed with low-cost materials. Familiar with this kind of building, the unchurched will be more apt to attend.

Supported by national conferences, monthly periodicals, and specialized design firms, architectural evangelism has visibly altered the religious built landscape of America. However, there has been little study of whether it does what it intends. In the past ten years, two studies examined how unchurched people responded to church architecture. Both Barna Research Group’s Making Space for Millenials and Lifeway Research Group’s “Sacred Space” concluded that they preferred more prototypical or traditional churches over secular-based churches.

Yet, these studies tested only a handful of images and did not explore the architecture. This paper looks at the results from an in-depth research study exploring the efficacy of architectural evangelism. Specifically, the research aims to explore the nature and relationships between the exterior design of Protestant churches and the judgements and preferences of unchurched people.

Influence of Evangelism

American Protestant church design has developed prototypical formulations through reflections on the relationships between liturgy, worship praxis, and space. It is also deeply influenced by the missionary or evangelistic call to reach individuals with the Gospel.

Historically, Protestant leaders have moved out from their churches, relocated to unchurched areas, and used non-church types of architecture, including warehouses, tents, schools, and theaters. This changed with the advent of the missionary theory known as “Church Growth theory”—the foundational missions theory of architectural evangelism.

Church Growth theory, developed by Donald McGavran and Americanized by his students at Fuller Theological Seminary, sought to utilize sociological tools to gain an understanding of a setting’s social, linguistic, and cultural context. Church leaders could then develop, refine, and utilize evangelistic tactics that were reproducible, effective, and contextual. (See McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth for an introduction to the theory.) Church Growth theorists found that in mass evangelism efforts like Campus Crusade and the Billy Graham crusades, a large number of individuals were converted yet few ultimately integrated into a church.

Church Growth theorists developed and propagated the idea that a more effective evangelism tactic would be to use the local church as the source of the evangelistic call. They shifted the direction of mission efforts from “going out” to reach the unchurched to “attracting” them into the church.

The rise of Church Growth theory was fueled by the adoption of its principles by several prominent Evangelical megachurch pastors. Among the best known are Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, both in southern California, and Bill Hybels, former pastor of Willow Creek Church outside Chicago. They used sociology to understand the unchurched. An example of such work is journalist Lee Strobel’s book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry & Mary. They tried to create a church with no barriers to unchurched participation.

This included architectural design. As a heading in a 1996 Willow Creek Leadership Conference brochure read, “Traditional church forms can be barriers to our communicating with unchurched people.” Therefore, the question for church architecture became how to design a building that would remove barriers of communication such that the Gospel could be presented to individuals familiar with contexts such as the modern office building. An example of this work is Martin Robinson’s A World Apart: Creating a Church for the Unchurched.

Architectural Evangelism’s Prescriptions

Their discussions ultimately produced a missiological design logic for unchurched church architecture. Several design prescriptions formulate the basics of architectural evangelism’s missiological logic.

In short, the logic states that traditional church design is a barrier for unchurched and therefore churches should: be designed with more modern and familiar secular styles; remove ecclesiological markers; and avoid ornate buildings to avoid perceptions of hypocrisy. Unchurched individuals will have a higher level of preference, sense of comfort, and ultimately will be drawn to the church.

To examine the efficacy of architectural evangelism’s design prescriptions, a research study was completed using what is called an image-based sorting task interview. It used four case studies, with 200 participants.

The study used four churches in two locations: southeastern Michigan and southern California. In each location two churches were selected, one that had adopted the tenets of architectural evangelism and one that had not. Each had a worshiping population between 500 and 1500. Each selected self-affiliated with Evangelical Protestantism, the trans-denominational movement which has the highest adoption rate of architectural evangelism.

Two hundred individuals participated in the research: twenty-five from each case church and twenty-five unchurched people living close to each one. The churched individuals were chosen in proportion to each church’s age and sexual demographics. The unchurched participants were recruited so that there were corresponding age and gender demographics with the churched participants.

Image-Based Sorting Task Interview

The research utlized an image-based sorting task interview. Each participant was interviewed in a one-on-one in-person format for approximately one hour.

Twenty-five exterior images of churches constituted the set of test images. The images were selected according the design’s use of four architectural characteristics:

1. Ecclesiological elements

(strong, moderate, none)

2. Historic styling

(historic, non-historic)

3. Roof design

(pitched, flat)

4. Compositional hierarchy

(pre-modern, mixed, post-modern)

The images were selected to create a fully-crossed set with each image designated as a combination of the design criteria. (We’ll look at 1, 3, and 4 here.)

Participants were asked to respond to a series of prompts which asked them to rank the images according to preference and to sort them according to their:

1. Sense of comfort in approaching or entering the building

(comfortable, uncomfortable)

2. Perception of aesthetic quality

(beautiful, ugly)

3. Perception of proto-typicality

(looks like a church, does not look like a church)

4. Past experiences

(looks like a church I’ve had experience with, does not look like a church I’ve had experience with)

The data was analyzed for statistical significance and correlation using standard statistical tests (the Kruskal-Wallis statistical test with corresponding post-hoc measures and Spearman’s Rho correlation analysis.

Mariner’s Church Chapel represents the high end of the scale of the case study research (most preferred, most beautiful). Photo: Visioneering Studios and davega photography 2009

Mariner’s Church Chapel represents the high end of the scale of the case study research (most preferred, most beautiful). Photo: Visioneering Studios and davega photography 2009

East Hills Church in Riverside, California, represents the low end of the scale of the case study research (least preferred, least beautiful). Photo: Author
East Hills Church in Riverside, California, represents the low end of the scale of the case study research (least preferred, least beautiful). Photo: Author

Preferences for Exterior Church Design

The interview asked individuals to rank the set of images according to their preference. Architectural evangelism expects that unchurched individuals would have a higher preference for modern non-church architecture, for architecture with few to no ecclesiological elements, and with flat roofs and post-modern compositional hierarchies.

However, the results suggest that this may not be the case. On the effect of ecclesiological elements, we found that unchurched respondents strongly prefer church buildings with a strong use of ecclesiological design elements, followed by a moderate use, and least prefer buildings with no use of ecclesiological design elements. Churched respondents also prefer church buildings with a strong use of ecclesiological design elements, and vary on secondary preference for moderate or no use of ecclesiological elements. Churched individuals that attend churches that adhere to architectural evangelism had a higher tolerance for no ecclesiological markers.

On the effect of roof design, we found that both unchurched and churched prefer buildings with sloped roofs over buildings with flat roofs. And on the effect of compositional hierarchy, we found that unchurched and churched respondents do not prefer churches designed with a modern compositional hierarchy. Churched individuals who attend architectural evangelism churches prefer more mixed façade composition hierarchies.

Overall, both groups preferred the use of traditional ecclesiological design profile. This result stands in stark contrast to ideas found within architectural evangelism theory.

Comfort with Exterior Church Design

The participants were also asked to rank the set of images according to the level of comfort they would have attending the church for a church-sponsored service or event. They were asked to rank the images within a 5-point Likert scale from Very Comfortable to Very Uncomfortable.

On the effect of ecclesiological elements on the participants’ perception of their comfort in being in the church for a church event, we found that the unchurched consistently found church buildings with stronger use of ecclesiological elements in their design to be more comfortable. Churched individuals from architectural evangelism churches were more comfortable in mixed compositional hierarchies than pre-modern hierarchies.

On the effect of roof design, we found that everyone felt more comfortable with church buildings with sloped roofs than church buildings with flat roofs. And on the effect of compositional hierarchy, both churched and unchurched judged buildings with a modern compositional hierarchy as less comfortable. Unchurched individuals find buildings with a pre-modern or mixed compositional hierarchy to be more comfortable than modern buildings. Churched individuals agree, with a slight variation. Churched individuals from architectural evangelism churches find mixed compositional hierarchies to be more comfortable.

Overall, the use of traditional ecclesiological design correlates with higher judgments of comfort by the unchurched. Again, this finding is contrary to the design prescriptions of architectural evangelism—suggesting that the efficacy of the prescriptions may be in error.

Importance of Beauty

In addition to comfort and overall preference, the interview asked participants to complete a ranking and sorting exercise based on their perception of aesthetic quality, prototypicality, and past experience. Some of the key observations are:

First, participants found churches designed with a strong use of ecclesiological elements, sloped roofs, and pre-modern use of compositional hierarchy to be the most beautiful.

Second, they judged churches designed with low-cost or austere construction methods to have the least aesthetic quality (i.e., to be ugly).

Third, they judged a church to be prototypical if the church’s design made strong use of ecclesiological elements, had a sloped roof, and utilized a pre-modern compositional hierarchy.

The study then sought to explore the relationships between the judgment criteria via statistical correlation. This revealed an important observation.

Most notably, the strongest correlation to unchurched preference is not comfort, as predicted by architectural evangelism. The strongest correlation to both preference and comfort is judgments of aesthetic quality—or an individual’s perception of beauty. Furthermore, this is stronger in the unchurched than in the churched.

Second, comfort and preference is positively correlated with judgments of church prototypicality. This observation stands in contrast to architectural evangelism. Finally, past experience, while positively correlated, plays a much lesser effect on comfort and preference than aesthetic quality.

Efficacy of Architectural Evangelism

The research suggests that the efficacy of architectural evangelism’s design prescriptions may be limited. Unchurched individuals are not primarily driven by perception of comfort, nor do they prefer churches designed with non-prototypical secular based modern forms. Rather, they, like churched individuals, are primarily motivated and drawn to perceptions of beauty—which are best understood as churches designed with prototypical form, including strong use of ecclesiological elements, sloped roofs, and pre-modern and mixed compositional hierarchies.

Ultimately this research suggests two ideas contrary to architectural evangelism: First, the Protestant church interested in attracting unchurched individuals should stop asking what the unchurched find comfortable, and begin asking what they find beautiful; and second, aesthetics is not a superfluous expenditure for a church, but at its root, is a part of its mission.

Rev. Dr. Matthew Niermann serves as the Associate Dean of the College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design at California Baptist University. Situated at the intersection of architectural empirical aesthetics and Christian missiology, Matthew’s research explores the contextual compatibility of Protestant church design in the United States.

| He is Here

He is Here

It may have been partly the bright light, I admit, after all those crepuscular chapels. As soon as I opened the door, before I saw the altar, or the tabernacle, or the crucifix, when all I could see were pews, I felt at home. “Jesus is here,” I thought with complete certainty.

My family and I had been received into the Church at the Easter Vigil three months before. I was in Oxford for a conference on Newman. A theologian friend, John Saward, also a convert, had given me a tour of the city, particularly the old college chapels. Some memorialized our former Anglican heroes. Saint Mary the Virgin on High Street memorialized our hero Newman when he was an Anglican.

Saint Mary the Virgin on High Street at the University of Oxford. Photo: wikipedia.com/Diliff
Saint Mary the Virgin on High Street at the University of Oxford. Photo: wikipedia.com/Diliff

And the reverse as well. It included the spot where the Reformation father Thomas Cranmer had been tried and convicted for tearing England away from the Church.

It had been a lovely day, full of the history and architecture I had loved as an Anglican, and was missing as a new American Catholic. (Our new parish was particularly inane and ugly. You wonder what serious architect could have thought it worth building.) All that history, beauty, all those lovely old chapels and churches. Then John suggested we end the day praying in the chapel of one the Catholic halls.

I don’t remember which chapel we visited, but a room of Anglican beauty it was not. It was fairly spare, with few shrines or candles or statues, and Ikea-style pews. Nothing to make your heart soar. But Jesus was there.

A Fussy Anglican

I had been a fussy Anglican. The aesthetic side of religion mattered much to me. I said then that beauty conveyed the eternal. Now I suspect I didn’t believe in the eternal as much as I thought. After we entered the Church, that feeling gradually left me. Ugly buildings and sloppy celebrations and sing-songy music that would have left me grumbling all Sunday afternoon didn’t bother me.

It was what my new brothers and sisters found meaningful, I thought. I had entered their Church and should not demand my own way. More than that: after years of deep commitment in what had been (somewhat unknowingly) a subjective form of Christianity, I was struck, and drawn, and compelled by Catholicism’s objectivity. It came as a liberation from a piety that depended either on what a Catholic would call scruples or a dangerous over-confidence in one’s closeness to God.

Jesus sits there in the tabernacle. He is there, whether or not I believe it, or feel it, or want it. He is there even if the church is ugly, the mass badly celebrated, the music insufferable. I loved the fact that Jesus is, as I liked to say, always just around the corner. My Anglican friends would roll their eyes, and some of my Catholic friends shake their heads, but with Jesus there, I could put up with pretty much anything.

I still feel that way. The Church who so calmly, serenely, objectively declares the truth, who brings Jesus to us body and blood, soul and divinity, transformed my mind and life. Give me the worst suburban mass over the most beautiful Anglican choral Eucharist. That world I don’t pine for.

Now, as the shrinking and aging diocese of Pittsburgh starts closing churches, one of which may be ours, I feel somewhat differently. Three or four years after we entered the Church, we stopped going to the church in whose boundaries we live, the ugly one, for several reasons. One is that the 1961 building is so ugly: a semi-overturned ark, red brick-walled, with inane abstract stained glass windows, and behind the altar a tall bas relief of Jesus giving what seems to be the Queen’s wave, the one where she holds her wrist still and moves her hand from side to side. His left hand, too. The choir sits facing the people on risers to the right of the sanctuary.

Recent pastors have done what they could, one putting the tabernacle behind the altar, another putting a statue of Mary behind it to the right. But still, they can’t do much with the building. It doesn’t feel like a sacred space. It feels to me like a space made not to be sacred. Jesus is there, but the building tries to tell you he’s not.

This is a Catholic Church

The parish we go to in the working class town across the river was built by Italian immigrants one-hundred-some years ago. Everything in the church says “This is a Catholic church”: the stained-glass windows picturing the biblical stories, the traditional stations along the nave, the Lady and Saint Joseph shrines on either side of the altar with their candle racks and their big statues, the shrine to the right with the Pietà and the statues of Saint Pio, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and Saint Anthony of Padua, the fresco of the Holy Family above the altar, the carved wood reredos with the realistic crucifix and the traditional gold tabernacle below it.

I still love the objective reality of the Church, and especially the reality that Jesus is here—and here no matter with what kind of church we surround him. Life can be hard. Faith can be hard. What I really need is for a church that says not only “Jesus is here,” but here is the history and here are the stories and here are Our Lady and the saints, this is where a taste of heaven can be found.

I light a candle at Saint Joseph’s shrine for a dying friend every Sunday. I then pray kneeling before that Pietà, meditating on the Mother of God holding her dead son, the dead son of God. I sometimes just sit in the pews and look around at all the things in that church that say “Jesus is here.” I need that.

Saint Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh. Photo: wikipedia.com/Dllu
Saint Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh. Photo: wikipedia.com/Dllu

David Mills, consulting editor of Sacred Architecture, is editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org) and is writing a book on Catholic death and dying for Sophia. He is the former editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.

| Reciprocity Between Window and Wall in Renaissance Florence

Reciprocity Between Window and Wall in Renaissance Florence

The “window wall” of the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Domenic Ghirlandaio, 1485-1490. Photo: Author
The “window wall” of the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Domenic Ghirlandaio, 1485-1490. Photo: Author

Renaissance art was essentially public art, even as it was commissioned by single individuals and religious and civic organizations. The donor was keen to see the monument in a public place, accessible to all. It was a mark of status, a demonstration of piety, and a call for remembrance and prayers.

Religion, economics, and politics were linked. “Governments underscored their legitimacy with memorable images in which divine and civic virtues were combined,” explains the Renaissance specialist John Paoletti. The wealthy merchants’ status depended on their acumen and their largess in the decoration of the religious orders’ sites.

Prayer was another powerful incentive to pay for religious work. The patrons of the time were deeply convinced that prayers for the dead were essential for their ultimate reception in heaven. The chapels they supported were the sites where priests daily offered masses dedicated for the souls in purgatory. The prayers of the living were believed to be efficacious in obtaining forgiveness for any errors committed by individuals on earth and thus hasten their entry into heaven.

Florence’s Stained Glass

Let us look at the stained glass in Florence. Too often scholars neglect the stained glass of Florentine churches in favor of narrow studies of the frescos and the artists’ personal styles. The guidebooks often skim over the windows to concentrate on the non-translucent decorative elements.

In most cases the windows, frescos, and the altar pieces were commissioned as an ensemble. The city is splendid since so many works of art remain in their original locations and therefore the ensembles remain together.

The patrons were powerful families in Florence. They were keen to acquire the finest product using specified materials to reflect the imagery dear to the family. We have ample evidence through tax records and contracts between artists and patrons that issues such as size, time of completion, and guarantee of the artist’s personal contribution, not simply his workshop, would be part of the enterprise.

These contracts frequently specified materials. They might mandate a high-cost blue pigment derived from crushing lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, for example, or real gold leaf, not a yellow paint substitute.

We will look at three churches. First, Santa Maria Novella, a foundation of the Dominican order located in the northwest part of the city. Then we will look at Santa Croce, the Franciscan church in the southeast part of the city. Finally, Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, in the center of the city.

Santa Maria Novella

Families jealously guarded their rights to decorate chapels. The Ricci family had long held the right to decorate the walls of the chancel of Santa Maria Novella, but fell into financial straits, forcing them to declare bankruptcy in 1348. The original frescos in the chapel, painted by Andrea and Bernardo Orcagna in the mid-fourteenth century, had by the 1480s become severely water damaged. Still financially vulnerable, the family sold its right to the Sassetti family, wealthy bankers of the Medici.

Francesco Sassetti wanted a series of frescos to honor the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Dominicans opposed having images of the “competition” set in a central worship area of the church. Sassetti subsequently shifted his attention to Santa Trinita, which, although not a Franciscan foundation, accepted the subject matter. The Sassetti chapel there, painted by Domenic Ghirlandaio, included a portrait of the donor and six impressive scenes of the life of Francis.

The Riccis then sold their right to Giovanni Tornabuoni, who promised to continue the subject matter of the earlier, damaged frescos. He had risen to prominence as treasurer for Pope Sixtus IV, who reigned from 1471 to 1484. A fresco of him kneeling in prayer appears immediately to lower left of the window wall. His arms, a rampant lion quartered in green and gold, appears in the window he faces.

The chapel is renowned for its extensive and well-preserved fresco cycle and windows created by Ghirlandaio and his workshop between 1485 and 1490. (Ghirlandaio was buried at the church when he died in 1494.) The windows were fabricated by Alessandro Florentino. The chapel is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin and the major themes are the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Saint John the Baptist, the subject matter of the original frescos.

On the left wall, below the Massacre of the Innocents, we see the Marriage of the Virgin to Saint Joseph. On the window wall above the donor portrait, we see the Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel kneeling before Mary. In the window, Saint Dominic holds lilies, Saint John the Baptist holds a cruciform staff, and, at the top, Saint Peter carries a book and keys.

The central section begins with the Miracle of the Snow. The legend tells that the Virgin appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius, asking for a church in her name. The following morning, despite it being August, snow fell, outlining the dimension of the church. Begun in 432, the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the most venerable in Rome.

Above the Miracle is the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple Above that is the Assumption of the Virgin, who lets down her girdle to Saint Thomas, a reference to the tangibility of her physical assumption to heaven. To the right, the row begins with Saint Thomas Aquinas wearing a star-studded robe and holding a sun of divine radiance, symbol of his inspired theology. Above him Saint Lawrence, a deacon in Rome, holds his grill, the symbol of his martyrdom. At the top is Saint Paul, a complement to Saint Peter on the left.

Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, 1485-1490. Credit: Author
Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, 1485-1490. Photo: Author

The completion of the chapel in 1490 is recorded in a Latin inscription placed on the arch in the fresco of Zachariah receiving the angel’s message: An [anno] MCCCCLXXXX quo pulcherrima civitas opibus victoriis artibus aedifichiisque nobili[s] copia salubritate pace perfruebatur (During the year 1490 the most beautiful city for wealth, victories and commerce, famous for its monuments, enjoyed abundance, health and peace).

Chapel of Filippo Strozzi, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Filippino Lippi, 1487-1502. Credit: Author
Chapel of Filippo Strozzi, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Filippino Lippi, 1487-1502. Photo: Author

The chapel to the right of the main altar was commissioned by Filippo Strozzi and decorated by Filippino Lippi between 1487 and 1502. Strozzi had been exiled to Naples and the commission was part of an extensive campaign to rehabilitate his family name. A contact has been preserved between the patron and the artist, one that his heirs continued after Filippo’s death in 1491.

The frescos of the window wall are executed in primarily grisaille, or neutral tones. In one, a pagan muse, music, holds a lyre and instructs a child to play the pan flutes. The illusionistic architecture creates a three-dimensional “trompe l’oeil” foil for the deeper colors in the glass.

Lippi also apparently designed the windows. In the main window, the Madonna and Child appear below a wreath with the Lamb of God. Below, under the Strozzi coat of arms showing a gold shield with a red band carrying three white crescents, we see the apostles John the Evangelist and Philip, name saint of the patron. On the left wall, Saint John the Evangelist resuscitates the Christian woman Druisana who had welcomed him in her home in Ephesus, a legend from early Christian times.

The Spanish Chapel

Each religious order was keen to promote its work in religious and social spheres, and did so in the decoration of their churches and buildings. We can see that in the Spanish Chapel, off the smaller cloister immediately to the left of the basilica. It honors the Dominicans in an extraordinarily complex and original composition. It retains one of the most admired fresco cycles of its time.

On the left side, the thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas sits enthroned, flanked by figures from the Old and New Testaments. Below him are personifications of the sciences and academic disciplines, such as canon law, music, and grammar, and below each of them its most notable proponent in history. Euclid sits below Geometry, for example.

On the next wall, the altar wall, we see a moving narrative of the crucifixion. On the right wall, directly across from the image of the enthroned Thomas, the Dominicans honored their history as preachers by depicting luminaries of the order, Thomas Aquinas and Saint Peter Martyr, campaigning against heretics through text and speech. The entrance wall honors Saint Peter Martyr.

The Franciscans’ Santa Croce

The Franciscans were no less distinguished. Santa Croce’s numerous chapels were decorated by important families. The Baroncelli Chapel is one of the most celebrated. Located in the southern transept of the church, it commands a distinctive place within the building.

Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Taddeo Gaddi, 1328-1334. Credit: Author
Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. Frescos and stained glass by Taddeo Gaddi, 1328-1334. Photo: Author

In the center is a large two-light window with three rows of saintly figures. A series of six images presents, from the bottom, John the Evangelist and Bartholomew, Louis of Toulouse and Sylvester, and Peter and John the Baptist. At the very top of the window Saint Francis receives the stigmata from the seraphic vision. Five of the saints in the windows are name saints of members of the Baroncelli clan as they are listed on the tomb: Pietro (Peter), Vanni (a diminutive of Giovanni for John the Baptist and John the Evangelist), Salvesto (Sylvester), and Bartolo (Bartholomew). The Baroncelli coat of arms, a white shield with transverse bars of red, crowns the window.

Detailed images of the window show the color palette favored in Florence. In contrast to the insistent red and blue of French medieval glass, the Florentine windows incorporate a significant mixture of green and yellow.

The chapel was probably completed from 1328 to 1334 (the date of 1328 is inscribed on the Baroncelli tomb). The Baroncelli were discerning, ordering an altarpiece from arguably the most important painter of the era, and the fresco cycle from his most distinguished pupil.

The altarpiece, showing the Coronation of the Virgin, is signed by Giotto, responsible for cycles of frescos in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi and the renowned Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Scholars have debated to what extent the master executed the work and what part his assistants played, as he accomplished his extensive work with the aid of a large workshop. A long tradition dating from the fifteenth century ascribed the frescos to Taddeo Gaddi, who was a close associate of Giotto, and the windows are associated with him as well.

The chapel’s dedication honored the Virgin Mary and both the frescos and the altarpiece elaborate narratives of her life. We perceive a dynamic reciprocity among altarpiece, window, and frescos. The viewer’s eye darts from subject to subject across the walls and within each scene; we read a story.

Altarpiece and Window

Both altarpiece and window command a central place. Light penetrates the space through the intense colors of the window just as the gold gilt of the altarpiece radiates light from its surface. Both altarpiece and window preserve a hieratic order, emphasizing presence. The saints, suspended in glassy brilliance, suggest to the viewer the glories of transfigured light enjoyed in the beatific vision. In contrast, the frescos, spread in bands across enveloping space, communicate an earth-bound narrative.

In the window wall, the narrative at the top on the left shows the Annunciation to the Virgin, the moment when Gabriel tells her that she will be the mother of the Messiah. On the right we find the Visitation, when the expectant Virgin visits her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Below, on the right is the Nativity of Jesus and on the left, the news communicated to the shepherds.

The second scene is a brilliant nighttime composition, showing two startled reclining shepherds illuminated by the glow of the angelic appearance. Gaddi’s image has remained a touchstone in art, with painters coming after him striving to capture a night scene with such clarity and intensity. Just below, the three Magi look up to a glowing star, in which the Christ Child stands, and on the right they kneel down and worship him.

Barely glimpsed, on the left, is a cycle on the early life of the Virgin. It shows Joachim, her father, expelled from the Temple because he has no child, an angel telling him of the promise of a child, his meeting with his wife Anna at the Golden Gate, the birth of the Virgin, her presentation in the Temple, and her marriage with Joseph.

To the right stand monumental figures of David holding the severed head of Goliath and above him Jesse, the founder of the line of David. Jesse was often depicted in conjunction with the Birth of Christ, following Isaiah: “And there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

The Bardi Chapel

Santa Croce’s Bardi Chapel, to the right of the main altar, was decorated by Giotto in about 1310. The Bardis were bankers established in the thirteenth century. By the fourteenth century, with thirteen international branches—in London, Barcelona, Bruges, Paris, and other places—they were powerful enough to fund the English monarch, Edward III, during his war with France.

Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. Stigmatization of Saint Francis and window by Giotto around 1310. Photo: Michel M. Raguin
Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. Stigmatization of Saint Francis and window by Giotto around 1310. Photo: Michel M. Raguin

On the exterior wall above the chapel opening, the Stigmatization of Saint Francis draws attention to the stories of the saint’s life on the interior walls. Indeed, the iconic image acts as a summation of the life of the saint. Framed by a stark mountainous landscape, Francis kneels outside a chapel. A seraph bearing the form of the crucified Christ hovers in the sky above.

Giotto not only designed the frescos but the stained glass in the narrow lancet above. On the lowest level, we see Saint Louis of Toulouse wearing a blue cloak with fleur-de-lis, a symbol of France, and Pope Gregory IX in a red chasuble. The pope was a supporter of the mendicant orders and had canonized both Saint Francis and Saint Anthony of Padua. On the next level is Gregory’s predecessor Pope Innocent III who approved the Franciscan Order. Next to him stands Saint Anthony of Padua, an immensely beloved Franciscan saint, barefoot, tonsured, and in simple, brown robes.

Santa Maria del Fiore

Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, often called the Duomo, was equally embellished with stained glass set within frescoed walls and chapels. Begun in 1296, the building was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, also architect of Santa Croce. Its construction continued intermittently over the next century, the nave being completed by 1380. In 1418, the competition for the design of the great dome, the largest since Roman antiquity, was won by Filippo Brunelleschi.

Its completion in 1436 was a major event. Pope Eugenius IV presided at the consecration and the famous French composer Guillaume du Dufay created an innovative motet Nuper rosarum flores (“The rose blossoms recently”) whose patterns were inspired by the structure of the dome. Such a prestigious commission brought leading painters and sculptors for the design of the forty-four windows.

Although sadly difficult to see from the floor, the round windows (oculi) in the drum of the dome show the Life of Christ. Created by some of the greatest Florentine artists of the time, the windows include the Coronation of the Virgin (Donatello), Nativity and Resurrection (Paolo Uccello), Descent from the Cross (Andrea del Castagno), and the Presentation in the Temple and Agony in the Garden (Lorenzo Ghiberti). Similar windows decorate the entrance wall.

Santa Maria del Fiore. Two female saints in the north nave by Lorenzo Ghiberti, fabricated 1435-1443 by Francesco di Giovanni. Photo: Author
Santa Maria del Fiore. Two female saints in the north nave by Lorenzo Ghiberti, fabricated 1435-1443 by Francesco di Giovanni. Photo: Author

In other areas, such as the nave, we find a pattern of paired saints, generally in two to three superimposed rows. Ghiberti was responsible for many, including a series of female saints in the north nave. The long, narrow faces, dense patterns of clustered flowers or leaves in the border, and deep red or green of the drapery strewn with quatrefoil or cinquefoil stars show similarities with Ghiberti’s oculus of Saint Lawrence enthroned.

Florence is highly popular with visitors, but to the stained glass aficionado, careful planning is important. Come off-season and bring binoculars. Try to see the ensemble of windows, frescos, and altar pieces, which is how the great patrons of these buildings saw things.

Virginia Raguin is distinguished professor of humanities at the College of the Holy Cross. Among her many books are Stained Glass: From Its Origins to the Present and Stained Glass: Radiant Art.

| A Living and Fruitful Root: Consecration of an Altar at Santa Maria la Antigua

A Living and Fruitful Root: Consecration of an Altar at Santa Maria la Antigua

Pope Francis traveled to Panama in January 2019 for World Youth Day. During his visit, the Holy Father consecrated a new altar in the renovated Cathedral of Santa Maria la Antigua in Panama City. The following is an excerpt from the homily of the dedication mass.

Credit: Grzegorz Galazka via AGE Fotostock
Photo: Grzegorz Galazka via AGE Fotostock

For me it is no small thing that this cathedral now reopens its doors after a lengthy renovation. It has experienced the passage of the years as a faithful witness of the history of this people, and now with the help and work of many it wants once more to show us its beauty. More than a formal restoration, which always attempts to reproduce the original appearance, this restoration has sought to preserve the beauty of the past while making room for all the newness of the present. A Spanish, Indian and Afro-American cathedral thus becomes a Panamanian cathedral, belonging both to past generations and to those of today who made it possible. It no longer belongs only to the past, but it is a thing of beauty for the present.

Today it is once more a place of peace, that encourages us to renew and nurture our hope, to discover how yesterday’s beauty becomes a basis for creating the beauty of tomorrow.

That is how the Lord works.

Brothers and sisters, may we not allow ourselves to be robbed of the beauty we have inherited from our ancestors. May it be a living and fruitful root that will help us continue to make beautiful and prophetic the history of salvation in these lands.

His Holiness Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina. Elected in 2013, this was his third World Youth Day as Pope.

| Nova Contrareformatio

Editorial: Nova Contrareformatio

We need a new Counter-Reformation in sacred art and architecture. What was the Reformation’s effect? First, it preached iconoclasm, the rejection of the human figure in religious art. Second, it reoriented worship, so that people gathered round the pulpit rather than the altar and the baptismal font became more important than the tabernacle. At the same time, it lessened the distinction between the clergy and the laity, creating more equality and decreasing hierarchy.

Third, the Reformation taught a functionalist view of worship, rejecting anything “unnecessary.” The altar should not have anything on it, for example, and churches should be designed according to seating capacity, with sight lines like a theater. Fourth, it elevated the quotidian over the sacred. Churches are thought of more as meeting houses than sacred places. They’re designed to be intimate rather than awesome.

These churches did not, to put it another way, express the Terribilità, the awesomeness of God. What have we been living through for the past sixty years? A second reformation, only this one came from within. All four of those points characterize mainstream Catholic church building since 1960.

And what do we need in response? A second counter-reformation. One that learns from the first Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries how to make a creative and serious response to the iconoclasm, functionalism, egalitarianism, and “quotidianism” of our time.

The New Counter-Reformation

And not just in our church-building and our ideas of church architecture. In the Counter-Reformation bishops were commanded to return to their dioceses and to take care of their flock, to become the chief teachers of the diocese. Priests were to celebrate mass daily, laity go to mass and receive Communion more often, and better preaching and more confession were promoted. Eucharistic adoration was emphasized through the joining of the tabernacle to the altar, as well as the forty-hours devotion. There was a new emphasis on catechesis and education, including the invention of the seminary for the training of priests.

These developments pushed the Church to renew her commitment to making her churches and her liturgies as beautiful as the Faith itself. She employed art, architecture, music, and liturgy to draw all to the church and then to uplift their minds to those things that are eternal. Elizabeth Lev brilliantly tells the story of Counter-Reformation Art in her new book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art.

We need an architecture today that can do the same in response to the second reformation. It must symbolize the antiquity, universality, and beauty of the Church, as Vignola’s Gesu and Palladio’s Redentore did in the sixteenth century. This will mean an employment of art and architecture that is evangelistic and catechetical. Buildings that are icons on the outside, large and beautiful, with warm yet awe-inspiring interiors that are foci of the community. Churches must express for modern people the Terribilità.

We need a recovery of ancient principles and a restoration of what is timeless and classic. The basilica form and the baldacchino, for example, as well as altar rails, side altars and shrines, solemn confessionals, a place set aside for baptism, and saints buried beneath the altar or relics visible for veneration.

The sanctuary should be set apart, raised up to be the most beautiful part of the church. It should be the focus and the identity, liturgically and devotionally.

We need to revive the iconographic program, the creation of a narrative within the whole building. We can’t settle for the “America formula” of a crucifix above the altar, Mary on the left, and Saint Joseph on the right. Churches need to be like a good book that can be re-read, like a good symphony listened to over and over, with new things always seen or discovered.

That means the commissioning of custom art should be a priority: durable and high-quality materials shaped by highly skilled craftsman and top-quality artists and architects who can employ inventiveness in developing the tradition. No copies or regurgitation. No off the shelf statues. New paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and murals push the artists to develop new and authentic ways of expressing the timeless truths.

Not Antiquarian

This does not mean antiquarianism, employing a particular style, or trying to go back to a golden age, whether the 1950s or a Romantic notion of the Middle Ages, as wonderful as those times were. It means creating churches that are traditional yet contemporary, universal yet local, Roman yet catholic—both/and, not either/or. Churches that combine unity with diversity and learn from the local character, express modern saints, and inventively develop the tradition.

Like the great artists and architects of the Counter-Reformation, we must once again promote the faith of the Catholic Church through beauty.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| Except the Lord Build the House: Restoring a Sense of Beauty

Except the Lord Build the House: Restoring a Sense of Beauty

The men who built the cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres did not have diesel engines, or lightweight metals like soft aluminum or firm titanium, or steel girders. The men who built Europe’s greatest Gothic church did not have cranes that could tower a hundred feet in the air without toppling, while lifting pre-formed blocks of concrete. They did not have computer models. They did not have the calculus. Most of them assuredly could not read.

They had to fit stones atop one another precisely to be both balanced and beautiful, and that meant that the stones had to be cleanly and accurately dressed, shaved with saws, cut to fit. Their carpenters had to know how to build safe scaffolding from the hewn trunks of hardwood trees, to soar ten or twelve stories in the air, supporting the men who, with sledges and pulleys and main strength, set in place the stones of lovely arches, springing on each side at exactly the same oblique angle from the pillars beneath, to intersect one another at a point clinched by the keystone.

Art and Craft

It is not enough to say that Chartres Cathedral is a great work of art. A sketch by Rembrandt is a great work of art. A single rib of a single pillar at Chartres is a great work of craftsmanship. A single panel of one of the lesser stained glass windows along the nave gives us art at its finest. Chartres is a magnificent symphony of countless works of sculpture, glazing, tiling, carpentry, masonry—and poetry and theology too.

The South transept of Chartres Cathedral. Photo: flickr.com/Spencer Means
The South transept of Chartres Cathedral. Photo: flickr.com/Spencer Means

It is more than a museum or a collection. In a museum, one work is displayed next to another because it happens to have been created by the same person or in the same country or at around the same time. But every work in Chartres has to do with every other.

I would say that there is nothing like it in the world, except that in fact there are things like it—all the other great cathedrals of the Middle Ages are like it, all over Europe; and thousands of churches, too, some of them the special churches for orders of priests, like Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church in Florence, and some of them just the principal church for a small town or a village. At the Great Exposition, every entry boasted an inventor, but if you visit many an old church in Europe, you will see frescoes or sculptures created by “the Master of Anytown,” whose name no one knows.

What it is that people believe to be most important in our common life on earth? If you went to the Great Exposition, you might suppose that the most important thing is to make machines that turn things, so as to work other machines, to do things we want them to do, or to make things we want them to make. If you went to Chartres, you would not need to suppose, you would simply and readily perceive that the most important thing was to sing with the Psalmist, “I rejoiced when I heard them say, Let us go up to the house of the Lord.”

Drab or Garish

In C.S. Lewis’s fantastical novel That Hideous Strength, when the planet-traveler Ransom prepares to greet old Merlin the mage from Arthurian times, he dons a long red and gold robe. That surprises his friends, but he reminds them that in all other times but our own, “drab was not a favorite color.”

Drab is a favorite color in our day; its companion is garish. I defy any of my contemporaries to name one style of public building that is not now either drab or garish.

Our churchmen have gone along with the movement, mostly drab, but sometimes garish, as witness the big childish banners blaring out a favorite comforting verse (never “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God”), the glad-handing ceremonies of greeting and peace-wishing, and the priest more comfortable joshing with the attendees than praying with people who are, as he is, as we all are, on the inevitable journey to the grave and in dire need of the grace of God.

When my daughter and I were in Sweden, we stopped in many a rural church built during the Middle Ages and then subjected to artistic reforms afterward. Sometimes I saw shadows that looked like water stains emerging through the plaster of the ceilings. I began to suspect that they were not stains or tricks of the light. When I asked a minister about them, he confirmed my suspicion.

Many fresco paintings were whitewashed away in the so-called Enlightenment. It was that same Enlightenment, in its sanguinary French eruption, that smashed priceless stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals across the country. “Four fifths of [man’s] greatest art,” said Henry Adams, was created in those supposedly dark days, to the honor of Jesus and Mary. The Enlightenment destroyed more great art than it produced, and what the harbingers of the novus ordo saeclorum did not get around to destroying they slandered.

There was, however, a generally healthy revival of Gothic art and architecture in the nineteenth century, thanks to the efforts of men like A. W. N. Pugin and John Ruskin. When Catholics immigrated to the United States from Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, and Portugal, they did not aim to build trapezoidal meeting houses with clear windows and no representations of the history of salvation. They aimed to build churches, and they achieved that aim.

I have seen an inscription on the façade of a Portuguese church in New Bedford reading, in Latin, “The workmen of Saint Anthony’s built this to the glory of God.” I do not think that the inscription implied that they only paid for the construction. They did hire a master builder, but the men did the work—with their hands, their sweat, at risk of life and limb. And these were not rich industrialists but fishermen.

In my home town in central Pennsylvania, the church-builders were Irish coal miners, and they built their Saint Thomas Aquinas Church in Romanesque style, pooling their funds to hire an Italian painter who had done some work on the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. He came to lowly Archbald, Pennsylvania, and filled the church with paintings, nave and sanctuary, walls and ceiling.

My boyhood church was beautiful. Then came the rage for the drab and the garish, and a good deal of that original beauty was obliterated, spoiled, or pulverized—at considerable expense.

Photo: Archbald Historical Society
Photo: Archbald Historical Society
Saint Thomas Aquinas Church in Archbald, Pennsylvania, immediately following a ceiling collapse in 2009, and after a renovation was completed in 2011. Photo: crisismagazine.com
Saint Thomas Aquinas Church in Archbald, Pennsylvania, immediately following a ceiling collapse in 2009, and after a renovation was completed in 2011. Photo: crisismagazine.com

Drab the Enemy

Drab, with garish its cousin, is our enemy. Does anyone go to visit the modern neighborhoods of Rome, built in drab? Does anyone take pictures of a new police station or a new post office? The most prominent features of the new county courthouse where we live are enormous glass “walls,” so that you can see into empty waiting rooms and hallways, and a sheltered area surmounted with a big metal fence and rolls of barbed wire.

Our young people are not only starved for nature. They are starved for beauty. Everywhere they turn, their eyes fall upon what is drab or garish: their schools, the fast-food joint, a baseball stadium, and, of course, their churches.

I have seen, in Catholic churches, minimalist Stations of the Cross that cannot even be recognized if you are more than a few feet away. The message they deliver is that the Stations are trivial. I have seen crosses that look as if a modernist Jesus were flying with wings outspread, like a theological pterodactyl. The message is that the Cross was a brief and unfortunate interlude. I have seen the Sacrament relegated to what looks like a broom closet. The message is that it is something to be embarrassed about and that we come to church not to serve God but to celebrate our own central goodness.

I have seen one sculpture of the supper at Emmaus that has Jesus at one end of the table with the two disciples and two other figures ten or twelve feet away; it looks as if they are arguing with one another, perhaps dickering over the check for the meal. If you were not told that it was the supper at Emmaus, there is no way you could guess it. There is no message but chaos.

I have seen a baptismal font with bubbles. The message is that flashy technology is to be preferred before silence. I have seen beautifully tiled floors, their intricate cruciform patterns bespeaking careful and devoted craftsmanship, covered over with a plush red carpet, wall to wall, such as might be used in a whorehouse down on its luck. The message is that we are the newly rich, with bad taste.

It is long past time to get rid of everything ugly and stupid from our churches, most of it visited upon them since the great iconoclasm of the sixties. We must return to genuine art, art that stirs the imagination and pleases the eye, that entices the soul with beauty—even a dread beauty—before a single word of a sermon is uttered.

Priceless Treasure

“Where your treasure is,” says Jesus, “there will your heart lie also.” We can tell where a people’s heart lies by where they place their treasure.

In material terms we are by far the wealthiest generation of people who have ever lived on earth. Yet our original accomplishments in all of the arts are meager at best. Renaissance painting and sculpture, music and poetry, are what you get when a vigorous popular and learned tradition that had already been immensely creative meets again the classics of Greece and Rome. Modern art is what you get when you repudiate the people, the tradition, and the classics. Individuals are left to trade upon the stock of their native creativity alone, which is not going to be great.

Why would we care to make our churches beautiful when what goes on in them is slipshod and is not felt to be of even temporal consequence, let alone eternal? We do nothing in the week that is more significant than to serve God by prayer. That is a fact. We have forgotten it. Our hearts skip a beat when someone gives us a surprise ticket to the baseball game. Those same hearts plod along at their usual sluggish tempo when we dress for church.

So we end up with stadiums that will not last twenty years before the owners of the ball club demand new ones. Chartres Cathedral has been standing for eight hundred years.

Anthony Esolen is professor of classical literature at Thomas More College. His latest books are Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. This article is adapted from chapter two of the second.

| Beijing’s “New” Cathedral: Renewal of a Classical Monument

Beijing’s “New” Cathedral: Renewal of a Classical Monument

When we build,” John Ruskin famously remarked in The Lamp of Memory, “let it not be for present delights nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think ... that men will say, as they look upon the labor and the wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our fathers did for us!’”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Beijing is undertaking a substantial restoration and renovation of its most famous church, the Xishiku North Cathedral, in a way that would have contented Ruskin’s sensibilities.

Most commonly called Beitang, or “North Church,” the inspiring neo-Gothic church had been the seat of the bishop until 1958. It was turned into a kitchen during the Maoist Era, returned to the Catholic Church in 1985 during the rule of Deng Xiaoping, and is now among the city’s most revered historical treasures.1 (The extravagant bishop’s residence next door had been transformed into a school and largely gutted and redesigned.)

China’s authorities have decided that the church is so important to the cultural and historical legacy of Beijing that they have provided more than twenty-five million RMB (approximately four million USD) to restore and update the façade and interior. The church boasts the largest Catholic congregation in Beijing.

Scholars of Church history in China have been consulted in order to restore elements of the interior to colors and aesthetic as it first appeared in 1887. Several elements of the renovation are intended to “update the architectural theology of the church to better respond to the life of the Church in the twenty-first century,” noted Father Matthew Zhen Xuebin when we met in mid-January. The pastor of the church and director of the restoration project, which includes the historic bishop’s residence, he studied liturgical history at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, and was assigned by the ordinary of Beijing, Bishop Joseph Li Shan, to oversee the project.

History of Xishiku Beitang Cathedral

Beijing’s major Roman Catholic churches are more-or-less located in the four cardinal directions. North Church is named after the Holy Savior; South Church (the present cathedral) after the Immaculate Conception; West Church after Our Lady of Mount Carmel; and East Church after Saint Joseph.

Bishop Alphonse Favier’s map of central Beijing identifying the locations of the Canchikou and Xishiku Beitang churches in relation to the Forbidden City, which is located in the center of the map. Ca. 1901. Image: Congrégation de la Mission Archives Historiques, Paris
Bishop Alphonse Favier’s map of central Beijing identifying the locations of the Canchikou and Xishiku Beitang churches in relation to the Forbidden City, which is located in the center of the map. Ca. 1901. Image: Congrégation de la Mission Archives Historiques, Paris

Only Beitang survived the Boxer Rebellion during the summer of 1900. All the other Christian churches in the capital were razed, and only some were rebuilt. Local faithful commemorate Beitang’s towering Gothic façade as a testament to Christian survival and endurance during times of political and religious conflict. The first Beitang was erected slightly to the south of the present church, in an area called Canchikou.

It was completed in 1701 on property only a short walk from the Forbidden City, given to two French Jesuit missionaries by the formidable and pro-Western emperor, Kangxi (1654-1722). Charles de Belleville, SJ, (1657-1730) designed this first church in the manner of the Baroque mother church of the Society of Jesus in Rome, the Gesù, which was consecrated in 1584.2 Unlike the Gesù, it had no volutes or raised section in the center of the façade.

De Belleville, like many of the Jesuit builders in China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was both an architect and painter. The interior included sixteen engaged columns with Corinthian capitals, arched windows, and stunning paintings of the saints composed in the Western style.

In 1827, the first Beitang was demolished after being seized by a court official to add to his private estate. It was not rebuilt until 1867, when the French ecclesial architect Bernard Gustave Bourrières (1807-1867) was commissioned to rebuild it in a grander style. Bourrières’ design was decidedly Gothic, as the bishop requested.

The second Beitang church at Canchikou, designed by the French ecclesial architect Bernard Gustave Bourrières in 1867. This church was erected in the Gothic style and included two grand towers and a rose window. Ca. 1870. Photo: Congrégation de la Mission Archives Historiques, Paris
The second Beitang church at Canchikou, designed by the French ecclesial architect Bernard Gustave Bourrières in 1867. This church was erected in the Gothic style and included two grand towers and a rose window. Ca. 1870. Photo: Congrégation de la Mission Archives Historiques, Paris

Its façade featured two flanking towers, each with two layers of lancet windows and three dramatic pinnacles that lengthened the visual height of the church. The central gable above the main entrance was surmounted by a cross, and included three niches. A statue of Our Lady of Lourdes occupied the center niche.

The New Cathedral

Eight years after the imposing Gothic façade was consecrated, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) informed the missionaries that she had decided to expand her retirement villa into the area where the cathedral then stood. After several rounds of negotiations, the next location of a new and even more majestic Beitang cathedral was settled a short distance north.

The builder of the new cathedral was the Lazarist missionary-architect, Alphonse Marie Favier, CM, (1837-1905) who promoted a caractère Français, or essential “Frenchness,” in the spirit of the Beaux Arts. Like so many European architects of the nineteenth century, he was influenced by the Gothic Revival movement largely inspired by the ideas of Augustus Pugin. When he arrived in China in 1870, he brought a strong preference for Gothic architecture, both as an eminently appropriate Christian aesthetic and a visual representation of “Frenchness.”

Façade of the Xishiku Beitang cathedral, designed by Alphonse Favier and erected in 1887. Ca. 1890. Photo: Anthony E. Clark Private Collection
Façade of the Xishiku Beitang cathedral, designed by Alphonse Favier and erected in 1887. Ca. 1890. Photo: Anthony E. Clark Private Collection

Favier intentionally exaggerated the Gothic elements of the previous Beitang. The portals and windows of the new church were more noticeably Gothic, adding generous ornament to accentuate its French appearance. The new façade included two towers flanking a tall gable ornamented with crockets, a large number of finial-capped pinnacles, arcades of finial-topped trifoil windows, a heavy-framed, spoked rose window, undecorated archivolts above each of the façade’s three portals, several niches, and gargoyle drain spouts. Favier’s Gothic edifice was a stark contrast to the sloped roofs, bracketed beam construction, and Chinese-style latticed window structures that surrounded the towering cathedral.

Among the most controversial features of Western church design in China was the construction of tall towers. Catholic architects considered them necessary elements of a truly Christian edifice, but most native Chinese saw them as domineering symbols of Western conceit. When Alphonse Favier first designed his Beitang cathedral in 1886, China’s imperial authorities limited the height of the two Gothic zhonglou flanking the façade.

Even though the court authorities had signed an agreement on the height of Favier’s plans, once the church was finished the reality of their overshadowing presence was seen, and these same officials came from the palace to “register their protest for their height.”3 China’s sumptuary laws in 1886 proscribed architectural structures that contested the divine supremacy of the emperor, and Beitang’s new towers seemed to overshadow that prerogative.

In the end, the towers remained as they were, and after the Boxer Uprising (1898-1900) had ended, Bishop Favier was able to attain permission to extend the towers to an even taller height. The Beitang façade seen today is the one completed in 1901, when the towers were extended to produce a more proportionally attractive façade, adorned with Gothic flourishes that are still admired.

Sinicized Gothic

Despite the cathedral’s recognizable Gothic appearance, when one more painstakingly observes Favier’s majestic façade, she or he discovers that the finials, crockets, and gargoyles more closely conform to Chinese temple design than French Gothic. In fact, I would describe the cathedral’s final design as Sino-Gothic, an admixture of Gothic Revival elements and Chinese details, such as dragon-like gargoyle drains and Chinese white marble accents.

Chinese architectural elements underscore the cathedral’s style as more Sino-Gothic than merely Gothic Revival in a purely Western sense. Photo: flickr.com/Matthew Stinson
Chinese architectural elements underscore the cathedral’s style as more Sino-Gothic than merely Gothic Revival in a purely Western sense. Photo: flickr.com/Matthew Stinson

Chinese architectural critics commend Favier’s inclusion of a traditional Chinese terrace (yuetai) in front of the cathedral’s three portals and two yellow-roofed Chinese pavilions (tingzi) displaying memorial stelae flanking the enormous Gothic façade. The front terrace’s balustrade (langan) was constructed with a native Chinese stone called baiyushi, or “white marble.”

Qinghua University architectural scholar Zhang Fuhe describes these Chinese features as a “strong contrast to the church’s Gothic form.” Another Chinese scholar, Zhang Youping, suggests that, “since Chinese materials were used and Chinese workers built it . . . when you look at [Beiting] one perceives its Chineseness.”

This is all to say that when Western architectural scholars describe Beitang’s aesthetic components they do so in Western terms; they view the church simply as an example of Gothic Revival design. Chinese scholars see in the church design a dominant Chineseness, more representative of late-imperial temple design than Western church styles.

In the end, Beitang’s architectural legacy embodies Sino-Western cultural exchange rather than a merely Western edifice on Chinese soil. It is precisely this aspect of the church’s design that appeals to Chinese Christian sentiments, and has motivated Beijing’s Catholic archdiocese and the state authorities to restore the church and preserve it for future generations of Chinese Catholic faithful.

Present Restorations

During my recent visit to the site of the cathedral and bishop’s residence, I was provided with a private tour of the entire complex by the rector Father Zhen and Father Simon Zhu Jie, vicar for external church affairs. When the church and bishop’s residence are both finished, Bishop Joseph Li Shan will move into what was originally built for the church’s architect, Bishop Alphonse Favier.

Father Zhen’s vision for the restoration both restores much of the cathedral’s original splendor, while simultaneously updating some of the church’s elements to better facilitate current needs. Every element has taken into serious consideration the values of proportion, use, and sympathy with its original architectural legacy.

After considerable research, the interior has been renovated to represent the original color scheme Favier envisioned when he drew the original plans in 1886. Much of the church’s interior was changed when it was used as a cafeteria. The columns, for example, made from pine trees imported from the American Northwest, were painted dark red and green in 1985, while the original colors were much more light, probably light gold and blue. As one enters the restored interior today, one is welcomed by the original vibrant colors and light that have not been present since the cathedral was first opened for worship in 1887.

Age-related problems had become so severe that repair and restoration had become a pressing matter by the early twenty-first century. The foundation had settled in areas, persistent leaks plagued several areas of the roof, and outdated electrical wiring had all raised safety concerns as the church has continued to experience more, rather than less, Mass attendance in recent decades. As early as 2012, the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau had already begun lobbying for major repairs and the restoration of the church, and in 2014 approval was granted to undertake the massive project.

The exterior of the cathedral during renovation of the roof. Photo: Thomas Coomans
The exterior of the cathedral during renovation of the roof. Photo: Thomas Coomans

As the work slowly revealed infrastructural elements, more problems than expected required attention. A number of rafters and purlins had rotted due to moisture. Father Zhen noted that as much as two-thirds of some of the rafters and purlins had decayed, and he told me how thankful he is that no-one was ever injured from a structural collapse.

As more and more structural problems were discovered, the costs accordingly increased, but were covered by state agencies. As it stands, all of the church’s structural problems have been resolved, and mostly cosmetic work and final touches remain before the church is restored to its status as the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Beijing. The discovery of painted murals badly in need of restoration proved so costly—estimated at more than twenty million RMB—they were carefully protected to await future attention.

The restored color scheme within the cathedral interior. The columns are now returned to their original gold and blue colors, and the walls are re-stenciled according to what research suggests they originally looked like in 1887. Photo: Anthony E. Clark Private Collection
The restored color scheme within the cathedral interior. The columns are now returned to their original gold and blue colors, and the walls are re-stenciled according to what research suggests they originally looked like in 1887. Photo: Anthony E. Clark Private Collection

Among Father Zhen’s innovations, which are all in good sympathy with the church’s original Gothic aesthetic, is an entirely new scheme of stained glass windows. Favier’s original windows did not contain images, so this is the first time the church windows display what Father Zhen calls “a catechism in glass.” The newly installed windows, designed and created in collaboration with experts in Hong Kong, trace the history of the birth of the Church, its growth in the West, its movement into China, and finally the history of China’s Catholic Church to the modern era.

The Glass and the Façade

If one is facing the altar, the new stained glass windows to the left illustrate the origin of Christianity, the crucifixion of Saint Peter, and the history of the Western Church. Also represented is the Church’s entrance into China, where there is a representation of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, which represent China’s northern and southern regions.

On the right side facing the altar, the windows focus on the growth of Christianity in China, featuring a splendid image of the Nestorian monument, which was erected in 781 during the Tang dynasty, and acknowledges the fact that the first Christian missionaries were not in fact Catholic, but rather members of the Orthodox Church of the East.4 Other images in the stained-glass windows feature the mission of the first bishop of Beijing, Giovanni da Montecorvino, OFM, (1247-1328) the Jesuit and Lazarist missions in China, and representations of significant persons in the history of Christianity in China, such as Vincent Lebbe, CM, (1877-1940) and the architect of the cathedral, Alphonse Favier.

Two panels representing the style and theme of the newly-installed stained-glass windows in the Xishiku Beitang cathedral. The left panel features the major historic Roman Catholic churches built in Beijing; Beitang is located fourth from the top. The right panel features four important persons in the history of Chinese Catholicism. The uppermost person is the architect of Beitang, Bishop Alphonse Favier, CM, seated and holding a Chinese book. Photo: Anthony E. Clark, private collection
Two panels representing the style and theme of the newly-installed stained-glass windows in the Xishiku Beitang cathedral. The left panel features the major historic Roman Catholic churches built in Beijing; Beitang is located fourth from the top. The right panel features four important persons in the history of Chinese Catholicism. The uppermost person is the architect of Beitang, Bishop Alphonse Favier, CM, seated and holding a Chinese book. Photo: Anthony E. Clark Private Collection

One window displays an image of the martyr saints of China who were canonized by Pope Saint John Paul II in 2000. Another window includes Korean Catholics who have a historical connection to the cathedral.

The side chapels, which are no longer in use, have been refashioned for new uses, such as a cry room and a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of China, though at least one of the original side altars will remain in place because of its historical value. The church appointments that were hastily produced in 1985, when Beitang was returned to the Church, have been removed so that furnishings of higher quality can now be installed.

The exterior façade of the cathedral features several niches with makeshift statues that were installed in 1985. These statues will be replaced with more refined and proportionally correct versions as soon as possible.

The Bishop’s Residence

The restoration of Favier’s lavish bishop’s residence—really an enclosed mansion with three dramatic courtyards directly to the west of the cathedral—is also a mixture of Chinese architectural sentiments and Western aesthetic preferences. The courtyards respond to the configuration of traditional Beijing siheyuan (enclosed four-sided court) residences, while the structures themselves resonate more with French ecclesial design.

After the residence was opened as the Beijing Number 39 Middle School in 1958, many of the buildings were changed to accommodate their new use as a school. The buildings and the former bishop’s chapel are being restored as closely as possible to their original appearance based on historical photographs. Perhaps the largest difference between the restored bishop’s residence and what it looked like when occupied by the portly French bishop, Alphonse Favier, is that until the 1940s the various rooms of the mansion were teeming with rare Chinese art, crafts, and furniture Favier collected during his life in China from 1870 until his death in 1905.

Within the sprawling bishop’s residence, the archdiocese has planned to establish a museum dedicated to Beitang and the history of the Catholic Church in northern China. Exhibited in this small museum will be such items as cultural artifacts related to the cathedral and Catholic culture in Beijing, as well as historical photographs that highlight the rich past of Catholicism in the city. The courtyards and structures of the residence will also feature elegant statues of Our Lady, Jesus, and important saints.

As we passed through one of the long corridors leading to the old bishop’s chapel, we passed by what Father Zhen believes to be the white marble base of one of the columns of the Canchikou Beitang; discoveries such as this are being carefully preserved in order to conserve the architectural history of the Beitang complex. The final result of the extensive restorations and renovations of the cathedral and bishop’s residence will return the Beitang cathedral and bishop’s residence, located in China’s bustling capital city, to its former dignity as the country’s center of Catholic culture.

Dr. Anthony E. Clark is the Edward B. Lindaman Endowed Chair and Professor of Chinese History at Whitworth University. His most recent book is China Gothic: The Bishop of Beijing and His Cathedral.


1. For an account of the transfer of the Beitang church, see W. Devine, The Four Churches of Peking (The Tientsin Press/Burns, Oats & Washburne, 1930).

2. For a description of the Canchikou church by a contemporary Jesuit, see Lettres Édifiantes et Curieuses, Écrites des Missions Étrangères, Vol. 17 (Toulouse, 1810).

3. Devine, The Four Churches of Peking.

4. See P. Yoshio Saeki, The Nestorian Monument in China (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1916).

| Continuity in Purpose: Warsaw after World War II

Continuity in Purpose: Warsaw after World War II

Saint Alexander in Three Crosses Square, Warsaw, was one of many churches reconstructed after World War II. Photo: flickr.com/Le Monde1
Saint Alexander in Three Crosses Square, Warsaw, was one of many churches reconstructed after World War II. Photo: flickr.com/Le Monde1

Most of Warsaw’s historic places of worship are post-war renovations, and several are even reconstructions. The reconstruction of Warsaw, once described by the historian Robert Harbison as the “largest war memorial,” is the most comprehensive attempt to rebuild a past reality. The reconstruction of churches was an essential part of it.

But was it religiously successful? Are the reconstructed churches truthful recreations of the ecclesiastical and liturgical space?

Destruction and Reconstruction

In the last months of the second World War, the Nazis deliberately destroyed the city of Warsaw as a punishment for the uprising of 1944. They targeted its built heritage. They destroyed an estimated ninety percent of all historic buildings, including churches. Notable Catholic churches were detonated such as Saint John’s Archcathedral and the adjacent Jesuit church, most of the historic churches in the Old Town, as well as the Church of the Holy Cross, Saint Florian in Praga and Saint Alexander in Three Crosses Square.

During the years of Communism many churches, monasteries and convents behind the Iron Curtain were intentionally neglected or pulled down. Many socialist states after the second World War implemented the ideals of a socialist capital: to design a new city for a new society. This was a society which no longer had a need for places of worship, other than as monuments to an era gone by. These socialist states promoted secularization in the way they treated churches.

In East Berlin, capital of the former Communist German Democratic Republic, the state erased churches from visual memory as part of constructing the socialist city. Either they were obscured from view by placing modern structures in front of them, as was done with Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Friedrichswerdersche Church, or they were pulled down, as was done with the eighteenth-century Trinity Church and a dozen others.

For decades the Lutheran cathedral stood as a damaged relic next to the Palace of the Republic, overlooked by the Fernsehturm, symbolic for the ruined state of religion in the socialist state. Restoration of this church began in 1975, and was only reopened as a place of worship after the re-unification of Germany in the 1990s.

In Poland, however, the socialist regime surprisingly chose to reconstruct Warsaw’s war-damaged historic center soon after the end of the second World War. Other Central and Eastern European countries started doing this at a more recent date. The German reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, recreating the famous views by Canaletto of the royal capital of Saxony, is a striking example. In the 1990s, restoring this domed church became a symbol for German re-unification.

Frauenkirch in Dresden, Germany, after the war. A monument to Martin Luther stands in front of the church. Photo: wikimedia.org
Frauenkirch in Dresden, Germany, after the war. A monument to Martin Luther stands in front of the church. Photo: wikimedia.org

Rebuilding Warsaw

Rebuilding in Warsaw started in the early years after the second World War. The recently returned paintings by Bellotto depicting the royal capital in the late eighteenth century were legendarily used as a guide. Now, at various locations in the historic city, paintings by Bellotto are reproduced on site, to illustrate the resemblance between contemporary Warsaw and the royal city during the age of the Enlightenment.

Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780), or Canaletto the Second, was asked to the royal court in Warsaw by Stanislas Poniatowski (1732-1798), who had recently been elected king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. For decades the de facto cultural center and residence of the kings had been Dresden. After Poniatowski’s election in 1764, Warsaw regained its position as center of the Commonwealth. As court painter, Bellotto captured the vivacity of the royal capital in his encyclopaedic depictions.

During this period, the appearance of Warsaw changed as buildings were constructed or renovated in the advanced architectural theory of the period, a neoclassicism inspired by French architectural theorists and ultimately by the Italian Andrea Palladio.

In 1753 Abbot Marc-Antoine Laugier published the Essai sur l’Architecture. The abbot, sometimes called the first modern architectural philosopher, advocated moving architecture away from retained disorder by using the principles of order. Antoine Quatremère de Quincy, who contributed volumes on architecture to the Encyclopédie Méthodique, described Palladio as “the maker of rules by which architecture should be played” and elevated his classicism to model status. These French publications of architectural theory became eighteenth-century guides for constructing good architecture.

The remodeling of churches on the Royal Route, the roads connecting the Royal Castle in Old Town and the royal villas to the south at Wilanow, shows this understanding of Classicism had been introduced in Warsaw.

The Neoclassicists at Work

Bellotto’s painting of the Church of the Discalced Carmelites, 1780, is displayed near the church. Photo: flickr.com/Marie-Helene Cingal
Bellotto’s painting of the Church of the Discalced Carmelites, 1780, is displayed near the church. Photo: flickr.com/Marie-Helene Cingal

The new façade for the Church of the Discalced Carmelites, designed by Efraim Szreger and built between 1761 and 1762, illustrates their knowledge of the works by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, Louis XV’s main architect, and Jacques-François Blondel, a professor at the Académie Royale d’Architecture.

The façade of Saint Anne in Warsaw is often regarded as the finest example of ecclesiastical Palladianism in Poland. Photo: Marcus van der Meulen
The façade of Saint Anne in Warsaw is often regarded as the finest example of ecclesiastical Palladianism in Poland. Photo: Marcus van der Meulen

In 1786, a new entrance building was begun for the Bernardine church of Saint Anne, a medieval foundation that was largely rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The project shows understanding of the French guidebooks. It was begun under Ignacy Potocki (1750-1809), an author of the 1791 Constitution and of an influential treatise on architecture which argued that architecture conveys a culture’s values and could be used to better the nation, and was completed by Piotr Aigner (1756-1841), another prominent neoclassical theorist.

The façade is often regarded as the finest example of ecclesiastical Palladianism in Poland. It is a temple front with engaged columns and can be compared to the Church of Santa Maria Nova in Vicenza, Italy, which is attributed to Andrea Palladio in 1578. As in Palladio’s examples the façade has no windows. The new front of Saint Anne’s is partly the result of royal patronage, as the four evangelists adorning the façade were donated by King Stanislas.

The temple front identifies the building as a place of worship. However, the front, a composition of strong and recognizable motives, is not part of the building. It is part of the street. Behind the neoclassical curtain hides an interior in a central European tradition, a baroque space unrelated to the Palladian forms of the front. What happens behind the façade almost remains secondary. The buildings are part of the scenery, as in a Bellotto painting, placed in an urban scenography. Saint Anne’s temple front is part of the street, intended to bring classic order to a chaotic place as Abbot Laugier prescribed.

Spiritual Reconstruction

A second church by Aigner which was reconstructed after the war illustrates that the narrative should be understood as a spiritual rather than a material renovation alone.

Located on the Royal Route, Saint Alexander’s Church in Three Crosses Square was dynamited in 1944. A purist piece of architecture, this church is one of the finest attempts to represent the Pantheon as a Catholic church. Centrally planned parish churches expose the difficulty of uniting a centrally planned space with the Catholic liturgy. An example of this is the Cathedral of Saint Hedwig in Berlin, an eighteenth-century evocation of the Roman Pantheon, where the celebration of the sacred liturgy remains troublesome.

Aigner tried to solve the problem by designing the chancel as a second portico. Approached on the Royal Route from both the north or the south, the church appears as a representation of the Pantheon, with temple fronts on two sides. The church is placed in Three Crosses Square as Hawksmoor positioned his Mausoleum in the grounds of Castle Howard, England, carefully composing a scene.

The church was begun in 1818 and finished some years later. It was restyled and extended in 1886-1894, in a neo-Renaissance style typical of the period. The post-war reconstruction, however, returned to Aigner’s original design. This was a symbolic decision emphasizing what the neoclassical Saint Alexander’s Church represents—a built commemoration of the first Constitution.

An anonymous painting of the original sacred space shows a refined neoclassical interior, yet today that balanced interior has been completely transformed by the addition of a large apse in the style of the Pantheon in Rome. As a reconstruction, the rebuilt version of this interior is deficient.

Anonymous painting of the original interior of Saint Alexander in Three Crosses Square, Warsaw. Image: wikimedia.org
Anonymous painting of the original interior of Saint Alexander in Three Crosses Square, Warsaw. Image: wikimedia.org

The reconstructed interior of Saint Alexander in Three Crosses Square, Warsaw. Photo: mysacrum.blogspot.com
The reconstructed interior of Saint Alexander in Three Crosses Square, Warsaw. Photo: mysacrum.blogspot.com

Other reconstructed churches in Warsaw display a similar deficiency. The exteriors are copies of the original, yet the interiors are lacking the richness and details of altar pieces and the display of chandeliers and sacred images they had before the war. Examples in Old Warsaw of simplified ecclesiastical spaces include Saint Francis’, Saint Martin’s and Saint Casimir’s. The latter is depicted in Bellotto’s painting of New Town Market Square (1778), a fine baroque church by Tylman Gamerski (1632-1706). The basic white interior of today is shockingly unsatisfying.

Bellotto’s painting of New Town Market Square with the Church of Saint Casimir, 1778. Image: wikimedia.org
Bellotto’s painting of New Town Market Square with the Church of Saint Casimir, 1778. Image: wikimedia.org

The reconstructed church of Saint Casimir. Photo: wikimedia.org/LoMit
The reconstructed church of Saint Casimir. Photo: wikimedia.org/LoMit

The reconstructed interior of Saint Casimir. Photo: wikimedia.org/Cezary Piwowski
The reconstructed interior of Saint Casimir. Photo: wikimedia.org/Cezary Piwowski

Church of the Holiest Savior

The church of the Holiest Savior, dominating the lively eponymous square, is located in the southern center of Warsaw. Its two slender towers can be seen from Constitution Square, constructed during the socialist era. The Lady Chapel is an imitation of a Marian chapel at the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow and contains a sacred image which was honored by Pope John Paul II in 1999. As in other churches in Warsaw during the second World War, notably the church of All Saints, the people of Holiest Savior helped Jews survive.

In 1939, German bombing damaged the roof and towers. In 1944, following the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans dynamited the church, destroying much of the building, including the main altar, the pulpit, and the large chandeliers. Renovation started rapidly after the war, by removing the rubble and making the church ready for worship. Already in 1948 the building could be reopened as a place of worship. Wieslaw Konowicz was the restoration architect.

Photo: flickr.com/Surowy
Photo: flickr.com/Surowy
The Church of Holiest Savior was rebuilt immediately after the war, reopening in 1948. Photo: Marcus van der Meulen
The Church of Holiest Savior was rebuilt immediately after the war, reopening in 1948. Photo: Marcus van der Meulen

The government allowed rebuilding the towers some years later. In other socialist capitals, the state pulled down church towers and erased them from visual memory, such as the tall spires of East Berlin’s Saint Peter’s and Saint George’s churches.

Today Holiest Savior is a flourishing house of worship. Its chapels are used for private contemplation and the church is regularly used for celebrating Mass. It is a living place, of which the renewal of the floral compositions which adorn the altars are a living witness.

What makes the reconstruction of this church successful is its purpose. Gamini Wijesuriya argues religious heritage is different from other heritage by its sacredness. Religious buildings are designed to stage a sacred liturgy. Places of worship that continue to be used by a community as sacred places, used for the function they were originally built for, make up what some contemporary conservationists such as Wijesuriya call a “Living Religious Heritage.”

Without a regular celebration of Mass the ecclesiastical space becomes empty, a meaningless relic of the past. Whereas a continuity in purpose makes the church a sacred building.

Churches’ Multiple Meanings

Churches are the containers of many values. They can have multiple meanings, ranging from the historical to the symbolic, from the associational to the aesthetic. The most significant meaning, however, is the religious value that sacred architecture embodies. The ecclesiastical space of some churches in Warsaw may seem unsatisfying. Conventional preservationists may even argue these interiors are failed reconstructions of the original.

The reconstruction of some church interiors, while not exact replications of the originals, are, however, truthful renovations of the ecclesiastical and liturgical space. They are living places of worship, where Mass is celebrated and the altars are ornamented by floral compositions.

Renovating churches is continuity in purpose. Past generations have adapted churches, altered the appearance by adding new façades as was done with the Bernardine church of Saint Anne and the church of Discalced Carmelites. Future generations may decide to adorn their churches, adding sacred images or installing an improved organ, to retain the continuity of a religious building and to continue in the tradition of sacred architecture.

Marcus van der Meulen is director of the Ecclesiastical Heritage Centre in Brussels, Belgium. He is a member of Future for Religious Heritage, the European network for historical houses of worship.

| Backing Beauty

Backing Beauty

Truth is an absolute. And beauty the means by which it is revealed to us in its most comprehensible form. In John Keats’ words: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Through our connection with beauty, we enjoy a taste of the sublime and both an escape from and a compensation for the inevitable pains and trials of daily life.

Through beauty the common good is nurtured, for humans are spiritual creatures who need much more than their daily bread. Our sense of place is inseparable from our sense of worth and so the places in which we live and the environment around us feeds our individual and communal well-being.

King’s Cross Station, London. Photo: flickr.com/michl_007
King’s Cross Station, London. Photo: flickr.com/michl_007

The First Misconception

That beauty is beyond politics or perhaps that politics is beneath aesthetics is the first misconception I want to confront. As their confidence has been eroded, politicians have retreated to where a less challenging, less ambitious, less thoughtful discourse prevails. Nervous about broaching matters about which they feel they can’t do much or don’t want to do much, they have failed to inspire those whose everyday lives have been blighted by the ugliness of the built environment they endure.

In 2005, my colleague Oliver Letwin observed that: “I believe that the disappearance of beauty from the vocabulary of politics is one of the reasons why British politics today so frequently strikes people as desiccated. I believe it is one of the reasons why so many people are ‘turned off’ politics.”

The loss Oliver described is one I have regularly encountered, both in my role as Transport Minister and in the other offices of state I have held. Even the most obvious truth—the advocacy of the pursuit of beauty—is regarded with either disregard or distain.

In part, this is explained by egalitarian hostility to those who judge the taste of others—for we are encouraged to believe that all is of equal worth regardless of how brutal, ugly or crass it is.

But more than this, we have lost our faith in beauty, because we have lost our faith in ideals. As Pope Benedict lamented: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Yet this does not have to be so. Through beauty, our ideals and what is real can be harmonized. Those who dare to make a case for beauty, elegance, grace or refinement are far from a public discourse brutalised by modern media and the consequent zeitgeist. We are forced to live in too many spheres which have been colonised, in Umberto Eco’s terms, by the Empire of Imbeciles. The crass preoccupation with utility becomes imbecilic as it descends to the defense of ugliness.

No one has done more nor suffered more for his advocacy of beauty than His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. As long ago as 1989, he set out in “A Vision of Britain” the defining principles of good architectural design. In 2011, he explained: “We can’t have a future without the past. There has to be a sense of timelessness, a living tradition that helps to maintain [that] sense of identity and belonging.”

More recently, in December 2014, he made the case for the re-connection of design with the natural order. He argued: “Universal principles are expressed in the order of Nature, which can never be ‘old-fashioned.’… Basing designs on the timeless universal principles expressed by Nature’s order enables the full scope of our humanity to be fulfilled, on the physical, communal, cultural and spiritual levels.”

Perhaps the most easily grasped and so persuasive counter to the zealous preachers of modernism is the relationship—understood for centuries but now neglected—between the simple, God-given beauty of nature and what man can do. The essence of Prince Charles’ case is that there are timeless principles of good design. Such an argument would for centuries have been regarded as a priori.

Now the wish for art to please—to inspire—has been replaced by a thirst to shock, to alarm. As Roger Scruton has said: “Without the background of a remembered faith modernism loses its conviction: it becomes routinized. For a long time now it has been assumed that … art must give offence, stepping out of the future fully armed against the bourgeois taste for kitsch and cliché. But the result of this is that offence becomes a cliché.”

Despite popular revulsion with much they have imposed upon us, those responsible—who rarely live where they have wrought havoc—viciously attack anyone who dares to articulate what most people know: that most of what’s been built in my lifetime could be demolished without aesthetic cost, and so bring the seductive benefit of leaving what was there before to stand proud.

Through our appreciation of beauty, we come to terms with ourselves and others, as our senses are elevated by sensory joy. So, understanding the relationship between the built environment and well-being, I embarked on the mission, first highlighted in “The Journey to Beauty,” my speech last year to the Independent Transport Commission, to challenge the character of what passes for acceptable design in much road and rail construction of recent times.

The best is bland. The worst is hideous.

It is true, of course, that different interpretations of beauty have prevailed in different eras, but the abiding idea was once routinely accepted: that what is built should be dignified by style. Yet for at least fifty years, too often and in too many places, utility has been regarded as sufficient by callous architects, crass planners, and careless politicians. It’s not just that form has been shaped by function, but that style has been neglected altogether.

Greed and convenience have subsumed aesthetics. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of industrial wind turbines, collections of which—in true Orwellian fashion—are dubbed “farms.”

As Energy Minister I acted to ensure that wind turbines were constructed in appropriate locations after proper consultation with local communities. Because little could jar more with the natural world or the man-made countryside than these huge concrete monstrosities. Consideration about the impact on landscape became a vital part of the approval process. And, mercifully, we cut the subsidies paid by taxpayers.

While some made a case against the negative impact of turbines on the environment, and a few attempted to make an aesthetic case for such identikit industrial structures, many others simply dismissed my argument as irrelevant. They did so on the basis of the easily grasped, though utterly crass notion, that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Let’s now, once and for all, be clear. It is not beauty that changes but the ability of the beholder to appreciate it.

This notion that beauty is relative has been used to justify much of the ugliness imposed on our towns and cities by architects, planners, and developers since the second World War. “Streets in the sky” were never a substitute for real streets, for homes on a human scale, in proportion and in harmony with their environment. A home is not “a machine for living in.” Ironically, these are the words, written in 1923, of the father of modern architecture, Le Corbusier.

Homes are a reflection of our humanity. As William Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Morris understood that beauty and well-being are inextricably linked. And that a politics that is serious about people’s welfare and happiness must be serious about beauty.

For the ancient Greeks, aesthetic and moral judgments were inseparable. In the nineteenth century, many artists considered beauty to be the vital link between freedom and truth. There can be once again a growing understanding of how aesthetics are a vital part of our judgment of value and worth, for people instinctively understand the connection between beauty and a wider conception of value.

You see it in the love of natural, unspoilt places and the sense of shared ownership we feel for historic buildings. You see it in the protests against the ugly buildings that developers still attempt to foist on communities against their will. You see it in the despair at the way so many contemporary buildings are identikit, lacking any sense of craft or character, built with no consideration of the past and no regard to the future.

The Second Misconception

Indeed, at the heart of modern architecture, like all modern art, is the Nietzschean idea that the past is irrelevant and that we can create our own value system. This is the second misconception I want to bury this evening, and not before time.

It is not for nothing that the “hero” of Ayn Rand’s despicable book The Fountainhead is an architect. Much modern architecture fails precisely because it rejects those principles of design that time has taught us delight the senses.

Where modern design does succeed it is largely by accident. Or because, where form has at least followed function, a building has a high degree of utility.

But, as Edmund Burke noted long ago in an early work on aesthetics, this is not the same as beauty. He understood that there is a great deal in common in what people find beautiful. But this is not related to utility; our appreciation of beauty is an effect “previous to any knowledge of use.”

In other words, we know something to be beautiful before we understand its function. When we perceive beauty, he wrote, our “senses and the imagination captivate the soul before understanding is ready either to join with them or to oppose them.” Our perception of beauty is not rational, it stems from the unconscious; from our deepest feelings and emotions as human beings.

Sir Roger Scruton puts it perfectly. He says: “Beauty is an ultimate value—something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given. Beauty should therefore be compared to truth and goodness, one member of a trio of ultimate values which justify our rational inclinations.”

While the solipsism of the architect may be the driving force behind the drive to render much of our public space unsightly, it is our own denial of what our senses tell us that has enabled this desecration to take place. We have become so doubtful about the ability to make valid judgments about aesthetics, and even embarrassed by those who do, that we allowed ourselves to be ridden roughshod over by those who put profit and ego above all else. Too many remain hesitant about making aesthetic judgments.

Respublica’s research has shown that people tend to focus on the details—“less litter and rubbish,” “vandalism and graffiti,” and less “vacant and run-down buildings” as important factors in making an area more beautiful. All these things matter, and we could do much more to address them.

But which buildings will invariably be the shabbiest, the most neglected, and the most disfigured with graffiti? It will be the relatively modern buildings—those built within the past sixty years. Daubing graffiti is a crime, but the greater criminals are those that designed the modern structures which are the daubers’ canvas.

And which buildings are invariably the most-obviously treasured? It is older buildings, shaped by vernacular style, where architects have taken care to be in harmony with the surroundings. Where craftsmen have laboured over detail. A study by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) found that when respondents were asked to name the most beautiful buildings in Sheffield, most cited the two cathedrals.

Respondents in a recent study named the Anglican cathedral in Sheffield one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Photo: sheffieldcathedral.org
Respondents in a recent study named the Anglican cathedral in Sheffield one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Photo: sheffieldcathedral.org

The Third Misconception

This brings me to the third and final misconception that I want to challenge: that beauty belongs somehow to the past. For it is often considered, sometimes unthinkingly, that it is no longer possible to build beautiful buildings. This is perhaps why increasing regard is given to the beautiful places and buildings that have survived intact.

We have somehow, rather depressingly, come to believe that the supply of beauty is both finite and exhausted. This is perhaps because people assume that it must be somehow dated or even kitsch to build according to the principles of classical architecture. Or because they assume that beauty comes at too high a price, and must be sacrificed for the sake of utility.

Both of these conceptions are false. When the city fathers of Birmingham, Nottingham, and Manchester built great town halls in either the neoclassical or Gothic revival style, they did so because they understood that these styles had endured. They wanted to build something that would last. And they succeeded.

The modernist library in Birmingham’s Chamberlain Square has recently been demolished, just forty years after it was built—what a pity that its replacement couldn’t have been in keeping with its surroundings! No one would seriously consider doing the same to the neoclassical town hall, or to other great public buildings of the Victorian era.

The modernist library in Birmingham’s Chamberlain Square was demolished in 2016. Photo: wikipedia.com
The modernist library in Birmingham’s Chamberlain Square was demolished in 2016. Photo: wikipedia.com

Yet, despite their appearance, these are in other respects modern buildings, built using modern construction techniques. In historical terms, they were built yesterday. There are no good reasons why we cannot continue to build beautiful buildings and public infrastructure.

We spend so much of our time travelling—to work, to see friends and family. We must not resign ourselves to being miserable as we get from place to place. How we treat what is first well designed can make unsightly what was once beautiful. The railway network is rich with buildings and structures of aesthetic value drawn from the dawn of the railway age through to the sympathetic treatment of King’s Cross. In recent years, however, too often function has subsumed form leaving many of our cities and towns and much of our countryside scarred.

As the great railway stations, bridges, and tunnels of the Victorian era demonstrate, while beauty and utility are not the same, they can be made to work in harmony. One does not have to be sacrificed for the sake of the other.

Indeed, the willful excesses of modern and post-modern architecture are often far more expensive than buildings built and designed according to classical principles.

It is our misconceptions we must now consign to the past. And, in their place, embrace a vision of beauty. To fill our hearts with joy.

We shall doubtless encounter carpers and critics—too difficult, too expensive, too contentious—they will say. We will be tested in our resolve. There can be no surrender. We must triumph.

The future deserves nothing less.

The Rt Hon John Hayes was the United Kingdom’s Transport Minister from July 2016 to January 2018. His full address can be found at www.gov.uk/government/speeches/transport-minister-speaks-at-the-backing-beauty-reception. “The Journey to Beauty” can be found at www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-journey-to-beauty.

| Globalist Architecture in Kenya

Globalist Architecture in Kenya

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho, Kenya, was completed in 2015. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner
Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho, Kenya, was completed in 2015. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

My experience of Kenyan sacred architecture left me hoping to encounter more of the rich, vibrant colors of the culture: the patterns and textures of its textiles, the delicacy of its bead work, and the character of its sculptures revealed, celebrated, and translated into the sacred architecture. What I found instead was that many of the churches are of an austere, minimalist aesthetic which hardly evokes the sacred nature of the space and the vibrancy of Kenyan culture.

The new Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho, Kenya, is one of these.1 The design raises two key questions. First, is the design sacred in that it communicates the Divine to the mortal realm? Second, is it distinctly Kenyan in that it is relatable to the local culture and its customs? Or is it built from the outside of a culture, reflecting the history of colonialism?

Kericho (Kehr-ee-choh) is located on the western side of Kenya, approximately 150 miles southwest of Nairobi. Situated in the highlands, between the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria, the landscape is bucolic with lush tea crops lining its rolling hills. The town itself is largely constructed of low masonry buildings with corrugated metal or tiled roofs. It is home to a thriving Catholic population.

Building the Cathedral

Led by the Bishop Emmanuel Okombo, the new diocese hired John McAslan + Partners of London to design the new cathedral to seat 1500 faithful for a budget of $3 million,2 funded by an anonymous foreign donor.3 The old cathedral had been decaying for years.

Bishop Okombo requested that the nave widen as it approaches the altar to maximize the engagement of the faithful in the celebration of Mass. This request led to the unusual trapezoidal or keystone-shaped plan of the building. The roof gets higher and the nave wider as it approaches the altar. Although not a traditional cruciform shape in plan, it does introduce exterior seating areas to either side of the sanctuary which extend along the front of the nave and harken back to the transepts of the traditional Latin cross plan. This reference is identifiable only in plan, as it is not expressed in the massing on the church exterior.

From the exterior, the Cathedral is raised up on a stylobate or base hewn from local gray granite that is gradually enveloped by the topography of the site. The walls are clad in light-colored terrazzo. The roof is the most prominent exterior feature, finished in red clay tile from Nairobi arranged in a subtle pattern. According to the architect, the pattern was intended to be an abstract representation of wheat, representative of the Eucharist and God’s bounty. The sweeping volume of the roof is visible from the surrounding areas and the massing of the building was intended to be an abstract representation of a bird symbolizing the Holy Spirit.4

The large roof is supported by a series of triangular concrete A-frames that are arched at the top and get taller as they approach the sanctuary. These frames are supported by large rectangular piers which separate the nave from the side aisles. From the piers, the frames gradually arch over the side aisles and then cantilever horizontally overhead through the exterior wall to provide deep, shaded porches on either side of the cathedral.

A shaded porch covers the double doors along the length of the cathedral. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner
A shaded porch covers the double doors along the length of the cathedral. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

Double doors line the side aisles to allow the free flow of air and the movement of the laity to the side porches. In the mild climate of Kenya, many churches open along the exterior to increase ventilation. Functionally, the frames wrap the narthex around the church to accommodate overflow seating, a cry room, and gathering functions. The concrete frame is fully exposed on the interior and is infilled with stained cypress slats with small spaces between them. Light cascades through the slats from the skylights above which are built into a large gap at the ridge of the roof, at times creating radiating beams of light on the wall behind the sanctuary.

All the materials were acquired and fabricated locally. The architects described their goal as creating “a structure that integrated seamlessly with its landscape setting, in both aesthetic and functional terms.” They state that the cathedral is “distinctive and universally welcoming.”

With the overview of the design in mind, let us return to the two questions.

Is It a Sacred Building?

First, the question of whether Sacred Heart Cathedral fulfills its sacred purpose. Although technically the building provides an adequate space for the liturgy and attempts to incorporate abstract references to wheat and to the Holy Spirit, it falls short of representing the heavenly realm come down to earth in several ways. First, its theological references are so abstract that they are hardly perceptible to those not familiar with the architects’ intent and thus there is little distinction of the exterior that speaks to the elevated nature of the sacred building within the larger public realm.

In other words, the building could just as easily have been a school. Even the stark light-colored tower with its flat roof directly above a rectangular void fails to communicate the sacredness of the cathedral. Aside from the simple, thin white cross that adorns the top, the tower could as well have been a clock tower for a shopping center.

Second, the building offers no celebration of the threshold or entrance into the church that would indicate a transition from the profane to the sacred. The heavy concrete rectangular frame around the main entrance doors and the rectangular window above make the building seem more agricultural than sacred. There are no stairs to ascend nor is there any carving, sculpture, or other sacred representation. The only indication of its being a church from this vantage point is the stained glass in the window, which can rarely be seen from the outside due to the strong equatorial sunlight.

The interior of Sacred Heart Cathedral. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner
The interior of Sacred Heart Cathedral. Photo: McAslan + Partners/Edmund Sumner

Third, inside, there is minimal aesthetic differentiation between the sanctuary and the nave of the church. The sanctuary is modest and austere, emphasized only by its three risers and wainscoting, all hewn from a beige natural stone. Although the beige stone attempts to raise the importance of the sanctuary materially, the color is so similar to the rest of the nave that it is hardly perceptible. The height of the wainscoting is low and unmodulated and therefore seems to reduce the wall of the sanctuary to a residential scale.

Within the nave, very little iconography or visual hierarchy inspires the ascent of the laity’s experience toward heaven. The crucifix applied to the blank wall above the altar is largely reduced to silhouette due to the light flooding in through the rectangular window directly above. One might question the theological hierarchy of placing the window with its views to the exterior above the crucifix. This window also interrupts the pattern of light and shadow from the slats on the ceiling and therefore reduces its effect of the radiating light from above.

The tabernacle is uncelebrated and fully recessed in the wainscoting, and curiously located off center to the right of the main altar. Aside from the crucifix, the sanctuary remains completely void of statuary, icons, or adornment to contribute to its sense of sacredness.

The architect’s claim that the Cathedral “honors the faith and frugality of this rural African context” gives one example to their flawed approach. The architect assumes that imitating the culture’s frugality in its new sacred space will inspire the ascent to Heaven. But the laity are in great need of glimpses of Heaven on earth, not just spiritually, but physically as well. As embodied spirits living in a fallen world, we need to engage all of our senses in the contemplation of heaven and its beauty.

For these reasons, the Sacred Heart Cathedral does not fully communicate sacredness to the laity.

Is It Distinctly Kenyan?

Next we must address the question of whether the cathedral is distinctly Kenyan. Kenyan churches can be classified in four categories: Globalist, Traditional European, Adapted Kenyan, and Kenyan Vernacular.

The Globalist examples feature a Modern aesthetic that is hardly recognizable as being Kenyan. The church could just as easily be located in California or Finland. A good example of this is Saint Benedict’s Church in Nairobi, with its modern layering of materials, frames, and floating walls.

Traditional European examples feature Traditional Gothic or Italianate forms that seem at once foreign and at home amongst a smattering of Colonial era architecture. From the buttressed side aisles to the arched trusses supporting the roof, the architecture is very recognizable as Western.

Adapted Kenyan examples take European or Western forms and adapt them to look more Kenyan. All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi is a good example.

Examples of Adapted Kenyan feature Western patterns with Kenyan details. Nyeri Cathedral in Nyeri is a good example. Its massing follows a traditional cruciform shape with a bell tower, but the details from the elliptical shape of the arch to the shallow pitch of the roof render it more recognizably Kenyan.

Kenyan Vernacular examples feature distinctly Kenyan and non-western patterns. Examples such as Don Bosco Catholic Church in Nairobi and Saint Joseph’s Church in Kahawa Sukari are of the tholos type: a round shape with the emphasis on the center. Traditionally, many of the pastoral and nomadic tribes of Kenya settled into small villages of circular huts arranged around a central outdoor gathering area, the focus of which was often a fire pit. It is no surprise that Kenyan Christians adapted this type of gathering space for their sacred spaces, with the fire pit at the center replaced by the altar to take advantage of existing cultural customs.

The Sacred Heart Cathedral falls somewhere between the Globalist and Adapted Kenyan categories. While the materials are local, its Modern, minimalist aesthetic reflects a Western identity that very well could have been at home in Texas. The steeply sloped roof is quite uncommon in Kenya and the skylights at the ridge of the roof are extremely vulnerable to the torrents of rainwater common in the short and long rainy seasons.

In other words, the design of Sacred Heart Cathedral, despite attempts at incorporating the culture through the use of local materials and climate considerations, is largely foreign.

The West’s Imposition

While I would argue that Catholic ideals and beauty are universal, what is beautiful in a Western European context can’t be imposed on a non-Western culture. That seems to continue the colonial assumption of superiority and the West’s paternalistic duty to improve a culture it considered lesser.

Sacred buildings ought to be designed from within the culture they are built. The builders should tap into the font of faithful talent to create an architecture and sacred space that connects more directly and personally to the specific community for whom the church is being built, while at the same time maintaining the universality of the faith.

As Kenya continues to emerge, free of its colonial past, perhaps too its sacred architecture can emerge more vibrantly representative of its rich culture, to inspire greater devotion and movement toward heaven.

Kalinda Gathinji, RA, AIA, is a project architect currently working on mixed-use multifamily residential buildings in Bethesda, Maryland. She graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in architecture and a Masters of Architectural Design and Urbanism.


1 “Sacred Heart Cathedral of Kericho,” Arch Daily, November 29, 2016.

2 “The Sacred Heart Cathedral,” Architectural Record Videos, April 2016.

3 “Kericho Gifted Church worth Sh260 Million,” Daily Nation, March 22, 2014.

4 “Kericho Cathedral,” Urban Realm, April 24, 2012.

| Drawn to the Holy House of God: The Tenth Anniversary of the Dedication of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Drawn to the Holy House of God: The Tenth Anniversary of the Dedication of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke preaches the homily during the Mass for the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the church.
His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke preaches the homily during the Mass for the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the church. Photo: Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen. Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, my brother priests, brothers and sisters in the consecrated life, and brothers and sisters in Christ, with deepest joy and gratitude, we recall the ancient and solemn rite by which this church, ten years ago today, truly became the House of God. For ten years now, pilgrims drawn here by their loving Mother, the Mother of God, under her title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, have received countless graces through their prayer and devotion and, above all, through the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and of Penance.

Here, God has fulfilled perfectly his promise, made during the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the New Israel and the New Temple:

Son of man, this is where my throne shall be, this is where I will set the soles of my feet; here I will dwell among the children of Israel forever.1

Rightly, we have prayed today with all our heart: “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God!”2 Here truly, above all on the altar of sacrifice and in the tabernacle, heaven meets earth: Christ seated in glory at the right hand of the Father pours forth, without measure and without cease, the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.

Each time we enter here, we approach, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “the heavenly Jerusalem.”3 Here, we truly keep company with “countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect.”4 We encounter “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,” the eternal covenant sealed in his blood, which he sacramentally renews for us in the holy Mass. Christ makes his home with us here, as he made it in the house of Zacchaeus, fulfilling his divine mission “to seek and to save what was lost.”5 He ever makes sacramentally new his sacrifice on calvary and its incomparable fruit, the heavenly bread of his true body, blood, soul and divinity, and he remains with us in the tabernacle.

When the Mother of God appeared to Saint Juan Diego on our continent in 1531, she announced to him immediately the purpose of her heavenly visit. She wanted a church to be built, in which, through her special intercession, her children could encounter her divine son. Among her first words to Saint Juan Diego, she declared:

I want very much to have a little holy house built here for me, in which I will show him, I will exalt him and make him manifest. I will give him to the people in all my personal love, in my compassion, in my help, in my protection: because I am truly your merciful mother, yours and all the people who live united in this land and of all the other people of different ancestries, my lovers, who love me, those who seek me, those who trust in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their complaints and heal all their sorrows, hardships and sufferings.6

From the time of her apparitions, Our Lady of Guadalupe has never failed to draw pilgrims to her “little holy house,” truly the House of God, built for her by the first bishop of Mexico City, Fra’ Juan de Zumárraga, and made larger with time by his successors.

In her “little holy house,” in the church of her shrine in Mexico City, the Mother of God has met and continues to meet pilgrims with all her “personal love.” Taking them into her arms, she brings them to her divine son who alone is their salvation. She faithfully gives them the counsel which she first gave to the wine stewards at the Wedding Feast of Cana, the counsel inscribed upon the cornerstone of this church: “Do whatever he tells you.”7 By means of Saint Juan Diego’s tilma, upon which God miraculously wrote her image, she lovingly gazes upon pilgrims and they lovingly gaze upon her, their Mother and their Queen.

Pilgrims attend the anniversary Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Photo: Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Pilgrims attend the anniversary Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Photo: Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

The church here was built to further the mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so that many more might know her maternal love and, through her love, know their Savior. It is a special gift from God today that a successor of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, His Eminence Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Archbishop Emeritus of Mexico City, has come to be with us and, above all, to concelebrate the holy Mass. From the first announcement of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe here, he has been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement.

On the occasion of the solemn dedication, at his direction, a piece of the stone of Tepeyac Hill was given to the Shrine and rests under the statue of Saint Juan Diego in the transept. On that occasion, he also presented to the Shrine the statue of Saint Juan Diego, which greets pilgrims as they approach the Pilgrim Center. Your Eminence, we ask your continued prayers for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe here, that it may be a worthy daughter of the Insigne y Nacional Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe at Mexico City. This church exists for only one reason, namely, the mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The pilgrim who enters the narthex of the church reads below the fresco depicting the wondrous apparitions of Our Lady her words to Saint Juan Diego which I have just recounted.

Giving thanks today that Our Lady of Guadalupe continues her mission through her Shrine at La Crosse, we thank God, too, for so many graces granted to the pilgrims who have come to this church with faith. Pilgrims have come here to encounter Our Lord at moments of great joy for them: the proposal of marriage, the gift of marriage and the gift of its crown, a child, the beginning of a new endeavor, and other times of joy. Pilgrims have also come in moments of great trial and grief: grave moral struggle, serious illness, marital and family strife, the abandonment of the practice of the faith by a relative or friend, the loss of work, the death of a relative or friend, and other times of sorrow. Our Lady has brought them here to meet Christ, and he has given them his peace and joy, even in moments of seemingly impossible suffering. When pilgrims leave this House of God, they read the words of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego, when he was suffering greatly in carrying out his mission:

Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.8

The Mother of God assures them that the House of God is also their house, the house of the Church, and that, therefore, they have nothing to fear.

Thanking God today for the consecration of this church, we are filled with gratitude to all, living and deceased, who have followed in the way of Saint Juan Diego as messengers of Our Lady: benefactors, volunteers, members and directors of the corporation responsible for the Shrine, the Friars of the Immaculate, the staff and, above all, the executive directors, and all who, in any way, have made possible the great spiritual work which is daily accomplished here. In a particular way, I recall the memory of two persons who joyously participated in the solemn dedication of this House of God and whom the Lord has called to himself. Let us thank God, in a special way, for Mrs. Robert Mary Lucille Swing, the donor of the exceptionally beautiful land for the shrine here, who died on March 13, 2012, and Father Peter Damian Mary Fehlner, first rector of the shrine church, who died on May 8th of this year. May they rest in peace. May God abundantly reward them and all who have sacrificed to be faithful messengers of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

... Drawn here today, the tenth anniversary of the solemn dedication of this House of God, let us lift up our hearts to the glorious Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. Let us, one with the Immaculate Heart of Mary, offer our hearts completely to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so that we remain always in his company and, with Our Lady, lead others to him.

Heart of Jesus, House of God and gate of heaven, have mercy on us!

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of America and Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us!

Saint Juan Diego, pray for us!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke is Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. He was bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse from 1995 to 2004.

A homily given at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the church. It was given on July 31, 2018.


1. Ez 43:7

2. Ps 84:2

3. Heb 12:22

4. Heb 12:22-23

5. Lk 19:10

6. “Mucho quiero, mucho deseo que aquí me levanten mi casita sagrada. En donde lo mostraré, lo ensalzaré al ponerlo de manifiesto: Lo daré a las gentes en todo mi amor personal, en mi mirada compasiva, en mi auxilio, en mi salvación: Porque yo en verdad soy vuestra madre compasiva, tuya y de todos los hombres que en esta tierra estáis en uno, y de las demás variadas estirpes de hombres, mis amadores, los que a mí clamen, los que me busquen, los que confíen en mí, porque ahí les escucharé su llanto, su tristeza, para remediar, para curar todas sus diferentes penas, sus miserias, sus dolores.” San Juan Diego, Nican Mopohua (Aquí se cuenta), tr. Mario Rojas Sánchez (México, D.F.: Design & Digital Print S.A. de C.V., 2001), 3-4, nos. 26-32. English translation: A Handbook on Guadalupe, ed. Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (New Bedford, MA: Our Lady’s Chapel, 2001), 194, corrected by author.

7. Jn 2:5

8. “¿No estoy aquí, yo, que soy tu madre? ¿No estás bajo mi sombra y resguardo? ¿No soy la fuente de tu alegría? ¿No estás en el hueco de mi manto, en el cruce de mis brazos? ¿Tienes necesidad de alguna otra cosa? Que ninguna otra cosa te aflija, te perturbe; …” Nican Mopohua, 13, nos. 119-120. English translation: A Handbook on Guadalupe, 200.

| Preaching in Paint

Preaching in Paint

While any attempt to return the oft-shunned Renaissance painter Fra Bartolommeo to the public eye should be lauded, Albert Elen, Chris Fischer, Bram de Klerck, and Michael Kwakkelstein deserve special mention for Fra Bartolommeo: The Divine Renaissance. Written as the catalogue to accompany the eponymous exhibition held in the Rotterdam Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen from October 2016 to January 2017, the book not only highlights the technical skill and careful craftsmanship of the artist, it explores the religious nature and significance of his art, something all too often sidelined in major exhibitions.

Art history has not been kind to this painter, as the opening essay reminds us. Particularly during the nineteenth century, the authors suggest, “his rhetoric and mysticism seemed empty to an irreligious and materialistic public.” Dismissed by many critics, his first and only other monographic exhibition took place in 1996.

Fra Bartolommeo was born Baccio della Porta in Florence in 1473, two years before his more famous contemporary Michelangelo. Raised in the Florence of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio (Leonardo da Vinci was twenty-one and already a master, but not yet well-known), Baccio was apprenticed to Cosimo Rosselli, one of the original painters of the Sistine chapel in Rome, shortly after his return from completing that prestigious commission.

Baccio’s fledgling painting career began during one of the most turbulent times in Florence. The death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the city’s de facto ruler, the French invasion under his unworthy successor, and the rise of the fiery Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola, were not ideal conditions for artistic patronage.

In 1500, two years after Savonarola’s trial and execution for heresy, Baccio joined the Dominican order, taking the name Bartolommeo. Perhaps remembering the success of another Dominican artist from the same convent of San Marco, Fra Angelico, the new friar was encouraged to hone his preaching skills…in paint.

The Rotterdam museum, in possession of 140 of the artist’s drawings, displayed the preparatory sketches next to eleven paintings by Fra Bartolommeo. The catalogue lovingly traces the artistic process from the hastily traced concept, to the thoughtful drawing, to the finished product for each work of art. Fra Bartolommeo emerges from these pages as a careful craftsman, a quality often overlooked in modern art. His drawings served as teaching documents for many later artists, eventually guiding the work of Sr. Plautilla Nelli, the first female painter of Florence (one of the many fascinating and useful pieces of information in the book).

The technical processes and the workshop practices described in the text are intriguing, especially Fra Bartolommeo’s collaboration with another forgotten yet gifted Florentine painter Mariano Albertelli, and their on-and-off collaboration offers interesting insight into partnerships and competitors.

His friendship with Raphael, ten years his junior, reveals a man unafraid of rivalry with the youthful genius. His artistic transformation after a voyage to Venice shows an openness to innovation.

Most engrossing, however, is the ubiquitous presence of Savonarola, much admired by Fra Bartolommeo, and Michelangelo as well for that matter. The catalogue dedicates an entire essay to this influential Dominican who preached repentance to a privileged populace in fifteenth-century Florence.

It is, all in all, a sympathetic portrayal, although the authors convey a tone of excessive reproach toward Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, during which people brought objects representing disordered passions to be destroyed as an exercise in detachment. In this chapter, however, author Bram de Klerck emphasizes the role images played, particularly in Dominican spirituality, and deftly illustrates how faith and politics were often interwoven in Renaissance art (The Incarnation and The Madonna della Misericordia).

Fra Bartolommeo died at age forty-four on October 31, 1517, the first day of the Protestant Reformation. He was never able to polish his artistic talents in the arena of violent theological controversy, but the Fra Bartolommeo who appears in this text illustrates the significance of the Sacraments (Salvator Mundi), mystic vision (Padre Eterno), and intercession (The Carondelet Madonna) as compellingly as any painter of the Catholic restoration.

The book takes viewers by the hand to lead them through the daunting world of preparatory drawings and allows the novice to succumb to the fascination of watching the artist’s creative faculties at work. The immediacy of some of the sketches—a smiling elderly woman or a friar rapt in prayer—appear almost as candid snapshots with the feathery pencil strokes. While neither a gripping narrative nor an easy handbook, Fra Bartolommeo: The Divine Renaissance engagingly introduces the world of art history and encourages Christians to be proud of one of their illustrious brothers.

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian who teaches, studies and writes in Rome with a special focus on Renaissance and Baroque art. Her most recent book is How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art.

| Postwar Building Boom

Postwar Building Boom

In the two decades after World War II, American Christians built an unprecedented number of churches as a postwar baby boom and suburban expansion created tremendous demand for new houses of worship. The trend began in 1947, when Americans spent $126 million dollars on church construction, and peaked in 1965 at some $1.2 billion dollars.

This period of feverish church building has, until recently, been largely unexplored by architectural, religious, and urban historians. Among recent books aiming to change this are Jay M. Price’s Temples for a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America and Gretchen Buggeln’s The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America.

Buggeln holds a Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University. Her book focuses on three influential Protestant architects—Edward Dupaquier Dart, Charles Edward Stade, and Edward Anders Sövik—and seventy-five of the churches they designed in the Midwest. Making impressive use of congregational archives and interviews with founding-era parishioners, she explores the prevalence of the A-frame design from the 1950s to the mid-1960s; the way a vision of the Church as family shaped sanctuary design; the prioritization of fellowship and education in design of the church plant; and a case study of churches in the suburb of Park Forest, Illinois.

Price is professor of history and directs the Public History Program at Wichita State University. His book focuses on the network of architects, consultants, denominational and ecumenical bodies such as the National Council of Church’s Bureau of Church Building and Architecture, professional organizations such as the Church Architectural Guild of America, and journals such as Protestant Church Building, Church Management, and Church Property Administration that promoted a modern aesthetic in ecclesial design. He examines how design styles evolved through the postwar period, highlighting how Modernist styles predominated as architects from the World War II generation exerted increased influence in the 1960s.

Unsurprisingly, certain themes run through both books: the professionalization of church architects; the centrality of the building committee in planning and fundraising; the impact of construction costs on churches comprised of cash-strapped suburbanites; the prevalence of building in stages and the frequent flexibility and insufficiency of “first units”; the focus on creating seven-day-a-week campuses for educational and social programs; and the influence of suburban domestic architecture on church design.

Both Buggeln and Price conclude their books with similar tales about the state of postwar churches in the new millennium. In many instances, the congregations these churches house have aged, have moved on to newer suburbs, or have been reshaped by changes in the neighborhood’s ethnic and racial makeup. The buildings themselves have often aged poorly, requiring expensive maintenance and renovation projects, or being vacated and torn down.

Those that continue to be used, especially among Catholic parishes, have often been renovated to make greater use of “symbols, statuary, decoration, ornament, and woodwork.” That signifies a “modest revolution against the simple forms and opaque symbols of the original buildings.”

Buggeln and Price are both sympathetic to the architects and congregations they study and admirably retrieve for skeptical millennial readers the spiritual and social meaning postwar churches had to the congregations that built them. They depict postwar churches as an attempt by parishioners to respond to an atomic age that they felt demanded a new architecture to proclaim the Gospel amidst a consumerist and media savvy culture.

Yet one of the most salient themes in both texts is the tension between tradition and modernity: the divide between the updated but traditional structures postwar congregations desired and the modernist buildings preferred by newly ordained clergy and young architects. Both writers repeatedly admit that “the general public did not so much demand contemporary houses of worship as resign themselves to their inevitable construction.”

Detractors lamented the “grocery store” and “gas station” churches. “Seldom in history,” Price notes, “have supposedly sacred structures been the object of so many disparaging remarks.”

Buggeln and Price admit that modernist churches were controversial and never garnered the popular support the era’s other public structures received. That calls into question their contention that postwar churches provide crucial insight into what Americans wanted to say, in stone and glass, about themselves and their faith communities.

Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, CSC, is a doctoral student at Columbia University, working on a dissertation on the suburbanization of American Catholicism.

| Fresh Light and Revolutionary Vision

Fresh Light and Revolutionary Vision

The subject of half a millennium of historical scrutiny, what more about Leonardo da Vinci and his masterpiece the “Last Supper” remains to be said? In Young Leonardo, Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown challenge the traditional account of Leonardo’s early career. They aim to uncover the real story of the development of this extraordinary artist, shedding fresh light on the context of Leonardo’s early work, and in the end, opening our eyes to the possibility of seeing Leonardo’s masterpiece afresh.

The authors, one an art historian and the other a surgeon who uses his knowledge of faces to analyze Renaissance portraits, published The Mona Lisa Myth in 2013.

Orthodox Narrative

The orthodox narrative of Leonardo’s formative artistic years runs something like this: As an apprentice in Florence, Leonardo distinguished himself as a prodigy, earning the recognition of Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of the Florentine Republic. Lorenzo dispatched him to Milan to serve as the court artist for the would-be duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He became the most celebrated artist of the Milanese court, executing ducal portraits, designing sets and costumes for its festivities, and, along the way, painting his masterwork, the “Last Supper.”

Isbouts and Brown maintain the truth is less clear-cut. Young Leonardo approaches the artist not through the art itself—whose obvious genius belies his struggle for approval in both Florence and Milan—but through the lens of the political and art-historical backdrop of fifteenth-century Italy.

Through an explication of the aesthetic expectations of patrons (which Leonardo repeatedly failed to meet) and the decline of the Medici stronghold on Florence, the authors contest both the extent of Leonardo’s Florentine celebrity as well as the terms on which he left for Milan. They also cast doubts on his status in the Milanese court. He didn’t receive any major commissions for years, and when large projects did arise, he was regularly overlooked in favor of Lombard artists.

The greater part of the book is devoted to the form, process, meaning, and circumstances surrounding the revolutionary “Last Supper.” The authors reject the notion of the fresco as the product of his sole, untethered genius. There were fairly strict representational conventions laid out by the Dominicans to which he was expected to adhere. The Last Supper was also an understandably popular theme for a refectory, and there were notable Quattrocento antecedents of the subject.

Leonardo da Vinci,
Leonardo da Vinci, “Last Supper,” ca. 1494-1498. Image: Young Leonardo

Leonardo’s Inventions

Yet Leonardo’s version is much less dependent on contemporary precedents than on solutions to problems he had already worked out for himself. It is remarkable just how thoroughly his scheme breaks from the customary arrangement. The architectonic grouping of the figures and the stunning array of emotions captured therein, the cinematic manipulation of light, the perspectival sleight of hand, the painted architecture used as a means of directing the viewer’s focus, and the timing of the “shot” at the climactic moment of the narrative—all of these were inventions overlaid on a program that was more or less defined.

Tracing Leonardo’s development from his earliest work, the authors establish the “Last Supper” as the culmination of decades of artistic exploration. The theatrical lighting seen in the “Last Supper,” for instance, can be found in the dramatic chiaroscuro in some of his early Florentine paintings. His “Adoration of the Magi” displays the same daring transformation of the principal subject and astonishing range of emotional expression that make the “Last Supper” resonate with such force.

Unfortunately, Leonardo’s characteristic inventiveness extended to the medium. Due to a failed experimental tempera paint, very little remains of the original painting.

However, the authors offer compelling evidence that a copy of the “Last Supper” was completed for King Louis XII of France under Leonardo’s immediate supervision. Amazingly, they claim this painting may still be in existence today, in the form of a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas whose patron has never been determined. This revelation, if true, affords an opportunity to see Leonardo’s masterpiece anew, in all its original vitality.

Ultimately, what is the picture of Leonardo’s early life that emerges in Young Leonardo? He was a genius, to be sure, but also an outsider—one whose earliest attempts at revitalizing Italian art were met mostly with rejection. Yet his lack of critical success never deterred his revolutionary vision, nor would his early failures prevent him from becoming the star around which much art of the following century would orbit. Just as Leonardo brought fresh life to a stagnating artistic milieu, so too does this small, eminently readable book bring fresh life to our understanding of his work.

Julian Murphy is a graduate architecture student at the University of Notre Dame.

| Ab Urbe Condita

Editorial: Ab Urbe Condita

Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Piazza Paolo VI, Brescia, Italy. Photo credit: Roberto Ricca
Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Piazza Paolo VI, Brescia, Italy. Photo credit: Roberto Ricca

When you go to a great European city, you find beautiful spacious piazze, outdoor cafes, charming shops, fountains to sit near, and people to watch. For many today, that symbolizes the good city.

As bricks-and-mortar retail decreases, our cities become more about experiences we can’t get online. Most of us like active places with nightlife, theaters for movies and plays, concert halls, museums, parks for bike riding, and sidewalks for walking our dogs. Fresh food, old bookshops, coffee bars, and micro-breweries satisfy our passions. Those make a public realm worth visiting.

Adding a church to the mix doesn’t really help. Or does it? Is the European plaza so great merely because of commerce and culture? Does it need something else? Does it need the temple? Our temples serve people’s most fundamental needs: forgiveness, hope, and meaning. Their presence on the piazza says that commerce is not enough, that not even culture is enough.

But who visits churches? They need to be something out of the ordinary like Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, preferably with masterpieces of art inside. We are a secular country with Protestant origins and our church buildings are not normally open, and in any case rarely worth visiting for their architecture or their art. (Interestingly, a recent study in the U.K. found that church architecture had a greater impact on conversions than even youth groups. If left open, people will visit beautiful churches and have the opportunity for conversion.)

There are certainly many great cities with churches where the urban realm is not so lively. There neither commerce nor culture nor the temple flourish. In Naples, I have witnessed many closed churches with desolate piazze. Of course, a closed church can still be a beautiful ornament on the square, not unlike a Roman ruin, but it will not be able to fulfill its ultimate purpose. This is because the role of church architecture, like retail, is to draw us inside, but for a different purpose: to bring us in contact with the divine.

A city is more than just commerce and culture. The good city needs a civic realm marked out by a proper architecture of the civic realm. City Halls are there to promote good government, schools to promote education, courts to promote justice, museums to promote art and concert halls to promote the performing arts. Some of these civic structures we visit once a year or on special occasions, others every week or daily. Others we prefer not to visit, like the courthouse. These are the foci of our cities, and we have invested our best efforts to erect them.

The answer to good cities is not to put retail everywhere to activate the public realm with commerce, nor to add cultural pleasures like parks and micro-breweries. It’s first to have a public realm that is worth visiting. That public realm must include our temples. And it must be architecturally expressed in a certain way. If churches and other civic buildings are invested with monumental architecture they will become the focus of our streets and city squares. Adding a church to the mix does help. It helps create and sustain a vital public realm by serving people’s most fundamental needs for forgiveness, hope, and meaning in a way no other civic institution can do. And ironically, perhaps, temples will draw parishioners and tourists alike, resulting in vibrant commerce as well.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| God the Father of Lights: C. S. Lewis on Christianity and Paganism

God the Father of Lights: C. S. Lewis on Christianity and Paganism

A Requiem Mass celebrated at Santa Maria ad Martyres in Rome. The Pantheon, built in the second century, was consecrated as a church on May 13, 609. Photo: New Liturgical Movement/Luca Schirano
A Requiem Mass celebrated at Santa Maria ad Martyres in Rome. The Pantheon, built in the second century, was consecrated as a church on May 13, 609. Photo: New Liturgical Movement/Luca Schirano

Most people would struggle to identify the church in Rome dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs. But refer to it as “the Pantheon,” the home of all the gods, and everyone would immediately know what you are talking about.

Examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely of Christian buildings associated with a pagan past or even still showcasing pagan imagery. In Venice, for instance, the church of Saint Mary of Nazareth, better known as the Scalzi, features statues of sibyls (pagan oracles) in the sanctuary.

At Caprarola, in central Italy, the Villa Farnese, built for a cardinal, houses plentiful pagan iconography cheek-by-jowl with Catholic art, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a high-ranking church official to celebrate paganism and Christianity under one roof. Saint Mary’s Church, Iffley, near Oxford, has an archway that shows the four evangelists jostling side by side with Aquarius, Pisces and other characters from the signs of the zodiac.

The interplay between paganism and Christianity intrigued C. S. Lewis. His reflections on this relationship are well worth bearing in mind when visiting churches that seem to have a surprisingly relaxed attitude to pagan imagery and the pagan past.

The Hellespontine Sibyl and the Sibyl of Samos are two of the six statues of pagan sibyls in the church of Saint Mary of Nazareth in Venice, also known as the Scalzi. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Didier Descouens
The Hellespontine Sibyl and the Sibyl of Samos are two of the six statues of pagan sibyls in the church of Saint Mary of Nazareth in Venice, also known as the Scalzi. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Didier Descouens

A Language More Adequate

It was largely through his love of pagan mythology that Lewis himself became a Christian. And in his best-known writings, the seven Chronicles of Narnia, he demonstrated very ingeniously how Christianity can incorporate and redeem pagan traditions.

The immediate human cause of Lewis’s Christian conversion in 1931 was a long night-time conversation with two good friends, J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, on the subject of Christianity, metaphor, and myth. (Tolkien was Catholic, Dyson an Anglican.) What had been holding him back from accepting Christianity was, he said in a letter, “a difficulty in knowing what the doctrine meant.”

Tolkien and Dyson showed him that Christian doctrines are not the main thing about Christianity. Doctrines are translations into concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in “a language more adequate: namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection” of Christ. The primary language of Christianity is a lived language of an actual person being born, dying, and living again.

When Lewis realised this, he began to understand what Christianity really meant, because he had been fascinated from childhood by stories of dying and rising gods. He had always found these pagan stories to be “profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’”

The difference between his attitude to the pagan myths and to the Christianity he then rejected was that he did not try officiously to explain the pagan myths. These stories he saw to be fruitful in their own terms. They had to be accepted as saying something in their own way, not treated as a kind of allegory and translated into something less, something secondary, into mere “doctrines.”

Doctrines are the product of analytical dissection. They recast the original, equivocal, historical material into abstract, less fully realized categories of meaning. In short, doctrines are not as richly meaningful as that which they are doctrines about.

Lewis now understood that the essence of Christianity was the story recounted in the gospels, rather than the commentary upon and explication of that story in the epistles, and that the Christ-story could be approached in a way similar to the way he approached pagan myths. Christianity is the “true myth.” In paganism God expressed Himself in an unfocused way through the images human imaginations deployed in order to tell stories about the world. The story of Christ is “God’s myth” — the story in which God directly expressed Himself through a real, historical life of a particular man, in a particular time, in a particular place: Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate outside Jerusalem, circa AD 33.

God the Father of All Lights

That there were certain similarities between pagan myths and the true myth did not lead Lewis to conclude, “so much the worse for Christianity,” he explained in “Is Theology Poetry?” It led him to conclude, “so much the better for Paganism.” Paganism contained a good deal of meaning that was realized, consummated, and perfected in Christ.

The important thing to notice is the resemblance he observed between the Christian story and the stories of “pagan Christs,” as he called them. Since God is the Father of lights (James 1:17), He is the Father of “natural lights as well as spiritual lights,” Lewis told the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Even the flickering lights of paganism could be attributed ultimately to Him. He now believed with his poetic hero Edmund Spenser, as he put it in Spenser’s Images of Life, that “Divine Wisdom spoke not only on the Mount of Olives, but also on Parnassus.”

His inclusive attitude here reflects the approach of Christian poets in the sixteenth century. Of them he wrote (in a scholarly paper titled “Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser”): “It was not felt desirable, much less necessary, when you mentioned, say, Jove, to exclude any of his meanings; the Christian God, the Pagan god, the planet as actually seen, the planet astrologically considered, were all welcome to enrich the figure, by turns or even simultaneously.”

He explained (in another scholarly work, “Hero and Leander”) that “gods and goddesses could always be used in a Christian sense” by a medieval or Elizabethan poet. Dante, Sidney, Spenser, and Milton all recognized that the redeemed gods could perform all sorts of good, true, and beautiful tasks. As he wrote in his magnum opus, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, for them “the gods are God incognito and everyone is in the secret.” They understood paganism as “the religion of poetry through which the author can express, at any moment, just so much or so little of his real religion as his art requires.”

In a review of The Oxford Book of Christian Verse, he coined the term “transferred classicism” for those poets who imagined their Christianity under classical forms. There, “God is, in some degree, disguised as a mere god” and the reader enjoys seeing “how well Christianity could produce the councils, catalogues, Mercuries, and battlepieces of ancient epic.”

Chaucer, a Christian poet, could describe himself as Venus’s “disciple.” This practice of using mythological untruths to hint at theological truths lasted as late as the composition of Milton’s Comus in 1634. It was, for most poets and in most poems, by far the best method of writing poetry which was religious without being devotional.

The Similarities Ought to Be There

One need not draw hard and fast lines between Christianity and paganism because God, as the Father of lights, is the source of all truth. Perhaps Lewis’s favorite theologian was Richard Hooker (1554-1600), the so-called “father of Anglicanism.” Hooker thought that “all kinds of knowledge, all good arts, sciences, and disciplines come from the Father of lights,” Lewis explained in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. As Hooker put it, they are “as so many sparkles resembling the bright fountain from which they arise.”

After the talk with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis was no longer troubled by the similarities between, for instance, the pagan Jupiter and the Hebrew Yahweh. The similarities “ought to be there,” as he wrote in his essay, “Myth Became Fact.” It would be a problem if they were absent. And so he takes pleasure in pointing out, in his book Miracles, that “God is supposed to have had a ‘Son,’ just as if God were a mythological deity like Jupiter.”

This all-embracing Christian mentality was seen in the way that people in the Middle Ages interpreted the pagan poetry of the ancient Roman writer, Virgil. In his Fourth Eclogue, Virgil had written (Lewis’s translation):

The great procession of the ages begins anew.

Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns,

and the new child is sent down from high heaven.

These lines were understood in the Middle Ages as a pagan prophecy of the birth of Christ. Dante viewed them as such in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. The adult Lewis made the Fourth Eclogue a regular part of his Christmas reading, finding in this Virgilian insight evidence that God could speak even through a Roman pagan in order to prepare the human imagination for the coming of the Christ-child.

Following Saint Paul

Here Lewis followed the example of Saint Paul. The apostle preached to the men of Athens, using the pagan gods to communicate his message. Paul tells them that God “is not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being;’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘for we are indeed his offspring.’”

The first quotation comes from Epimenides, a Greek poet and philosopher of the sixth century before Christ, who wrote of Zeus as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” The second comes from Aratus, a poet from about 300 years before Christ, who says of Zeus that “we are indeed his offspring.”

Paul meets the men of Athens where they are, where they already have an inkling of meaning. He is not trying to obliterate their limited and incomplete religious knowledge. He takes what they already possess, imaginatively, and baptizes it. And apparently he had some success. When the Greeks heard Paul, “some mocked; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’”

Lewis would have been among those Greeks who followed Paul’s logic, finding it evangelistically effective. He was ready, like the apostle, to work upwards from the copy to the original, from Zeus to the true God.

And this attitude was not just intellectual or imaginative on Lewis’s part. It also affected his personal devotional habits as a Christian. I mentioned his reading of the Fourth Eclogue at Christmas. On honeymoon in Greece with his dying wife, Lewis found it hard not to pray to Apollo the Healer to heal his wife Joy of her cancer. “Somehow one didn’t feel it would have been very wrong — would only have been addressing Christ sub specie Apollinis,” he wrote a friend, the Wheaton College professor Chad Walsh, in 1960.

The Gods Must Die to Live

Lewis’s high view of the pagan gods affected the way he wrote his own Christian works. He was not averse, in fact he was wholly committed, to using paganism for literary purposes. As a good medievalist, Lewis was not concerned to keep pagan deities separate from the deity of his believed religion. He was ever prepared to present God sub figuris vilium corporum (“under the figure of vile bodies”), as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it.

He recognised that the gods had declined from deities whom people worshipped devoutly to symbols that writers used poetically, but he did not consider this a history of sheer loss. Although the gods “died into allegory,” as he explained in his first scholarly work, The Allegory of Love, they rose again into a world of romantic imagining, a world of myth and fancy, for “gods, like other creatures, must die to live.”

In his Narnia Chronicles he causes the seven planetary deities to enjoy a most sophisticated resurrection. Here in his most famous works, as I show in my book Planet Narnia, Lewis takes the seven planetary gods of the pre-Copernican cosmos and uses their various qualities and attributes as his imaginative blueprint for each Chronicle. Jupiter, the magnanimous king, associated with “winter past and guilt forgiven,” provides the controlling symbolism for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mars, god of war and woods, shapes and orders Prince Caspian. The Sun, god of gold, spiritual illumination and the slaying of dragons, irradiates The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader.’

The Moon, sponsor of silver, lunacy, wetness and wanderings, infuses The Silver Chair. Mercury, lord of language, messages, speed, twins, and theft, runs throughout The Horse and His Boy. Venus, goddess of creativity, beauty, laughter, and magic apples from western gardens, fertilizes The Magician’s Nephew. And Saturn, father of death, darkness, and disaster makes his woeful presence felt in the final Chronicle, The Last Battle.

In this manner, Lewis gave a contemporary twist to the medieval practice of using cosmological material. One thing he particularly admired in Dante was his presentation of the best cosmological thought of his day, his acting as a medieval version of modern astronomers like Sir James Jeans and Sir Arthur Eddington.

The medieval cosmos, Lewis thought, was perhaps the greatest work of art the Middle Ages produced, and Dante’s presentation of it was only the most perfect of the various versions on offer. “They wrote it, they sang it, painted it and carved it. Sometimes a whole poem or a whole building seems almost nothing but verbalized or petrified cosmology,” he wrote in a scholarly paper on “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.”

We do not have space here to examine the songs and paintings which Lewis was referring to, but when speaking of the poems which verbalized this cosmology, Lewis had in mind not just Dante’s Divine Comedy, but also Chaucer and Henryson, in whose Knight’s Tale and Testament of Cresseid, the “character and influence of the planets are worked into” the story-line. He also had in mind Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which is both “a representation of, and hymn to, the cosmos as our ancestors believed it to be. There has been no delight (of that sort) in ‘nature’ since the old cosmology was rejected. No one can respond in just that way to the Einsteinian, or even the Newtonian, universe.”

The Gods’ New Life

As for the buildings that verbalized or petrified this cosmology, Lewis is thinking of the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, Florence, in which the constellations depicted on the cupola above the altar are there not for mere decoration, but because they are in the right position for the day (July 9, 1422) the altar was consecrated.

The dome over the altar of Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence depicts the constellations on July 9, 1422, the date the altar was consecrated. Photo credit: flickr.com/greentool2002
The dome over the altar of Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence depicts the constellations on July 9, 1422, the date the altar was consecrated. Photo credit: flickr.com/greentool2002

He also mentions the Salone at Padua, which is designed so that at each sunrise the beams will fall on the Sign in which Sol would then ride. “Just as the planets are not merely present in the Testament of Cresseid but woven into the plot, so in the buildings the cosmological material is sometimes woven into what we may call the plot of a building.”

Images of the zodiac appear next to apostles and saints in the Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua. Originally completed by Giotto, the fresco cycle was repainted by Niccolò Miretto and Stefano da Ferrara following a fire in 1420. Photo credit: luoghigiottoitalia.it
Images of the zodiac appear next to apostles and saints in the Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua. Originally completed by Giotto, the fresco cycle was repainted by Niccolò Miretto and Stefano da Ferrara following a fire in 1420. Photo credit: luoghigiottoitalia.it

It is in connection with “the plot of a building” that Lewis came nearest to disclosing his secret imaginative plan for Narnia. One of his American correspondents, Professor William Kinter, had suggested that Lewis’s publications could be laid out to form a kind of literary cathedral. Lewis wrote back saying, “It’s fun laying out all my books as a cathedral. Personally I’d make Miracles and the other ‘treatises’ the cathedral school: my children’s stories are the real side-chapels, each with its own little altar.”

Each with its own little altar. Let the reader understand! The Narnia Chronicles are all “about Christ,” as Lewis admitted in a letter, but they are about Christ by means of what in “The Alliterative Metre” he called the seven “spiritual symbols” furnished by medieval cosmology and classical mythology. Christ, like Jupiter, is the king of kings. Christ, like Mars, is the lord of hosts, mighty in battle, before whom the trees of the field clap their hands. Christ, like Sol, is the light of the world and more to be desired than gold. Christ, like Luna, reflects the Father to mankind. Christ, like Mercury, is the Word of God. Christ, like Venus, is the bright morning star. Christ, like Saturn, makes of death itself a tool of divine purpose.

If Lewis had meant the whole Narnia series to be “about Christ” in a simple sense, the seven books would constitute one large, single altar dedicated to Him. Since the septet is actually “about Christ” as understood by means of the heptarchy — “the seven kingdoms of the seven planets,” as the poet John Donne called them — each Chronicle constitutes its own peculiar understanding and representation of the Divine nature.

And so the pagan gods rise to new life in the seven heavens of Narnia. Lewis’s professional expertise as a literary historian and his theological imagination as a Christian writer are ingeniously united. In his survey of the great medievalists of the twentieth century, called Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor is quite right to note that Lewis’s fictional works cannot be separated from his scholarly writing. Both show how he sought “to transmute [his] medieval learning into mythopoetic fiction, fantasy literature for a mass audience that communicated the sensibility of medieval epic and romance.”

Dante, Chaucer, Henryson, and others had Christened the planetary gods in works of considerable complexity and subtlety, for, as Lewis put it, “intricacy is a mark of the medieval mind.” By adopting and adapting their methods, he shows himself to be an heir of their line, ready and willing to baptize paganism and put it to Christian effect.

The pagans may have turned the planets into gods and goddesses, but that was only an imaginative extension of the Biblical picture of the celestial bodies as angelic powers who are “telling the glory of God.” Christians need not spurn such cultural accretions, as long as they were correctly understood and put in their proper context. When the true God arrives, then, and only then, “the half-gods can remain,” he wrote in The Four Loves. Half-gods, recognized as such, have their own proper excellence. We do not have “to throw away our silver to make room for the gold.” Rather, it is a case of “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” He writes in Christianity and Culture, “it is lawful to rest our eyes in moonlight — especially now that we know where it comes from, that it is only sunlight at second hand.”

Dr. Michael Ward is a fellow of Blackfriars Hall in Oxford and a professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis.

| Early Lutheran Church Architecture

Early Lutheran Church Architecture

Hartenfels Castle Chapel in Torgau was dedicated in 1544, the first newly constructed Lutheran space. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Andreas Praefcke
Hartenfels Castle Chapel in Torgau was dedicated in 1544, the first newly constructed Lutheran space. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Andreas Praefcke

The architectural implications of the Augsburg Confession were probably not top-of-mind for those who signed it in 1530. The Confession was a presentation of Lutheran teaching, most significantly on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. It was the theological statement of the political leaders who had been convinced of the Lutheran position, a position whose initiation has been marked by Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in October 1517.

While the Augsburg Confession makes no mention of church design or art, it does define the Church unequivocally as “the congregation of saints.” In so doing, the Lutherans located any notion of sacredness, not in a specific institution or place, but in the gathering of believers — wherever it may occur — who come together around God’s word and, consequently, in the presence of Jesus Christ. This definition, a ramification of the doctrine of justification, drove Lutheran church design.

Lutherans didn’t build many churches in the first century following the start of the Reformation. In the lands that came to be identified as Lutheran, existing churches were merely given over to Lutheran use, in most cases, with minimal change. These spaces were usually conservatively modified in order to ensure that all could hear the preacher, witness baptisms and receive the Lord’s Supper. Typically, the use of devotional candles before images of saints was discontinued. In some cases extra-biblical religious art was removed or covered. Frequently new, didactic Biblical art was introduced.1

Luther’s own conservatism regarding the liturgy, art, and environment of worship was itself a reaction to what he saw as the excess of the iconoclastic Andreas Karlstadt. During Luther’s self-imposed exile of 1521, Karlstadt instituted sweeping reforms to the liturgy and removed all images from the church in Wittenberg.

The new churches that were built took a variety of forms, yet all display a commitment to the gathering, the centrality of Sacramental life — Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper — and the authority of Scripture. Most make extensive use of images, though in didactic rather than devotional ways. None were perceived by their communities as sacred in any way that could be distinguished from the sacredness of all creation which had been consecrated by the Word of God in the act of creation.

What follows are descriptions of three early church buildings, offered as manifestations in design of these core Lutheran commitments. Hartenfels Castle Chapel in Torgau, built in 1544, was the first newly constructed Lutheran space. It might be called the Lutheran archetype. The town church of Freudenstadt, built in 1608, was one of the first newly created Lutheran churches. Holy Cross Church in Augsburg, built from 1651 to 1653, was the product of civic competition with the Catholics, and the creative use of an oddly-shaped space the city gave them.

The Lutheran Archetype

The Castle Chapel at Hartenfels Castle in Torgau was dedicated on October 4, 1544. This first newly constructed Lutheran space is an archetype for Lutheran church architecture, both embodying Luther’s ideas about the nature of worship and influencing, if not in design details, in core values, the design and construction of Lutheran churches in Germany and across Europe.

The chapel is a renovation of the east wing of the castle, commissioned by Johann Frederick I and designed and constructed by Nickel Grohmann. Torgau was the seat of German reformation political power. Luther consulted on the design and Lucas Cranach contributed both sketches for the bas-reliefs that mark the pulpit and the color scheme for the whole room.2

When Luther preached at the dedication, he made a statement about the nature of Christian worship that has been formative for Lutheran liturgical theology. “The purpose of this new house may be such that nothing else may ever happen in it except that our dear Lord himself may speak to us through his holy word, and we respond to him through prayer and praise.”3 For Luther, Christian worship is people gathering to receive the gifts of God’s grace, namely life and salvation through the proclamation of God’s word and the administration of the Sacraments to which God’s word had attached the promise of the gift of righteousness.

What is fundamental for Lutheran architecture is the gathering around the Word of God and the congregation’s collective response. The primacy of Scripture, even in the context of the Sacraments, and the fact that Scripture was shared for the sake of the gathered community, required both the visual and acoustical presence of the speaker and a specific place in the speaker’s presence for the gathered community. The baptismal font and altar must be close to each other because they too were places from which the Word of God was shared.

That said, everything for Luther is about function for the community. The place itself is but a concession to the need to have a communally identified place of gathering. How is this seen in Hartenfels Castle Chapel?

A sculpture of the removal of Christ’s body from the cross is located above the entrance to the chapel at Hartenfels Castle. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Kolossos
A sculpture of the removal of Christ’s body from the cross is located above the entrance to the chapel at Hartenfels Castle. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Kolossos

As a renovation and re-purposing of an existing castle wing, the chapel is not identifiable from outside the building, save for the sculpture by Simon Schröter over a door that opens to the ground floor of this three-story space — a depiction of the removal of Christ’s body from the cross. The doorway pierces the exterior wall under the second of four barrel vaults that line the long walls, supporting two levels of galleries above.

A depiction on the pulpit of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple illustrates the principle of Sola Fide. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Andreas Praefcke
A depiction on the pulpit of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple illustrates the principle of Sola Fide. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Andreas Praefcke

The prominent pulpit is the obvious center of the room’s attention, visible from every place in the chapel, both from the ground floor and from the Duke’s place in the gallery, which opened off his personal quarters. It is mounted at the level of the first gallery and centered on the wall opposite. This conforms to Luther’s own comments at the dedication that the room was intended for the proclamation of God’s word.

The barrel of the pulpit is adorned with three scenes from the Gospels, each illustrating one of the Reformation’s five signature “solas.” From left to right, these images are: Jesus forgiving the sin of the woman caught in adultery (Sola Gratia); the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple teaching by pointing to the Scriptures (Sola Scriptura); and Jesus driving the money changers from the temple (illustrating Sola Fide through the Lutheran rejection of the sale of indulgences and the practice of pilgrimages).

This use of art to illustrate Biblical stories that teach theological concepts is emblematic of the ways in which Lutherans used art in their churches. Luther, responding to the iconoclasm of both Lutheran and Reformed pastors, observed that he couldn’t conceive of the crucifixion of Jesus without creating an image in his imagination. For Luther, visual art merely supplied the imagination with an illustration.

At the end of the room, to the preacher’s right, on the main floor but elevated on two steps, stands a stone table: the altar for the Sacrament of the Altar. The corners of the mensa (the top) rest on four angelic beings. There is room behind the table for the presiding pastor to face the congregation, as Luther recommended in his commentary of 1526 on the liturgy for his suggested, vernacular, German Mass.

There is no railing or barrier that would limit access from the common space. Luther did not recognize a hierarchy of holiness within the church space or outside of it. In his dedicatory sermon, he remarked that the community could be meeting just as well outside by the fountain, but that the room had been set aside as a mark of orderliness and neighborly service.

Installed above the communion table is the room’s organ, the pipes housed in simple but beautiful casework. As Luther saw it, the community’s appropriate response to the gift that is the Word of God is the repetition of that same Word in song and prayer. That the organ is aligned with the Sacramental table on the narrow wall is not only acoustically desirable, but a comment on the interrelationship between the means of God’s grace and the response of the Christian in worship.

The room itself is airy and brightly lit with large clear windows and white plaster work that sets off the sandstone rib vaults. It is a pleasant place in which the saints of God might gather.

A New Lutheran Church

As noted above, in most Lutheran communities, existing churches were taken over, making the construction of new buildings a rarity. The construction of an “ideal” town under the direction of Duke Frederick of Württemberg in 1599 created an opportunity for the construction of a new church.4

The L-shaped church in Freudenstadt occupies one corner of the town’s main square. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/joergens.mi
The L-shaped church in Freudenstadt occupies one corner of the town’s main square. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/joergens.mi

Freudenstadt (“Happytown”), built near Stuttgart in the Black Forest, was designed by architect Heinrich Schickhardt. Frederick and Schickhardt imaged a walled city, perfectly square with a large central plaza dominated by the Duke’s citadel and surrounded on all four corners by the important municipal buildings. The church, town hall, market, and hospital, all L-shaped in plan, turned each of four corners. The citadel was never realized, but the church was built between 1601 and 1608.

Pews, galleries, and the organ are located in the arms of the L-shape, while the liturgical furnishings are placed at the vertex. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/joergens.mi
Pews, galleries, and the organ are located in the arms of the L-shape, while the liturgical furnishings are placed at the vertex. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/joergens.mi

Impressive copper-roofed towers mark the entrances at its north and east ends. The liturgical furnishings — altar, Romanesque font and ambo taken from a preexisting church, with high pulpit in the corner behind the altar — are grouped in the vertex of the right angle created by the unusual L-shaped floor plan. Pews, galleries, and the organ are located in the arms of the L-shape, facing the vertex. The building, done in a Gothic/Renaissance style, seats 1,000. Everyone can see the preacher.The organ dominates the north gallery. Today, a smaller instrument is also housed on the main floor just east of the altar.

The unusual floor plan illustrates a key idea in Lutheran church architecture of the period: the church building is a place of meeting. As such there must be a place for all those who will gather there. These places are to be sufficient for the need: that is, there must be enough room close to the preacher and the Sacramental furnishings. People need to be able to see and hear the preacher. They need to be able to see or gather around the font. They need to be able to approach the communion table.

But it also means that the whole congregation must have their places. Luther rejected the idea that only the religious had vocations. His doctrine of vocation elevated all acts of human service, and thus all stations, as a means by which God blesses human society.

But he was not an anarchist, nor was he an egalitarian. While all were equally needy of God’s grace, all also had their places within civil society. Pews in Lutheran churches not only made listening to the didactic sermon possible, they fixed individuals into particular places in the room. In the case of the church at Freudenstadt, pews made possible segregating the sexes, while giving the whole congregation access to the preacher, font, and table, but not to one another.

The use of art at Freudenstadt is consistent with broader Lutheran practices. The ambo, font, altar, and life-size crucifix are older than the building, taken over from some other location. All the pieces are heavily decorated with images. The font dates from 1100 and is raised on the backs of four figures, and the bowl is surrounded by what appear to be deer and dragons. The base of the ambo is surrounded by figures of the four evangelists who hold the desk of the ambo on their shoulders, a symbol of their foundational place.

The altar features the images of the twelve apostles. At the dedicatory sermon, Andreas Veringer, the pastor during the time of construction, identifies the crucifix as an aid in recalling the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. He also takes the opportunity to point out that by retaining the altar and font, the community is distinguishing themselves from Zwinglians and Calvinists who destroy altars and fonts.

Adopting a Catholic Design

In 1555, the treaty of the Peace of Augsburg between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Lutheran princes of the Schmalkaldic League determined that both Lutheran and Catholic confessions would be allowed within the Empire. Princes and city councils would have the right and authority to choose which confession would be practiced in their domain.

Ironically, Augsburg was unable to take advantage of this decision. While Lutheranism was the choice of most of the citizens, the merchant and patrician classes favored the Catholic faith. Augsburg descended into a tenuous situation of attempting to balance the interests of two official religions. The effect on Lutheran architecture is noteworthy for the way this bi-confessional situation drove Lutherans to adapt Roman Catholic spaces and adopt what might seem to be Roman Catholic design in their effort to assert their place in the community.5

The expectation was that Augsburg would eventually decide the issue as had other cities. During this time the contending parties asserted control over parts of churches and whole structures, but the lack of resolution over property claims prevented any serious efforts to build. Finally, in 1648, the Peace of Westphalia formalized the bi-confessional nature of Augsburg, requiring parity across the city. Lutheran and Catholic churches were guaranteed the right to exclusive claim on land granted to them, opening up the possibility of a cohesive Lutheran approach to church design in Augsburg.

Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Augsburg as it appeared in 1703. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Zisska & Schauer
Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Augsburg as it appeared in 1703. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Zisska & Schauer

Plan of Holy Cross Church. Photo credit: discoverbaroqueart.org
Plan of Holy Cross Church. Photo credit: discoverbaroqueart.org

When the Lutherans meeting at Holy Cross Church received their land grant, the plot deeded to them was an odd, nearly triangular shape. Rather than placing a cost effective rectangular hall church on the site, similar to the Franciscan preaching halls that the Augsburg Lutherans had favored during the earlier time of uncertainty, they constructed a building with a complicated floor plan and structure (a right trapezoid) that maximized the breadth of the façade and the seating capacity of the interior.

Unlike the narrow late Gothic design of the neighboring Roman Catholic church of the same name, the broad Baroque design of Holy Cross was covered with all manner of curves and spirals that serve to keep the eye low, further emphasizing the size. The ocher stucco walls stand in contrast to those of its white-colored neighbor. An onion domed bell tower rises over it all. The building looks larger than it is, larger than was allowed, and maybe even larger than the building next door.

The façade of Holy Cross Church. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Alois Wust
The façade of Holy Cross Church. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Alois Wust

The interior of Holy Cross Church was redecorated in 1730. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Otto Schemmel
The interior of Holy Cross Church was redecorated in 1730. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Otto Schemmel

Stepping through the main door, the nave turns off to the right at a 55-degree angle, with a gallery running down the long left wall and over the main doorway. The paneled ceiling is ornately painted with the grid of the ceiling aligned with the parallel side walls. A heavily ornamented pulpit and canopy is mounted on the wall to the right about half-way down its length, under a life-sized sculpture of the Crucifixion. Two large paintings depicting Christ’s suffering flank the pulpit.

The altar and choir are housed in an apse on the west wall. The choir was redone in 1730 in the latest Rococo style, indicative of the community’s desire to present themselves as up-to-date. It features frescoes in the ceiling of faith, hope and love over soaring organ pipes. Images around the altar feature key elements of the life of Christ. The altar and the pulpit command the room, as is typical of Lutheran churches. All of this is roofed over by an enormously expensive copper roof that still stands out among the red tile roofs in the neighborhood today.

Holy Cross was built from 1651 to 1653. The economic and demographic devastation wrought by the Thirty Years War had hit Augsburg especially hard. Yet, with funds raised from across Lutheran Europe, the Lutherans in Augsburg built a church that would be a point of pride. Holy Cross was not just the ordered room in service of the congregation that gathered to hear God’s word, as Luther had described the church in Torgau. The art and architecture of Holy Cross was a bid for a legitimate place in the civic and religious life of Augsburg. It was a way for the community to assert itself in the theological market.

The Lutheran Impulse

Regardless of context — palace chapel, ideal new town, or civic competition — the Lutheran impulse is the same: to gather the community of the faithful in proximity to word and Sacrament and provide an environment for their song of response to God’s gifts of grace. In every case, art — some new, some old — provides visual reminders of Biblical truths. The shape of the rooms, style of the appointments, and size of the spaces vary depending on the local need, but these three examples are emblematic of a Lutheran approach to church design that still holds sway today.

The Reverend James Wetzstein serves as University Pastor at Valparaiso University, an independent Lutheran university in Valparaiso, Indiana. Through his active liturgical consulting practice, Wetzstein guides congregations to reflect on their theology of worship and its design implications in preparation for renovation or new construction. Among his recent consultations is the Chapel at the Old Latin School in Wittenberg, Germany.

1. This and other insights are taken from Bridget Heal’s “Sacred Image and Sacred Space in Lutheran Germany,” in Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, edited by Will Coster and Andrew Spicer (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

2. Andrew Spicer, “Architecture,” in The Reformation World, edited by Andrew Pettegree (Routledge, 2002).

3. “Sermon at the Dedication of Castle Church, Torgau 1544” in Luther’s Works: Sermons I v.55, edited by John Doberstein and Helmut Lehmann (Fortress Press, 1959).

4. Per Hamberg, Temples for Protestants: Studies in the Architectural Milieu of the Early Reformed Church and of the Lutheran Church (Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 2002).

5. Emily Fisher Gray “Lutheran Churches and Confessional Competition in Augsburg,” in Lutheran Churches in Early Modern Europe, ed. Andrew Spicer (Ashgate, 2012).

| An Education in Beauty: Saint Turibius Chapel Renovation at the Pontifical College Josephinum

An Education in Beauty: Saint Turibius Chapel Renovation at the Pontifical College Josephinum

The Pontifical College Josephinum, designed by Saint Louis architect Francis A. Ludewig and completed in 1931. Photo credit: flickr.com/Eridony
The Pontifical College Josephinum, designed by Saint Louis architect Francis A. Ludewig and completed in 1931. Photo credit: flickr.com/Eridony

On a lovely October afternoon I rode with William Burleigh to the Pontifical College Josephinum, he for the meeting of the board of trustees, and I to see the newly renovated and rededicated chapel of Saint Turibius. I had taught there for a year in the mid-seventies and I remember the chapel as a dark and unattractive sacred space that was rarely used, since there were other chapels at the seminary.

Named after the sainted bishop of Lima, as the first saint of the New World, the chapel was dominated by the 1936 mural behind the altar. It had become discolored by many leaks and in a post-Vatican II renovation, was completely covered over in an antiseptic scheme that ignored the early Gothic charm of the chapel.

Saint Turibius Chapel after the mural by Gerhard Lamers was covered over. Photo credit: William Heyer Architect
Saint Turibius Chapel after the mural by Gerhard Lamers was covered over. Photo credit: William Heyer Architect

The Pontifical College began as an orphanage for those of German extraction in 1875, founded by Father Joseph Jessy. A few of the boys expressed a desire to be priests and when Father Jessy put a notice in a German-American newspaper, twenty-three young men applied. Trusting in Providence, he began a college seminary in 1888. And in 1892 he asked Pope Leo XIII to put it directly under papal oversight and the pope granted the request. Seven years later now-Monsignor Jessy died, having founded the only pontifical seminary in the United States.

In 1931, the college moved to its present site in the countryside north of Columbus, Ohio. I remember it in this country setting from when I taught there. Now, it sits in a mostly urban mix of highways and malls, but it still has spacious grounds with trees and vistas that showcase the noble brick Gothic structure designed by the Saint Louis architect Francis A. Ludewig. The chapel was the heart of the building and its apse covered with a floor to ceiling mural of Christ in glory attended by saints and angels, painted by Gerhard Lamers.

Enveloped by Light

When one enters the chapel, one feels enveloped by light. The Emil Frei windows are mostly white glass with liturgical symbols, letting in light that plays off the mural and the chaste early Gothic stonework.

View of the renovated interior of the chapel. Photo credit: William Heyer Architect
View of the renovated interior of the chapel. Photo credit: William Heyer Architect

EverGreene Studios created a new mural based on the 1936 Lamers original, but there are some changes. The centerpiece of the frieze halfway up the mural used to be Saint Turibius ordaining a priest. Now it is Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom. She is flanked by Saints Joseph, Turibius, Rose of Lima, Catherine of Siena, John Neumann, Gregory the Great, Vincent de Paul, and Blessed Miguel Pro. Above them is Christ, the high priest robed in gold, offering communion, while the Father’s hand pours the Holy Spirit upon him. The whole heavenly vision is surrounded by myriads of angels, whose wings add a celestial splendor.

William Heyer, the present architect, pointed out all this to me as we walked through the chapel examining its many details: the altar of sacrifice and the place of reservation behind it; the choir stalls modelled after the originals; the more traditional choir plan for the sanctuary; the beautiful marble and porcelain floor tile and the increased seating in the nave.

The altar arrangement particularly caught my attention. Beautifully fashioned from different marbles, the altar is freestanding, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#299) requires. Relics are in an exquisite cask under the altar and can be seen from the back. The six candlesticks are mildly baroque. The GIRM (#303) favors one altar in new churches. Often in an old church, a new altar facing the people is set up in front of the old high altar. While this solution may be desirable when the old altar is a work of art, the symbolism of the one Eucharist celebrated at the one altar is lost, when one sees two altars side by side.

William Heyer sees the place of reservation as a gradine, a kind of extension of the altar and not another altar. Pope Pius XII warned against separating the tabernacle from the altar and here the two are in harmony, symbolizing the sacrifice of the altar and the abiding presence thereafter.

One thing that would have rejoiced the hearts of J. B. O’Connell and Maurice Lavanoux, of Liturgical Art fame, was the tester over the tabernacle sprung from the dorsal in a rich red brocade, the pattern of which is repeated on the dorsal of Our Lady’s throne in the mural. The crucifix from the old chapel complements the risen Christ in the mural above in depicting the Paschal Mystery. The tabernacle is from the old chapel as well.

Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, and Christ the High Priest are surrounded by saints and angels in the new mural covering the back wall of the apse. Photo credit: William Heyer Architect
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, and Christ the High Priest are surrounded by saints and angels in the new mural covering the back wall of the apse. Photo credit: William Heyer Architect

The Heavenly Liturgy

Anyone assisting at Mass in Saint Turibius Chapel would, it seems to me, experience something of the heavenly dimension of the liturgy. When the Lord is made present in His timeless eternal sacrifice, has Heaven come to earth or are we somewhat transposed to Heaven?

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, states that in the earthly liturgy we take part in the “foretaste of that Heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem towards which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, minister of holies and of the true tabernacle. With all the warriors of the Heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord, venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them, we eagerly await the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our Life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory” (#8). I quoted that passage at length because I think that is what the light playing on the great mural of the Heavenly Liturgy gives us.

This same Constitution makes provision for the artistic training of seminarians. They should be taught sacred art history so as to be able to appreciate and preserve the ancient monuments of the Church and guide artists working for the Church (#129). While the first point is important, I think the last is particularly important. It is true that terrible acts of vandalism and iconoclasm have been committed: marble altars destroyed, good statues pulled down, fine murals painted over. Still it is necessary that artists and architects be guided by knowledgeable priests for the future churches that are to be built and decorated.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis, after treating the beauty of the Mass as an echo of the Transfiguration (#35), goes on to expound how seminarians can learn from the Via Pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty. He says that a solid knowledge of the history of sacred art can help those who are responsible for commissioning artists and architects to create works of art for the liturgy. It is essential that the education of clerics include the study of art history with a special reference to sacred buildings. All aspects of liturgy should be beautiful so as to foster awe for the majesty of God and manifest the unity of faith and strengthen devotion (#41).

Considering the many courses that are required for seminary training, both texts, I suspect, are more honored in the breach than in practice. While they clearly should be implemented, I submit that praying each day in the chapel of Saint Turibius that Francis Ludewig created and William Heyer creatively restored will have its own quiet educational effect.

The Ancient Beauty

Our spirits rise with good sacred architecture and are brought down by the church “of the lowered ceiling.” Our spirits rejoice in Heavenly vistas with colorful saints and angels who pray with us; we can lay our cares on the altar in union with Christ’s sacrifice, that altar surrounded by the glow of candles symbolizing the Light of Christ. As we experience Christ’s presence in the golden tabernacle, we are lifted up by the “Ancient Beauty ever New.”

Beauty heals and strengthens us, and as one participates in the timeless eternal sacrifice in such a wonderful chapel, one is refreshed. The Josephinum is to be congratulated in restoring such a marvelous sacred space and William Heyer for having carried out the restoration so well and sensitively.

Reverend Giles Dimock, O.P., S.T.D., studied liturgy at Notre Dame and at Sant’ Anselmo, and theology at the Angelicum in Rome. He has taught at Providence College, Franciscan University in Steubenville, the Angelicum and the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

| Bigness of Touch: Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Bigness of Touch: Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool, England. Photo credit: liverpoolpicturebook.com

Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool, England. Photo credit: liverpoolpicturebook.com

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Liverpool Cathedral commenced construction in 1904, shortly after his initial design, prepared at the age of twenty-two, had won a now-famous competition, and was finally completed seventy-four years later in 1978. Toward the end of its construction, Sir Nicholas Pevsner described the cathedral, in his series The Buildings of England, as “desperately of a past that can never be recovered.”1 Another equally distinguished architectural writer, H. S. Goodhart-Rendel, called it in 1953 “a scenic prodigy, aloof from architectural reality.”2 He predicted that its tremendous tower might become the venerated last resting place of romantic architecture.

These appraisals are quite understandable so soon after two devastating World Wars destroyed so many traditional buildings and cities in Europe, and when modern methods of construction, promoted by Modernist architects, seemed to offer an answer to the urgent need for reconstruction. Now, almost forty years after the last stone was laid on the cathedral’s west front, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate these predictions of a final irrecoverable high point of achievement.

Scott’s cathedral is perceived to be the most traditional of the new English cathedrals built in the twentieth century. Some even labelled it anachronistic in the mid-twentieth century. This is a simplistic view of a building Scott continued to develop and refine up until his death in 1960. It is a building of subtle invention and “modern” in its fresh contribution to the Gothic language.

The Beginnings

Liverpool is not the only entirely new cathedral to have been built in England in the twentieth century. There is Coventry by Sir Basil Spence; Guildford by Sir Edwin Maufe; Clifton Roman Catholic Cathedral in Bristol by the Percy Thomas Partnership; Bentley’s Westminster Cathedral in London; and Frederick Gibberd’s Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral, built over the crypt of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ cathedral which, had it been built, would have matched in Classical terms what Scott achieved in his Gothic cathedral on Saint James’ Mount, a short distance away. What a double glory that would have been.

These cathedrals were all, apart from Liverpool, built in relatively little time. By comparison, Scott’s cathedral commenced construction at the end of the Gothic revival in the first years of the twentieth century and continued to be built in the Gothic manner throughout most of that century, during which time the prevailing architectural style shifted from Gothic to Monumental Classicism and then to International Modernism.

This tenacity of design intention says a great deal about the architect, his patrons in the church, and all those who contributed to its cost over so many years. This is even more remarkable given that the period of construction included two World Wars and at least one severe economic depression. To maintain a steadfast faith in a design, in this way, is a notable achievement.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning competition design. Photo credit: wikipedia.com
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning competition design. Photo credit: wikipedia.com

The distinguished Cathedral Competition Committee, comprised of Norman Shaw and G. F. Bodley, discovered that the anonymous design they had selected was by a young architect who, albeit from a very distinguished dynasty of ecclesiastical architects, had built nothing to his own designs, and was a Roman Catholic. Concerned about his lack of experience, the committee appointed Bodley (who himself was then engaged in the design of several cathedrals, including the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.) to work alongside Scott. This was an uneasy relationship during which Scott challenged Bodley’s design approach until the latter’s death in 1907.

After being appointed, Scott almost immediately began fundamentally rethinking his design for the cathedral, so that by the time Bodley died his conception of the building had changed entirely. The somewhat academic competition design began to be replaced by a new approach, infused with what Scott called a “bigness of touch.”

In his debate with Bodley at the outset of the project he argued for boldness of individual motifs: “I really believe scale may mean two things. One kind of scale is got by making a part small … so as to make the building look larger than it really is. … Another kind is got by keeping the parts on a large scale, thereby giving the design a big touch imparting a feeling of grandeur and impressiveness, which is not produced by the other method.” This “masculine grandeur” he described as “my ideal and [it] is what I want, above anything in Liverpool Cathedral. Harmonious beauty without this quality is nothing for me.”3

The Reworking

By 1910, Scott had completely reworked his design and the cathedral began to take on the characteristic form that was eventually to be built. The two transept towers of the competition entry were replaced by a vast, open, central space under a massive monumental tower, flanked on the north and south sides by symmetrical, equally monumental transept entrances to the great central space. It is remarkable that the Cathedral Committee agreed to these changes given that the foundations for the earlier twin towers were already in place.

In the new design, the cathedral had been transformed into a composition of large blocks or masses which provide an overpowering sense of the sublime and which elevate the design to something akin to the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis. Scott’s Romantic vision for the cathedral was perhaps shaped by the drawings of the enigmatic architect Beresford Pite and might also have been influenced by the visionary engravings of imaginary Gothic towers by F. L. Griggs.

Even though it could be argued that this Romantic vision of the Gothic world was in the air, Scott’s changes still challenged the architectural establishment. This is perhaps best illustrated in the reaction to this new approach by Scott’s contemporary genius in America, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who had already been responsible for a series of very fine Gothic churches and who was supremely versed in the Gothic language. Goodhue was initially profoundly shocked by the change. However, he subsequently met Scott in England in 1913 and immediately changed his mind and, thereafter, was hugely influenced by Scott’s new approach.

The boldly scaled massing of Scott’s cathedral was eloquently described by Professor C. H. Reilly as “so broad and monumental in its lines that, unlike the old Gothic cathedrals; it has much of the balanced beauty of a Classical building, while not abating a jot of the dynamic force of Gothic architecture in its most energetic form.”4 Reilly, the influential professor at the remarkable Liverpool School of Architecture, dedicated to monumental Classicism, refers to the other aspect of Scott’s new approach that was so attractive to Goodhue: the fusion of Classical monumentality with Gothic sensibility.

Goodhue had long dreamed of an architecture that would go beyond one particular style, seeking a form of architecture that would be “malleable enough to be moulded at the designer’s will, as readily toward the calm perfection of the Parthenon as towards the majesty and restless mystery of Chartres.”5 Liverpool Cathedral was undoubtedly the catalyst for the flowering of Goodhue’s final feats of genius in the fresh traditionalism of his late works such as his Nebraska State Capital building.

The Architectural Result

At this point, it is worth examining more closely the architectural result that Scott achieved in his synthesis of Classical and Gothic architecture, as well as addressing some of the further criticisms leveled at his design in the past.

The 1924 guide to the then-unfinished cathedral describes the way in which the design is Classical rather than Gothic in composition, with a symmetrical plan that has similarities with the plan of St. George’s Hall in Liverpool. It goes on to say: “But if the bones are Classic, the flesh in which they are clothed is pure Gothic, pure because it is living and not a mere aggregation of dead styles.”6

The guide presents these attributes in a favorable light, while Sir Nicholas Pevsner regards this as a fundamental weakness in the design, describing the central tower space as “useless, functionally speaking” and puts it down to Scott’s obsession with symmetry.7 Pevsner, however, misses the essential point that Scott is perhaps making in his design: the importance of so-called redundant space in the service of sublime expression in a sacred building. Scott understood the importance of redundant beauty in a sacred building better than almost any other architect. In that vast central space and in the monumental massing of the exterior of the cathedral, he seamlessly combined the stillness and gravity of the Classical with the soaring lines of the Gothic.

This combination in the design and the symmetry that Pevsner dismisses is a stroke of genius, particularly in relationship to the site on which the cathedral is placed. The composition of two pairs of transepts flanking the tower and main portal are described by Pevsner as “highly original and bold,”8 but he goes on to describe the matching of the Welsford porch on the north side with the Rankin porch on the south side as “utterly useless, because leading straight into the abyss of the cemetery, but it had to be there, because north must match south.”9

It seems to me that Pevsner entirely overlooked the point of those two portals. The ceremonial entrance to the cathedral from the Rankin porch, on the urban side of the cathedral, is contrasted on the densely wooded cemetery side of the cathedral with the Welsford porch, with dramatic and symbolic purpose. The journey from the bustle of the city to the stillness of the cemetery, separated by that vast, great, central space within the cathedral, with its view of the high altar and its astonishing reredos, is a mighty symbolic statement and an example of Scott applying his genius to the particularities of the site. The Rankin porch extends a yawning invitation to the city while the Welsford porch is the dark cave of the sepulchre above the wooded graveyard.

The cathedral from the cemetery with the Welsford porch as the “dark cave of the sepulchre.” Photo credit: Barry Hale
The cathedral from the cemetery with the Welsford porch as the “dark cave of the sepulchre.” Photo credit: Barry Hale

A procession through the central space. Photo credit: Barry Hale
A procession through the central space. Photo credit: Barry Hale

The Appropriation of Styles

There is another important point to note about the plan of the cathedral, which only gained its final form in 1927. Scott’s most significant change to the 1910 plan was the way in which he narrowed the dimensions of the central tower, which in turn caused the supporting walls at ground floor level to close off the continuous views through the cathedral along the length of the north and south aisles. This not only achieved a more elegant tower but also added considerable mystery to the experience of the interior. Later Scott reinforced this idea of screening and framing views in the interior by introducing the Dulverton Bridge between the nave and the central space.

Scott’s final floor plan, 1927. Photo credit: Cotton, V.E. The Book of Liverpool Cathedral
Scott’s final floor plan, 1927. Photo credit: Cotton, V.E. The Book of Liverpool Cathedral

In this way the development of the plan from 1904 to its final form represents a shift away from a conventional, transparent interior, with continuous open views through the length of the building, to a plan form that is much more layered and Romantic in its conception. Thus the final form of the interior achieves something of the feeling of an ancient cathedral that has developed over centuries with certain idiosyncrasies that add considerably to the spiritual mystery of the building. This development might not have been achieved without the benefit of Scott’s fifty-nine years of involvement in the design of the cathedral. It is a testament to his view that “Art is evolutionary, and the solution is not in revolution.”10

Scott’s appropriation of other styles and references is not confined to the broad massing and planning of the cathedral, but also manifests itself in his detailing. The latter shows that he was a master of many architectural styles. One thinks of his monumental Classical buildings at Clare College in Cambridge, his Byzantine chapel at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, and his Romanesque church of Our Lady and Saint Alphege in Bath. John Goodall argues that the Lady Chapel owes more to medieval architecture than Gothic and that the detailing in the central volume of the cathedral has parallels in Spanish buildings.11

War Memorial Chapel. Photo credit: flickr.com/8mm & Other Stuff
War Memorial Chapel. Photo credit: flickr.com/8mm & Other Stuff

Certainly much of the Gothic detailing owes more to Spanish flamboyant Gothic architecture than to English Gothic, but Scott’s integration of Renaissance and Classical references is also evident and is probably best displayed in the War Memorial Chapel. This space is dominated by a small cenotaph placed under the transept arch. The idea of a cenotaph is a Classical one and this was the first cenotaph to be suggested in England as a memorial of the Great War (and as such it precedes the magnificent cenotaph designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in London).

Detail of the high altar reredos. Photo credit: flickr.com/Scouse Hobbit
Detail of the high altar reredos. Photo credit: flickr.com/Scouse Hobbit

The reredos and holy table here are in marked contrast to the monumental, highly ornate, Gothic reredos in the main sanctuary. The reredos in the War Memorial Chapel gains its beauty not from its degree of ornamentation, but from its restraint. A red sandstone canopy inspired by perpendicular Gothic surrounds a Classical sarcophagus in polished Hoptonwood, resting on carved brackets. The sarcophagus and the field of the reredos are ornamented with Renaissance inspired bronze detailing and the flanking figures by the sculptors Walter Gilbert and Louis Weingartner are distinctly moderne in style.

Scott achieves a perfectly harmonious integration of these diverse elements and this is just one example of something repeated throughout the cathedral. His free interpretation of styles and references is one of the great joys offered by the building.

Scott’s Contrasts

Another strong characteristic of Scott’s design is his use of a contrast of scale and contrast of plain wall surfaces with tightly conceived and controlled smaller areas of ornamentation. These contrasts all serve the expression of sublime beauty. The high altar is dwarfed by the mighty reredos; the delicate altar rails are swallowed up by the vast volume of the sanctuary; the cathedra is a giant presence dominating the choir and priest stalls.

There are many examples of these contrasts. His oversized hanging lanterns somehow expand the volume of the Lady Chapel, as does the organ in the main choir of the cathedral. The soaring canopy of the baptismal font has a similar effect. Perhaps most dramatic of all is the way in which the Dulverton Bridge leaps across the nave at its junction with the central space and, in so doing, frames the high altar and reredos in such a way that the sanctuary appears to be infinitely distant. The effect, for the visitor, is of a vast architectural landscape of awe-inspiring proportions.

Scott also makes use of large, unornamented wall surfaces (which could perhaps be called “fields of rest”) contrasted with beautifully designed and wrought concentrated areas of decoration. This contrast is evident everywhere in the cathedral on the exterior and interior and is also characteristic of so much of his other architectural work, sacred and secular.

As with the contrast in scale, the effect is to intensify the sublimity of expression. The 1924 guidebook describes this approach admirably: “It will be found that while the decoration has been made subsidiary to broad general effect, there is an exuberance of detail which is characteristic of the best periods of medieval craftsmanship. Decoration is the ritual of architecture — it should emphasise and not obscure the principles it seeks to glorify; and this has been kept constantly in view.”12

It also describes a very good example of Scott’s use of decoration on the south elevation of the cathedral: “Running along the exterior of the choir, above the windows, is an arcaded gallery in the thickness of the wall. The figures of Saints and Angels on the window mullions, and the huge Angels surmounting the buttresses are the only ornament the architect has allowed himself, unless the frequent string courses and the pierced parapet along the roof of the vestries be included.”13 The same contrast between plain surfaces and concentrated detail is evident in all the fittings within the interior of the cathedral.

Scott’s “Bigness of Touch”

Unfortunately, Scott died in 1960 before the nave and west end were completed. In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, he had settled on his final design for the west end. It is a remarkable design that would have perhaps given ultimate expression to his ideal of “bigness of touch.” In this design, the vast height of the west front is largely blank, save for a rose window and the two flanking towers, with the decoration concentrated more than eighty-six feet above ground.

The entrance itself was a low, prow-like portico dwarfed by the west wall and projecting westwards over the very edge of the site. This was another flash of genius, but as with all uncompromising ideas as dramatic and visionary as this, it was vulnerable. After Scott’s death his office partner Frederick Thomas, assisted by Roger Pinkney, revised the design by introducing a broad arch with a tripartite window lighting the nave. The design is by no means inadequate, but it is a great loss that Scott’s uncompromising design was not implemented.

Scott and his wife are buried in a plot just west of the west frontal, making the abandonment of his design, at the eleventh hour of construction, even more poignant. It is a salutary reminder to retain faith in the integrity of the design until the very last stone is fixed.

The Integration of Sculpture

It is also worth reflecting on Scott’s integration of architecture and sculpture in the cathedral, because this is now rare in contemporary sacred architecture and indeed in architecture generally. By this I mean a carefully conceived program of sculpture which sets up a narrative which is fully integrated into the meaning of the cathedral from the outset, rather than the arbitrary placing of statues as an afterthought, which is regrettably commonplace today.

Throughout his involvement with the cathedral, Scott commissioned and worked alongside a large number of fine sculptors and artists. In the Lady Chapel, he worked with Lillie Reed who sculpted the figures on the Children’s Porch. For the great reredos he employed Louis Weingartner and Walter Gilbert and in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit he used William Gough.

These were all fine sculptors, but as Scott’s architectural approach developed, he began looking for sculptors that could throw off the Victorian influence of Bodley and provide a more austere aesthetic better suited to his architecture. Initially, he worked with David Evans, a genius, who, soon after completing the Nurses Memorial in the Lady Chapel and Bishop Chavasse’s Memorial in the south choir aisle, left for New York. After that, Scott collaborated for the rest of his life with Edward Carter Preston, a sculptor perhaps less talented than Evans, but someone who was able to produce sculpture wholly subservient to Scott’s architecture.

Sculptures by Edward Carter Preston. flickr.com/Nick_Roe
Sculptures by Edward Carter Preston. flickr.com/Nick_Roe

This was Scott’s ideal, which he wrote about to Sir Frederick Radcliffe: “The figures being regarded as part of the architecture, rather than isolated examples of sculpture, is … a point of view which Carter Preston has kept constantly before him.”14 This approach is perhaps best evident in the two porches where Carter Preston’s columnar figures provide the linear emphasis and faceted appearance that Scott felt best suited his architecture.

After Scott’s death, there was less concern with the integration of architecture and sculpture in the cathedral, ending with the installation on the west front of Dame Elizabeth Frink’s bronze of the Resurrected Christ that was quickly dubbed as “Frinkenstein.”

Another important lesson that can be learned from this cathedral is that it is constructed to last for posterity. It is a cathedral built of many millions of load-bearing bricks and vast quantities of hand-worked red sandstone laid in lime mortar, using the same old-fashioned load-bearing masonry techniques that have been employed for thousands of years and which have stood the test of time. This cathedral was built for eternity and, because it was built in the age of photography, its construction has been recorded in beautiful black and white and sepia photographs, which offer so many practical lessons to all those who hope to build sacred buildings in the future.

Scott was criticized even by his son, the gifted architect Richard Gilbert Scott, for not wholly embracing the modern technology of the twentieth century. But Scott’s circumspection for these untried materials deserves considerable respect, especially considering the inevitable pressure to economize. Ultimately, he did use concrete extensively in the foundations as well as in the bell tower and in the roofs covering the vaults. But the shell of the tower was surrounded by a massive load-bearing masonry structure and the concrete roofs were covered over in verdigris copper.

A Sublime Expression

Giles Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece in Liverpool Cathedral embodies everything that is now rarely found in sacred or other forms of architecture. It is a building given sublime expression in massing and detail, a building of subtle invention, borne out by a deep understanding of traditional architecture in all its variety and that successfully and meaningfully integrates architecture and sculpture. It is a building whose builders and patrons had the courage and faith to stay true to their intentions in the face of war, economic depression and in an age of philistinism and iconoclasm, and it is a building that is built for eternity as an acknowledgement of its divine purpose.

Hopefully, the time has come again for architects and patrons to take courage from the Romantic vision realized at Liverpool, within living memory, and to prove that its glorious tower is not the last resting place of Romantic architecture, but instead a beacon for the resurrection of this sublime manner of making sacred buildings.

Craig Hamilton is a Classical architect, practicing in the United Kingdom, who specializes in sacred and monumental architecture and has completed three new chapels and is working on a fourth. He is the recipient of the 2018 ICAA Arthur Ross Award for Architecture.

1. Priscilla Metcalf and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Cathedrals of England: The North and East Anglia (The Folio Society, 2005).

2. Ibid.

3. Michael Hall, George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America (Yale University Press, 2014).

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Vere Egerton Cotton, compiler, The Liverpool Cathedral Official Handback (Littlebury Bros., 1924).

7. Metcalf & Pevsner.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Cotton.

11. Martin Barnes, John Goodall, and Peter Marlow, The English Cathedral (Merrell Publishers Ltd., 2012).

12. Cotton.

13. Ibid.

14. Alex Compton, editor, Edward Carter Preston 1885–1965. (Liverpool University Press, 1999).

| Oppression and Indifference

Oppression and Indifference

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow was rebuilt from 1995 - 2000, after the original cathedral was destroyed in 1931. Photo credit: wikimedia.com/Alvesgaspar
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow was rebuilt from 1995 - 2000, after the original cathedral was destroyed in 1931. Photo credit: wikimedia.com/Alvesgaspar

In the late 1990s, I watched the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, replicating the nineteenth-century cathedral that had been dynamited by Stalin in 1931. It can hold an estimated 10,000 worshipers (they stand throughout the long services, for pews are abhorrent to venerable tradition) and is the tallest Orthodox church in the world, with a dome reaching 338 feet.

Stalin’s plan to build on its site a Palace of the Soviets with a huge statue of Lenin atop its dome was never realized because of World War II. That recalls the statue of Zeus, “the Abomination of Desolation,” which the Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus IV, erected in the Jerusalem Temple after he despoiled its sacred vessels. Antiochus basked in the title Epiphanes, which means “radiance of God,” but the Jews punned that as Epimanes, or “the mad man.”

Two hundred churches are planned for Moscow, along with an estimated 1,000 across the nation, replacing and adding to those destroyed in the Communist period, during which priests were crucified on the church doors. These are in the classical Byzantine style, not the modern biscuit boxes and flying saucers that were the bane of the West over the last few decades. In some towns, the local people are taught iconography and mosaic art, so the churches really are the work of their own hands.

These days in China, where Christianity is oppressed — not especially for theological reasons, but because it is a threat to the political hegemony of the state — churches are being destroyed. Within the past few months, for example, in Henan Province an Evangelical church was dynamited in Shangqiu, with a blithe ferocity paralleling that of Stalin.

In the West, churches are getting demolished for reasons other than political: redundancy, the lack of need for “ethnic” parishes, and the sheer cost of maintenance. Often, people who are much wealthier than their ancestors, who built the churches sacrificially out of their penury, do not contribute enough for maintenance. Between 1995 and the present, the Catholic population in the United States increased from fifty-seven million to over seventy million. New churches are being built in the South and West where populations are growing faster than the decline in other parts of the country.

There is another factor, however, in the loss of churches in much of our nation, and it is simply indifference. The vice of sloth is a spiritual malignancy, and many of our great metropolises have become hospices for lapsed believers. When I was sent to our parish here in “Hell’s Kitchen,” which is experiencing a phenomenal population growth, I was asked, “How many Catholics live there?” The proper question is, “How many Catholics will live there?”

The Ascending Lord did not send His disciples into Catholic neighborhoods, because there were none.

Reverend George Rutler is pastor of the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Manhattan. His latest books are He Spoke to Us and The Stories of Hymns.

| A Magnificent Work of Beauty: Dedication of the Trinity Dome

A Magnificent Work of Beauty: Dedication of the Trinity Dome

A homily given at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the dedication of the basilica’s Trinity Dome. It was given on Thursday, December 8, 2017.

Inscriptions above the main entrance of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: flickr.com/cath4ever
Inscriptions above the main entrance of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: flickr.com/cath4ever

ENGRAVED IN THE stone façade of this great basilica are the words that speak of the devotion and pride that bring us to this Mass and celebration today: “Thou art the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel and the honor of your people.” That exclamation, taken from the Book of Judith (15:9), has long been applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In a rich patristic and devotional tradition, it is Mary who is recognized as the glory, joy and honor of God’s holy people.

Directly under that proclamation is the image of the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary the reason why she was to become our honor, joy and glory. Here also is the greeting carved in stone and proclaimed in the Gospel for today, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” In those words that are so familiar in the heart and on the lips of every Catholic, we also announce that Mary is blessed among all women because of the fruit of her womb, Jesus.

This magnificent tribute in stone, glass, marble, and mosaic to Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mother of God and our Mother, invites all of us to recognize not only the special role of Mary in our life but the unique glory that is hers in her Immaculate Conception. Over the main entrance way to this basilica on the balcony above the center doors is Ivan Mestrovic’s limestone sculpture depicting “Mary Immaculate with Angels.”

What we today celebrate, dedicate and consign to the ages to come is the completion of the basilica represented in the adornment of the entire interior of the great dome with millions of pieces of colored tile culminating in the presentation of Mary with the title of her Immaculate Conception under the radiant image of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

TODAY’S BLESSING of the Trinity Dome completes a work that was began nearly 100 years ago. On September 20, 1918, on the very spot where this basilica now stands, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore announced, “Let us, too, offer to the world an example of Catholic gratitude, faith and love by erecting at Washington the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at whose altars your children and your children’s children will be proud to pray and worship.” Two years later, on September 20, 1920, Cardinal Gibbons laid the cornerstone.

As plans developed for the building of the National Shrine, people were invited to contribute in whatever manner they found appropriate. Among the gifts were donated pieces of gold jewelry and even some precious stones. These were fashioned into what came to be known as the “First Chalice of the National Shrine.” My brothers and sisters, I am happy to say that the chalice at this Mass is the “First Chalice of the National Shrine” that was used for the first time 100 years ago today.

In 1953, the bishops conducted a nationwide appeal for funds with which to erect the great superstructure of the National Shrine. Work began in the summer of 1955 and was completed for the dedication of the Great Upper Church, November 20, 1959.

At that time, the interior of this magnificent basilica, measuring over 450 feet in length and 239 feet to the top of the cross of the dome, was adorned with only one mosaic, the depiction by John de Rosen of “Christ in Majesty” which fills the wall of the north apse.

Two years ago, Pope Francis celebrated Mass on the basilica’s east portico. Prior to the canonization of Saint Junípero Serra, our Holy Father dedicated the very first portion of mosaic for the dome. He asked God’s blessing on the words that begin and end the Creed: “I believe” and “Amen.”

Some months ago, Monsignor Walter Rossi, the Rector of the Shrine who has overseen the work that now stands before us completed, and I, were honored to put in place the mosaic rendering of those words blessed by Pope Francis. In them, we can all also say, “Amen” to the vision of a century ago.

As you gaze up at this modern-day masterpiece, around the base of the dome you can see the words of the Creed that we all profess on our lips and in our hearts. Now it is also proclaimed in glorious mosaic.

Look carefully, and you will also see the likeness of saints who have had either a special tie to our country or a link to this Shrine. Among them are Saint Pope John Paul II who named it a basilica, Blessed Pope Paul VI who presented the Shrine with his papal coronation tiara and, of course, Saint Pope John XXIII. It was this pope who sent a special message for the blessing in 1959 of the Great Upper Church.

Today, his successor Pope Francis has honored us with a papal message for this sacred occasion and a special messenger to bring it. His Eminence Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, is here as the Pope’s Envoy. Cardinal Farrell has a personal tie to the National Shrine since it was here in 2002 that he was ordained a bishop. We look forward to his message from our Holy Father, Pope Francis.

The Trinity Dome. Photo credit: flickr.com/Tim Bechard
The Trinity Dome. Photo credit: flickr.com/Tim Bechard

INSPIRATION FOR the shrine and therefore this dome may be said to go back to 1846 when a score of bishops assembled in the 6th Council of Baltimore chose the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the patroness of the United States under the title of her Immaculate Conception.

This very basilica is a splendid example of Catholic devotion to Mary. What prompted the bishops, clergy, religious, and laity of the Church in the United States to make the sacrifices that resulted in this temple dedicated to the glory of God and honor of God’s holy Mother? What motivated so many of the Catholic faithful encouraged by the request of their bishops to complete the work of this great central dome culminating in the artistic representation of the Most Holy Trinity and Mary the Immaculate Conception?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers one clear answer. “Only faith can embrace the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. This faith glories in its weaknesses in order to draw to itself Christ’s power. The Virgin Mary is the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God.’”

Mary is the model of what our faith should be. Like us, Mary was a human being who had to be open to hear and accept God’s word and to grasp the mysterious ways in which God works. She did so with such consummate fidelity that she is forever the example of what we mean by faith — true, profound faith.

On this day, as the Church recognizes the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, patronal feast day of the United States of America, we pause, once again, to hear God’s Word, to have our hearts and minds elevated by the beauty of what we are about to bless and to thank God for the invitation to walk in His way revealed to us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God and Man.

THE ULTIMATE goal of every follower of Christ is to become, as closely as we can, one with Christ in a way that we participate in the new life He offers us through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

It was God’s Providential design that His own Eternal Word would come among us, take on flesh and be born as a human being. The human nature through Mary and the divine nature through the power of the Holy Spirit by which Mary conceived are united in the fruit of her womb, the person Jesus who is God and man. Anything else we say about Mary will always refer back to the fact that she is the Immaculately Conceived Mother of God.

In anticipation of the fact that she was to bear the Son of God, Mary was preserved from her conception from any stain of original sin. No taint of sin would touch her so that she would be a fitting and worthy vessel of the Incarnation. In 1854 Pope Pius IX proclaimed in Ineffabilis Deus that: “The Most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Human Race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”

Here we hear echoes from the first reading for today from the Book of Genesis. The Church has long reflected on Mary as the New Eve. This was to be the beginning of a new covenant bringing together all people into one new Body — the Body of Christ — the Church.

My brothers and sisters, when we look at this great Trinity Dome and see the myriad tiles in so much color coming together to realize this extraordinary work of art, we are reminded that here in the pews of this National Shrine, our nation’s Marian House, we see a similar phenomenon this time in living stone — the living members who make up the Body of Christ.

On any given Sunday or Solemnity, such as today, all we have to do is look out across the thousands of people gathered for Mass and we see the face of the world. Just as there are chapels throughout this Basilica reflecting national heritages, ethnic backgrounds, all proclaiming in unison “Hail Mary” so, too, do we look across this great Church of God and see out of so many one great faith family. We have come to be one in proclamation of faith, experience of redemption in the Eucharist and communion as one Church in God’s Holy Spirit.

In a moment we will solemnly bless this magnificent work of beauty. May we always look to this great majestic dome mindful of our prayer to Mary the Immaculately Conceived Mother of God that she will always intercede for us so that strong in faith, renewed in hope and committed in love, we might always sing in the silence of our hearts or with the joy of our voices (from Sing Praise to our Creator): “Oh, most Holy Trinity, Undivided Unity; Holy God, Mighty God. God Immortal, be adored.”

His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl is Archbishop of Washington. His serves on numerous national and international bodies and is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

| Making the Divine Manifest

Making the Divine Manifest

Combining equal parts rigorous architectural analysis and theoretical model for understanding the design principles behind the construction and performativity of early Christian and Byzantine liturgical space, Jelena Bogdanović’s monograph on the use of canopies in Byzantine churches is a welcome addition to the study of medieval art and architecture, as well as the framing devices, both physical and rhetorical, that were used to make the divine manifest in ecclesiastical space.

The core discussion of The Framing of Sacred Space is a precise, careful, and nuanced assessment of the extant archaeological and literary evidence for the development and geographical distribution of canopies in the Byzantine world. The monograph is divided into five chapters, bookended by an introduction and conclusion. The author has included seven tables in the appendix, an extensive bibliography, five maps, and nearly 175 beautifully illustrated figures (including canopies never before published). Many appear in color and in high resolution, which is becoming increasingly rare in academic print publications.

Chapter 1, “Ciborium or Canopy? Textual Evidence on Canopies in the Byzantine Church,” catalogues the myriad terms, phrases, and literary allusions to the architectural form of the canopy in medieval literature.

Chapter 2, “Canopies in the Byzantine Church: Archeological and Architectural Evidence,” provides a wide-ranging survey that covers not only the eastern Mediterranean and Levant, but also key examples of canopies in Italy and the North African Maghreb. Bogdanović extends her scope beyond the immediate confines of the Byzantine church—and most notably canopies—to include an analysis of ciboria erected over saints’ tombs, shrines, icons on display, baptismal fonts, and other architectural and liturgical furnishings within, adjacent to, or even outside of more strictly defined forms of Byzantine ecclesiastical space.

Chapter 3, “Place-Making: The Place of the Canopy in the Church,” examines the specific locations and uses of canopies in Byzantine constructions of sacred space. It is here that the author begins to craft her theoretical and theological approach to Byzantine architecture as both cosmological and, most importantly for her two final chapters, anthropological model.

Chapter 4, “The Micro-Architectural Framing of Sacred Space,” continues developing this model and further explains the relationship between architectural framing devices and the Byzantine conception of the human body itself, arguing for an inextricable relationship between the divine and the human, with the canopy functioning as a threshold between the two.

It is also in the chapter that the author recontextualizes the canopy as a critical link between the early Christian development of the centrally-planned church and the more modular and fluid architectural solutions of the Middle Byzantine era. She thereby effectively challenges more conventional narratives of the rise and fall of Byzantium before and after Iconoclasm that tend to overstate the influence of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as the only legitimate archetype for understanding cross-in-square church construction.

Finally, chapter 5, “Nested in Its Own Shape: The Canopy and the Byzantine Church,” concludes the study with an analysis of theological typologies in early Christian and Byzantine, as well as some western medieval, literature, most notably the Jerusalem Temple, the Holy Sepulchre, the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant, and the eschatological Heavenly Jerusalem, among others. The author consistently frames the discussion of these typologies with a broader analysis of the architectural forms of specific canopies, where they were placed, and the materiality of the canopy as earthly substance and locus of an otherwise heavenly encounter.

Bogdanović has written considerably more than a catalogue or compendium of Byzantine canopies from the earliest Christian example at third-century Dura-Europos in Syria to fifteenth-century Turkey and Greece. The Framing of Sacred Space incorporates a much-needed discussion of the intricate relationship between Byzantine architecture, interior decoration, and the very conception of enlivened, animate space, with divine presence activated and facilitated by the use of the canopy. This monograph should be a standard reference and starting-point for future discussions of spatial archetypes in Byzantium and the medieval world.

Nathan S. Dennis is Assistant Professor of Art History and Museum Studies at the University of San Francisco. He specializes in late-antique and early-medieval art, architecture, and theology in the Mediterranean and Levantine world.

| A Glorious Masterwork

A Glorious Masterwork

Photo credit: ghtc-kc.org
Photo credit: ghtc-kc.org

The Glorious Masterworks of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, Kansas City, Missouri is an almost once-in-a-lifetime read on a single sacred space and its myriad of interlocking factors bound into a hefty, fascinating, profusely illustrated monograph. Grace and Holy Trinity is the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri.

Most monographs devoted to a single sacred space in the U.S. discuss the architect and maybe a source or two of inspiration, then mention a major donor or two for the windows, and that all in fifteen or so pages. Loy’s book gives a comprehensive architectural and art history of the church and exhaustive biographies of its several major and minor donors. Loy, a life-long resident of Kansas City who spent ten years researching and writing the book, leaves no stone, pew, vestment, or chalice of the church unexamined.

The gathering of glorious windows, each reproduced in full color on its own page with an exhaustive description, makes the nave a very special place in the United States. Loy’s finds, for example, include the discovery that one window was created by Gottfried Heinersdorff (1883-1941) of Munich, Germany. This is the only known window fabricated by this important Munich studio in North America. He also discovered that Mary Fraser Wesselhoeft, an American artist, designed this window. Their lengthy biographies could be a stand-alone publication.

Further, Loy writes that the Chorister window (installed in 1901) is the only known window to be in a church west of the Mississippi by the studio of Heinigke & Bowen of Brooklyn, New York. He also identifies the Saint Cecilia window from 1902 as produced locally by the Campbell Glass and Paint Company.

The parish purchased property in 1887 for its first stone structure and invited among others, the firms of Burling & Whitehouse, McKim, Mead & White, and James & James to draft plans. Only the James design has survived in the Cathedral Archives. The brothers John King and Arthur Henry James proposed a large structure in the style of Henry Hobson Richardson, whom Arthur had worked for in New York. It was rejected.

A design submitted by another pair of brothers, Adriance and John Van Brunt of Kansas City, was chosen. Though they did not have the formidable James brothers’ pedigree, their design was selected. Their building is now the Guild Hall. It too had Romanesque roots but is mostly free of ornament, columns or arched window openings.

Foundations for the nave had already been laid in 1888 when the Reverend Cameron Mann requested a three-month leave of absence to visit great English cathedrals. He returned convinced that Richardson’s American Romanesque style was not the answer. He asked Frederick Elmer Hill to design a cathedral in the English style.

Hill was born in Wisconsin to immigrants from Hamburg, Germany. He studied architecture at MIT and then worked in the firm of McKim, Mead & White in New York until about 1890, when he moved to Kansas City. After some discussion, the nave was built in a style identified as Transitional Norman Gothic. Construction on the 138-foot- long, 60-foot-wide, 75-foot-tall peaked roof building began in June 1893 and was completed at the end of 1895. Its interior decoration was left for later. Plain opaque glass filled the round-arched windows. Over the next several decades the congregation donated the windows and other fine liturgical furnishings we see today.

Meanwhile, Francis Meredyth Whitehouse, of the Chicago architectural firm of Burling & Whitehouse, designed Trinity Church, also downtown. Built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style — a stylistic cousin to Trinity Church, Boston — it was completed in 1888.

Trinity Church, Boston, had spawned a style craze that swept America. The style was a mélange of cream and rust colored rusticated courses of ashlar with historical round-arched references and inspirations that sprint from Early Christian Syria to Carolingian, while clutching to Byzantine and Visigothic memories.

Grace Church and Trinity Church flourished as the congregations grew, then declined after years of national economic instability and the movement of population away from the downtown. Crushing financial woes followed. Grace Church owned its buildings free and clear and in 1917, Trinity Church merged with Grace Church. Membership totaled about 850 souls for both churches.

Grace Church flourished while Trinity Church declined and was sold in 1935, with most of its interior furnishings and windows removed. The last congregation vacated that building in 1957. It was demolished in 1966. In 2006, the location became a parking lot.

Loy’s book also features a fascinating section on Kansas City from its early years, with an especially telling photograph from 1875 of what may be a 25 to 30-foot-tall mound of bison skulls.

The Glorious Masterworks of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, Kansas City, Missouri is about so much more than a building. It tells the story of a culture now gone, but not forgotten.

Rolf Achilles (www.rolfachilles.com) is an independent art historian and consultant with a special interest in the decorative arts.

| Instaurare Omnia

Editorial: Instaurare Omnia

There is an unprecedented crisis in our cities, yet most are not aware of it. It does not affect residents nor shoppers in our tony neighborhoods. In working-class neighborhoods some see it as a concern, but they are a minority. What is this crisis? In dioceses across the country, including Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, and New York, we have faced a historic number of church closings. The reasons are due to a lack: of funds, of parishioners, or of priests. Small dioceses are also suffering from this crisis, and they are trying to be good stewards of their finances.

But why is closing church buildings a big issue? Because they are holy places, dedicated to God and His saints, set apart for worship and the reception of the sacraments, paid for by the faithful, and honored as repositories of sacred and devotional art. What the Modernists said about the ethnic churches in many of our cities and towns is often true: they were often not well built and not that beautiful. They were put up quickly on low budgets by poor, uneducated immigrants. Yet for many people these buildings seem like masterpieces in comparison to the worship spaces that we—wealthy, educated, and professional—have built over the past fifty years.

One solution is to sell the church. Not to a Protestant congregation, which usually has limited funds, but to a developer who could retrofit it into some secular use, whether as condominiums, office space, or a community hall. Well-known examples of this are the renovations of the former Los Angeles cathedral, Saint Vibiana, into a wedding and corporate event center, and of Saint John the Baptist Church in Pittsburgh into a brew pub. Often when a sale is proposed, the overly pious are assured that all of the major artistic pieces will be removed, meaning altars, stained glass, and statuary. This is because we have come to believe that the architecture itself is not sacred, the place has not been sanctified by its use, and if we move the furniture out, it is okay for a temple to become a den of thieves.

Another option is to tear down the historic church and sell the land. If the building is no longer slated for sacred purposes then it is better that it no longer exist. In many upper-income neighborhoods the church building itself is worthless and the property is more beneficial being “converted” to high-end condominiums. An added benefit is that the property can go back on the tax rolls and help the city. If the building is pleasant this may be seen as a loss, but if it is ugly or built since the 1960s this solution will sadden few people. The building should be offered up to God, not unlike an Old Testament sacrifice. For those who would mourn it, it is well to remember that this is what the Romans did to the Temple in Jerusalem when the Israelites rebelled.

But what if the building is still beloved by people in the neighborhood, especially the faithful? What are some creative ways to assist them to have a house of prayer that is a light to the city and a locus for the sacraments? What if the people can come up with a financial plan to maintain the church? Some churches, though seldom used, can become satellites of nearby parishes. At the minimum, these churches could be open for special occasions: baptisms, weddings, funerals, and important feast days. In Europe, religious confraternities and guilds own oratories and are responsible for their maintenance and sacred use. They can be opened for as little or as much as they are able. They are responsible for the property, maintaining the building, and finding clergy to celebrate the sacraments.

The option most likely to succeed is to invite a religious order in to run the parish. Opus Dei, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, and the Institute of Christ the King have a track record in reviving dying parishes and restoring beautiful buildings and artwork. In Chicago, Cardinal George asked the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal to reopen a closed parish in a tough neighborhood (see “A Magnificent Witness: Our Lady of the Angels Mission in Chicago” in the Spring 2017 issue of Sacred Architecture). In Fort Wayne, Indiana, Bishop Kevin Rhoades brought in a new order, the Franciscan Friars Minor, to reopen a shuttered parish church and serve the poor in the neighborhood.

In America, where everything is portable, why not move historic churches from the old ethnic neighborhood out to the suburbs where there is a growing population? Unless it is a small wooden chapel, this is a serious undertaking and is much more difficult than it sounds. The idea of recycling sounds very attractive today, especially if the historic church has a lot of detail work and precious art. While a worthy goal, it should be pointed out that you will need experts in sacred architecture, preservation, and historic construction if you are to carefully dismantle and rebuild an old church. The cost to move it will likely be greater, and the benefits to the environment may not be better than designing a new church from scratch. That being said, it is one way to conserve works of sacred architecture that otherwise might fall into disrepair.

The best option, of course, is to find a creative way to keep these historic churches open. They are important to their neighborhoods and to the life of the city. They are a significant part of our cities’ history and beacons of faith to modern society. If that cannot be done, why not follow the example of medieval Rome, where the populace fled and many of the churches were unused for long periods of time? Fortunately, most were mothballed or allowed to survive so that in later times they could be reopened, restored, and beautified. Churches that have worthy sacred art and architecture should be treated that way. We should give them a chance to serve the Church and the world in a better future.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| What Good Can Come Out of Nazareth?

What Good Can Come Out of Nazareth?

Holy Name Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina, was dedicated on July 26th, 2017, and cost $45.7 million. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

Holy Name Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina, was dedicated on July 26th, 2017, and cost $45.7 million. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

“Every chapel, every church in every parish of the diocese is a monument of the Christian faith and the Christian love of those who built it. Necessarily, however, the resources at the disposal of any one parish are limited: at best the monument it builds is only a partial token of the good will of its Catholic people. Therefore, they said, we will, in a united outflow of generosity, build . . . one great temple that, in expressive manner, will symbolize, as no isolated effort can do, our Christian faith and Christian love, and will preach to the world of men around us the grandeur of that faith, the sublime holiness of that love. This is the history of . . . the common monument of the whole people of God to Christ, to the Catholic faith.”

- From the text of Archbishop John Ireland’s first homily at the new Cathedral of Saint Paul in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on Palm Sunday, March 28, 1915.

A History of Stewardship

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

While the historical and spiritual answer to this question is so well known as to make the asking tongue-in-cheek, the question has remained one of continual renewal and response for a certain property on the outskirts of the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. In the late 1890s, Father Tom Price purchased this large parcel of land to serve as the epicenter for his pastoral ministry, work that could only be described as missionary in character. Together with his sister, Sister Mary Agnes of the Sisters of Mercy, Father Price responded with great trust and foresight to the acute poverty he witnessed in the area by founding the Nazareth Orphanage on the site in 1899.

Over the years, the Nazareth property would undergo changes to its size, occupancy, and function, but never to its role as a vital hub within the diocese. What began as an orphanage for boys from deceased or destitute families soon became coeducational, responsible for feeding, clothing, sheltering, teaching and otherwise forming as many as 250 primary and secondary school children at a time. More than sixty years after its opening, the orphanage would finally close due to social, cultural, and demographic changes, and its buildings were demolished. Thereafter, the site served as the campus of a newly constructed Cardinal Edward Gibbons High School from the late 1960s through the late 1990s. It was subsequently used to house the Diocese of Raleigh Catholic Center, acting as the administrative home of the diocese for a time. After a portion of the property was sold to North Carolina State University for its Centennial Campus, just 39 of the original 400+ acres remained, upon which its story might be continued.

At the same time, elsewhere in Raleigh, a lack of space was proving to be a cause for concern for the diocese, but as with most such constraints it was also to prove the source of opportunity.

To Build a Cathedral

Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Raleigh, a parish church that was elevated to cathedral status when the Diocese of Raleigh was established in 1924 (the same year the church was completed), had a seating capacity of only three hundred and was offering up to twelve Sunday Masses, with each filled to capacity. It was an unsustainable situation for a diocese that had become home to over 215,000 Catholics. In 2009, the idea of a new cathedral for Raleigh began to emerge in discussions. The Nazareth property presented a possible solution in the form of a new cathedral campus. Schematic designs were solicited and budgets explored, while ambitions were weighed against resources. In the end, the same spirit of prudential stewardship evidenced by Father Price long ago could be said to animate the discernment of the then Bishop of Raleigh, the Most Reverend Michael Burbidge. Trusting in the ministrations of Providence, Bishop Burbidge vowed to build a fitting edifice but avoid incurring any debts by defining the budget according to the sacrificial generosity of donors. The results of a capital campaign demonstrated that willingness to total nearly $46 million in pledged contributions by 26,000 families, with several million more raised and redistributed in the form of rebates to parishes according to their own needs. A new chapter was about to commence for the Nazareth property.

In 2011, McCrery Architects of Washington, D.C., provided initial designs, and in 2013, the architectural firm of O’Brien and Keane from Arlington, Virginia, was hired to complete the project. Over the next two years, incorporating the feedback from parishes around the diocese and from other consultants, designs for the cathedral took shape. On January 3, 2015, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the site to commence what would amount to two and a half years of construction led by the contractor, Clancy and Theys. On July 21, 2017, the cornerstone of the cathedral, inscribed with a golden Christogram and blessed by Pope Francis, was finally installed, signaling the impending cessation of work and a dedication that was fast approaching.

Just five days later, on July 26, 2017, the din and clamor of construction finally acquiesced to the intonation of prayers and the sounds of heavenly harmonies in liturgical devotion. A veritable cloud of witnesses gathered on the grounds of the former home for orphans to celebrate the adoption of their new spiritual home: Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. Fittingly, the cathedral shares its namesake with the chapel of the former Nazareth orphanage, a symbolic gesture intending both historical and spiritual continuity that was not lost on those gathered for the rite of dedication—particularly those who had themselves once been residents of the orphanage. A further point which did not go unnoticed was how the immense size of the new cathedral, in comparison to the former, tangibly reflected just how real and significant the growth experienced by the diocese had been over the past few decades, let alone the ninety-three years since the Vicariate of North Carolina had been elevated to the Diocese of Raleigh. Beginning the day with the smallest Catholic cathedral in the continental United States, it had ended the day with one of the largest, covering a gross floor area of 43,000 square feet with seating room for two thousand distributed between its nave (one thousand seats) and transepts (five hundred seats each). Beyond its sheer scale, its traditional character also spoke palpably to the values of the community, for there is something significant in the fact that Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral is the first Catholic cathedral in the United States since the 1950s to be built in what may be called a traditional style.

An Architectural Assessment


Outlined against the Carolina-blue sky, Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral cuts both an immense and distinguished figure. Despite its linearity, its dome, tower, and façades provide a vertical anchorage that draws the eyes heavenward, and there is sufficient visual tactility and detail to allow one’s gaze to dwell and even revel over its rising volumes and articulated surfaces. The judicious appointment of cast stone and traditional details at prominent locations provides a sense of hierarchy, nobility, durability, refinement—and no small amount of delight. The wood-molded brickwork invokes a material hermeneutic of continuity with the brick buildings of the former orphanage, and its subtle variations, modulations, and textures enliven otherwise inert wall surfaces.

In short, the cathedral is recognizably traditional in appearance, drawing freely from the forms and details found in historical precedents, but without emulating any particular precedent. If pressed, it could be said to exhibit a mixture of Romanesque and Renaissance influences in the elevations affixed to its cruciform armature. Nowhere is this more evident than its front façade, whose southern visage commands the view from within the circular piazza that will serve as the urban center of the completed cathedral complex. Here, two classically articulated registers of cast-stone pilasters, pedestals, and entablatures frame arched windows and openings, and the stacked ensemble is set within a Romanesque frame and punctuated by a large round window in a field of wood-molded brick. It is handsome in itself, and yet it also feels somewhat applied to the body of the cathedral rather than integral, due to the way it is overlaid against the backgrounded form—something that is less noticeable in direct elevation rather than in the oblique.

Corinthian columns ring a projecting side chapel. Photo: O'Brien and Keane

Corinthian columns ring a projecting side chapel. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

Cast-stone detailing at the front façade of the new cathedral. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

Cast-stone detailing at the front façade of the new cathedral. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

To the right of the main façade, an attractive side chapel projects from the body of the narthex, appointed in cast stone with a ring of Corinthian columns framing arched and circular windows salvaged from the shuttered Church of the Ascension in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—originally designed by J.M. Kase & Company Art Stained Glass. Just beyond rises a large brick bell tower with brick quoining reaching 154 feet above the ground, topped by cast-stone balconies and a copper-domed baldachin of Corinthian columns housing a carillon of fifty bells, one of which was salvaged from the previous orphanage chapel. Overall, the tower is well scaled and makes a pleasing shape, though it does feel slightly dislocated from the façade. A closer proximity may have been better compositionally related, if not for its overriding function as a stair to the choir loft and serving as a middle ground in the elongated nave between the façade and the dome.

The exterior of the nave, side aisles, transepts, and apse of the cathedral are treated predominantly in wood-molded brick, modulated in low relief to frame and accentuate the window bays, with cast-stone accents applied to the transept elevations. At the intersection or crossing of these forms rises a large dome mounted on a brick base, with its apex measuring 173 feet above the ground and weighing 162 tons. As the most significant architectural component in the cathedral composition, it features a drum of paired Corinthian columns flanking sixteen arched windows, crowned by an entablature and parapet and surmounted by an enormous ribbed copper dome and cross visible for miles. The shape of the copper dome itself successfully prevails against a contemporary problem with “squatness” when such architectural features are only studied in elevation and their perspective from the ground is not accounted for. It could be further augmented by introducing a tall stone plinth or pedestal between the brick platform and the colonnade, and by increasing the size of the cross atop the dome.

Plan of the cathedral. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

Plan of the cathedral. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane


The cathedral’s interior stands equal with and complementary to its exterior. Its impressive volume is given scale and proportion by its classical lineaments in both plan and elevation, and it is rendered in a pleasing palette of pale hues both warm and cool in tone. In its plan the cathedral delineates a cruciform shape with a relatively traditional distribution and sequence of its main spaces, from the narthex and choir loft to the nave and side aisles, transepts, sanctuary, apse, and sacristies.

All Saints Chapel is located off of the narthex. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

All Saints Chapel is located off of the narthex. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

The narthex with Tuscan columns and Ionic pilasters above. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

The narthex with Tuscan columns and Ionic pilasters above. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

The tripartite narthex centers on a large multistory atrium where a perimeter colonnade of Tuscan columns is surmounted by a register of corresponding Ionic pilasters, attic clerestory, and finally a barrel-vaulted ceiling with rose window, all serving to carry the architectural narrative of the façade into the interior. To the side, All Saints Chapel (previously noted) is accessed through the main narthex, as are the public service spaces and choir loft stairs. The endonarthex, located below the organ and choir loft, transitions between the narthex and the nave and houses the confessionals. Set on a radial stone pattern, the beginning of the nave is effectively signaled by the baptismal font, whose functional role is commensurate with its sacramental role, effecting and signifying entrance into the body of the church.

Taken all together, the outsized narthex introduces an unresolved tension between the plan and elevation by overextending the length of the nave, highlighted by the aforementioned placement of the campanile between the façade and the dome. A more compact narthex could have facilitated a better resolution to this tension in the overall composition.

Nave with baptismal font. Photo: O'Brien and Keane

Nave with baptismal font. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

The nave and its transepts reveal an impressive barrel-vaulted space nearly eighty feet high and outlined by two main horizontal registers that are divided into a sequence of twenty-two vertical bays, each featuring a bipartite subdivision of major and minor elements. The arcades of the lower register define the nave from the side aisles where the interstitial wall spaces between the perimeter windows are lined with devotional elements such as statuary and Stations of the Cross. The arcade is composed of paired Tuscan columns and pilasters that are interrupted and framed by larger Tuscan pilasters, whose projection carries stacked Ionic pilasters above and defines the bays of the nave and its vaulting. The tall bays of the upper register are each composed of a thin, arcuated triforium of Ionic columns (contrasting significantly with the depth of the arcade below), above which hovers a single, arched stained-glass window.

Where installed, these windows, designed by Paula Balano, pair with a matching set of stained-glass windows in the bay of the side aisle below, thus retaining a relationship with their original triptych arrangement in the Church of the Ascension, Philadelphia. The most saturated color values of the cathedral’s interior are reserved to these striking, figural stained-glass windows, which glow in a mixture of bold primary and secondary colors within a field of predominantly blues and reds. In themselves, the stained-glass windows are exquisite works of sacred art, though they stand in contrast to the subdued chromaticism of most of the interior. As a result, they highlight the perception that the interiors would be well served by a stenciling program in a second phase, if and when funds permit.

The proportional relationship between the shorter lower register and the taller upper register in the nave and transepts contributes a somewhat Romanesque quality despite its classical details. This relationship is accentuated by the lack of a continuous horizontal datum spanning between the Ionic pilasters in the clerestory area. To its credit this emphasizes the height and verticality of the nave to great effect. As a result, however, the Ionic pilasters also seem to float a little, particularly with their bases occluded by the lower entablature. A vertical emphasis would have been helpful at the crossing, where the entablature of the lower register bisects the crossing piers. Eliminating this would cause the piers to read at a giant scale in relation to the nave and transepts, from which the dome erupts above the sanctuary space. This would also echo the way the major pilasters of the lower register read monumentally against the columns and pilasters spanning between them. Nevertheless, the patterned sequence of horizontal and vertical elements draws the eye ineluctably forward and upward, visually culminating in the sanctuary, as it should.

Sanctuary with marble altar, ambo, and cathedra. Photo credit: O'Brien and Keane

Sanctuary with marble altar, ambo, and cathedra. Photo credit: O’Brien and Keane

The raised sanctuary and altar of sacrifice occupy the axis mundi of the cathedral, centering on the nave and crossing beneath the luminous dome. Its liturgical furnishings are predominantly rendered in Bianco Carrara marble with Giallo Siena accents. The ambo is positioned to the side and slightly back of the altar to account for lines of sight from the transept, while the bishop’s cathedra is located against the crossing pier. Terminating the primary vista and framing the tabernacle stands the ciborium on its stepped dais. While slightly undersized in relation to its architectural surround, it punches above its weight because of its beauty and the accentuation of its verticality against the horizontal bands and smaller arches of the apsidal background. Its form also recapitulates the general shape of the main façade and thus stands in dialogue with it. While the façade signifies the transition between the profane and sacred realms, the ciborium visually mediates the space of the sanctuary and the apse with its iconographic elements drawing from the Book of Revelation—which is to say that it symbolizes the Eucharistic mediation between the kingdom of God on earth and the kingdom still to come. The apse, perhaps the weakest component in the sanctuary composition, features equally sized and stacked arches framed by paired Corinthian columns floating detachedly from the wall, half of whose bases are concealed by a platform fronted by bronze relief panels. Its weakness, however, is compensated for in virtue of being largely backgrounded by the visual gravitas of the ciborium, which arrests and focuses one’s attention on both the crucifix and the tabernacle, performing an act of silent architectural benediction upon the reposed Blessed Sacrament.


A traditional cathedral of this scale, quality, and character represents an ambitious undertaking and a commendable achievement that testifies to the successful collaboration of many parties—from the cathedral staff and diocesan parishioners to the architect, contractor, tradesmen, and craftsmen. Perhaps the greatest indication of its overall success comes in the near unanimous praise from the cathedral parishioners. One can easily see why. In the end, the cathedral stands as a visible sign and efficacious witness to the grandeur of the Christian faith: a monument to the people of God and to the Holy Name of Jesus that memorializes the past and the continued service rendered towards building the kingdom of God within the Diocese of Raleigh and the world. And in this, it succeeds in so many ways. Let the good that can come from Nazareth be proclaimed anew.

Joel Pidel is a native of Augusta, Georgia, and practices traditional architecture in New Canaan, Connecticut, residing nearby with his wife and children. He attended the University of Notre Dame where he studied architecture and philosophy, graduating in 2005, and practicing architecture in New York City for the next 11 years. His architectural and illustrative work has been published in books and magazines.











| Cultural Landscapes of Religious Pluralism: Networks of Difference and the Common Good

Cultural Landscapes of Religious Pluralism: Networks of Difference and the Common Good

What does it mean to enact religious pluralism, a key component of the American project? One way architects have answered this question is to create one space for multiple religions to worship and coexist, an effort that reached a high-water mark in the 1950s in the United States. Will Herberg in his 1955 book Protestant, Catholic, Jew explored the friendly interfaith dialogue among the so-called “big three” religions at midcentury, a major expansion of the religious tent beyond America’s Protestant tradition.1 Architects went to work in constructing spaces that would accommodate this broadened cooperative understanding of religion among the “big three,” and the fruits of this work are well known: Eero Saarinen’s MIT Chapel of 1955, Harrison and Abramovitz’s chapels at Brandeis University of 1954, and Walter Netsch’s Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, begun in 1959 and completed in 1962.2 Bruce Goff’s unrealized 1950 crystal chapel for the University of Oklahoma in Norman imagined a nondenominational space whose crystalline structure unabashedly gestured toward the utopian.3 In the immediate postwar period, we can understand these architectural solutions to interfaith space as part of a utopian vision of religious pluralism in America.

Interior of the Chapel at MIT by Eero Saarinen, 1955. Photo credit: Lee Kennedy Co. Inc

Interior of the Chapel at MIT by Eero Saarinen, 1955. Photo credit: Lee Kennedy Co. Inc

Today, spaces that are interfaith, nondenominational, pluralistic, or multifaith—descriptors variously given to spaces of religious pluralism—remain a challenge for those seeking to understand and shape sacred spaces, particularly as our understanding of pluralism expands to include Islam, Buddhism, atheism, and more. There are big-picture questions for those wanting to craft understanding across religions: How might architecture provide a means to create tolerance and to honor religious differences? More particularly, how do these questions play out in the context of American culture, where religious freedom is foundational to our national identity?

The River Building by SANAA at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, 2015. Photo credit: revistaplot.com

The River Building by SANAA at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, 2015. Photo credit: revistaplot.com

New work toward these questions has been carried out within the context of multifaith spaces, including airport multifaith chapels and SANAA’s Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, of 2015. The Manchester Architecture Research Centre’s project on multifaith spaces and a Radcliffe Institute project and website considering multifaith spaces are just two examples of the energies being given to studying such spaces.4 This attention to multifaith spaces has been true for both architects and scholars for a number of reasons. In focusing on designing one building, or a set of connected spaces, de novo, architects can control the elements and authorship that go into these commissions. They appreciate elemental aspects like light and water, include common-denominator symbols or words like “In the Beginning” in a 2010 Bryant University Interfaith Center by Gwathmey, Siegel, and Associates, and use phenomenological approaches to invoke the numinous in ways that may appeal to people of many different faiths. For scholars, multifaith spaces lend themselves to analysis through conventional means: understanding the architect, the client, the setting, the social and temporal context of a single building. The attempt to craft interfaith accommodation and understanding within one building has occupied the lion’s share in religious pluralism efforts, both in architectural practice and scholarly research.

Bryant University Interfaith Center, 2010. The inscription around the top of the wall reads

Bryant University Interfaith Center, 2010. The inscription around the top of the wall reads “In the Beginning” in five languages: Hebrew, Latin, English, Sanskrit, and Arabic. Photo credit: Shawmut

We seek to turn our attention away from the singular multifaith space toward a larger, messier understanding of what we call cultural landscapes of religious pluralism. Multifaith spaces run the risk of flattening true theological difference. The conundrum of how to preserve difference while promoting a shared understanding persists. How might Americans, who may never specifically seek out a multifaith space, encounter and see religious pluralism while going about their daily lives? How might we retrain our gaze to see anew how interfaith understanding actually operates in the lived experience? We argue here that taking a wider view of cultural landscapes of religious pluralism—as opposed to discrete multifaith spaces—is a more fruitful, realistic way to think about how we can construct interfaith understanding.

Conceptual Problems and Promising Approaches

As cultural landscapes of religious pluralism entail such a broad view, the project we are advocating raises important interdisciplinary and interpretive challenges. A few conceptual remarks may be helpful here. First, we need not settle upon a common definition of religion. What we seek is a better hold upon the diffuse and diverse material-cultural expression of religion. Furthermore, an embrace of religious pluralism that honors real theological difference raises the problem of intractable conflict among worldviews, which calls for a constructive theology of interreligious dialogue. And all of this takes place in a decidedly public arena with political implications, especially so in the American context that enshrines a separation between church and state in the Constitution.

A focus upon material religion entails a focus upon sacrality. There is much to treasure in the long tradition of appropriating phenomenology for interpretations of architecture. As a philosophical method rooted in the conviction that our understanding of reality is marked by its being partially constituted by human intention, it is valuable in its insistence that objects and environments be considered in light of embodied, lived experience in all its intersubjectivity. It resists reduction to form or style or any single factor. But its appropriation for the study of religion, and by extension religious or “sacred” sites, has tended to presume some extrahuman domain of divine reality—“the sacred”—which too readily flattens real religious difference. Phenomenological glosses on religion have been critiqued in many ways, such as historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith’s demonstration that human agency at least partially constructs sacrality through ritual and rite.5 But a presumption of “the sacred” is often too handy when confronted with religious difference, and especially interfaith spaces that elide such difference. “The sacred” offers a way out: the differences are human constructs; the reality to which they point is the real deal. Hence, interfaith spaces are about “transcendence” or “the ineffable.” Lost is Buddhist sacred space, Catholic sacred space, Muslim sacred space, and so on. Furthermore, only particular subsets of Buddhists, Catholics, or Muslims are likely to be moved by such generic “sacred” space. So how “interfaith” is it really?

The recent work of University of California, Santa Barbara, scholar of religion Ann Taves is promising here, as she argues that sacrality occurs through human attribution of sacred status and need not presume a transcendent reality about which we can agree.6 Markers of religious identity across the spectrum from devotional object to billboard to building to district offer many opportunities to consider religious pluralism as enacted in public in and through material culture. As attributions of sacrality are a subspecies of marking things as special, this approach can include those who are “spiritual but not religious,” and even atheists. It offers ways to compare experiences deemed sacred among “people who orient around religion differently,” to use InterFaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel’s phrase. Yet it also retains proper focus on distinct religious identities, and phenomenological analysis of their expression remains worthwhile. Indeed, Taves aims to reconcile the phenomenological tradition (which sees something beyond human construction at work in religious experience) with what neuroscientists can learn about how humans react to (and thereby value) different objects, settings, and events.

The neuroscience is beyond the scope of this commentary and is at any rate only burgeoning, but the promise of this view of sacrality is this: it is better suited to addressing diverse and conflicting interpretations since it focuses upon how and why particular peoples attribute sacrality to particular places, buildings, sites, practices, and objects. Answers to these questions involve broader socio-cultural contexts and are akin to other ways things are set apart. Regarding conflict, however, if those who orient around religion differently deem spaces (and practices, etc.) sacred on differing terms, and sacred landscapes are contested landscapes, how is productive discourse possible? While we may not need (or ever hope to have) a common definition of religion, we do need a theory of religions that can handle conflicting traditions while retaining difference. Conceptions of theological pluralism that minimize difference are markedly unproductive, as in philosopher of religion John Hick’s reduction of theological differences to vagaries of human culture.

One promising alternative is the work of Methodist University theologian J. R. Hustwit, who outlines an approach that stems from philosophical hermeneutics but eschews its tendency toward relativism in favor of an “ontological turn.”7 All is interpretation since ultimate truth is beyond human comprehension, but not all interpretations are equal. Rather, adherents in this contested field aim for ever-closer approximation of the truth in and through critical engagement with those of divergent and conflicting views. Drawing upon major strands of American Pragmatism (as does Taves via William James), Hustwit advocates a “fabilist hermeneutics” wherein “certainty and objectivity are unattainable, [yet] movement toward these ideals is possible.”8 The resulting theology of interreligious dialogue aims at more than getting along: it seeks real theological “mutual enrichment” through a “differential pluralism.”9 As Hustwit puts it, “a plurality of truth claims is practically useful because more competition drives inquiry closer to the truth.”10 Such an interreligious hermeneutics is a program of constructive postmodernism. It is incompatible with fundamentalism but otherwise fits well with a variety of theological traditions as it seeks to move beyond mere deconstruction or suspicion toward metanarratives. Honoring very real limits of human knowledge, it promises a means by which religious adherents can remain true to their own identities yet benefit from genuine interreligious dialogue.

All of this is solidly within the realm of theological discourse, yet the cultural landscapes to which we are drawing your attention are encountered in public, largely extratheological settings. In fact, we should follow here religion scholar Diana Eck’s lead in distinguishing between “theological discourse” and “civic discourse.”11 Far from a simple private/public distinction, Eck (founding director of Harvard’s Pluralism Project and a leader in studying the phenomenon) insists that both discourses can be quite public but are different in the terms and criteria they employ in debate. For our purposes, the theological discourse of interreligious hermeneutics is important for maintaining a hold on the differences at play, but it is not sufficient: How do we frame our interpretive view upon landscapes of religious pluralism such that substantive civil discourse can thrive in and through such difference and contestation?

The political-philosophical literature of deliberative democracy is helpful here, especially the notion of the public sphere. Metaphorically rooted in the ancient Greek agora as a place of public exchange of ideas, the public sphere is the discursive space in which the shared work of politics occurs. But since its first full statement by Jürgen Habermas,12 it is also an idea that has received substantive and ongoing critique. For instance, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues against the ideal (and bourgeois) nature of a single public sphere, situating the phenomenon within what he calls “social imaginaries.”13 Therefore, there are multiple public spheres, though they are related in a kind of nested hierarchy since some are subsets of other, larger ones. Feminist, subaltern, and other critiques of the idea take this further by insisting that there are not only multiple publics but also counterpublics. These latter are driven by resistance to what the dominant publics deem the common good toward which deliberation is oriented.

Perhaps the most promising recent version of such discursive space is that proposed by Yale political philosopher Seyla Benhabib, who outlines an agonistic model of democratic engagement that celebrates not only differing publics and counterpublics but the contest itself among them. In her words, this is an “interlocking net of

. . . multiple forms of associations, networks, and organizations . . . a public sphere of mutually interlocking and overlapping networks and associations of deliberation, contestation, and argumentation.”14 It is within and across such networks that the full material manifestation of American religious pluralism is found, its diverse particularity honored, and peaceful, substantive, and productive dialogue nourished.

Practical Problems and Promising Approaches

So now that we have outlined how the embrace of religious difference rather than the flattening of that difference leads to richer understanding, and how material culture at different scales and displayed in public makes religious difference real and ripe for engagement, here is how a view of an interfaith landscape might work: Imagine driving down a major thoroughfare and seeing, in succession, a Protestant church, a mosque, and a Greek Orthodox church. As you move through the landscape, you observe multiple instances of situated religion embodied in the architecture that realizes the theological truth claims for each particular tradition. And yet in your own personal movement through real space and time, your gaze also encounters a landscape of religious pluralism knitted together as a whole. Sally Promey at Yale University published a photograph of this experience of successive different houses of worship in a compressed landscape in her co-edited volume The Visual Culture of American Religions, arguing that “the visible display of religion allows individuals and groups to approach and to imagine perspectives different from their own. Visible religion takes on an active cultural role: rehearsing diversity, practicing pluralism.”15

The seeing of religious difference in public forces people to make sense of “the other,” often involuntarily, and therefore practice or enact religious pluralism. The reception of the Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1974) outside of Washington, D.C., is an illustrative case in point of a cultural landscape of religious pluralism. This building emerges dramatically to drivers along D.C.’s Capital Beltway, its six gold spires and white marble gleaming in the daylight and theatrically lit at nighttime. One 1973 assessment of the Mormon Temple noted that the temple “only adds to the architectural, cultural and religious pluralism of our society and our environment.”16 The fact that the temple, which by its very visibility encourages people to notice it, is nevertheless closed to all but “temple-worthy” Mormons has prompted an interfaith give-and-take. This lived landscape forces confrontation with religious difference, and the public here has responded. For over forty years, graffiti over the Beltway in sight of the temple reads “Surrender Dorothy,” a reference to The Wizard of Oz movie and a humorous reframing of the building as something fantastical. But there is also a weightier satirical critique here of the Mormon religion as something fraudulent, akin to the Wizard of Oz, who is revealed as merely “the man behind the curtain.” As this example suggests, in the involuntary confrontation with religion in the everyday landscape, people have found ways to react to religious difference, contest divergent viewpoints, and ultimately begin to integrate themselves within a shared pluralist landscape.

This concept of an interfaith landscape can also encourage us to think of other aspects of the messiness of religious pluralism that are not concerns of de novo multifaith spaces. For example, what of the “afterlife” (to use architectural historian Gretchen Buggeln’s term) of particular denominational buildings as they confront new issues? The Catholic Church’s repurposing of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s famed Crystal Cathedral (1977–1981) for Reverend Robert Schuller in Garden Grove, California, raises questions about how one theological tradition transforms a space from another theological tradition for its own use.17 The gutting of the Philip Johnson interior—to the chagrin of preservationists—suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to denominational space does not work, stressing the real differences in theological perspectives that multifaith spaces obscure.

The chapel at Duke University. Photo credit: wikimedia.org

The chapel at Duke University. Photo credit: wikimedia.org

Theologies conflict in other instances, too. In 2015, Duke University, originally a Methodist institution that now sees itself as nonsectarian, proposed that the Muslim call to prayer be broadcast on Fridays from the Duke University Chapel, constructed as a Methodist space. Outrage over the proposal came from outside the campus community, particularly through the ire of Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, who saw the use of a Christian space for Muslim practice as an affront to Christianity. Ultimately, the Duke administration pulled the plan to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer, but thinking about the intersection of a visibly Christian (neo-Gothic) space with an auditory Muslim prayer forces a confrontation of religious pluralism in new ways.18 Similarly, the College of William and Mary, founded as an Anglican college but made a public institution in 1906, became embroiled in a controversy in 2007 when it removed a cross from its chapel. While conservative critics denounced the removal as bending to political correctness, the college had to confront what to do with a historically Christian space at an institution required to respect religious difference.19 The solutions here are not easy or perfect—William & Mary decided to put the cross in an acrylic display case in the chapel as a way to honor a Christian past and a multifaith present—but our point is that engaging in theologically specific spaces, and the ways they confront religious change and understanding, is a lived landscape of religious pluralism that deserves attention.

The eighteen-inch brass cross on the altarpiece of the chapel of the College of William and Mary was removed in 2007. Photo credit: Margaret Grubiak

The eighteen-inch brass cross on the altarpiece of the chapel of the College of William and Mary was removed in 2007. Photo credit: Margaret Grubiak

Toward Many Cultural Landscapes of Religious Pluralism

An attributional model of sacrality, an interreligious hermeneutic stance, and public networks of difference: these are promising conceptual devices for framing the subject of religious pluralism. And a commitment to consider the many ways religion is manifest in concrete, material form presents many possibilities for further study. The reader can surely call to mind examples to add to those just explored. But to what end? What is needed is a fuller, more comprehensive picture of how Promey’s “rehearsing diversity, practicing pluralism” takes place. We need a way to map the changing nature of these phenomena.

Consider the 1748 Nolli map of Rome: the way it brought to the mind and to the eye a new window upon the city, integrating into the figure-ground clarity of open and closed space the interiors of buildings considered part of the public sphere of the day.20 We aim to join contemporary mapping technology, such as ArcGIS, to the ever-growing world of data that have geo-spatial implications pertaining to how people orient around religion in material terms—to map the material-cultural embodiment of religious pluralism. The idea is to create new permutations upon the Nolli contribution to visual representation that speak to our current challenge (and opportunity) to engage and enact religious pluralism in the cultural landscapes we inhabit together.

We are just now laying the groundwork for this stage of the project. For now, a few potential topics must suffice as a conclusion. For a given region, city, etc., imagine: How would we visually and spatially compare religious-affiliation demographics with levels of expression in material culture (monumental, memorial, etc.) and thereby map the degrees of divergence between them? How would we map spatial and material patterns of religion-oriented hate speech, vandalism, harassment, and threats? How would we chart special cases of changes in material culture due to political and demographic shifts, such as the current removal of Civil War monuments in New Orleans? Perhaps they relate—in ways yet to be made clear, yet worth clarifying—to the cultural landscapes of religious pluralism rooted in the history of the place (from Muslim slaves to varieties of Christian apologists and opponents of slavery, and so on). What other case studies or ways to frame the subject may be promising? Whatever direction this mapping project takes, our aim remains to achieve a better purchase upon an admittedly complex and fluid phenomenon—cultural landscapes of religious pluralism—all in the service of understanding, engaging, and nourishing the difference that constitutes a vibrant and open democratic society.

Margaret M. Grubiak, PhD, is an associate professor of architectural history in the Department of Humanities at Villanova University.

Timothy K. Parker, PhD, is an architect and an assistant professor of architectural history and theory in the School of Architecture + Art at Norwich University.


1. Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960).

2. On the MIT Chapel, see Margaret Grubiak, White Elephants on Campus: The Decline of the University Chapel in America, 1920–1960 (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014), 95–118. For the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, see Sheri Olson, “Lauded and Maligned: The Chapel,” in Modernism at Mid-Century: The Architecture of the United States Air Force Academy, ed. Paul Bruegmann (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 156–168.

3. “Crystal Chapel [University of Oklahoma],” Architectural Forum 93 (July 1950): 86–89.

4. See http://multifaithspaces.com and http://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/mui/marg/research/projects/current-projects/multi-faith-spaces/ProfileMultiFaithSpaces2_003.pdf.

5. Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

6. Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

7. J. R. Hustwit, Interreligious Hermeneutics and the Pursuit of Truth (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2014), 91.

8. Ibid., 88.

9. Ibid., 117–118.

10. Ibid., 89.

11. Diana L. Eck, “American Religious Pluralism: Civic and Theological Discourse, ” in Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism, ed. Thomas Banchoff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 243–270.

12. See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989).

13. See Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

14. Seyla Benhabib, “Toward a Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, ed. Seyla Benhabib (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 73-74.

15. Sally M. Promey, “The Public Display of Religion” in The Visual Culture of American Religions, ed. David Morgan and Sally M. Promey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 48.

16. Wolf Von Eckardt, “Spires of Babylonian Solemnity,” The Washington Post (June 30, 1973): C1.

17. See Duncan G. Stroik, “Editorial: Quo Vadis,” Sacred Architecture Journal 21 (Spring 2012).

18. See “Duke, Muslims, and the Limits of Interfaith Unity,” podcast, Interfaith Voices (January 29, 2015), http://interfaithradio.org/Story_Details/Duke__Muslims__and_the_Limits_of_Interfaith_Unity.

19. See Grubiak, White Elephants on Campus, 121–126.

20. See http://nolli.uoregon.edu for an interactive version of the map.

| John Anton Mallin: Ecclesiastical Artist and Decorator in Twentieth-Century Chicago

John Anton Mallin: Ecclesiastical Artist and Decorator in Twentieth-Century Chicago

Saint Joseph Church in Hammond, Indiana

Saint Joseph Church in Hammond, Indiana. Photo credit: Noah Vaughn

John Anton Mallin was a well-known ecclesiastical artist and decorator in Chicago, whose works are found in more than one hundred churches and chapels, as well as several residences, banks, and theaters. His career spanned almost sixty years, from the time he came to Chicago in 1907 until he retired in 1963. Although he primarily decorated Roman Catholic churches, he also decorated Greek Orthodox and Protestant churches. His work was in high demand and received lavish praise. A 1932 letter from his alderman, James Quinn, to Colonel Isham Randolph, a manager at the Century of Progress, introduced Mallin as “one of the outstanding designers and interior decorators in the City of Chicago. His class of work has been the subject of very high recommendation and many of our leading churches have been the objects of his wonderful efforts.”1 Mallin’s work was so well known that a wealthy businessman, John Cuneo, hired him in 1940 to decorate a chapel in his mansion in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Cardinal Stritch of Chicago was able to obtain a permit from Rome for the Cuneo chapel. Mallin later decorated three other rooms in the Cuneo mansion.

John A. Mallin was born Jan Anton Malinkoviˇc on April 14, 1883, to parents Jan Malinkoviˇc and Barbora Drobiliˇc in Hlohovec, in what is now the Czech Republic, but which at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1897, when he was fifteen years old, Mallin became a painter’s apprentice in the School of the Interior and Decorative Painters’ Guild in Vienna. He learned the art of church and interior decoration by working with a variety of master painters. He apprenticed in Vienna and throughout Europe. His workbook from this time period includes references to his good workmanship, diligence, and behavior. The last workbook entry was from Sankt Pölten, Austria, where he worked until December of 1906, when he was released due to lack of work.

In January 1907, he immigrated to Chicago, where his future sister-in-law was living. His bride-to-be, Rosalie Vokáˇc, a native of Prague whom he met in Vienna, joined him in Chicago later that year along with their infant daughter, Angela, who died within a few months of arrival. They subsequently had five additional children: Mildred, John, Louise, Anthony, and Ralph.

Mallin originally worked as a contractor on jobs throughout the Midwest and elsewhere. One of his first jobs, in 1907, was as a decorator of façades for the Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago. His other contracting jobs between 1907 and 1918 were in banks, theaters, courthouses, homes, and churches in several locations throughout Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. Little documentation of these earlier works exists except in postcards he sent to his family and some photos. Most of the buildings are no longer standing.

In 1918, he formed his own decorating company, John A. Mallin, Interior Art Decorations, and one of his first contracts was the decoration of the Main Chapel in the Bohemian National Cemetery (BNC) Columbarium in Chicago. According to his contract, he was paid $545 for the job. In 1929 and 1931, Mallin added to the decorations in the chapel. Mallin later changed the name of his company to John A. Mallin and Sons, although his eldest son John was the only son who worked with him on a permanent basis. His daughter Mildred also worked as his secretary until the 1950s.

Mallin’s workers’ timesheets show that he employed a number of workers at any one time, depending on the job. Many of them were of Slavic origin. Other documents show that Mallin sometimes worked on more than one job at the same time. Some jobs took up to six months or more; others were shorter in duration.

Some of the churches Mallin decorated include Saint Mary of Czestochowa (Cicero, Illinois), Saint Edmund (Oak Park, Illinois), Saint Joseph (Hammond, Indiana), and, in Chicago, Saint Mary of Perpetual Help, Holy Rosary Slovak Church, Saint Mary of the Angels, Saint Hedwig, Saint Hyacinth, Saint Jerome, Saint John of God, Saint Basil, and Saint Procopius. Mallin worked closely with such well-known church architects as Joseph W. McCarthy (Saint Basil, Our Lady of Lourdes, Saint Jerome) and Henry Schlacks (Saint Ignatius, Saint John of God, Saint Mary of the Lake, Saint Ita). Although many of his churches have either been torn down or redecorated, there are still many churches with his original or slightly revised decorations.

Work documents exist for many of his church decorations, which include sketches and details of the decorations that he would provide to the priests based on what they had proposed. The priests would also suggest revisions to his proposals, which could be quite detailed. Many priests also had their own faces painted into the decorations.

Two churches, Saint Joseph in Hammond and Saint Edmund’s in Oak Park, are highlighted here. These church decorations are quite different and highlight the versatility of Mallin as a decorator. Documents for these churches also show how Mallin engaged with the priests whom he was working with.

Saint Joseph’s, 5310 Hohman Ave, Hammond, Indiana

Saint Joseph Church, located in Hammond, Indiana, was founded in 1879. In 1927, Father Francis J. Jansen was appointed pastor of Saint Joseph, which had eight hundred families at that time.2

In 1934, Mallin received a copyright for a drawing of the arch above the altar of Saint Joseph Church. The copyright states, “The work of St. Joseph. Composite picture within semi circular arch. Central group at top: The Holy Family at work, four angels around them. Group of modern laborers at work with other men studying plans and model, below at left and right.”3 However, it wasn’t until several years later that Father Jansen hired Mallin to decorate the church. Many of the parishioners of the church worked in the numerous steel mills in the area, which were hit hard by the Depression. It is likely that the church did not have sufficient funds for the decorations in 1934.

In November of 1942, John Mallin received a letter from Father Jansen asking him to come and see him regarding the decoration of the church.4 Father Jansen also wrote a detailed description of what was to be included in the frescoes, which included a history of the parish and the industries in the area.5

In Father Jensen’s description, he stated that he wanted to show workers of all varieties, including steel workers as well as the artist himself. He wrote, “It would be nice to have steel workers painted as working the glow of the white hot metal of the furnace. Down below, Father Berg showing . . . the cartoons, or sketches of the stained glass windows of the church (he had them put in) to the present Bishop John F. Noll. Instead of the two clergymen with the Bishop, we might have a stained glass worker and an artist (yourself).”

An article in the Hammond Times newspaper in February of 1943, entitled “Laborers in the Vineyard,” described the frescoes above the altar.6 The article stated that Father Jansen wanted Mallin “to carry out the theme that there are no idlers in the kingdom.” It also stated that “another picture presents Bishop John F. Noll, Msgr. Edward Mongovan, chairman of the building committee of the diocese, and Father John Berg, the third pastor, examining a model of the stained glass windows, depicting the life of Christ, which were installed by Father Berg.” The final mural, which was not yet complete at the time the newspaper article was written, includes the artist, John Mallin, wearing his distinctive bow tie, showing the sketch of the arch design to Bishop Noll.

The sanctuary arch of Saint Joseph Church. The Holy Family is pictured at the top of the arch. Steel workers are shown on the left side above priests and John Mallin discussing the decorations. On the right side, a building is shown under construction, while underneath appear Father Henry M. Plaster, who built the church, and Father Jansen, who built the parish school, discussing plans with an architect. Photo credit: Noah Vaughn

The sanctuary arch of Saint Joseph Church. The Holy Family is pictured at the top of the arch. Steel workers are shown on the left side above priests and John Mallin discussing the decorations. On the right side, a building is shown under construction, while underneath appear Father Henry M. Plaster, who built the church, and Father Jansen, who built the parish school, discussing plans with an architect. Photo credit: Noah Vaughn

The 1934 Mallin drawing included angels around the Holy Family. However, describing the center-arch picture of the Holy Family, Father Jansen states, “The angels around the Holy Family are out. There should be an open house, the front left out, in which they are working. Father Baumgartner’s head to represent St. Joseph. He was the first pastor.” The Hammond Times stated, “At the highest point and in the most central position the Holy Family is shown engaged in useful occupations as told by sacred records which have it that Joseph was a carpenter, or as many like to term it, a home-builder. As nobody living knows what Joseph looked like, his face in the painting is that of Father Francis X. Baumgartner, the first pastor of the parish. St. Joseph is shown at work on his carpenter bench. The Holy Mother is spinning. With a hammer and chisel the Christ Child is shown putting a hole in a plank, assisting his foster father. (The picture is 16 x 11 feet and the figure of St. Joseph 6 feet 5 inches tall). Thus the Holy Family is presented as a model for workers.”

Father Jansen described his ideas for the left arch: “On the left side (looking at the picture), Father Henry Plaster, the second pastor, and Father Jensen, the present pastor, discussing plans. Father Jansen to have the purple cincture and also purple Pom-pom on biretta. The architect to have on an ordinary present day business suit.” The Hammond Times further elaborated, “To the left and a little below the Holy Family are shown a brick mason, a stone mason and structural iron workers and to the right and under the level of the main picture are scenes from the steel mills. Under a drawing of a building in course of construction appear Father Henry M. Plaster, who built the church, and Father Jansen, who built the parish school, discussing plans with an architect. To the credit of Father Plaster, who was shepherd of the flock for 33 years, it must be said, the building, dedicated in 1913, was so well constructed there is not a crack in the structure to this day.”

The construction perhaps also protected the church against three attempts to burn down the church, in 1956, 1960, and 1971. The first attempt in 1956 may have prompted Father Jansen to ask Mallin to add additional decorations and restorations to the church in 1957. In a letter written to Father Jansen dated January 16, 1957, Mallin states, “There will be some new improvements made in the Sanctuary wall, color scheme and design. The wall will be laid in with genuine XX 23 carat gold leaf and worked out in a mosaic effect and symbols. All the mural paintings will appear like new after restoration and you will find all the decoration to come up to all your expectations.”7 In fact it was common for Mallin to add decorations or restorations to many of the churches he decorated.

Saint Edmund’s, 188 South Oak Park Ave, Oak Park, Illinois

Saint Edmund’s Church was the first Catholic parish established in the village of Oak Park, a town just west of the city of Chicago. Oak Park was predominantly Protestant at that time, and this community opposed the establishment of a Catholic church, believing, among other things, that “a horde of undesirables would rush in upon them with advent of the great Democratic church which draws no line between rich and poor.” The Reverend John J. Code was first appointed by Archbishop James Quigley to organize the church in 1907.8

The first Mass in 1907 was said in a barn, and with the help of a local banker, John Farson, funds were raised to build a church. In 1910, a new church designed by the architect Henry Schlacks was dedicated. The church was built in the English Gothic style of the fourteenth century using blue Bedford stone. Reverend Code chose an English saint for the parish, Edmund Rich of Abington, Archbishop of Canterbury.9

The construction of Saint Edmund Church in Oak Park, Illinois, was opposed by the Protestant community. Photo credit: Noah Vaughn

The construction of Saint Edmund Church in Oak Park, Illinois, was opposed by the Protestant community. Photo credit: Noah Vaughn

The Saint Edmund Preservation Society website notes that the church was decorated in 1920 by the artist John F. Sturdy, and the decorations were described in the 1920 parish bulletin. Describing the apse, it states, “Amid a wealth of wheat and grape foliations clad in priestly garments . . . is the figure of Christ upon a miniature altar. . . . On either side of him, surrounded by hovering and adoring angels are the kneeling figures . . . of the Jewish high priest, censer in hand, and Melchisedech with bread and wine.”10

Monsignor Code was still at Saint Edmund’s in 1943, celebrating his fiftieth anniversary as pastor. It was in this year that he hired John Mallin to decorate the church. The 1943 decorations are described in detail in the golden jubilee book for Monsignor Code. For example, in the sanctuary, “the decorations are in the Gothic style of ornament in which red, blue, and gold colors predominate. The cobalt blue and vermilion reds are made from expensive minerals and are very durable, while the gold color is real beaten gold leaf over 23 carats fine.”11

The Saint Edmund Preservation Society website indicates that the same three apse figures from the 1920 decorations appear in the 1943 decorations, suggesting that “Mallin was probably instructed by Msgr. Code to keep and restore these figures in the apse.” These include the figure of Christ in the center, with Old Testament priest figures Aaron and Melchisidech on either side.12 The Preservation Society notes:

To judge from the particular motifs of his floral and geometric stenciling, Mallin, like many other decorators and architects, may have owned a copy of the 1849 pattern book of A.W. Pugin, Floriated Ornament, now long out of print. Pugin’s immensely influential pattern book was based on his antiquarian research into medieval Gothic designs. His aesthetic premise that shapes found in nature (such as grape leaves) should be used, not naturalistically, but rather in two-dimensional, geometric patterns had a profound influence on the later Arts and Crafts movement and also on such Prairie School architects as George Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright.13

The 1943 golden jubilee book described the four large murals in the ceiling of the crossing: “the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, the Ascension of Christ into Heaven, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and the Four Evangelists.” Other noted decorations were also mentioned: “Above the capitols [sic] in the transept where the ribs and arches meet are eight life size figures of angels. Four prophets are depicted on the north and south end of the transepts. In the nave ceiling are depictions of several ‘chief doctors of the church,’ and on the ceiling of the sanctuary are portraits of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Paul, Apostle of the Gentiles, and Agnes and Aloysisus, patrons of youth of both sexes.”14

Ceiling of Saint Edmund Church. Photo credit: Noah Vaughn

Ceiling of Saint Edmund Church. Photo credit: Noah Vaughn

In 1951, additional decorations were added by Mallin, which took approximately six months to complete. The “Edmund Echoes” church bulletin from 1951 stated, “Walls and ceilings are covered with beaten pure gold leaf of 23 carats, in mosaic pattern adorned with delicate floral designs and symbols, furnishing a delightful background for more than two score oil paintings, illustrating teachings of the church from scenes in the life of its divine founder.”15 Mr. Don Giannetti, the parish assistant at Saint Edmund’s, remembers the gold leaf being applied to the ceilings in 1951. He described the process whereby the ceiling was painted the same color as the grout, after which stencils were glued to the ceiling. The gold leaf was applied over the stencils, and any excess gold leaf flaked off and fell to the floor.16

The 1951 church bulletin describes the paintings found in the vaulted ceiling, the transepts, sanctuary ceilings, and the front vestibule. The cost of the decorations was $25,000, and parishioners were asked to help defray the costs by making votive offerings, with the suggested donations of $330 for large paintings and $100 for medallions representing about half the cost of the paintings. Descriptions of the nineteen large paintings and twelve medallions are found in the bulletin and in a hand-written document of Mallin, which describes the placement of each painting and medallion. Of note, the medallion of Saint John the Baptist on the ceiling has the face of Monsignor Code. Monsignor Code also had Mallin paint the face of Saint Thérèse the Little Flower with that of Sister Urban, who was a principal at Saint Edmund’s School at the time.17

In the late 1990s, some restoration and renovations were done to the church. Major changes in the decorations included painting over the gold stenciling on the sanctuary and church walls.18 One can still see the original stencils in a photo of the sanctuary at the Saint Edmund Preservation Society website.19 The other paintings and decorations are still intact.

Mallin’s Studios, Advertising, and Travels

Mallin advertised his company through word of mouth and through his many brochures that included photos and descriptions of his work. He originally worked out of his Chicago residences but later rented a studio at the Fine Arts Building at 410 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago in the 1920s, and he stayed in the studio at least through the 1940s. In 1929, he had a two-story flat built at 2252 West Devon in Chicago that he also used as his studio. Mallin traveled back and forth to Europe several times for his work and to visit his relatives. He would visit churches and other buildings to get ideas for his work. He also imported oil paintings from European art houses to supplement his church decorations.

In retirement, Mallin painted portraits of his family at his Devon Avenue building. Mallin also purchased a farm property at the corner of Lake Cook and Waukegan Road in Deerfield. He and his family would spend some weekends there when he was not otherwise busy working. It probably reminded him of the farm and wine region where he grew up in Moravia. On January 9, 1973, Mr. Mallin died at the age of eighty-nine years old.

Katherine Mallin is the daughter of Ralph Mallin, the youngest of John Mallin’s children. She has created a website about Mallin’s work based on Mallin’s archival documents, photos, and paintings that were passed down to her from her aunt, Mildred Mallin Fritz. See JohnAMallin.com


1. Letter from James R. Quinn, Alderman Chicago City Council, to Colonel Isham Randolph, Century of Progress, November 23, 1932.

2. Saint Joseph Jubilee book, 1879–1979. Copy provided by the Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest.

3. John Mallin, Copyright of mural decorations received from Library of Congress Copyright office, June 30, 1934. The copyright is included in Catalog of Copyright Entries 29, no. 4 (1934).

4. Letter from Reverend Francis J. Jansen to John A. Mallin, November 12, 1942.

5. Description of decorations from Reverend Francis J. Jansen to John A. Mallin (no date).

6. “Laborers in the Vineyard,” Hammond Times, February 18, 1943,

7. Letter from John A. Mallin to Reverend Francis J. Jansen, January 16, 1957.

8. A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago, vol. 1, ed. Msgr. Harry C. Koenig, S.T.D. (Chicago: Archdiocese of Chicago, 1980).

9. Ibid.

10. Frank Heitzman, “A History of Saint Edmund Church,” published January 1999, http://academics.triton.edu/faculty/fheitzman/sehistory.html

11. Golden Jubilee book in celebration of Monsignor John J. Code, Church of Saint Edmund, 1943.

12. Heitzman, “A History of Saint Edmund Church.”

13. Ibid.

14. Golden Jubilee book in celebration of Monsignor John J. Code.

15. “Edmund Echoes” Church Bulletin, vol. 6, November 18, 1951.

16. Conversation with Don Giannetti, parish assistant at Saint Edmund’s, 2016.

17. Ibid.

18. “History,” Saint Edmund Parish website, http://www.stedmund.org/history.htm

19. Frank Heitzman, photos of Saint Edmund’s interior, http://academics.triton.edu/faculty/fheitzman/photos.html

| “Urbs Ierusalem Beata”: The Hymn for Evening Prayer for the Dedication of a Church

“Urbs Ierusalem Beata”: The Hymn for Evening Prayer for the Dedication of a Church

Urbs beata Jerusalem

dicta pacis visio

quae construitur in caelis

vivis ex lapidibus

et angelis coronata

ut sponsata comite.

Nova veniens e coelo

nuptiali thalamo.

Praeparata, ut sponsata,

copuletur Domino.

Plateae et muri ejus

ex auro purissimo.

Portae nitent margaritis,

adytis patentibus,

et virtute meritorum

Illuc introducitur

omnis qui ob Christi nomen

hic in mundo premitur.

Tunsionibus, pressuris,

Expoliti lapides,

suis coaptantur locis,

per manus artificis,

Disponuntur permansuri,

sacris aedificiis.

Blessèd City, heavenly Salem,

Vision dear of peace and love,

Who, of living stones upbuilded,

Art the joy of heaven above,

And, with angel cohorts circled,

As a bride to earth dost move!

From celestial realms descending,

Bridal glory round her shed,

To his presence, deck with jewels,

By her Lord shall she be led:

All her streets and all her bulwarks,

Of pure gold are fashionèd.

Bright with pearls her portals glitter,

They are open evermore;

And, by virtue of his merits,

Thither faithful souls may soar,

Who for Christ’s dear name in this world

Pain and tribulation bore.

Many a blow and biting sculpture

Fashioned well those stones elect,

In their places now compacted

By the heavenly Architect,

Who therewith hath willed for ever

That his palace should be decked.

-trans. John Mason Neale

The hymn “Urbs Ierusalem beata” (Blessed city, Jerusalem), by an unknown author, is from the eighth or ninth century at the latest. The Liturgy of the Hours as revised by Pope Paul VI, consistent with the tradition, has assigned it to Evening Prayer for the anniversary of the dedication of a church. In the manuscripts, it is found in the Vatican, Benedictine, Carmelite, Cistercian, Premonstratensian, and Dominican breviaries.

The “Urbs Ierusalem beata” is one of the hymns that were greatly revised in 1632 by a commission under the direction of Pope Urban VIII, a humanist pope, in order for the hymns to reflect the language, forms, and meters of classical Latin rather than Christian Latin. The original versions of this and the other hymns of the Office were restored to the Liturgy of the Hours under the direction of Pope Paul VI after Vatican II.

This hymn is remarkable for its theology of the Church as the Bride of Christ and what it means for the Church to be built of living stones, the Christian faithful. The mystery of being Church is repeated throughout the hymn in a manner that is very much tied to both the sacred scriptures and to the movements of the Christian soul.

The hymn begins with the image of the Church as the new and heavenly Jerusalem, the very vision of peace itself—built of living stones, surrounded by angels, and beautiful as a bride adorned to meet her husband. The whole of chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation is summarized:

I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, beautiful as a bride prepared to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice cry out: “This is God’s dwelling among men.” . . . “Come, I will show you the woman who is the bride of the Lamb.” He carried me away in spirit to the top of a very high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. The city had the radiance of a precious jewel that sparkled like a diamond. Its wall, massive and high, had twelve gates at which twelve angels were stationed. . . . I saw no temple in the city. The Lord, God the Almighty, is its temple—he and the Lamb. (Rv 21:2–3a, 9b–12, 22)

John sees the New Jerusalem by Johann Sadeler, 1579. Photo credit: rijksmuseum.nl

John sees the New Jerusalem by Johann Sadeler, 1579. Photo credit: rijksmuseum.nl

The second verse proceeds deeper into the theme of the Church as the mystical bridal chamber of the Son of God. The Church is seen as an intact virgin joined to the Lord and as a New City coming down from heaven whose squares and walls are of the purest gold, again a reference to Revelation 21: “The streets of the city were of pure gold, transparent as glass” (Rv 21:21). One can hardly make all of these references to the Book of Revelation without feeling the great truth of the church building as a place where heaven itself is made present and where the liturgy done there joins us to the very worship of God that takes place in the heavenly Kingdom. Moreover, the entrance antiphon for the Common of the Dedication of a Church, Genesis 28:17, itself comes to mind: “Terribilis est locus iste: hic domus Dei est, et porta caeli: et vocabitur aula Dei” (This is an awesome place. It is the house of God and the gate of heaven and will be called dwelling place of God). Then there is also the psalm verse that follows this antiphon (Ps 84:2): “Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum! Concupiscit et deficit anima mea in atria Domini” (How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord God of Hosts! My soul longs for the courts of the Lord).

The third verse carries the theme of the New Jerusalem further and speaks of how the pearly gates stand open to those who bore tribulation in this life for the name of Christ—“The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each made of a single pearl” (Rv 21:21). This tribulation, though, leads us on to the strength of the Christian who is judged worthy to serve as a living stone for God’s temple in verse four of the hymn.

There, the living stones have been fitted to their places and polished by nothing less than striking and all that accompanies the afflictions of the saints. But this is done by the divine and wise Architect who created them in the first place. As any sculptor knows, the image emerges from the stone only as what does not belong to that image is chipped away. It is quite the same with the image of God emerging in us, and in this manner we are fitted as living stones for the temple in which God is going to dwell. Christ, however, is really the one who is the stone living and precious in God’s eyes—but to whom we are joined—as 1 Peter 2:5–6 teaches: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by men but approved, nonetheless, and precious in God’s eyes. You too are living stones, built as an edifice of spirit, into a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Fulfilled is what we read in the Letter to the Ephesians:

This means that you are strangers and aliens no longer. No, you are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God. You form a building which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is fitted together and takes shape as a holy temple in the Lord; in him you are being built into this temple, to become a dwelling place for God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19–22)

To truly appreciate all that this hymn contains, one final scriptural reference presents itself:

You have not drawn near to an untouchable mountain and a blazing fire, nor gloomy darkness and storm and trumpet blast, nor a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that they be not addressed to them . . . No, you have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to myriads of angels in festal gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirit of just men made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood which speaks more eloquently than that of Abel. (Heb 12:18–19, 22–24)

Finally, the hymn concludes in the customary way with the doxology to the Most Blessed Trinity.

Reverend Kurt Belsole, O.S.B. is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and Director of Liturgical Formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He studied at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’Anselmo in Rome and has a website at www.liftupyourhearts.church.


1. Britt, Matthew. The Hymns of the Breviary and the Missal. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1922.

2. Ernetti, Pellegrino. Gli Inni della Liturgia delle Ore: Testo Latino e Versione Ritmica Italiana. Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore, 1981.

3. General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours. Translation and Commentary by Reverend Willian A. Jurgens. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1975.

4. Lentini, Anselmo. Te Decet Hymnus: L’Innario della “Liturgia Horarum.” Vatican City State: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1984.

5. The New American Bible. Washington, D.C.: The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1970.

| On the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the Publication of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum

On the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the Publication of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum

This address was sent to the colloquium “The Source of the Future” on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the publication of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum by Pope Benedict XVI. The colloquium was held March 29 - April 1, 2017, in Herzogenrath near Aachen, Germany. The translation from the French original is by Michael J. Miller.

Cardinal Sarah celebrates a Novus Ordo Mass in the London Oratory, July 2016. Photo credit: flickr.com/Lawrence OP

Cardinal Sarah celebrates a Novus Ordo Mass in the London Oratory, July 2016. Photo credit: flickr.com/Lawrence OP

As you know, what was called “the liturgical movement” in the early twentieth century was the intention of Pope Saint Pius X, expressed in another motu proprio entitled Tra le sollicitudini (1903), to restore the liturgy so as to make its treasures more accessible, so that it might also become again the source of authentically Christian life. Hence the definition of the liturgy as “summit and source of the life and mission of the Church” found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, of Vatican Council II (see n. 10). And it can never be repeated often enough that the liturgy, as summit and source of the Church, has its foundation in Christ Himself. In fact, Our Lord Jesus Christ is the sole and definitive High Priest of the New and Eternal Covenant, since He offered Himself in sacrifice, and “by a single offering He has perfected for all time those whom He sanctifies” (Heb 10:14). Thus, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, “It is this mystery of Christ that the Church proclaims and celebrates in her liturgy so that the faithful may live from it and bear witness to it in the world” (n. 1068). This “liturgical movement,” one of the finest fruits of which was the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, is the context in which we ought to consider the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, dated July 7, 2007; we are happy to celebrate this year with great joy and thanksgiving the tenth anniversary of its promulgation. We can say therefore that the “liturgical movement” initiated by Pope Saint Pius X was never interrupted and that it still continues in our days following the new impetus given to it by Pope Benedict XVI. On this subject we might mention the particular care and personal attention that he showed in celebrating the sacred liturgy as pope, and then the frequent references in his speeches to its centrality in the life of the Church, and finally his two magisterial documents Sacramentum Caritatis and Summorum Pontificum. In other words, what is called liturgical aggiornamento1 was in a way completed by the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum by Pope Benedict XVI. What was it about? The pope emeritus made the distinction between two forms of the same Roman rite: a so-called “ordinary” form, referring to the liturgical texts of the Roman Missal as revised following the guidelines of Vatican Council II, and a form designated “extraordinary” that corresponds to the liturgy that was in use before the liturgical aggiornamento. Thus, presently, in the Roman or Latin Rite, two missals are in force: that of Blessed Pope Paul VI, the third edition of which is dated 2002, and that of Saint Pius V, the last edition of which, promulgated by Saint John XXIII, goes back to 1962.

In his letter to the bishops that accompanied the motu proprio, Pope Benedict XVI clearly explained that the purpose for his decision to have the two missals coexist was not only to satisfy the wishes of certain groups of the faithful who are attached to the liturgical forms prior to the Second Vatican Council, but also to allow for the mutual enrichment of the two forms of the same Roman rite—in other words, not only their peaceful coexistence but also the possibility of perfecting them by emphasizing the best features that characterize them. He wrote in particular that “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman rite can be mutually enriching: new Saints and some of the new Prefaces can and should be inserted in the old Missal. . . . The celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.” These then are the terms in which the pope emeritus expressed his desire to relaunch the “liturgical movement.” In parishes where it has been possible to implement the motu proprio, pastors testify to the greater fervor both in the faithful and in the priests, as Father Rodheudt himself can bear witness. They have also noted a repercussion and a positive spiritual development in the way of experiencing Eucharistic liturgies according to the Ordinary Form, particularly the rediscovery of postures expressing adoration of the Blessed Sacrament: kneeling, genuflection, etc., and also greater recollection characterized by the sacred silence that should mark the important moments of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, so as to allow the priests and the faithful to interiorize the mystery of faith that is being celebrated. It is true also that liturgical and spiritual formation must be encouraged and promoted. Similarly, it will be necessary to promote a thoroughly revised pedagogy in order to get beyond an excessively formal “rubricism” in explaining the rites of the Tridentine Missal to those who are not yet familiar with it, or who are only partly acquainted with it—and sometimes not impartially. To do that, it is urgently necessary to finalize a bilingual Latin-vernacular missal to allow for full, conscious, intimate and more fruitful participation of the lay faithful in Eucharistic celebrations. It is also very important to emphasize the continuity between the two missals by appropriate liturgical catecheses. Many priests testify that this is a stimulating task, because they are conscious of working for the liturgical renewal, of contributing their own efforts to the “liturgical movement” that we were just talking about—in other words, in reality, to this mystical and spiritual renewal that is therefore missionary in character, which was intended by the Second Vatican Council, to which Pope Francis is vigorously calling us. The liturgy must therefore always be reformed so as to be more faithful to its mystical essence. But most of the time, this “reform” that replaced the genuine “restoration” intended by the Second Vatican Council was carried out in a superficial spirit and on the basis of only one criterion: to suppress at all costs a heritage that must be perceived as totally negative and outmoded so as to excavate a gulf between the time before and the time after the Council. Now it is enough to pick up the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy again and to read it honestly, without betraying its meaning, to see that the true purpose of the Second Vatican Council was not to start a reform that could become the occasion for a break with Tradition, but quite the contrary, to rediscover and to confirm Tradition in its deepest meaning. In fact, what is called “the reform of the reform,” which perhaps ought to be called more precisely “the mutual enrichment of the rites,” to use an expression from the magisterium of Benedict XVI, is a primarily spiritual necessity. And it quite obviously concerns the two forms of the Roman Rite. The particular care that should be brought to the liturgy, the urgency of holding it in high esteem and working for its beauty, its sacral character, and keeping the right balance between fidelity to Tradition and legitimate development, and therefore rejecting absolutely and radically any hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture: these essential elements are the heart of all authentic Christian liturgy. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger tirelessly repeated that the crisis that has shaken the Church for fifty years, chiefly since Vatican Council II, is connected with the crisis of the liturgy, and therefore to the lack of respect, the desacralization and the leveling of the essential elements of divine worship. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”2

The Most Reverend Steven J. Lopes, Bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, celebrates a Solemn Pontifical Mass in Marienkirche, Herzogenrath, during the colloquium

The Most Reverend Steven J. Lopes, Bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, celebrates a Solemn Pontifical Mass in Marienkirche, Herzogenrath, during the colloquium “The Source of the Future.” Photo credit: Liturgische Tagung

Certainly, the Second Vatican Council wished to promote greater active participation by the people of God and to bring about progress day by day in the Christian life of the faithful (see Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 1). Certainly, some fine initiatives were taken along these lines. However we cannot close our eyes to the disaster, the devastation, and the schism that the modern promoters of a living liturgy caused by remodeling the Church’s liturgy according to their ideas. They forgot that the liturgical act is not just a PRAYER, but also and above all a MYSTERY in which something is accomplished for us that we cannot fully understand but that we must accept and receive in faith, love, obedience, and adoring silence. And this is the real meaning of active participation of the faithful. It is not about exclusively external activity, the distribution of roles or of functions in the liturgy, but rather about an intensely active receptivity: this reception is, in Christ and with Christ, the humble offering of oneself in silent prayer and a thoroughly contemplative attitude. The serious crisis of faith, not only at the level of the Christian faithful but also and especially among many priests and bishops, has made us incapable of understanding the Eucharistic liturgy as a sacrifice, as identical to the act performed once and for all by Jesus Christ, making present the Sacrifice of the Cross in a nonbloody manner throughout the Church, through different ages, places, peoples and nations. There is often a sacrilegious tendency to reduce the Holy Mass to a simple convivial meal, the celebration of a profane feast, the community’s celebration of itself, or even worse, a terrible diversion from the anguish of a life that no longer has meaning or from the fear of meeting God face to face, because His glance unveils and obliges us to look truly and unflinchingly at the ugliness of our interior life. But the Holy Mass is not a diversion. It is the living sacrifice of Christ Who died on the Cross to free us from sin and death, for the purpose of revealing the love and the glory of God the Father. Many Catholics do not know that the final purpose of every liturgical celebration is the glory and adoration of God, the salvation and sanctification of human beings, since in the liturgy “God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7). Most of the faithful—including priests and bishops—do not know this teaching of the Council. Just as they do not know that the true worshippers of God are not those who reform the liturgy according to their own ideas and creativity to make it something pleasing to the world, but rather those who reform the world in depth with the Gospel so as to allow it access to a liturgy that is the reflection of the liturgy that is celebrated from all eternity in the heavenly Jerusalem. As Benedict XVI often emphasized, at the root of the liturgy is adoration, and therefore God. Hence it is necessary to recognize that the serious, profound crisis that has affected the liturgy and the Church itself since the Council is due to the fact that its CENTER is no longer God and the adoration of Him, but rather men and their alleged ability to “do” something to keep themselves busy during the Eucharistic celebrations. Even today, a significant number of Church leaders underestimate the serious crisis that the Church is going through: relativism in doctrinal, moral, and disciplinary teaching, grave abuses, the desacralization and trivialization of the sacred liturgy, a merely social and horizontal view of the Church’s mission. Many believe and declare loud and long that Vatican Council II brought about a true springtime in the Church. Nevertheless, a growing number of Church leaders see this “springtime” as a rejection, a renunciation of her centuries-old heritage, or even as a radical questioning of her past and Tradition. Political Europe is rebuked for abandoning or denying its Christian roots. But the first to have abandoned her Christian roots and past is indisputably the postconciliar Catholic Church. Some episcopal conferences even refuse to translate faithfully the original Latin text of the Roman Missal. Some claim that each local Church can translate the Roman Missal, not according to the sacred heritage of the Church, following the methods and principles indicated by Liturgiam authenticam, but according to the fantasies, ideologies and cultural expressions which, they say, can be understood and accepted by the people. But the people desire to be initiated into the sacred language of God. The Gospel and revelation themselves are “reinterpreted,” “contextualized,” and adapted to decadent Western culture. In 1968, the Bishop of Metz, in France, wrote in his diocesan newsletter a horrible, outrageous thing that seemed like the desire for and expression of a complete break with the Church’s past. According to that bishop, today we must rethink the very concept of the salvation brought by Jesus Christ, because the apostolic Church and the Christian communities in the early centuries of Christianity had understood nothing of the Gospel. Only in our era has the plan of salvation brought by Jesus been understood. Here is the audacious, surprising statement by the Bishop of Metz:

The transformation of the world (change of civilization) teaches and demands a change in the very concept of the salvation brought by Jesus Christ; this transformation reveals to us that the Church’s thinking about God’s plan was, before the present change, insufficiently evangelical. . . .No era has been as capable as ours of understanding the evangelical ideal of fraternal life.3

With a vision like that, it is not surprising that devastation, destruction, and wars have followed and persisted these days at the liturgical, doctrinal, and moral level, because they claim that no era has been capable of understanding the “evangelical ideal” as well as ours. Many refuse to face up to the Church’s work of self-destruction through the deliberate demolition of her doctrinal, liturgical, moral, and pastoral foundations. While more and more voices of high-ranking prelates stubbornly affirm obvious doctrinal, moral, and liturgical errors that have been condemned a hundred times and work to demolish the little faith remaining in the people of God, while the barque of the Church furrows the stormy sea of this decadent world and the waves crash down on the ship so that it is already filling with water, a growing number of Church leaders and faithful shout: “Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise!” [“Everything is just fine, Milady,” the refrain of a popular comic song from the 1930s, in which the employees of a noblewoman report to her a series of catastrophes]. But the reality is quite different: in fact, as Cardinal Ratzinger said:

What the Popes and the Council Fathers were expecting was a new Catholic unity, and instead one has encountered a dissension which—to use the words of Paul VI—seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction. There had been the expectation of a new enthusiasm, and instead too often it has ended in boredom and discouragement. There had been the expectation of a step forward, and instead one found oneself facing a progressive process of decadence that to a large measure has been unfolding under the sign of a summons to a presumed “spirit of the Council” and by so doing has actually and increasingly discredited it.4

“No one can seriously deny the critical manifestations” and liturgy wars that Vatican Council II led to.5 Today they have gone on to fragment and demolish the sacred Missale Romanum by abandoning it to experiments in cultural diversity and compilers of liturgical texts. Here I am happy to congratulate the tremendous, marvelous work accomplished, through Vox Clara, by the English-language episcopal conferences, by the Spanish- and Korean-language episcopal onferences, etc., which have faithfully translated the Missale Romanum in perfect conformity with the guidelines and principles of Liturgiam authenticam; and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has granted them the recognitio [approval].

Following the publication of my book God or Nothing, people have asked me about the “liturgy wars” which for decades have too often divided Catholics. I stated that that is an aberration, because the liturgy is the field par excellence in which Catholics ought to experience unity in the truth, in faith, and in love, and consequently that it is inconceivable to celebrate the liturgy while having in one’s heart feelings of fratricidal struggle and rancor. Besides, did Jesus not speak very demanding words about the need to go and be reconciled with one’s brother before presenting his own sacrifice at the altar? (See Mt 5:23-24.)

The liturgy in its turn moves the faithful, filled with “the paschal sacraments,” to be “one in holiness”6; it prays that “they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith”; the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10)

In this “face-to-face encounter” with God, which the liturgy is, our heart must be pure of all enmity, which presupposes that everyone must be respected with his own sensibility. This means concretely that, although it must be reaffirmed that Vatican Council II never asked to make tabula rasa of the past and therefore to abandon the Missal said to be of Saint Pius V—which produced so many saints, not to mention three such admirable priests as Saint John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, Saint Pius of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), and Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer—at the same time it is essential to promote the liturgical renewal intended by that same Council, and therefore the liturgical books were updated following the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, in particular the Missal said to be of Blessed Pope Paul VI. And I added that what is important above all, whether one is celebrating in the Ordinary or the Extraordinary Form, is to bring to the faithful something that they have a right to: the beauty of the liturgy, its sacrality, silence, recollection, the mystical dimension, and adoration. The liturgy should put us face-to-face with God in a personal relationship of intense intimacy. It should plunge us into the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity. Speaking of the usus antiquior (the older form of the Mass) in his letter that accompanies Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI said that

immediately after the Second Vatican Council it was presumed that requests for the use of the 1962 Missal would be limited to the older generation which had grown up with it, but in the meantime it has clearly been demonstrated that young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.

This is an unavoidable reality, a true sign of our times. When young people are absent from the holy liturgy, we must ask ourselves: Why? We must make sure that the celebrations according to the usus recentior (the newer form of the Mass) facilitate this encounter too, that they lead people on the path of the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty) that leads through her sacred rites to the living Christ and to the work within His Church today. Indeed, the Eucharist is not a sort of “dinner among friends,” a convivial meal of the community, but rather a sacred Mystery, the great Mystery of our faith, the celebration of the Redemption accomplished by Our Lord Jesus Christ, the commemoration of the death of Jesus on the Cross to free us from our sins. It is therefore appropriate to celebrate Holy Mass with the beauty and fervor of the saintly Curé of Ars, of Padre Pio or Saint Josemaría, and this is the sine qua non condition for arriving at a liturgical reconciliation “by the high road,” if I may put it that way.7 I vehemently refuse therefore to waste our time pitting one liturgy against another, or the Missal of Saint Pius V against that of Blessed Paul VI. Rather, it is a question of entering into the great silence of the liturgy, by allowing ourselves to be enriched by all the liturgical forms, whether they are Latin or Eastern. Indeed, without this mystical dimension of silence and without a contemplative spirit, the liturgy will remain an occasion for hateful divisions, ideological confrontations, and the public humiliation of the weak by those who claim to hold some authority, instead of being the place of our unity and communion in the Lord. Thus, instead of being an occasion for confronting and hating each other, the liturgy should bring us all together to unity in the faith and to the true knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ—and, by living in the truth of love, we will grow into Christ so as to be raised up in all things to Him who is the Head (see Eph 4:13–15).8

The Most Reverend Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, celebrates a Solemn Pontifical Mass at the former Abbey Church of Ralduc in the Netherlands at the close of the colloquium

The Most Reverend Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, celebrates a Solemn Pontifical Mass at the former Abbey Church of Ralduc in the Netherlands at the close of the colloquium “The Source of the Future.” Photo credit: Liturgische Tagung

As you know, the great German liturgist Monsignor Klaus Gamber (1919–1989) used the word Heimat to designate this common home or “little homeland” of Catholics gathered around the altar of the Holy Sacrifice. The sense of the sacred that imbues and irrigates the rites of the Church is the inseparable correlative of the liturgy. Now in recent decades, many, many of the faithful have been ill-treated or profoundly troubled by celebrations marked with a superficial, devastating subjectivism, to the point where they did not recognize their Heimat, their common home, whereas the youngest among them had never known it! How many have tiptoed away, particularly the least significant and the poorest among them! They have become in a way “liturgically stateless persons.” The “liturgical movement,” with which the two forms (of the Latin Rite) are associated, aims therefore to restore to them their Heimat and thus to bring them back into their common home, for we know very well that in his works on sacramental theology, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, well before the publication of Summorum Pontificum, had pointed out that the crisis in the Church and therefore the crisis of the weakening of the faith comes in large measure from the way in which we treat the liturgy, according to the old adage: lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of faith is the law of prayer). In the preface that he wrote for the French edition of the magisterial volume by Monsignor Gamber, La réforme de la liturgie romaine [English edition: The Reform of the Roman Liturgy], the future Pope Benedict XVI said this, and I quote:

A young priest told me recently, “What we need today is a new liturgical movement.” This was an expression of a concern which nowadays only willfully superficial minds could ignore. What mattered to this priest was not winning new, daring liberties: what liberty has not been arrogantly taken already? He thought that we needed a new start coming from within the liturgy, just as the liturgical movement had intended when it was at the height of its true nature, when it was not a matter of fabricating texts or inventing actions and forms, but of rediscovering the living center, of penetrating into the tissue, strictly speaking, of the liturgy, so that the celebration thereof might proceed from its very substance. The liturgical reform, in its concrete implementation, has strayed ever farther from this origin. The result was not a revival but devastation. On the one hand, we have a liturgy that has degenerated into a show, in which one attempts to make religion interesting with the help of fashionable innovations and catchy moral platitudes, with short-lived successes within the guild of liturgical craftsmen, and an even more pronounced attitude of retreat from them on the part of those who seek in the liturgy not a spiritual “emcee,” but rather an encounter with the living God before Whom all “making” becomes meaningless, since that encounter alone is capable of giving us access to the true riches of being. On the other hand, there is the conservation of the ritual forms whose grandeur is always moving, but which, taken to the extreme, manifests a stubborn isolation and finally leaves nothing but sadness. Surely, between these two poles there are still all the priests and their parishioners who celebrate the new liturgy with respect and solemnity; but they are called into question by the contradiction between the two extremes, and the lack of internal unity in the Church finally makes their fidelity appear, wrongly in many cases, to be merely a personal brand of neo-conservatism. Because that is the situation, a new spiritual impulse is necessary if the liturgy is to be once more for us a communitarian activity of the Church and to be delivered from arbitrariness. One cannot “fabricate” a liturgical movement of that sort—any more than one can “fabricate” a living thing—but one can contribute to its development by striving to assimilate anew the spirit of the liturgy, and by defending publicly what one has received in this way.

I think that this long citation, which is so accurate and clear, should be of interest to you, at the beginning of this colloquium, and also should help to start off your reflections on “the source of the future” (“die Quelle der Zukunft”) of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. Indeed, allow me to communicate to you a conviction that I have held deeply for a long time: the Roman liturgy, reconciled in its two forms, which is itself the “fruit of a development,” as the great German liturgist Joseph Jungmann (1889–1975) put it, can initiate the decisive process of the “liturgical movement” that so many priests and faithful have awaited for so long. Where to begin? I take the liberty of proposing to you the three following paths, which I sum up in the three letters SAF: silence-adoration-formation in English and French, and in German, SAA: Stille-Anbetung-Ausbildung. First of all, sacred silence, without which we cannot encounter God. In my book The Power of Silence [La Force du silence], I write: “In silence, a human being gains his nobility and his grandeur only if he is on his knees in order to hear and adore God” (n. 66). Next, adoration; in this regard I cite my spiritual experience in the same book, The Power of Silence:

For my part, I know that all the great moments of my day are found in the incomparable hours that I spend on my knees in darkness before the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am so to speak swallowed up in God and surrounded on all sides by His presence. I would like to belong now to God alone and to plunge into the purity of His Love. And yet, I can tell how poor I am, how far from loving the Lord as He loved me to the point of giving Himself up for me. (n. 54)

Finally, liturgical formation based on a proclamation of the faith or catechesis that refers to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which protects us from possible more-or-less learned ravings of some theologians who long for “novelties.” This is what I said in this connection in what is now commonly called, with some humor, the “London Discourse” of July 5, 2016, given during the Third International Conference of Sacra Liturgia:

The liturgical formation that is primary and essential is . . . one of immersion in the liturgy, in the deep mystery of God our loving Father. It is a question of living the liturgy in all its richness, so that having drunk deeply from its fount we always have a thirst for its delights, its order and beauty, its silence and contemplation, its exultation and adoration, its ability to connect us intimately with He who is at work in and through the Church’s sacred rites.9

In this global context, therefore, and in a spirit of faith and profound communion with Christ’s obedience on the cross, I humbly ask you to apply Summorum Pontificum very carefully: not as a negative, backward measure that looks toward the past, or as something that builds walls and creates a ghetto, but as an important and real contribution to the present and future liturgical life of the Church, and also to the liturgical movement of our era, from which more and more people, and particularly young people, are drawing so many things that are true, good, and beautiful.

I would like to conclude this introduction with the luminous words of Benedict XVI at the end of the homily that he gave in 2008, on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul: “When the world in all its parts has become a liturgy of God, when, in its reality, it has become adoration, then it will have reached its goal and will be safe and sound.”

I thank you for your kind attention. And may God bless you and fill your lives with His silent Presence!

His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah is Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.


1. “Aggiornamento” is an Italian term that means, literally: “updating.” We celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in 2013, since it was promulgated on December 4, 1963.

2. Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs: 1927–1977, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 148.

3. Cited by Jean Madiran, L’hérésie du XX siècle (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines [NEL], 1968), 166.

4. Joseph Ratzinger and Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, trans. Salvator Attanasio and Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 29–30.

5. Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. Sister Mary Frances McCarthy, S.N.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 370.

6. Cf. Postcommunion for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday.

7. Cf. Interview with the Catholic website Aleteia, March 4, 2015.

8. Cf. Interview with La Nef, October 2016, question 9.

9. Robert Cardinal Sarah: Third International Conference of the Sacra Liturgia Association, London. Speech given on July 5, 2016. See the Sacra Liturgia website: “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium,” July 11, 2016, http://www.sacraliturgia.org/2016/07/robert-cardinal-sarah-towards-authentic.html

| Revisiting the Stones

Revisiting the Stones

This is the second edition of a book originally published in 2000 to enthusiastic reviews and which, one may assume from this new version, quite reasonably sold out. The text is only slightly rearranged and remains for the most part what it was: a series of judiciously culled selections from Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, the sprawling half-million-word work that was published in three volumes between 1851 and 1853. The abridgement was illustrated with Ruskin’s original drawings and printed versions from his book, in addition to many photographs made by Sarah Quill.

Second editions often incorporate material discovered since the appearance of the first, or allow the insertion of thoughts that have occurred to the author in the meantime. In this case there are additions in both categories. In the first, the chance discovery in 2006 of more than 180 daguerreotypes made in Venice for Ruskin as study material dramatically altered what we know of the images at his disposal as he worked. As for the second, the author-editor’s updated thoughts centered on her pictures.

Sarah Quill is a first-rate photographer; she reconsidered the illustrations extensively, and there are many new photographs—both additions and replacements—that improve the visual content of the second edition. There are as well some significant changes to its design, which is now clearer and more appealing; notes that were in the margins have been moved to the end, for example, making pages open and pleasanter to read. And while it is not likely that many people will carry the book around Venice as a tourist guide, that will be easier to do with the new version, for in an added section all the sites referred to in the text are listed by sestiere, the six sections of the city.

Given that the content of Ruskin’s Venice has not been radically altered, the following brief discussion is only secondarily a review of the book as an abridged edition of Ruskin’s great work, a topic covered in write-ups of the first edition. My primary interest here is the second edition as a carefully crafted illustrated book. Nonetheless a word or two is in order about The Stones of Venice and why we need to have it in a shortened and rearranged form.

Ruskin had a great poetic soul, but his perceptive and vastly wide-ranging mind was not very well organized. He worked on many things at once—The Stones of Venice was, along with two editions of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, written between volumes 1 and 2 of Modern Painters. Kenneth Clark suggested that one of the reasons Ruskin is hard to read is his severe inability to concentrate. He tended to write things as they popped into his head, and his ideas on one topic often appear in a book that purports to be on another; Modern Painters contains an extended discussion of the geology of the Alps, and in The Stones of Venice Ruskin wanders off the subject to rail against the evils of the capitalism of his own day. An example of this tendency that bears on Ms. Quill’s book is the text she put on her frontispiece: the justly famous and rapturous description of Venice as “a golden city, paved with emerald . . . bossed with jasper.” It is in fact not from The Stones of Venice but from volume 2 of Modern Painters. Ruskin penned it after the former was finished, so, too good not to use, it was slipped into the next thing he wrote. To be sure, he smoothed transitions to some degree, but the many changes of direction and unexpected inclusions give to his works at times an almost stream-of-consciousness character. The passage in question fits far better where Sarah Quill put it than where Ruskin did. To be fair to Ruskin, she could do it easily while he could not, but the reader is still grateful to her for bringing it into the book on Venice.

The glory of the new edition lies in its much-improved photographic illustrations. Ms. Quill is gifted, of course, but she is also fortunate in her publisher; not all houses would allow a photographer to change serviceable pictures merely because they can be improved. One learns a great deal about Ms. Quill as an exacting image maker by carefully comparing pictures in the two editions. As that is not the sort of thing most readers will do (although it is much recommended), I mention it here.

Improvements take the form of images that were remade in more balanced light and from more informative angles. One in particular, which shows the labors of the months from an arch at San Marco, is vastly superior to the illustration in the first edition. A different sort of improvement, one that is striking for its intelligence, is seen in a picture of some houses in Campo Santa Maria Mater Domini. The original showed much more of them than was necessary to make Ruskin’s point, so it was remade and better cropped to focus more on what matters in his context. That saves some space on the page, allowing for an additional picture, and tightens the visual presentation. Nearly every new photograph repays careful looking.

Ruskin had a love-hate relationship with photography. When he first saw a daguerreotype he thought it was a miracle of accuracy and that the new medium would save him a great deal of labor. But later he came to distrust and dismiss camera-made images, preferring to make his own illustrations by hand rather than settling for what the process gave him. Photography could scarcely be more different today from what it was in Ruskin’s time, and although it is risky to guess what an author as crotchety and opinionated as he was would have made of digital images, I am rather sure that he would have been delighted by the illustrations Sarah Quill made and selected for her new presentation of The Stones of Venice. Feeling as he did about modern industrial means, he might not have been impressed by their technical aspects, more than likely disparaging them as machine made; but he would have recognized instantly that they are deeply respectful of his aims and aspirations. When he had lingered over them a bit and reread his words, he would surely have acknowledged that, with their deep and palpable respect for the lovingly hand-carved forms they show, many of the Quill photographs serve Ruskin’s ideas every bit as well as—and perhaps even better than—his own drawings.

Ralph Lieberman is an architectural historian and photographer who has published on Renaissance architecture in Venice, Michelangelo, perspective, and the Crystal Palace. He has taught at Williams College, Smith College, Amherst College, Harvard University, and the Rhode Island School of Design, and is now at work on a book on photography and art history.

| Embracing Boredom

Embracing Boredom

“Boredom at Mass is not something that should be eliminated. The moment in which we find ourselves bored while listening to the readings and the homily, bored while hearing the same Eucharistic Prayer offered once again, and bored while singing this same hymn we chant every Advent, is also the moment in which we are invited to participate more fully in the love of God poured out in Christ. . . . To lose our attention during the praying of the Eucharistic Prayer and find ourselves fascinated by the crucifix is not something that should be stopped but is instead our own particular way of participating in the Mass this day.” (Bored Again Catholic, p. 9)

In our contemporary culture, boredom is a state of being that ought to be avoided at all costs. Liturgical celebrations are tailored to eliminate boredom by stimulating people with upbeat hymns and funny, engaging homilies. However, this attention to removing boredom from the Mass and making it more “fun” ultimately has the disastrous effect of distracting people from the real meaning of the Mass.

In Bored Again Catholic: How the Mass Could Save Your Life, Professor Timothy O’Malley of the University of Notre Dame asserts that boredom is something we should embrace, that it is essential to spiritual growth and gaining spiritual insight. Distracting ourselves when boredom encroaches inhibits our ability to receive this insight, or even to pray at all.

In order to help people learn to embrace this boredom, Professor O’Malley offers a series of reflections on every part of the Mass and its significance. Beginning with the entrance hymn and ending with the concluding rites, he helps the reader to understand what is happening in the Mass and encourages a deeper contemplation of it.

One of the topics that he touches on in chapter 4 is the significance of the altar and why it is fitting that the priest reverences it at the beginning of the Mass. O’Malley acknowledges the pagan symbolism of the altar, a bloody place of sacrifice to angry gods; but he explains how the meaning of the altar is transformed because it is the place of Christ’s sacrifice of love that is the very origin of the Church to begin with. When armed with an understanding of the central importance of the altar to the celebration of the Mass, it becomes easy to understand why the altar is the center and focal point in church architecture. “(The priest) kisses the altar because it stands among us as a sign of Christ’s total act of love.”

This book is especially directed towards O’Malley’s undergraduate students, whom he observes struggling to remain engaged with the Mass. However, with brief chapters and an engaging writing style, it is a book that any audience can read to gain a more thoughtful appreciation of the Mass. Professor O’Malley exhorts his readers to allow themselves to be bored by the Mass, but in a good way. He encourages a boredom that opens our thoughts to contemplation of God and the Sacrifice of the Mass—to be fruitfully “bored again.”

Therese Madigan is on the staff of Sacred Architecture and is studying architecture at the University of Notre Dame.

| Every Part Had To Be Sanctified

Every Part Had To Be Sanctified

Gittos opens her study of Anglo-Saxon church architecture with a personal recollection. Returning to the town in which she grew up, she considers an “unremarkable nineteenth-century building” that may be the successor to an early Anglo-Saxon chapel. As it lies within the precinct of the minster in Yeovil, Somerset, she wonders why ecclesiastical sites of this era commonly included more than one church. Thinking that an answer might lie in an examination of extant, contemporary liturgical manuscripts, she proposes that such a study might answer other puzzling questions as well, like why multiple churches were often laid out end to end or what function raised exterior balconies or internal upper chapels served.

Gittos recognizes that the dearth of surviving major Anglo-Saxon churches poses a challenge. Moreover, surviving minor structures’ function is less likely to be explained by relevant textual remains, which typically are produced for cathedrals and monasteries. An additional hurdle is that most of the relevant liturgical manuscripts date to the tenth century, while the physical evidence comes mostly from the seventh to ninth centuries. Gittos is cautious about precise coordination of texts and monuments and about making unjustified generalizations. Yet, she reasonably and necessarily makes use of the sources she has available while being conscious of potential problems.

Despite these complications, and while the extant documents clearly cannot provide answers to all her questions, Gittos believes that analysis of available texts holds keys to better comprehension of these spaces and, in so doing, charts a method for integrating analysis of ancient liturgical manuals with the spaces that hosted the kinds of rituals they describe. Even here she acknowledges an additional concern that liturgical scholars will recognize: written liturgical manuals describe ideal or model ritual practices and as such are not absolutely reliable sources for reconstructing actual activities. Nonetheless, Gittos carefully coordinates evidence for liturgical practices with the existing structures that could have housed them, which provides a rich and illuminating study in spite of the caveats.

Throughout, Gittos poses questions that liturgical historians sometimes overlook when considering textual evidence alone. For example, how many people would have attended church services, and how often would they have done so? Was weekly attendance expected, or were most Christians likely to show up only on the major feasts? Did people travel significant distances to major churches, or were they more likely to congregate at local shrines? How widespread were pilgrimages, and to what degree were they a basis for urban and ecclesiastical competition?

The book’s chapters proceed logically from the general to the specific. Chapter 2 considers the identification and ritual consecration of sacred sites, while chapter 3 turns more concretely to actual buildings, in particular those that were grouped together in ecclesiastical precincts. That leads to chapter 4 and a discussion of the links among such groups through pilgrimages, stational liturgies, and other kinds of liturgical processions (e.g., rogations). Chapter 5 explores the ways the forms of Anglo-Saxon churches reveal their function and how those forms (and functions) developed over time. This includes particularly interesting sections on the placement of altars, the purposes of west chapels, the display of relics, gendered divisions of space, and the design of baptisteries and fonts.

Chapter 6 shifts attention to ritual practices. Here Gittos offers a detailed study of Anglo-Saxon dedicatory rituals, attending to the steps of the rite as it unfolded in both time and space, and explaining how participants experienced these ceremonies as typologically linked both to sacred (biblical) stories and the narrative of individual salvation. In her words, “Every part of a church had to be sanctified: foundations, floors, walls, roof, and altar. It was also symbolically a person who was catechized, baptized, and took first communion” (p. 244). The last chapter draws this idea out even further, borrowing Mary Carruthers’s idea of a building as a “machine for thinking” and justifying Gittos’s brief conclusion that, despite all the possible problems in bringing together disparate kinds of evidence, her results were “likely to be worthwhile” (p. 278). This modest statement underestimates the rich contribution of this study, which this reviewer enthusiastically recommends to historians of both liturgy and church architecture.

Robin M. Jensen is the Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She holds a concurrent appointment in the Department of Art, Design, and Art History and is a Fellow of the Medieval Institute and the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. Her research and writing focuses on the history of Christian art and architecture in light of its theological and liturgical significance.

| Whose Art?

Whose Art?

Was there an art committee for San Vitale in Ravenna in the sixth century? An emperor was coming—Justinian, who had recaptured this capital city from the Arian Ostrogoths in 540. An orthodox church, faithful to the Nicene Creed, was needed—one to match the brand new Hagia Sophia Justianian had built in the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. This Western building had to send two messages: first, Christ has two natures, fully God and fully man. Second, even an emperor takes second place to Jesus Christ, Lord of all.

Standing in that church today, one wonders just who figured it all out. The architecture is clearly modeled on Hagia Sophia. (Scholars agree the builders came from Constantinople.) The mosaic in the apse shows a young Christ in Glory (fully man) seated over the rainbow, presiding over the New Jerusalem, over all creation (fully God). Justinian and his wife Theodora—on a lower level—process toward Christ with the appropriate gifts. Side mosaics tell the story of salvation and the Trinity. All messages clear. In AD 547.

In her book Visual Arts in the Worshiping Church, Westmont College art history professor Lisa J. DeBoer takes us inside the workings of today’s congregations as they make similar decisions about spaces where they worship. Of course, Christianity today is no longer one body in one Church as it was in Justinian’s time. So, DeBoer begins by outlining how the three major divisions of Christian believers approach the role of art in their worship—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.

Describing the Orthodox, DeBoer focuses on their covenant with icons—icons being not art but what Russian scholar Alexei Lidov of Moscow State University calls “mediating images,” meaning that through them the saint is present to the faithful. DeBoer is also clear that when the Orthodox worship they understand themselves to be in the New Jerusalem that is both coming and already present. What is missing is that the Orthodox understand their church buildings to be three-dimensional icons of the Holy City to come, as Lidov has shown. Further, there is evidence that churches in Western Europe shared that understanding. According to urban historian Lewis Mumford, Augustine’s City of God shaped the design of European cities into the thirteenth century.1 Christians were understood to be pilgrims on earth with their ultimate citizenship in the City of God, and they modeled their cities on that perfect city. One other issue DeBoer does not address is the meaning of architecture to the Orthodox. For example, Orthodox churches insist on having a dome. Why? Ask their theology.

For the Roman Catholic Church, DeBoer looks mainly at the findings of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent documents. She concludes that for Catholics the focus is on the liturgy and the Eucharist and the consequent importance of the congregation as the Body of Christ. Communal worship is, therefore, more important than individual devotion, one of the pre-Vatican II practices that drew particular criticism. What that means for the arts, according to DeBoer, is that the focus is on worship spaces and liturgical furnishings, things essential for communal worship. Paintings and sculpture can distract from corporate worship. The need to apply these guidelines has given birth to the profession of liturgical consulting, something DeBoer laments because it often leaves local artists out of the equation.

For Protestants, she argues, the arts take cues from the art world in which we live—drawing from the post-Enlightenment idea that Art is “nonutilitarian, disinterested, and autonomous.” Training available in our public arts education programs and the workings of the art market economy embed that notion in our thinking. With Protestant diversity ranging from old mainline churches to warehouse post-Seeker congregations, there are no other norms or guidelines to be found, especially in traditions stretching to Reformation iconoclasm. Unlike Catholic and Orthodox traditions, where artists working in the church are working in service of the Church, in Protestant churches the artist is autonomous and answers to his or her own standards—the artist leads the church, rather than serving it. DeBoer closes this section with a startling but, regrettably, probably true observation: “To the extent that Art in our current art system is believed by many [in Protestant churches] to both represent and call forth true humanity, it parallels the Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the Divine Liturgy.” Art as liturgy.

Throughout, DeBoer makes it clear that her goal is to map the present geography of how the arts function in churches in order to help congregations think through the needs of their own meeting places. In that goal, she certainly succeeds. The second section of her book deals with how questions of ecclesiology and of the contemporary art market impinge on local congregations. For example, how do the arts function in a church called to be both local and universal? Or, looking at the art world, are artists to be servants of the congregation or autonomous consultants working according to their own vision? Beyond that, do the arts shape the church or do the teachings of the church shape the arts? Carefully, DeBoer compares and contrasts responses in each tradition. All of this is aimed at the contemporary church.

This approach is helpful and no doubt needed, but a deeper consideration of theology and history is a crucial dimension. Architecture is touched upon, but not in depth and not with a historical or theological perspective. Art historian Elizabeth Lev has pointed out that the first churches built after Christianity became legal in 313 were designed with a clear theological message about the Nicene teaching on the two consubstantial natures of Christ. The outside was common Roman red brick—fully man; the inside was glorious with mosaics of gold, red, green, and blue—fully God.

Whoever was on Bishop Maximianus’s design committee in 540s Ravenna, San Vitale conformed to that idea.

Roberta Green Ahmanson is a writer, speaker, and philanthropist who focuses on art, culture, history, and Christianity. She lives in Southern California.


1. Lewis Mumford, The City in History.

| Iesus Autem Abscondit Se

Editorial: Iesus Autem Abscondit Se

“Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

—The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, Rome. Photo: New Liturgical Movement

Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, Rome. Photo: New Liturgical Movement

Every year I am struck visually and spiritually by Passiontide.

In recent decades the observance of Passiontide has had a modest revival. In order to better prepare for Easter, we fast from images and sometimes instruments. For visual and aural people, this is a powerful shock to the system. Statues, paintings, and, in some places, even crucifixes are covered with purple fabric. The saints are there, in form, but we cannot see their image—they are veiled in mystery. It is the last penance of Lent: the giving up of images, which are, theologically, windows into the divine.

And then with the Triduum, we do not just fast but we also strip the altar in preparation for the Crucifixion; and on Good Friday we come to church, but there is no Mass. All of this makes the Easter Vigil more spectacular: the Easter fire in darkness and then a single candle leading to a church full of candlelight and the reappearance of the saints, beautiful flowers, and iconography of the Resurrection.

Yet what about the parishes that have nothing to cover up? No mysteries to veil, their churches and iconography have already been pared down to the minimum. We know the iconoclastic movement in the East in the seventh century and in the West in the sixteenth century, which sought not to cover up images for Passiontide, but to remove them completely. But the iconoclasm of the twentieth century has been even more surprising, since it was done by some within the Church. Instead of protecting icons, the monks destroyed them. What resulted was churches that are always Passiontide and never Easter; think of that!

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| The Poverty of the Church and the Beauty of the Liturgy

The Poverty of the Church and the Beauty of the Liturgy

A penitent woman anoints the feet of Jesus in Peter Paul Rubens’s painting Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee.

A penitent woman anoints the feet of Jesus in Peter Paul Rubens’s painting Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee. Photo: wikipedia.org

Is there a place for the beauty of the liturgy in what Pope Francis calls “a Church which is poor and for the poor”?1 It would seem there is not. God through Isaiah declares His “hatred” for “feasts” and “solemn assemblies,” for “the melody of harps” and “incense,” in a world in which the rich oppress the poor. Instead of all this cultic extravagance, says Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. . . . Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is 1:13f, 15–17; Am 5:21, 23f). Twelve hundred years later, Saint John Chrysostom presents a similar challenge to the people of Antioch: “What is the use of loading Christ’s table with vessels of gold, if He Himself [in His members] is dying of hunger?”2 If we accept, then, these admonitions of the saints, preoccupation with the externals of religion would seem to be a distraction from the essence of religion: “Religion pure and undefiled before God the Father is this [says Saint James]: to give aid to orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep oneself unspotted from this world” (Jas 1:27).

The case against the sacred beauty of the liturgical arts appears to be overwhelming until we recall a dinner long ago in Bethany. In our mind we see the tears of a penitent woman as she pours sweet-smelling ointment over feet soon to be pierced by nails, and we hear the protest of a man who is a thief and a traitor: “Why this waste? The ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” And as we think about this meeting of humble love with hypocritical indignation, the words of the eternal Word incarnate resound in our conscience with new force: “She has done a beautiful thing for me. . . . The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always” (Mt 26:10f). The Heart of Jesus enfolds the poor with the charity of truth and justice. He wants them always to be loved for His sake. He will not allow them to be used as an ideological plaything, as Judas uses them, to denigrate the devotion of a contrite heart. The Divine Saviour insists, “She has done a beautiful thing for me,” and by His Holy Spirit, throughout the centuries, He inspires the Church, His Bride, to see herself in the person of Mary of Bethany and to do beautiful things for Him, to lavish the loveliness of her love upon Him in the liturgical arts of chant and ceremonial, iconography and architecture. Saint John Paul speaks for the whole Tradition when he says:

The Church is not afraid of being “wasteful,” and devotes the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room,” she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. . . . Could there ever be an adequate means of expressing the acceptance of that gift of self which the divine Bridegroom continually makes to His Bride, the Church, by bringing the Sacrifice offered once and for all on the Cross to successive generations of believers and thus becoming nourishment for all the faithful?3

In what follows, I want first to consider what it means to say that the Church is “poor and for the poor,” and secondly to argue that it is precisely because the Church is in a certain way “poor and for the poor” that she must worship God by means of sacred beauty. The poverty of her life and the beauty of her liturgy have the same source and the same goal in Christ, the divine Head and Bridegroom of the Church, Priest and Victim of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. For His sake, and by His sanctifying influence upon her, the Bride of Christ is herself Lady Poverty and the Mother of Fairest Love. The Church is poor, and for that very reason she has the power to bring forth the beauty of holiness in our souls and the holiness of beauty in our sanctuaries.

1. The Church That Is Poor

The Poverty and Beauty of Dependence

The Church is poor, first of all, in her dependence upon Christ, for without Him she has nothing, can do nothing, and is nothing (cf. Jn 15:5). “What do you have that you did not receive?” asks Saint Paul of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:7). The Church’s riches come entirely from the Trinitarian Godhead through the humanity of the Son, and are all of the spiritual order: Christ’s revealed truth in her teaching and His sanctifying grace in the sacraments, with all that accompanies sanctifying grace in the lives of the sanctified—the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, bearing fruits and bringing Beatitudes. Now, the truth of Christ that the poor Church proclaims to the nations is beautiful, as is His grace in the sacraments. Indeed, all that is true is beautiful, as it is also good. Now, the poverty of the Church is her receptivity to this beauty of the truth and grace of her Head; what Hopkins said of Holy Mother Mary applies also to Holy Mother Church: she “lets all God’s glory through.”4 And since her children on earth are creatures made up of flesh and spirit, with senses as well as intellect, the Church honours the invisible beauty of Christ’s truth and grace—the beauty of Christ Himself hidden under the sacramental species—with the outward and sensible splendour of the liturgical arts.

The Poverty and Beauty of Imitation

Secondly, the Church is poor because she imitates the life lived by Jesus, her Head and Bridegroom, in this world. She does not seek the world’s glittering prizes any more than He did. Her goal is the glory of the Triune God and the salvation of mankind. The ninth-century monastic theologian Rabanus Maurus says that in her poverty, “renouncing the world and its delights, [the Church] daily serves God and struggles for the Kingdom of Heaven.”5 She asks her pastors to employ temporal possessions in a prudent and temperate way for that spiritual end, and condemns simony, clerical avarice, and all abuse of ecclesiastical office for the sake of personal enrichment.

Now, the beauty of the Church’s liturgy, like the poverty of her life in imitation of Christ, is a support of her preaching; indeed, it is itself a kind of preaching. To quote Pope Francis: “The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.”6 The holy images defended by the Second Council of Nicaea and the Council of Trent against the heresy of iconoclasm are a “Bible for the poor”: they convey to the mind through the eyes the whole content of scripture.

In the last question of the last complete treatise of the Summa theologiae, placing himself in the great tradition of liturgical exegesis, Saint Thomas argues that the ceremonial actions of the celebrant of Mass are not “ridiculous gesticulations”: they are done for the sake of reverence, and they “represent something,” that is, they teach a lesson.7 For example, the censing at high Mass is done in a particular order: first the altar, then the priest and sacred ministers, and then the people, to signify that grace comes from Christ the Head (symbolized by the altar) through the priest to the people. The architecture of the Dominican friars who designed Santa Maria Novella in Florence and Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome was a kind of preaching, as was the painting of the Dominican blessed, John of Fiesole (Fra Angelico). In her new and groundbreaking book Religious Poverty and Visual Riches, Joanna Cannon of the Courtauld Institute in London shows how the Dominicans of central Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries produced iconography of immense beauty, not in contradiction of their life of poverty and preaching, but as one of its chief fruits. Professor Cannon argues that in early Dominican church design and decoration, the chief principles were “moderation and humility, not abnegation and humiliation”8: neither in their lives nor in their convents did religious poverty mean squalor or the neglect of liturgical beauty. There was no extravagance of expenditure on sacred art: friar-artists would often use Mass stipends and stole fees to buy their materials, and secular masters, such as Andrea Bonaiuti in Florence, were sometimes paid in kind by being given free bed and board, even for life.9

The Church of Santa Maria Novella, completed in 1360 by the Dominicans in Florence

The Church of Santa Maria Novella, completed in 1360 by the Dominicans in Florence. Photo: wikimedia.org

The Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella was frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop from 1485 to 1490.

The Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella was frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop from 1485 to 1490. Photo: flickr.com/arthistory390

The same coincidence of “religious poverty and visual riches” can be observed in the Franciscan Order. For the love of Jesus, Saint Francis of Assisi imitated His poverty, and for love of Him too he ensured that the celebration of the Sacrament in which He renews the Sacrifice He once offered on the Cross was adorned with all the beauty he could muster. The Poverello clothed himself in rags, but believed that only what was clean and beautiful should furnish the house and altar of God. His restoring of the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, began with the repairing of a church building. In one of his letters he castigates the clergy for “the sad state of the chalices, the corporals, and the altar-linens upon which the Body and Blood of our Lord are sacrificed.”

Are we not moved by a sense of piety concerning all these things, since the good Lord offers Himself into our hands, and we handle Him and receive Him daily with our mouth? Or do we forget that we must come into His hands? Well then, let us quickly and firmly amend our ways in these and other matters, and wherever the most holy Body of our Lord Jesus Christ has been unlawfully housed and neglected, let it be removed from that place and deposited and locked in a precious location.10

The poverty of Saint Francis’s holy life inspired new forms of beauty in Christian art. Through Cimabue and Giotto, he brought the gift of tears into Western painting. In the laudi of his spiritual son Jacopone da Todi, and in his own Canticle of the Sun, with which vernacular literature in Italy begins, he purified and surrendered to the Blessed Trinity the joie de vivre of the troubadours. As the poet Francis Thompson said, “Sworn to Poverty [Saint Francis] forswore not Beauty, but discerned through the lamp Beauty the Light God. . . . Poetry clung round the cowls of his Order.”11

The Beauty of Evangelical Poverty

Thirdly, the Church is poor because she commends to her children the vow of evangelical poverty. In fidelity to Christ she distinguishes between commandment and counsel. The commandments remove from our lives what is incompatible with charity (mortal sin, including the sins of envy, avarice, theft, and obsession with material things).12 The counsels, embraced by religious under vow, remove from our lives what can hinder perfection in charity (such as the personal ownership of material things). In commending evangelical poverty, the Church follows the straight path of wisdom and rejects the extremism of those who, like the Fraticelli, despised worldly goods almost in the manner of the Manichees, as if they were intrinsically evil.

The poverty of the Church’s religious, undertaken in imitation of Christ and for the sake of more intimate union with Him in charity, has been a fruitful source of the sacred beauty of the liturgical arts. Freed from the desire to possess and exploit, consecrated religious have had the peace to contemplate the natural beauty of God’s creation and the supernatural beauty of His work of re-creation. Liturgical chant in both East and West was preserved, developed, and most honoured in monasteries, communities of men and women who follow the poor Christ in poverty. The iconography of the Byzantine East, to which Western art in the Middle Ages never ceased in some measure to be indebted, was likewise chiefly the work of monks. True, most iconographers and architects in the West have been laymen and sometimes wealthy men, but many of the greatest of them—once again we think of Fra Angelico or of the anonymous artists who produced the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells—were religious with “affections withdrawn from worldly things.”

The Beauty of Poverty of Spirit

Fourthly, the Church is poor because she is holy and therefore has poverty of spirit, for whoever is holy has poverty of spirit. She has compassion for those who suffer material poverty in the sense of being deprived of the food, clothing, and shelter needed for life and health (miseria, misère); but realist that she is, she knows that, while such a state of need may help a man to be humble and trust in God, it may have the opposite effect, making him bitter and eaten up with envy. She commends the vow of poverty, but she knows, as Saint Paul says, that “if I distribute all my goods to feed the poor

. . . and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). And the Church also recognizes, in the words of Pope Saint Leo the Great, that “very many rich people use their wealth for works of charity rather than as a means to puff up their pride.”13 What the Church prizes above all, what she herself possesses, what she enables her children to possess, is the beatitude of poverty of spirit: “Poverty is blessed,” says Saint Leo, “when it is not beguiled by a longing for earthly goods, and does not seek increase of the world’s riches, but desires to be enriched with heavenly blessings.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Beautiful is poverty of spirit, for there is nothing more grotesque than its opposite: the bloating of the soul of the man who “seeks greatness in honours and riches,” who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Such a man is in danger of falling into sensualism and intemperance—of all sins, says Saint Thomas, the most spiritually ugly: “It is repugnant to [man’s] brightness and beauty, for indulgence in the pleasures of intemperance dulls the light of intelligence, in which all loveliness of virtues shines.”14 Now, the beauty of poverty of spirit in the saints has inspired the Church’s iconographers throughout the ages. Consider Saint Dominic in the works of Fra Angelico and El Greco: here is a man who seeks to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified. Or Saint Francis as Cimabue represents him in the lower basilica in Assisi, the glorious little pauper, radiating humility and the love of Christ, with the mark of the nails in his hands and of the lance in his side. Consider above all the portraits of the all-holy Mother of God, from the icons of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai to the Madonnas of Botticelli, Perugino, and Raphael. If there is beauty anywhere on earth in the works of men, it is here, in these depictions of an immaculate heart whose only treasure is Jesus.

Saint Dominic in Prayer by El Greco, 1588

Saint Dominic in Prayer by El Greco, 1588. Photo: wikimedia.org

Madonna Enthroned with the Child, Saint Francis, and Four Angels by Cimabue, lower basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, 1280
Madonna Enthroned with the Child, Saint Francis, and Four Angels by Cimabue, lower basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, 1280. Photo: wikimedia.org

2. The Church That Is “For the Poor”

The Church is “for the poor,” and for that very reason she is “for sacred beauty.” She is for the poor because her divine Head, even though He is glorified in Himself at the Father’s right hand, on earth is hungry and thirsty, naked and imprisoned, in His members: “Amen I say to you, as long as you did it [or did not do it] to one of these my least brethren, you did it [or did not do it] to me” (Mt 25:40, 45). She is for the poor because her Head and Bridegroom is for the poor. In the words of Pope Francis, “God shows the poor ‘His first mercy.’”15 The Holy Father says that the poor “have much to teach us. . . . In their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”16

Now, if we “listen” to the poor, if we let ourselves be “evangelized” by them, then we shall find that they themselves love and long for sacred beauty, for a visible expression of the invisible beauty of the risen Christ, in the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated and in the buildings in which the celebration takes place. The beauty of the liturgy is first of all for God’s greater glory, but it is also—and for that very reason—good news for the poor. In her classic work The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought, Nadezhda Gorodetsky quotes the nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox Bishop Ignaty: “The people are pressed like ants in their poor huts, but they would build a high and beautiful temple of God. . . .

They walk almost in rags, but they long to see the church shining with gold and silver.” The hovels in which they live are, in Gorodetsky’s words, “but a night lodging of a pilgrim;” but they see the church shining with its gilded icons and blazing candles as “the reflection of eternal life and bliss.”17 If we listen to the poor, if we let ourselves be evangelized by them, then we shall hear them reminding us that their first needs may be material in the order of time (a starving man must be fed before he can be catechized), but are spiritual in the order of eternal salvation. We owe the poor the corporal works of mercy, but we must not fail to give them the spiritual works of mercy, helping them and ourselves by sacred beauty to (in the words of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom) “lay aside all earthly cares” and “sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.”

The Church is poor and for the poor, and is therefore beautiful and for sacred beauty. We can make the converse argument: it is because she is for sacred beauty that the Church is “for the poor.” The argument runs as follows: Saint Thomas distinguishes in the sacraments between what was instituted by Christ and what was instituted by the Church.18 The incarnate Son of God Himself determined the substance of each of the sacraments, while His Church, in all the diversity of times and places, has adorned the celebration of the sacraments with the accidents of sacred beauty: ceremonies; music; sacred vessels and vestments; the ordering, furnishing, and decorating of the church building; and the holy images of Christ and His saints. These forms of beauty, chosen and made by men, according to Saint Thomas are “not essential to the Sacrament, but belong to the solemnity that is added to the Sacraments in order to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients.”19 By arousing our devotion and reverence for Christ really present in the Eucharist, the forms of sacred beauty enable us with greater love to unite ourselves to His self-offering to the Father, and to receive Him—His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity—when He comes to us in Holy Communion. The Eucharist is indeed the sacramentum caritatis, the loving gift of the Heart of Jesus and the chief source of the charity of the whole Church and of her members. It is therefore from the Eucharistic Heart of Christ that the saints, moved to devotion and reverence by the sacred beauty of the liturgy, have drawn the power to love and serve the poor for the sake of Jesus. As Pope Benedict says in Deus caritas est, “The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others.”20 To the words of Joseph Ratzinger we may add this remark: to support the devotion of “their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord,” the saints ensured that the celebration of the Eucharist was made beautiful with all the resources at their disposal.

3. Iconoclasm: The Heresy That Is Against the Poor

The spirit of Judas the thief has never died. Without fear of refutation, we can say that, throughout the Church’s history, the destroyers of sacred beauty have been oppressors of the poor, or at least have indulged themselves with worldly goods to the point of doing injustice to the poor. For example, the Iconoclastic clergy of the eighth century were notorious for wearing expensive clothes. The men who smashed icons and whitewashed frescoes smeared themselves with scent and wrapped themselves in purple. That is why the sixteenth canon of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), which defended the holy icons against the Iconoclasts, ruled that “it does not become those in holy orders to be clad in costly apparel.”21

In his History of the Protestant Reformation, William Cobbett—farmer, soldier, political agitator, and journalist of the early nineteenth century—shows how the English Reformation not only destroyed the sacred beauty of a thousand years of Catholic Christianity, but wrecked the countryside, ruined agriculture, and impoverished the common people. It was, he said, “engendered in lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood.”22 The land worked by the monks for the common good of local communities was seized by the coming men of the court of Henry VIII for their own enrichment, as were the treasures of a thousand sanctuaries. Inspired in part by Cobbett, Augustus Welby Pugin, the great architect of the Gothic Revival, in his book Contrasts presents drawings to illustrate the differences between the Middle Ages and modern times, not only in building styles but also in social philosophy. At the bottom of one page, we see the poor finding hospitality in a Benedictine abbey, where the monks have the obligation to welcome guests as if they were Christ. By contrast, at the top of the page, Pugin shows us the “scientific” way of housing the poor in early Victorian England: incarcerating them in the “Panopticon,” the model jail invented by Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of Utilitarianism.23 In the mind of Pugin and Cobbett, the abolishers of the Mass and the sacraments—the destroyers of the old faith and its heritage of beauty—were also guilty of a crime that cries to heaven for vengeance: grinding the faces of the poor. Were Pugin and Cobbett succumbing to anti-Protestant bigotry? Well, Pugin was a convert to the Catholic faith from Protestantism, and by temperament a zealot; but Cobbett, to whose writings Pugin was indebted, was born and died a Protestant, and was a down-to-earth countryman. He assures his readers that his only motive in writing his History, the most violent denunciation of the Protestant Reformation ever published, was “a disinterested love of truth and justice.”24

Plate from A. W. Pugin’s Contrasts

Plate from A. W. Pugin’s Contrasts. Photo: pinterest.com

4. Poverty and Beauty: Resolving the Difficulties

Like the Angelic Doctor in the articles of the Summa, let us return to the objections to beauty with which we began. First, there is the prophets’ denunciation of feasts and incense. To understand the message of Isaiah and Amos, we need to remember that in the sacrifices of the Old Covenant what was pleasing to God was not the thing offered (the blood of animals), but the righteous disposition of the person who made the offering.25 When that disposition was absent, as it was when the priest or layman was culpably indifferent to the poor, then, as Isaiah and Amos teach us, the sacrifices were odious to God. Now, in the Sacrifice of the New and Everlasting Covenant in the Mass, which is the re-presentation of the Sacrifice once offered by Christ on the Cross, what is offered is infinitely pleasing to God because it is the Body and Blood of His only-begotten Son, the slain Lamb of God; and the principal offerer, too, has a disposition, a Heart, of the purest reverence and self-giving love, for that principal offerer is the same Jesus, the Eternal High Priest. What may be deficient is the heart of the ordained priest at the altar and of the laity in the pews. Even a priest whose soul is black in mortal sin can validly consecrate and offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and from the objective power of that Sacrifice a profusion of blessings are poured out upon the living and the dead, though the priest, by saying Mass without repenting, has added sacrilege to his already existing offences.

Saint John Chrysostom, in the passage I quoted at the beginning, is likewise condemning not liturgical beauty as such. After all he is the greatest liturgist among the Greek Fathers, and his anaphóra, celebrated almost daily in the Churches of the Byzantine rite, remains one of the jewels of Tradition. Saint John is not forcing us to choose between charity towards the poor and beauty in the liturgy, but simply challenging us to make sure that, in striving for the latter, we do not neglect the former. He says, “I am not saying this to criticize the use of such ornaments. We must attend to both, but to Christ [in the poor] first.”

Conclusion: Maria, tota pulchra, Mater pauperum

Saint Francis of Assisi loved to call the Mother of God the Virgo paupercula, the poor little Virgin. I said earlier that the Church herself is the one Francis called Lady Poverty, but first of all Lady Poverty is our Lady Mary. She is the Church’s supreme member, the Church’s most perfect model of union with Christ, and the Church’s devoted Mother, the mediatrix of all the graces that flow from Christ the Head into His members. Mary, Virgin Mother of Christ, is thus the living personification of the Church, Virgin Mother of Christ’s faithful. She is also therefore the personification of the Church “that is poor and for the poor.” Our blessed Lady is poor in her utter dependence on Christ, in her poverty of spirit, in her immaculate humility, in her virginity which looks for no source of fruitfulness other than the direct action of God. Her Magnificat is testament to her poverty. No one is more conscious of her nothingness as a creature than the mother of the Creator, His lowly handmaid. She recognizes that whatever she has or does, whatever she is, is His gift to her. “He that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is His name” (Lk 1:49). She is the answer to the prayers of the fathers, Abraham and his seed. She is the queen of the poor and faithful remnant of the Lord.

Madonna of the Magnificat by Sandro Botticelli, 1481

Madonna of the Magnificat by Sandro Botticelli, 1481. Photo: sandro-botticelli.com

And Mary, Virgo paupercula, is also “all fair,” tota pulchra: beautiful by the sanctifying grace of her Son from the first moment of her conception, beautiful by the risen glory of her Son from her Assumption, body and soul, into heaven. She is beautiful in all the virtues, in the gifts and fruits and Beatitudes of the Holy Spirit, her Spouse. Her divine Son’s beautification of the whole created order, the new heaven and earth, is inaugurated in her, the Mother of Fairest Love. Heaven’s queen is paradise in perfection. Dante sings in the person of Saint Bernard: “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, / humbler and loftier past creation’s measure, / the fulcrum of the everlasting plan. . . . In you is mercy, in you is piety, / in you magnificence, in you the sum / of excellence in all things that come to be.”26 In our Lady we see everything that in Christianity, by the grace of Jesus, is compassion and humility, everything that is most purely and perfectly beautiful. Is there a place for liturgical beauty in the Church that is poor and for the poor? There is. The name of that place is the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Rev. John Saward is a Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, and priest-in-charge of the parish of Saints Gregory and Augustine in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham, England.


1. Evangelii gaudium, n. 198.

2. Homilia 50 in Matthaeum, nn. 3; PG 58.508.

3. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 48.

4. “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” in The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. N. H. Mackenzie (Oxford, 1990), 94.

5. Commentariorum in Ecclesiasticum libri decem, lib. 9, cap. 1; PL 109.1054D.

6. Evangelii gaudium, n. 24.

7. Summa theologiae 3a q. 83, a. 5, ad 5. The translation is by Thomas Gilby OP.

8. Joanna Cannon, Religious Poverty, Visual Riches: Art in the Dominican Churches of Central Italy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2014), 19. In the eighteenth century, in his encyclical Annus qui hunc, Pope Benedict XIV recognizes that not every church will have great resources to spend on the liturgical arts, but a certain minimum of beauty is of obligation: “We wish to stress that we are not speaking of the sumptuousness and magnificence of the Sacred Temples, or of the preciousness of the sacred furnishings, we knowing as well that they cannot be had everywhere. We have spoken of decency and cleanliness which it is not licit for anyone to neglect, decency and cleanliness being compatible with poverty” (cited by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, The Noble Simplicity of Liturgical Vestments, November 14, 2010).

9. Ibid., 16.

10. A Letter to the Clergy, nn. 4–11.

11. “Shelley,” in The Complete Works of Francis Thompson, new ed., vol. 3 (Westminster, 1947), 2.

12. See Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae q. 184, a. 3; CCC 1973.

13. Sermo 95, 2.

14. Summa theologiae 2a2ae q. 145, a. 2.

15. Evangelii gaudium, n. 198.

16. Ibid.

17. The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought, 96.

18. Summa theologiae 3a q. 64, a. 2, ad 1.

19. Ibid.

20. Deus caritas est, n. 18.

21. Theodore Balsamon et al., In canones SS. Apostolorum, conciliorum et in epistolas canonicas SS. Patrum commentaria; PG 137. 968C-972C.

22. William Cobbett, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, revised with notes and preface by His Eminence Cardinal Gasquet, O.S.B. (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1925), 2f.

23. Contrasts: Or, a Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day, Shewing the Present Decay of Taste, Accompanied by Appropriate Text (London: Charles Dolman, 1841) no page number.

24. Cobbett, History of the Protestant Reformation, 401.

25. See Saint Thomas Aquinas, Super Isaiam, cap. 1, lectio 3.

26. Dante, Paradiso: A New Translation by Anthony Esolen (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), 351 (Canto 33).

| Ontoluminescence: Bright God and Brilliant Creatures in Thomas Aquinas

Ontoluminescence: Bright God and Brilliant Creatures in Thomas Aquinas

Stained-glass windows in the cathedral of Lille give color and coherence to the light of the sun.

Stained-glass windows in the cathedral of Lille give color and coherence to the light of the sun. Photo: flickr.com/Lawrence OP

“The discussion of the beautiful occupies a marginal place in Thomas’s work.”1

Such a premonishment is very nearly de rigueur for essays on the theme of beauty in the works of Thomas Aquinas. The reader is warned that no treatise, question, or article is devoted to the beautiful. The undeniable implication is that expectations should be adjusted accordingly (e.g., all hope of encountering “the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas” must be abandoned).2 But like the playing of the national anthem before a Cubs game, this caveat is largely a formality preceding chaos.3 Students of Aquinas’s aesthetic marginalia have displayed a preternatural ability to compose multiple theories of beauty “according to Saint Thomas.”4 One of the most noteworthy aspects of these accounts is their nearly complete incompatibility.

Francis Kovach reckons that Saint Thomas make some mention of beauty in 665 places. When minor references, quotations from other authors, and loci where Thomas is commenting on a text are deducted, only 130 texts on beauty remain,5 with few of these more than a handful of lines. Denied the sustained treatments given the other (quasi) transcendental properties of esse,6 “beauty,” like Purple of Tyre, must be laboriously harvested from these many small sources. Further, Saint Thomas offers no musings on the fine arts or religious artwork.7 The author of Adoro te devote and Pange lingua gloriosi8 passes over the liturgical role of beauty in silence. Impressively written introductions to Saint Thomas’s masterpiece never include beauty among “die großen Themen der Summa theologiae.”9 Yet, the most extravagant encomia have been raised by those who descry in the Angelic Doctor’s happenstance reflections the key to his most profound ideas.10

Despite a number of attempts to produce one,11 there is no rounded and reasonably complete account of beauty per se, much less a theory of aesthetics, to be had in Saint Thomas.12 The modest intent of this essay is to offer some reflections on an “aesthetic analogy”; viz., the Son is to the Trinity as bright color is to a creature. The comparison is found in Summa Theologiae, I.39.8, resp.13: “For beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.” As Brendan Sammon observes, almost every scholar who draws upon this passage isolates it from its broader context, treating it as a philosophical definition of the beautiful.14 This is a doubtful enterprise on at least three counts: First, Thomas provides no explanation of how these three qualities relate to one another,15 though all are grounded in creaturely form (see below). Second, these three terms never again appear together in Aquinas’s remarks on the “objective principles” of beauty.16 And third, these remarks are part of Thomas’s defense of the appropriation of names within Trinitarian theology.17 Thomas argues that beauty in each of its dimensions has a likeness to the property of the Son: integritas, “inasmuch as He as Son has in Himself truly and perfectly the nature of the Father”; proportio, “inasmuch as He is the express Image of the Father” (“hence we see that an image is said to be beautiful, if it perfectly represents even an ugly thing”); and claritas, which “agrees with the property of the Son, as the Word, which is the light and splendor of the intellect.”18

What is the claritas to which the Son is likened? Like “health,”19 “wisdom,”20 and “justice,”21 “beauty” and its components are predicated analogically (i.e., they posit something as literally true of God, but deny the creaturely mode of what they predicate).22 Thus, God is perfection, proportion, and brightness, but not in a way that involves material composition or potentiality. Further, within the created realm, we may distinguish between sensible beauty, such as characterizes a human body possessing well proportioned limbs with a certain brightness of a due color, and spiritual beauty, such as human actions which are “well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason.”23 The semantic potency of the language of light makes it an irresistible figure for analogizing everything from the simplest act of recognition to the generation of the Son.24 “In its primary meaning [light] signifies that which makes manifest to the sense of sight; afterwards it was extended to that which makes manifest to cognition of any kind. If, then, the word is taken in its strict and primary meaning, it is to be understood metaphorically when applied to spiritual things. . . . But if taken in its common and extended use, as applied to manifestation of every kind, it may properly be applied to spiritual things.”25 And so, in addition to physical light,26 Saint Thomas speaks of “the light that makes beauty known” (lumen manifestans),27 “the spiritual clarity of reason” (spiritualem rationis claritatem),28 the “lightsomeness of glory” (claritas gloriae),29 a good reputation (excellentia vel claritas),30 and the lustre (decor) and light (lumen) of grace.31 In his commentary on John’s Gospel, Saint Thomas writes:

Sense perceptible light, however, is a certain image of spiritual light. . . . Just as particular light has an effect on the thing seen, inasmuch as it makes colors actually visible, as well as on the one seeing, because through it the eye is conditioned for seeing, so intellectual light makes the intellect to know because whatever light is in the rational creature is all derived from that supreme light “which enlightens every man coming into the world.” Furthermore, it makes all things to be actually intelligible inasmuch as all forms are derived from it, forms which give things the capability of being known, just as all the forms of artifacts are derived from the art and reason on the artisan.”32

The keys here are form and intelligibility. Aquinas sees form as the measure of every creature’s participation in the divina claritas.33 God is light because He does not share in—but is—beauty. He is unlimited act,34 ipsum esse per se subsistens—“not abstract being, but being that is fully determinate in itself and subsistent, and from which all other things derive their being.”35 Created things are in a variety of ways, and what a thing is determines how its beauty arises.36 For our purposes, we can say that every thing possesses a form which, as a stained-glass window gives color and coherence to the greater light of the sun, shapes the gift of being, In this sense, claritas is “ontoluminescence,” the infinitely varied brightness of the ways of participating in the divine Light. Form is the fluorescence by which things declare themselves to intellect.

This prodigal distribution of beauty can be an aid to Christian theology and prayer. Christian perspectives have often provoked extremes in regards to the beautiful: Clairvaux and Suger, the Beeldenstorm and the Baroque, the stripping of altars and their ghastly “renovation.” Scripture sings the cosmos aesthetic, commending the wonder of God’s handiwork to the faithful (Psalm 104), but is hardly sentimental about the natural world and is very wary of the cunning alchemy of the human heart which transmutes calves into gold, reveling in the worthless products of human art made by the “ancient hand” of idolatry (Wis 13:10), the self-made “snares for the souls of men” who are “distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair” (Wis 13:7). Yet, Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:3-4), who reveals the Father (Jn 1:18) to human sight, hearing, and touch (1 Jn 1:1-2), valorizing the visible as the vehicle of divine self-expression, yet possessing “no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him” (Is 53:2). Is not beauty too appealing to the rebel imagination, too coarse in its elevation of sensory delight over the discipline of reason, as Plato warned?37

Further, the connection between the cultivation of beauty and the wanton ease of the privileged (Am 6:1-7), the Gospel’s focus on the king of shreds and patches who made His habitation with the unlovely of the world, and the need to proclaim the Gospel amidst a world beset by the hydra-like problems of global hunger and disease combine to suggest that discerning the face of the Crucified in human suffering must take precedence over any dilettantish swooning about wild flowers or the relics of slave cultures, much less the fussy elevation of aesthetic standards and vision over “practical considerations” in the matters of church design, construction, and ornamentation. Is not beauty too hopelessly trivial and effete to be granted full membership in the counsels of proclamation, prayer, and theology?

To return to the analogy: bright color is a delightful, domestic analogate. It may be, as Monroe Beardsley observes, that Thomas’s “casual reference to ‘bright color’ does not perhaps invite a very fancy reading.”38 But this may be part of its value. Anyone who has flipped through the massive swatch books available in the paints section of even the most modest hardware store, or endured the recherché nomenclature of a tony florist (citrine, opalescent, sea glass, cameo, cerulean, etc.), has seen how nearly undetectable gradations of color lend themselves to a sort of visual wine tasting, centered on self-flattering and very profitable discriminations (e.g., Hamlindigo blue). But Aquinas has something much simpler in mind. As Umberto Eco observes, “The Middle Ages was a time of bright hues. It was a period that identified beauty with light and color (as well as with proportion), and this color was always elementary, a symphony of reds, blues, gold, silver, white, and green, without subtleties and half tones. . . . In medieval poetry this sense of radiant color is always present: the grass is green, blood is red, milk pure white, and a pretty woman, in the words of Guido Guinizzelli, has ‘a face of snow colored in carmine.’”39

The north rose window of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris exemplifies Umberto Eco’s observation that “the Middle Ages was a time of bright hues.”

The north rose window of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris exemplifies Umberto Eco’s observation that “the Middle Ages was a time of bright hues.” Photo: flickr.com/Lawrence OP

In one sense, the language of beauty—“The Word is to the Father as red is to freshly washed cherries; like a cobalt dinner plate, or a clean copper pot, or butterflies sipping nectar from sunflowers”—is no different from any speech about God, in that it attempts to approach the divine by means of the sensible. Since “the beautiful is something pleasant to apprehend,”40 bright color may be an especially “eye-catching” way to depict the Word. But Saint Thomas licenses us to say something more when he writes that “the senses are given to man, not only for the purpose of procuring the necessaries of life, for which they are bestowed on other animals, but also for the purpose of knowledge. Hence, whereas the other animals take delight in the objects of the senses only as ordered to food and sex, man alone takes pleasure in the beauty of sensible objects for its own sake.”41 And indeed, there is something about bright color that catches, fixes, and absorbs the gaze. If we find ourselves staring at the deep copper hue of a desert sunrise, or the blue of the Virgin’s gown in a van Eyck reproduction, or the primary greens and yellows of a mobile hung above a crib, we are not surprised by their appeal; more often, like the new notice given to the purple of a local field, our apprehension is accompanied by surprise at how easily we become inured to bright colors (likely due in no small degree to our overexposure to them, a situation which did not often confront humanity for most of its existence).

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck. Photo: professorhedgehogsjournal.files.wordpress.com

The use of so basic an analogy as bright color suggests that created ontoluminescence is, at least initially, an engagement with simplicities both quotidian and exceptional. Aquinas specifies this experience as the pleasurable contemplation of the real. Claritas is one of the fundamental ways we recognize difference. Black cow, white cow; blue sky, red sky; green shirt, purple dress—bright color is the initial and abiding herald of the deeper intelligibilities that surround us, because it is in part the “radiance of distinction,” the light which allows what is to be grasped by the intellect. Such simple radiance offers fulfillment to our minds. Aquinas defines the ratio of beauty as “that which calms the desire by being seen or known. . . . It is evident that beauty adds to goodness a relation to the cognitive faculty: so that ‘good’ means that which simply pleases the appetite; while the ‘beautiful’ is something pleasant to apprehend.”42 Again, the “something” involved here is not exclusively or even primarily great works of art or mighty natural formations, though they are included. It is first a matter of simple knowing—that is a desk, this is falling water, those are bright wings—in which color plays a key role.

Of course, color never stands on its own. We always encounter something which is colored,43 something upon which and from which claritas flows, just as we always experience proportioned things and never proportion in the abstract. Along with the organic and intellectual specificities of the beholder, the concrete embeddedness of sensible color presides over the particulars of its contemplation. Consider Kitty Fane’s experience of the chapel of the Catholic sisters ministering to the cholera victims of Mei tan fu, in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. The mother superior invites Kitty to see a life-size statue of the Blessed Virgin, a gift recently arrived from France.

The chapel was no more than a long low room with whitewashed walls and rows of deal benches; at the end was the altar on which stood the image; it was in plaster of Paris painted in crude colours; it was very bright and new and garish. Behind it was a picture in oils of the Crucifixion with the two Maries at the foot of the Cross in extravagant attitudes of grief. The drawing was bad and the dark pigments were put on with an eye that knew nothing of the beauty of colour. Around the walls were the Stations of the Cross painted by the same unfortunate hand. The chapel was hideous and vulgar. . . .

“The altarpiece and the Stations of the Cross were painted by one of our Sisters, Soeur St Anselme.” The Mother Superior crossed herself. “She was a real artist. Unfortunately, she fell a victim to the epidemic. Do you not think that they are very beautiful?”

Kitty faltered an affirmative. On the altar were bunches of paper flowers and the candlesticks were distractingly ornate.

“We have the privilege of keeping here the Blessed Sacrament.”

“Yes?” said Kitty, not understanding.

“It has been a great comfort to us during this time of so terrible trouble.”

To this point, everything that Kitty has learned about the mother superior indicates that it is highly unlikely she is given to sentimental blindness as regards poorly executed art. She is of an ancient French family, possesses a simple and unaffected dignity which inspires awe and makes it unthinkable that anyone one would fail to show her respect, and has “the authority of one who has never known that it is possible to be disobeyed. She had the condescension of a great lady and the humility of a saint. There was in her strong, handsome, and ravaged face an austerity that was passionate; and at the same time she had a solicitude and a gentleness which permitted those little children to cluster, noisy and unafraid, in the assurance of her deep affection.”44 But Kitty understands the superior’s aesthetic judgments no better than she grasps what it means to the sisters to have the consolation of the reserved Eucharist. She experiences the colors in a shallow way, and so misses the meaning so evident to the mother superior. Only tears, emptiness, and self-recrimination over her shabby treatment of her husband allows her to see things more deeply. “But once within the convent it had seemed to her that she was transported into another world situated strangely neither in space nor time. Those bare rooms and the white corridors, austere and simple, seemed to possess the spirit of something remote and mystical. The little chapel, so ugly and vulgar, in its very crudeness was pathetic; it had something which was wanting in the greatness of a cathedral, with its stained glass and its pictures: it was very humble; and the faith which had adorned it, the affection which cherished it, had endued it with a delicate beauty of the soul.”45 The colors are no less garish, nor the figures better executed; but their very vividness contributes to Kitty’s movement from the consideration of strictly sensible beauty to the contemplation of spiritual beauty.

What does it mean to say that the Son is to the Trinity as bright color is to a creature? Perhaps we might put it so: every encounter with bright color holds the potential to present to the believer an analogy of the primal act of beauty, the generation of the Son from the Father, the manifestation within the divine being of Image and Word. The brilliance of gold, the brightness of the red in the Coca-Cola logo, and the varied greens of Edward Hopper’s Road in Maine can all furnish contemplative pleasure to an eye which is untrained but attentive. Such colors draw into relief the vast diversity of forms. Just so does Jesus of Nazareth shine light upon Deus in se, revealing Him to be from all eternity not just claritas, but Light from Light, True God from True God, presented to us now in scripture and sacrament, in fire and water, that our eyes might become slowly prepared for eternal residence in the New Jerusalem, which has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God will give it light, and the Lamb will be its lamp (Rv 21:23).

Rev. Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A. is a native of Philadelphia. He received his bachelor’s degree from Villanova University in 1983, his master’s degree from the Washington Theological Union in 1989, and his doctorate from Harvard University/School of Divinity in 2000. He has taught systematic theology at Villanova for the last decade. He has published essays in The Thomist, the International Journal of Systematic Theology, Dante Studies, and Horizons, and authored the chapter on Karl Rahner in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Theosis/Deification in the Christian Traditions [2007].


1. Jan A. Aertsen, “Beauty in the Middle Ages: A Forgotten Transcendental?,” Medieval Philosophy & Theology 1 (1991): 68–97, here p. 72.

2. Ludger Müller, “Das ‘Schöne’ im Denken des Thomas von Aquin,” Theologie und Philosophie 57 (1982): 413–24, at 423–24.

3. Berkeley Breathed, Bloom County: The Complete Library, vol. 3: 1984–1986 (San Diego: Library of American Comics, 2010).

4. Cyril Barrett, S.J., “The Aesthetics of St. Thomas Re Examined,” Philosophical Studies (Ireland) 12 (1963): 107–24, at p. 107. Abelardo Lobato, O.P., points out the paradox of the “forgotten transcendental” generating more scholarly treatments than any other transcendental, save “being.” (“Santo Tomás de Aquino y la via transcendental en filosofia,” in Die Logik des Transzendentalen: Festschrift für Jan A. Aertsen zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Martin Pickavé [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003], 163–78, at p. 177).

5. Francis J. Kovach, Die Ästhetik des Thomas von Aquin (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1961), 38.

6. Much debate has been occasioned by the “magna quaestio della trascendentalità della bellezza all’interno della riflessione tommasiana” (Angela Monachese, Tommaso d’Aquino e la bellezza [Roma: Annando, 2016], 209). See Jan A. Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals: The Case of Thomas Aquinas (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 335–59; Pascal Dasseleer, “L’être et la beauté selon Saint Thomas d’Aquin,” in Actualité de la pensée médiévale, ed. by J. Follon and J McEvoy (Louvain la Neuve: Éditions de l’Institut supérieur de philosophie; Louvain/Paris: Éditions Peeters, 1994), 268–86; Umberto Eco, Il problema estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino, 2nd ed. (Milano: Valentino Bompiani, 1970); Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism with Other Essays, trans. J.F. Scanlan (New York: Scribner, 1960), 19–30; and Günther Pöltner, Schönheit: Eine Untersuchung zum Ursprung des Denkens bei Thomas von Aquin (Wien/Freiburg/Basel: Herder, 1978).

7. “Thomas Aquinas, while affirming the veneration of images on the grounds that the movement of the soul toward the image is at the same time its movement toward the thing imaged, never paused for long to ponder how the aesthetic qualities of the image might affect one’s response to what is thereby imagined.” Frank Burch Brown, Religious Aesthetics: A Theological Study of Making and Meaning (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 2.

8. The most recent scholarship confirms Aquinas’s authorship of the former, and inclines towards the authenticity of the latter. See Jean Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1: The Person and His Work, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. 1996), 129–36.

9. For example, David Berger, Thomas von Aquins Summa theologiae (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2010); Brian Davies, O.P., Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologiae”: A Guide and a Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Philip McCosker and Denys Turner, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Andreas Speer, ed., Thomas von Aquin: Die Summa theologiae. Werkinterpretationen (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005).

10. See Willehad Paul Eckhert, “Der Glanz des Schönen und seine Unerfüllbarkeit im Bilde: Gedanken zu einer Theologie der Kunst des heiligen Thomas von Aquino,” in Thomas von Aquino: Interpretation und Rezeption, ed. W. P. Eckhert (Mainz: Grünewald, 1974), 229–44, at p. 229.

11. Etienne Gilson famously called beauty the “forgotten transcendental” (Elements of Christian Philosophy [New York: Doubleday, 1960], 159–163). However true that may have been at the time, the last decade alone has seen no fewer than four full-dress treatments of the theme: Kevin O’Reilly, Aesthetic Perception: A Thomistic Perspective (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007); Brendan Sammon, The God Who is Beauty: Beauty as a Divine Name in Thomas Aquinas and Dionysius the Areopagite (2013);

Christopher S. Sevier, Aquinas on Beauty (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015); and Monachese, Tommaso d’Aquino e la bellezza.

12. Whether or not one can be constructed along Thomistic lines is another question. Two such attempts are Armand A. Maurer, C.S.B., About Beauty: A Thomistic Interpretation (Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, 1983); and Piotr Jaroszynski, Beauty and Being: Thomistic Perspectives, trans. Hugh McDonald (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011).

13. “Species autem, sive pulchritudo, habet similitudinem cum propriis filii. Nam ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur. Primo quidem, integritas sive perfectio, quae enim diminuta sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt. Et debita proportio sive consonantia. Et iterum claritas, unde quae habent colorem nitidum, pulchra esse dicuntur. Quantum igitur ad primum, similitudinem habet cum proprio filii, inquantum est filius habens in se vere et perfecte naturam patris. Unde, ad hoc innuendum, Augustinus in sua expositione dicit, ubi, scilicet in filio, summa et prima vita est, et cetera. Quantum vero ad secundum, convenit cum proprio filii, inquantum est imago expressa patris. Unde videmus quod aliqua imago dicitur esse pulchra, si perfecte repraesentat rem, quamvis turpem. Et hoc tetigit Augustinus cum dicit, ubi est tanta convenientia, et prima aequalitas, et cetera. Quantum vero ad tertium, convenit cum proprio filii, inquantum est verbum, quod quidem lux est, et splendor intellectus, ut Damascenus dicit. Et hoc tangit Augustinus cum dicit, tanquam verbum perfectum cui non desit aliquid, et ars quaedam omnipotentis Dei, et cetera.” Latin text and English translations are from Summa Theologiae, translated by Laurence Shapcote, O.P.; edited by John Mortensen and Enrique Alarcón (Lander, Wyoming: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), 8 vols. Hereafter ST.

14. The God Who Is Beauty, 343. Likewise is Saint Thomas’s observation “pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent” (ST, I.5.4, ad 1) treated as a formal definition. See Andreas Speer, “Thomas von Aquin und die Kunst: Eine hermeneutische Anfrage zur mittelalterlichen Ästhetik,” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 72.2 (1990): 323–45, here p. 325.

15. Aertsen, “Beauty in the Middle Ages,” 71.

16. Integritas is the odd man out, though comparable terms (e.g., perfectio, magnitudo) do appear with proportio and claritas. See Kovach, Die Ästhetik des Thomas von Aquin, 106–113; and Eco, Il problema estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino, 128–32.

17. Trinitarian theology is also the context of Aquinas’s remarks on beauty in Scriptum super libros sententiarum magistri Petri Lombardi, vol. 1, 2nd ed., ed. R.P. Mandonnet, O.P. (Paris: Lethielleux, 1929), lib. 1, d. 32, q. 2, a. 1. “There is no good reason to separate this ‘aesthetic’ language and its concepts from the systematic context of Aquinas’s teaching on the divine nature. Their close association with its systematic background, which itself finds confirmation in similar associations within the tradition, makes suspect the claim that this definition can be treated as a ‘material’ definition of beauty divorced from its larger context.” Andreas Speer, “Aesthetics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, ed. John Marenbon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 661–84, at p. 669.

18. Aquinas writes of “integritas sive perfectio” and “debita proportio sive consonantia,” but for the third dimension simply gives “claritas.” In the rendering of Shapcote (the “English Fathers” translation of the Summa Theologiae), a synonym is provided where none is given in the Latin: “brightness or clarity.”

19. Sententia libri Ethicorum, vols. 47.1–2 of Opera Omnia (Romae: Sancta Sabina, 1969), lib. 1, cap. 7; ST, I.13.10, resp.

20. ST, I.13.5, resp.

21. ST, I-II.60.4, resp.; II-II.57.1, ad 1.

22. Quaestiones disputatae de potentia, ed. P.M. Pession (Turin: Marietti, 1965), VII.2, ad 7.

23. ST, II II.145.2, resp.

24. See Gerald O’Collins and Mary Ann Meyers, eds., Light from Light: Scientists and Theologians in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2012).

25. ST, I.67.1, resp. See also Scriptum super libros sententiarum, lib. 1, d. 3, q. 1.

26. A good account of the span of “light talk” in Aquinas is given by David L. Whidden III, Christ the Light: The Theology of Light and Illumination in Thomas Aquinas (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).

27. ST, II-II.180.2, ad 3.

28. ST, II-II.145.2, resp.

29. Summa contra Gentiles, IV.86.2. (English translation: On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, ed. and trans. A. C. Pegis et al., 5 vols. [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975]).

30. ST, I.II.84.4, resp.

31. ST, I II.109.7, resp.

32. Commentary on the Gospel of John, 3 vols., trans. Fabian Larcher, O.P. and James Weisheipl, O.P.; introduction and notes by Daniel Keating and Matthew Levering (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), cap. 8, lect. 2, 1142.

33. “[O]mnis autem forma, per quam res habet esse, est participatio quaedam divinae claritatis.” In librum Beati Dionysii De divinis nominibus expositio, ed. Ceslai Pera, O.P. (Turin: Marietti, 1950), cap. IV, lect. 5, 349.

34. Commenting on Saint Paul’s declaration that God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16), Aquinas writes: “Light in sensible things is the principle of seeing; whence that is called light by which something is known in whatever way. However, each thing is known through its own form, and according as it is in act. Whence, as much as it has form and act, so much does it have light. Therefore, things which are of a certain act, but are not pure act, are illumined, but not light. But the divine essence, which is pure act, is itself light.” Commentaries on St. Paul’s Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. Chrysostom Baer, O. Praem. (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007), cap. 6, lect. 3, 268.

35. Rudi te Velde, Aquinas on God: The “Divine Science” of the Summa Theologiae (Aldershot, Hants, England/Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2009), 81.

36. ST, I.5.4., ad 1.

37. “Artists obscure the enlightening power of thought and skill by aiming at plausibility rather than truth. Art delights in unsavoury trivia and in the endless proliferation of senseless images. . . . The artist cannot represent or celebrate the good, but only what is daemonic and fantastic and extreme; whereas truth is quiet and sober and confined.” (Iris Murdoch, The Fire and the Sun [Oxford: Clarendon, 1977], 65).

38. Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present: A Short History (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1966), 104.

39. Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy: Essays, trans. Richard Dixon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 49–50.

40. ST, I-II.27.1, ad 3.

41. ST, I.91.3, ad 3. See also In libros Aristotelis De caelo et mundo expositio, lib. 2, lect. 14, n. 7.

42. ST, I II.27.1, ad 3. Christopher Sevier writes, “Aesthetic perception is the perception of beauty that recognizes it as intrinsically valuable, and enjoyment—aesthetic pleasure—naturally results. To view aesthetic pleasure this way is not to view the subject (the perceiver) as uninterested in the object of pleasure, but rather to be interested in a certain way—namely, to have an impartial interest. It is a universalized sort of interest, divorced from any particular bodily need—an interest that a rational being in any time or place could, in principle, share. That is, it is an interest that springs from reason rather than from any bodily desire” (Aquinas on Beauty, 76).

43. Karl Rahner uses the impossibility of conceiving color apart from a possible colored thing as an example of the Thomistic conversio ad phantasma. See Spirit in the World, trans. W. V. Dych (New York: Continuum, 1994), 121.

44. W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil (London: William Heinemann, 1925), 143–44.

45. Ibid., 137–38, 141.

| A Magnificent Witness: Our Lady of the Angels Mission, Chicago

A Magnificent Witness: Our Lady of the Angels Mission, Chicago

Our Lady of the Angels Mission

Our Lady of the Angels Mission. Photo: flickr.com/Brule Laker

As unlikely as it seems, a mystical vision experienced by Saint Francis of Assisi eight centuries ago recently found a parallel in a twentieth-century Chicago church associated for decades with anxiety and terror. While praying at the abandoned church of San Damiano, Francis famously heard the Lord’s voice ring out: “Rebuild my church.” Immediately, he began a lifelong path of simplicity and service, beginning by rebuilding the church with his own hands. But commentators have rightly noted that “rebuilding the church” has a double meaning. Because the church building signifies the Christian community joined mystically to Christ its Head,1 the renovation of a church building is the fruit of a renewed Christian community and in turn brings new life to the community itself. In a kind of divine economy, when a worshipping community is dispirited and departs, the buildings which signify Christ’s presence decay and crumble. When the community returns and is reedified—spiritually “rebuilt”—church buildings again provide the visible sign of the Holy Spirit building up the temple of Christ’s body. It is then that a church building flowers and stands as a queen amidst the city’s surrounding buildings.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the renewal of the former Our Lady of the Angels Church in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, where a once-thriving parish became an aching gash on the face of Chicago after a devastating school fire left ninety-two children and three sisters dead in an eighteen-hour ordeal that sent shockwaves across the world. But new life has come to the neighborhood and its church, beginning with a small community of men and women inspired by Saint Francis himself.

Noble Simplicity, Noble Beauty

The story of Our Lady of the Angels Church in Chicago, now called the Our Lady of the Angels Mission, in many ways follows the familiar path of many of Chicago’s immigrant-driven neighborhood churches. Irish immigrants outgrowing their old neighborhood in the 1890s moved west past Humboldt Park, and their pastor named the parish after a personal interest: he had studied at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Niagara, New York.2 Worship began in a storefront, sisters were found to begin a school, and a temporary church was built. Decades later, despite the dark days of the Depression and war, the parish built a modest but still grand Italian Romanesque church from plans drawn by architect Gerald A. Barry. Samuel Cardinal Stritch dedicated the church in 1941.

Gerald Barry, a busy Chicago architect, would eventually design several dozen buildings in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and his son, also named Gerald, would later form a firm called Barry and Kay, and design churches which pushed the envelope of modern expression. The elder Barry’s work, however, revealed a stylistic versatility common to the best architects of the early twentieth century. His 1936 Saint Bartholomew Church in Chicago and 1953 Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Glenview, Illinois, each used a sophisticated Colonial mode. His Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church showed his versatility with modernized English Gothic, and his Saint Priscilla Church showed a facility with ’50s high modern which nonetheless retained a strong ecclesiastical character.

At Our Lady of the Angels, Barry’s choice of “modernized Italian Romanesque” was not uncommon for the tight budgets of the 1930s. Pastors had become wary of “cathedral-like structures” that “had been overtaken by the depression with a huge burden of debt.”3 Unlike the dreamy English Gothic churches of the Roaring Twenties with their complexities of cut stone, the Italian Romanesque provided a credible historical style closely associated with the Catholic tradition which nonetheless required only small areas of stone detail and allowed for broad, unornamented expanses of brick. At Our Lady of the Angels, Barry gave the façade an appearance of simplicity which contains, nonetheless, significant architectural detail. The front façade displays a rich ecclesiology fitting to a church building as an image of Christ’s hierarchically arranged Mystical Body. Above one entry door is displayed the coat of arms of Pope Pius XII, while the other reveals the arms of Cardinal Mundelein, both reigning when the church was built. Moving from the earthly church to the heavenly community, carvings under the triumphal arch entry symbolize the Persons of the Trinity, most notably the center arch with the crowned hand of God coming down into the new garden of the glorified earth shown by glorified vines and peacocks, the birds of eternity.

The interior, too, continues its theological richness amidst an immediate sense of simplicity. Theologically considered, every church is an image of God and humanity reconciled, where the new heaven and the new earth of the Book of Revelation are shown in perfect order (Rv 21:1). Rows of Byzantine-inspired columns, literally the “pillars of the church” (Gal 2:9), support the roof just as individual people support its mission. Even the roof trusses are treated in a polychromatic iconographic scheme indicating vines, peacocks, and symbols of the Virgin and Christ. The sanctuary, ringed by columns of colorful marbles akin to the jeweled walls of the Heavenly Jerusalem (Rv 4), also display the architect’s understanding of the newer trends inspired by the early Liturgical Movement. Every seat has a clear view of the altar, which itself takes inspiration from Early Christian sources, combining swirling vines, peacocks, and the chi-rho in a wreath, the symbol of the victory of Christ. Above, a large bronze crucifix that could be seen by the people in the pews hangs from a carefully designed tester, revealing the period’s new interest in observance of liturgical law and in the participation of the people in the action at the altar.

Tragedy and Decline

For the first seventeen years of its life, Our Lady of the Angels Church operated like many thriving urban parishes. Tragedy struck on December 1, 1958, however, when a raging fire believed to have begun in the basement of the elementary school engulfed much of the building, trapping students and teachers alike. As horrified parents looked on, students, some with their hair and clothes on fire, jumped out of second-story windows, and television coverage showed the limp bodies of children being carried down fireman’s ladders. Three nuns and ninety-two students died, making headlines across the nation and the world. Photos of small coffins lined up for the funeral Mass remained burned in the collective consciousness of the city. Eventually a new Our Lady of the Angels school was built with the most modern fire protection standards, and throughout the country, school boards reviewed their fire safety provisions in light of the tragedy. Nonetheless, the gaping wound caused by the fire remained, and many families moved away from the neighborhood to avoid the painful memories of the day’s events.

Soon after, in an urban phenomenon common in the 1960s and ’70s, many traditionally Catholic ethnic groups left the cities for the suburbs, and the West Humboldt Park neighborhood faced increasing pressure from the phenomenon of “blockbusting.” In what is sometimes called “panic peddling,” unscrupulous real estate agents developed intentional programs to frighten white residents into selling their homes by stimulating fears of declines in property values because of an influx of African Americans. In some cases, agents “hired African American subagents and other individuals to walk or drive through changing areas soliciting business and otherwise behaving in such a manner as to provoke and exaggerate white fears.”4 Even though the parish formed the “Our Lady of the Angels Committee Against Panic Peddling” in 1969,5 the Catholic population in the area continued to decline. Despite enlarging the parish boundaries several times and consolidation with other Catholic schools in the area, the parish church closed in 1990, and the school closed in 1999. The West Humboldt Park neighborhood became known for gang violence, drug trafficking, and poverty; and as of 2011 it remained one of the poorest in Chicago, with a 42% unemployment rate, a 67% high school dropout rate, and one of the highest juvenile arrest rates in the state.6

New Hope and a New Mission

In 2005, Francis Cardinal George invited Father Bob Lombardo, C.F.R., a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, to begin a mission on the site with three aims: serve the neediest people in the city, bring a Catholic presence to the area, and provide a life of prayer at the location of the 1958 fire. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, founded by eight Capuchin Friars in 1987, are committed to serving the poorest of the poor in a “hands on” manner, and their missions provide for both the material needs of the poor and evangelization through the preaching of the Gospel. Father Lombardo had already served as a missionary in Honduras and Bolivia, and had directed the Padre Pio Shelter for the Homeless in the Bronx.

For the Friars of the Renewal, as for Saint Francis, building up the Mystical Body of Christ tends to be inextricably linked with buildings and construction. When he arrived in Chicago, Father Lombardo was faced with a church campus that had been neglected for decades. He noted that the kitchen floor of the 1940s-era rectory, which had been empty for fifteen years, looked like it had been “roto-tilled.”7 With many donations of money, time, materials, and expertise, the rectory’s plumbing and electrical systems were updated, plaster was repaired and painted, a chapel was created, and landscaping freshened up the property, making a colorful oasis in the blighted neighborhood. The rectory now serves as the home of a newly founded and growing religious community, the Franciscans of the Eucharist, whose primary apostolate is working with the local poor. Similarly, a thirty-seven-room convent built in 1955 required extensive repair and now serves as a place for retreats, for housing volunteers, and for storing donations. A gymnasium and social center named Kelly Hall, built by the parish in 1968, reopened after receiving significant repair and cleaning. It now serves the neighborhood and the mission in conjunction with the Chicago Metro YMCA and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, feeding seven hundred families every month.

Perhaps the most splendid part of the rebuilding was the renovation and reopening of the church itself. Though it was rented to a Baptist congregation for almost twenty years, the church was only partly usable because of a significantly leaky roof, including a section of the ceiling the community somewhat affectionately called “the hole.” The estimated price tag for the required church renovations totaled over $2 million, including a new roof, tuck pointing, complete electrical rewiring, window and plumbing repairs, and an overhaul of the basement kitchen and hall seating five hundred people.

The restored interior of the church

The restored interior of the church. Photo: Our Lady of the Angels Mission

The church’s original altar, which had been moved out onto a wooden platform with a shag carpet decades earlier, was reconstructed and relocated back to the original sanctuary. The marble floors and wall panels were cleaned, the original exterior doors were recreated and installed, the pews were restored, the entire interior was repainted, devotional shrines were restored, and the infamous hole in the roof was repaired. An ambo comprised of four rectangular-shaped images of the four evangelists was crafted out of pieces of the church’s original altar rail. And surprisingly, the first-ever outdoor memorial to the children who died in the fire was erected on the church grounds.

Sister Stephanie Baliga, one of the members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist, served as the de facto general contractor for the project and, together with Father Lombardo and the other sisters, organized groups of volunteers, donors, and construction workers. Fundraising took all forms, including several sisters asking sponsors to support them in running the Chicago Marathon. Several of Chicago’s unions—including pipe fitters, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters—donated their time, using the church as a hands-on training center where apprentices could perfect their skills in the field.

In many cases, the sisters described the appearance of contractors and supplies as “miraculous.” Precisely when they pondered how they would afford the renovation of the church basement and kitchen, a man whose sister had died in a fire unrelated to the school tragedy agreed to provide the materials and labor. After Sister Stephanie spent the summer with volunteers sanding the pews, she picked up a phone book looking for furniture refinishers and, without knowing it, providentially called a man whose family members had been involved in the school fire. He came over fifteen minutes later. One man donated all of the electrical work, and one electrician frequently spent overnights in the church pulling wire. In many cases, Sister Stephanie reported, people who had little or no faith had remarkable awakenings while working on the project. Others who had traumatic childhood memories of the 1958 tragedy returned to the parish, donating time and labor, thereby finding healing by letting positive memories replace the old ones. “It was a reminder,” Sister Stephanie says, “that the Mystical Body of Christ who are the People of God still come together today, not only in the past.”

Aedificavit Sibi Domum

In December of 2012, Francis Cardinal George presided at the Mass celebrating the church’s reopening, joined by school alumni, former parishioners, and current residents of the neighborhood. Though not operating as a parish, the church has become a beacon of beauty for the neighborhood. Although very few of the residents in the area are Catholic, many see it as their own. In the same parish where burning children once jumped out of windows, today’s neighborhood children have spoken of being moved to prayer after looking at the stained-glass windows, which are lit at night from the inside as a jewel-like beacon. Right now, the Franciscans are focused mostly on meeting the immense material needs of the area’s residents, but prayer in the church forms an important part of the mission. When groups visit on special occasions, the church is opened for prayer, and several times a month, the Franciscans offer the neighborhood residents a community dinner that begins with prayer in the upper church and ends with a meal in the hall below.

A memorial to the victims of the 1958 fire is located next to the church.

A memorial to the victims of the 1958 fire is located next to the church. Photo: flickr.com/deep blue skies

In a 2011 interview, Cardinal George called the church “the most gracious building, the most impressive building in the neighborhood.” He noted that before the renovation, the “place didn’t lift the spirit very much,” but he hoped that “a dispirited people might find a new spirit because the Holy Spirit is working there.”8 This indeed is the modern restatement of God’s call to Saint Francis in the thirteenth century. At the Our Lady of the Angels Mission, hundreds of generous people have acted and continue to act as the face and hands of Christ, asking nothing in return. And the result is renewed hope signified to every passerby, evident in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but also in a silent but magnificent witness composed of brick, stone, and glass.

Photo: flickr.com/deep blue skies

Photo: flickr.com/deep blue skies

Denis R. McNamara is Associate Director and Associate Professor at the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago and Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.


1. See Introduction, Order of Laying a Foundation Stone or the Commencement of Work on the Building of a Church, paragraph 1: “The structure built of stones will be a visible sign of the living Church, God’s building, which they themselves constitute.”

2. For a short history of the parish, see Harry Koenig, A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago, vol. 1 (Chicago: Archdiocese of Chicago, 1980), 670–73.

3. Anonymous, “We Build a Church,” Atlantic Monthly 171 (January 1943): 111.

4. For more on blockbusting in Chicago, see entry “blockbusting,” in the online resource sponsored by the Chicago History Museum called The Encyclopedia of Chicago, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org.

5. Koenig, A History of the Parishes, 672.

6. Metro Chicago YMCA, “Kelly Hall Environmental Scan,” (Chicago, IL, September 16, 2011), cited on the Our Lady of the Angels Mission web site: http://missionola.com/about_WestHumPk.html.

7. Our Lady of the Angels Mission website: http://missionola.com/history_OLAMission_Rectory.html.

8. Francis Cardinal George, on a television episode of “The Church, the Cardinal and You,” November 8, 2011.

| The Human Figure and Contemporary Sacred Art

The Human Figure and Contemporary Sacred Art

“The Beauty of all things in the world as well of architecture lay in proportion, the origin of which may be said is divine; for it derives from the body of Adam who was not only made by the divine hands of God, but shaped in His image and likeness.”1

These profound words were spoken on the second of June 1665 by the great sculptor of the counter-reform, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and they ring true in our own time. The human figure has always had an inseparable role in art and reached its highest summit in the light of the Incarnation. With our rich Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritage, handed down to us through the will and piety of great generations past, it is hard to imagine an ancient temple without a crystalline marble deity, or a church without the face of a saint reflecting the light of God. Though, in our current utilitarian hubris we find ourselves in an epoch of confusion where tradition has been abandoned, and the role of the human figure is in dire need of artistic revitalization.

The fall of figurative art and rise of modern secularism, stemming from a loss of moral objectivity, has deep origins; the floodgates of relativism were opened with the Protestant Reformation, and the iconoclasm of Martin Luther and John Calvin toward works of sacred art has had a lasting impact on the subsequent centuries of tributary denominations. The vibrancy of what we now refer to as the Baroque was in part the light of truth in response to heresy, and the radiant language of classical beauty in the service of the Church is as valid today as it was then.

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger eloquently stated, “The theology of the liturgy is in a special way a ‘symbolic theology,’ a theology of symbols, which connects us to what is present but hidden.”2 Having myself converted from a Pentecostal denomination, I was struck by this truth in the Chigi Chapel of Siena by Bernini. Upon entering this intimate space, one stands before an ancient icon of La Madonna del Voto being supported by angels above the altar. Turning laterally one discovers an effigy of Mary Magdalene and Saint Jerome, oriented toward the altar together with the viewer. In the presence of these masterpieces the humble intention of the artist shines forth: more than just skillful figures of beauty, they are in fact a living representation of the saints in adoration of Christ and Our Lady, whom they point us toward and make present. It could therefore be said that these carved figures are a sort of hinge between the militant and triumphant Church, a material vehicle that effects greater union with Christ by “connecting us with what is present but hidden.”

The Chigi Chapel in the Cathedral of Siena

The Chigi Chapel in the Cathedral of Siena. Photo: flickr.com/Tony Wasserman

Our ecclesial artistic tradition is intrinsically bound to us in our unity of faith, and no one can deny that true works of beauty will always resonate with bold immediacy and relevancy. In time God has revealed to us many mysteries of our faith,3 and while the Church’s understanding has developed, the actual mysteries have not changed. Is it not then urgent to seek a conveyance of transcendent beauty, as elevation from the mundane and ephemeral world in preparation for the heavenly Jerusalem? Glenn Gould offers a congruent observation of the music of the twentieth-century composer Richard Strauss, which could be considered an inspiration to modern ecclesial artists:

The great thing about the music of Richard Strauss is that it presents and substantiates an argument which transcends . . . all questions of style and tastes and idiom—all frivolous, effete preoccupations of the chronologist. It presents to us an example of the man who makes richer his own time by not being of it; who speaks for all generations by being of none.4

This pursuit, of course, runs entirely contrary to the philosophy of our mainstream academic “taste makers” and their oppressive rules. Originality has become a cardinal virtue, and the systematic destruction of our heritage is symptomatic of inordinate obsession with progression. In his “Choruses from The Rock,” T.S. Eliot confronts this phenomenon of “new,” born of personal autonomy, with a poetic and revelatory response:

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before: though we know not when, or why, or how, or where. Men have left God not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before.5

David by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1624, located in the Galleria Borghese in Rome

David by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1624, located in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Photo: flickr.com/profzucker

This new atheistic development may be the foremost reason for the decline of occidental figurative art. If man says he is not created in the image and likeness of God, and the figure no longer has an essential role in the worship of our Creator, it is inevitable that artistic manifestations will become slowly deformed and unrecognizable.

We have also seen the dehumanized figure used as a vehicle for political propaganda by powerful atheist regimes. These lessons should teach us that when removed from the Church, figurative art will wither and die, just as a branch ripped from the vine of tradition will no longer produce fruit: “We build in vain unless the Lord builds with us.”6

Another hypothesis should be presented to help understand the dehumanization of the figure. August Rodin is widely considered one of the last great figurative sculptors in the western tradition; it is a curious fact that in the beginning of the twentieth century, his “friends were astounded at the things he did not know about contemporary culture, like who Charles Darwin was.”7 It should come as no surprise that this most illustrious master, whose palpitating figures showed us the innermost expression of the human spirit, had not the slightest interest in the theory of evolution. Looking at the posthumous decline, I am convinced that in following Cartesian doubt, the anticlerical French Revolution, and the Enlightenment proponent Immanuel Kant, the final nail in the coffin for figurative art was driven in by Charles Darwin. No great artist had ever been confused about his origin as a species. And what are the results? Science has become largely a religion of first-world atheists, with a vicious backlash toward those with opposing views; their destructive effects on everyday society have been reflected in artistic trends. One need only read these lines from the futurist manifesto of Umberto Boccioni from 1910 to understand their intentional desecration:

Destroy the cult of the past, the obsession with the ancients . . . Elevate all attempts of originality, however daring, however violent. . . . Support and glory in our day-to-day world, a world which is going to be continually and splendidly transformed by victorious Science.8

Consequently, the artistic figurative dilemma of the past century was in fact a highly calculated attack by opponents of Christianity. Today this is linked to the current decline in childbirth, the agenda to change the traditional definition of marriage, and gender confusion. These are many of the reasons why secular artistic and social currents cannot be integrated into the life and liturgy of the Church, and Christian artists have a duty to fight this “dictatorship of relativism” with a sword of truth and shield of moral objectivity, firmly rooted in tradition.

We must also ask prudently, what is the forecast? Perhaps Rodin may have given us the answer in 1911 in Rome, as quoted by the Duchess de Choiseul: “[Rodin] had admired Bernini’s work and everything to do with 17th century architecture, then very much out of fashion—but ‘fashions will change,’ he predicted, and the baroque and Jesuit styles will regain their prestige.”9

In conclusion, I present these ideas about sacred art:

1. Beauty and truth are synonymous, and beauty cannot possibly exist for its own sake, as everything beautiful originates in God.

2. An artist should avoid an arrogant obsession with originality, for there is nothing more original than the perfect Sacrifice of Christ; He is our originality, and He will always “make things anew.”10

3. Christ’s salvation is eternal, and the Church is an immoveable “pillar and foundation of truth.”11 A true work of art should transform us and transcend fleeting superficiality, speaking to all generations.

4. Art cannot be limited to one canon or based entirely upon the quantitative interpretation of nature.12 The iconography of the saints should be formed upon their individual charisms (i.e., Saint Teresa of Bernini is idealized, whereas Saint Philip Neri and Saint Ignatius are often depicted naturalistically).

5. One of the essential characteristics of Truth is clarity; artistic and cultural trends born in opposition to Christ, the Church, and Sacred Tradition are entirely incompatible with the life of the faith and should not be introduced to the Church in any way.13

6. The observation and interpretation of the natural world should always be accompanied by the study of the great masters in the light of our rich living tradition.14

7. Blue jeans do not give a figurative work a modern message. Caravaggio may have used modern dress, though at the time their clothing was beautiful. Just because it worked for Caravaggio does not mean it will work for us. Besides, Bernini said Caravaggio lacked invention!15

8. Jesus and the Blessed Virgin should not look like any ordinary individual. Christ is both human and divine, and Our Lady was born without original sin. They should be composed ideally based upon centuries of successful interpretation.

9. Avoid sentimentality! Seek harmony in proportion and sincerity of expression.

10. Do not lose hope and do not compromise!

Saint Michael the Archangel at Saint Patrick Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, sculpture by Cody Swanson

Saint Michael the Archangel at Saint Patrick Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, sculpture by Cody Swanson. Photo: Cody Swanson

Presentation by Cody Swanson for the workshop Christian Art & the Corporeal at the conclusion of the exhibit In One Flesh at the Opera del Duomo museum in Florence.

Cody Joseph Swanson is an artist and instructor who resides in Florence, Italy with his wife and five children. He holds a Masters in Liturgy, Sacred Art and Architecture from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, and is a graduate of the Florence Academy of Art, where he also taught for five years. Swanson’s numerous award-winning works can be found all over the United States and Italy. In addition to his professional vocation as a sculptor he is also a board and faculty member of the Sacred Art School of Florence.


1. Paul Freart de Chantelou, Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini’s Visit to France (Princeton University Press, 1985), 9.

2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2000), 60.

3. Ephesians 3:8–9: “To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ, and to bring to light [for all] what is the plan of the mystery hidden from ages past in God who created all things” (New American Bible).

4. Glenn Gould, “An Argument for Richard Strauss,” The Glenn Gould Reader (Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, 1985), 92.

5. T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from The Rock,” in Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, London, 1954), 109.

6. Ibid., 106.

7. Rachel Corbett, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rilke and Rodin (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 23.

8. Umberto Boccioni, “Manifesto of Futurist Painters,” Documents of 20th Century Art: Futurist Manifestos (Viking Press, New York, 1973), 24–27.

9. Frederic V. Grunfeld, Rodin, A Biography (Henry Holt and Co., New York, 1987), 602–3.

10. Revelation 21:5: “The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ Then he said, ‘Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true’” (New American Bible).

11. Timothy 3:15: “But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (New American Bible).

12. “Nature, because of many accidents, almost never brings its products, and man in particular, to total perfection, or even to a greater degree of beauty than ugliness . . . and I do not know whether all the beauty that a human body can possess has ever been seen all together in one man; but one might well say that we can see one part in this man and another in that other, and that, scattered among many men, we can find it in its entirety.” (Vincenzo Danti, “The Treatise on Perfect Proportions” in Italian Art 1500–1600 [Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1966], 104.)

13. “‘Rock’ . . . is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are . . . released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments. . . . Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the Logos. If we want to know whom we are dealing with, the Holy Spirit or the unholy spirit, we have to remember that it is the Holy Spirit who moves us to say, ‘Jesus is Lord’” (1 Cor 12:3). (Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 147–8), 151.

14. “He gave it as his opinion that the Academy ought to possess casts of all the notable statues, bas-reliefs, and busts of antiquity. These would serve to educate young students; they should be taught to draw after these classical models and in that way form a conception of the beautiful that would serve them all their lives. . . . for if their imagination has nothing but nature to feed on, they will be unable to put forth anything of strength or beauty; for nature itself is devoid of both strength and beauty, and artists who study it should first be skilled in recognizing its faults and correcting them; something that students who lack grounding cannot do.” (Chantelou, Bernini’s Visit to France, 106.)

15. “Collectively his work is called ‘Baroque,’ a term which defines it and yet is defined by it. The truth is more complicated, and deeply involved with classicism. Raphael he admired for his talent in arranging figures and for the purity of his drawing. Painting by the ‘classical’ Annibale Carraci met with his approval, while he brushed off the radically ‘Baroque’ Caravaggio as a painter possessing ‘neither spirit nor invention.’ The contemporary he favored particularly was Guido Reni, another artist who also mingled ‘Classical’ and ‘Baroque.’ But Bernini was not responsive to theory, and like most artists, was indifferent to labels.” (Robert T. Petersson, Bernini and the Excesses of Art [Artout-Maschiettoeditore, Florence, Italy, 2003], pp. 29–30.)

| Recapturing Sacred Art from Secular Bondage

Recapturing Sacred Art from Secular Bondage

Art history, which came of age during the secularizing nineteenth century, has spent over a century grappling with the problem of interpreting religious imagery. In our forensic society, the fact that Giotto, Michelangelo, and Leonardo never left explanatory texts to assure the faithful of their artistic intentions has opened a door to a relativist school of interpretation. The history of art often seems submerged in a quagmire of interpretative methodologies from the purely stylistic to the doggedly archival to the mood swings of Marxist, gender, or psychological approaches. The problematic fallout is that the titillating-yet-unsubstantiated explanation of a sacred image can be considered as possessing equal merit as the most well-documented hypotheses.

Dr. Chloë Reddaway brings much-needed order to these proceedings in her book Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer, pointing out that a chapel functions as a space for religious activity—prayer, liturgy, the sacrifice of the Mass—and that the formal decisions of the artist in the manipulation of pictorial space, the use of directed light, and the plasticity of the figures are often influenced by the theological content of the subject of the fresco cycle.

Reddaway does this in the most compelling of ways—bringing her reader to visit the most famous chapels in Florence (along with the enchanting convent of San Marco) and offering new and rich insights into these very familiar images.

These “sacred tours” commence with a description of the cycle (accompanied by splendid illustrations). Reddaway then presents the most authoritative interpretations to date by the finest scholars on the subject. Many readers will recognize the names of John Spike, Eve Boorsok, Marilyn Lavin, and Irwin Panofsky, luminaries in the history of art. From scene to scene the reader learns the story, analyzes the work, and hears what sounds like a fulfilling interpretation.

The author then adds a new component to this 20/20 vision of art history: the lens of theological interpretation. These frescoes, viewed through the belief in the Incarnation, the constant need for conversion, and humanity’s ultimate destiny and desire to return to God, reveal the secret of their continued attraction for viewers. Empty space in Santa Croce’s Bardi Chapel becomes an invitation to enter into faith; a few steps away in the Baroncelli Chapel, light not only flaunts the art-historical achievement of a night scene, but describes revealed Truth.

The enhanced vision of these six spaces is part of Reddaway’s larger ambition to create a “methodology for the theological interpretations of images.” Art history has waited a long time for this interpretative key. Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Renaissance Italy (1988) started considering the devotional use of art, then Pamela Jones analyzed five altarpieces in Altarpieces and Their Viewers in the Churches of Rome from Caravaggio to Guido Reni (2008), blending documentary erudition with careful consideration of the religious sensitivities of the viewers. Reddaway goes a step further, drawing the viewer into each scene, as the artists clearly intended, and indicating the potentially transformative spiritual experience that chapel art was expected to produce both in Renaissance Florence and in Counter-Reformation Rome.

The book makes important strides in Reddaway’s work to construct a methodology to pinpoint specifically Christian elements in art. In ReVisioning: Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art (eds. James Romaine and Linda Stratford, 2013), Dr. Reddaway outlined a critical method that would allow for theological hermeneutics and reception studies to assist traditional art-historical analysis in revealing the eschatological meaning within a work of art. This book road-tests her methodology to great success.

The one drawback in the work is that while the painting of Giotto, Ghirlandaio, and Fra Angelico mimicked the accessible preaching style of their patrons, and their open spaces or familiar details helped to bring mysteries and miracles into an easy-to-understand context, Reddaway’s writing can be a little pedantic, occasionally to the detriment of the engaging nature of her subject. Sharper editing might have captured the reader right away with the wondrous art, preparing the nonspecialist to follow Reddaway’s methodology with an example in mind. Editing also might have caught a couple of minor errors (i.e., Pope Clement VII as son of Lorenzo de’Medici), which, while unfortunate, do not seriously interfere with the scholarly effort of this book.

Chloë Reddaway offers more than just new insights into old Florentine favorites; she lays down a framework to recapture sacred art from its secular bondage with a critical method that future art historians will hopefully be inspired to employ and develop.

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian who teaches, studies and writes in Rome with a special focus on Renaissance and Baroque art. Her most recent book is How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art.

| Moderate and Humble Houses

Moderate and Humble Houses

Credit: museisenesi.org

Photo: museisenesi.org

Ever wondered why religious orders dedicated to poverty would build enormous churches filled with monuments to the wealthy and masterpieces of art? According to this wonderful history by Caroline Bruzelius, these are questions that members of the Franciscan and Dominican orders argued about from the beginning. Though both were mendicant (begging) orders, they had very different foundings. The Franciscans began as a lay movement while the Dominicans were founded as clerical preachers. That led to a greater emphasis on hierarchy, order, and stability among the Ordo Praedicatorum. While often building their churches outside the city center where land was available and there was less competition with secular parishes, the mendicants also took over declining Benedictine monasteries in the city centers. Early on the Dominicans embraced the architecture of the monastic cloister along with the chapter house and the separate monastic choir. The Franciscans followed suit.

Both orders had rules against owning land and buildings or dealing with money, but their rapid success required them to find ways to build. Sometimes planned from the beginning, other times growing organically, large mendicant complexes were constructed in phases. Typically, friars were given a small chapel to use that would be replaced by a larger chapel for the religious community (with little emphasis on the laity). Later, this church would be replaced or added onto with a nave for the laity. Generals of the orders, such as Bonaventure, wrote against size, height, ostentation, stained glass, and lay burials. However, from early on, greater dignity was permitted for the choir and sanctuary areas. This resulted in naves for the laity with simple brick columns and trussed ceilings separated from the nave of the friars, which would have more ornate columns, vaulted ceilings, and side chapels. The allowance for vaulted ceilings gave the apse and choir greater importance as well as better acoustics. The popularity of pilgrimages to Assisi after the death of Saint Francis led to the construction of a unique and beautifully decorated basilica for his tomb. It also inspired the Dominicans to renovate and rename their mother church in Bologna as a pilgrimage site for Saint Dominic.

One of the early distinguishing characteristics of the mendicants, appreciated by popes and reform-minded bishops, was their emphasis on outdoor preaching against heresy. Some communes supported this activity by assisting in the construction of churches and in the clearing of large piazze for preaching. A good example of this is the piazza nuova in front of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, designated by the city as a site for preaching in perpetuity. Moveable wooden pulpits were employed in the piazze, and in some cases stone pulpits were built onto the church exteriors such as at San Eustorgio in Milan, San Domenico in Bologna (demolished), and San Domenico in Naples. Later, large stone pulpits with sculptural panels were built inside mendicant churches on the laity side of the rood screen.

This is a story of two great religious orders that saw tremendous growth during the Middle Ages. In spite of their founding emphasis on poverty and serving the poor, success necessitated architecture. Generally the mendicants started with simple structures that later had their walls demolished so that apses and naves could be extended and side chapels built onto them. Theirs was an architecture of accretion. But how did all of this get paid for, if the friars were not supposed to own land or employ money? By the laity, both the wealthy and the middle class. The Franciscan and Dominican orders were founded to root out heresy, so naturally they later became the inquisitors, which they often benefited from financially. This and the assistance friars gave in the development of wills and donations for intercessory prayer and burial brought in large sums of money. Bruzelius cites many examples of abuses by the Franciscans and Dominicans that should temper the popular belief that the Gothic period was the golden age of Christianity. However, these great buildings continue to preach the truths of the faith and witness to the devotion inspired by the followers of Saints Francis and Dominic.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.

| Writings of a Prolific Architect

Writings of a Prolific Architect

Illuminated letters from Pugin. The left to J.R. Bloxam, fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, Pugin’s principal liaison with the Oxford Movement. The right to J.F. Russell, member of the Cambridge Camden Society.

Illuminated letters from Pugin. The left to J.R. Bloxam, fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, Pugin’s principal liaison with the Oxford Movement. The right to J.F. Russell, member of the Cambridge Camden Society.

This book is the final volume of the letters of Augustus Welby Pugin (1812–1852), the man most responsible for the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival. He designed Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, six cathedrals, sixty churches, monasteries, convents, homes for retirees and construction workers, and more, as well as everything inside and out of these structures: gargoyles, doors, floor tiles, candelabras (or Pugin’s term “coronas”), crucifixes, altar linen and vestments, chalices, stained-glass windows, umbrella holders—everything.

A self-taught architect, Pugin died at age forty after a working life of only fifteen years. This volume includes his formal letters to editors (e.g., March 9, 1851, to the Tablet and Catholic Standard); 50 letters concerning his March 1851 An Earnest Address on the Establishment of the Hierarchy following the pope’s reestablishment of the hierarchy in 1850 that had resulted in antipapal riots; 25 on his newly published A Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts; 225 on the Houses of Parliament with the House of Commons to open in February 1852 (he made over two thousand drawings); and over 100 concerning his stunning marketing success, his “Medieval Court,” filled with examples of his work, at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, to which came six million people, equivalent to a third of the population of Great Britain. The young (age thirty-two) Queen Victoria visited Pugin’s Medieval Court twice.

Margaret Belcher, the editor of all five volumes, died in November 2016 at the age of eighty. She was a retired senior lecturer in English at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. She authored a highly regarded chapter entitled “Pugin Writings” for the book published in conjunction with the 1994 Pugin exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She devoted six of her eleven pages to explaining why Pugin’s first book, Contrasts, self-published in 1836 at age twenty-four, was more than a work of architectural history or criticism, but a work of literature. And she devoted three pages to the Earnest Address.

In 1987, Dr. Belcher published A.W.N. Pugin: An Annotated Critical Bibliography. That same year, she started working on Pugin’s letters. She collected, from a large array of sources, all the letters Pugin had written. She also collected all the letters she could find written to Pugin. Pugin had routinely destroyed letters he received, but he forwarded some to other people who saved them.

Dr. Belcher transcribed all from longhand. Many of the letters were written when Pugin was traveling by stagecoach and, later, the early trains; and during this period he suffered frequent severe illnesses, facts that did not make his penmanship clearer: “It is awful travelling by rail now there are such accidents everywhere & I will not travel after dark”; “I was seized in the Carriage going to Exeter with intense pain . . . my dear Friend I can assure you all joking apart that in London I thought I was struck with Death.”

In her introduction to the first volume, which appeared in 2001, Dr. Belcher included “Editorial Procedure,” which is not repeated in subsequent volumes. She informed her readers that she would not change the spelling, punctuation, or capitalization of Pugin’s letters lest this interrupt the reader’s attention. She also described her conventions for italicizing or boldfacing the text. If Pugin included a sketch in a letter, she indicates such. If a word is illegible, she indicates this too.

Dr. Belcher gives her opinions on the identity of unidentified recipients and on the dates of undated letters. Her detective work was so thorough that there are only twelve pages of letters she despaired of dating; she placed them in this final volume. Also in this final volume are eighty-four pages of letters that she obtained after the first four volumes were printed. And there is one page of errata for the previous four volumes.

There are over three thousand pages in the five volumes, plus introductions, indices, and black-and-white figures and plates. Moreover, they are squeezed in by using 9-point type for regular text and 7-point type for notes and the letters to Pugin.

All the notes for a letter follow that letter. The notes cross-reference Pugin’s cryptic diary entries. They include explanations of phrases like “to have the weather gauge” and “I throw the Hatchet.” For every correspondent or person mentioned in the letters, the editor provided full name, age, role, relationship with Pugin, occupation, and place of residence. Pugin wrote some letters in French, but they are not translated.

Dr. Belcher succeeded immensely in exhaustive, painstaking work.

James M. Thunder is an environmental lawyer who reviewed two books about his ancestor, A.W. Pugin, for SACRED ARCHITECTURE (Summer 1999). He is writing a book on Faith-Based Land Use Planning and welcomes comments.

| Priest of the Via Pulchritudinis: Father Michael Morris, O.P.

Priest of the Via Pulchritudinis: Father Michael Morris, O.P.

This homily was given at the Funeral Mass for Father Michael Thomas Morris, O.P., on Friday, July 22, 2016, at Saint Albert’s Priory in Oakland, California. Father Morris entered the Order of Preachers in 1971 and was ordained a priest in 1977. He taught at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California, and served as director of the Sante Fe Institute, also known as the Blackfriars Institute for Religion and the Arts. Father Morris was well known for his essays on sacred art in the devotional publication Magnificat and was a contributor to Sacred Architecture.

We suffer the loss of Father Michael Thomas Morris of the Order of Preachers, not simply because he was an exceptional son and brother, Dominican friar, priest, and teacher, author, artist, and friend, but because he was onto something that we cannot live without.

I. It is the subject of Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, which must have been the cause of some euphoria for Father Michael when it was published, since that letter expresses the very substance of his superlative heart.

Saint John Paul wrote: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.”1

Back in the fifth century BC, the philosopher Plato said that it is beauty that draws our heart out of accommodation with daily routine, and that keeps it from decaying into nothingness.

Beauty possesses the power to overcome our crippling resistance.

Monsignor Luigi Giussani, Servant of God, once remarked: “The motivation for saying ‘yes’ to something that comes into our life, defeating all preconceptions, is beauty.”2

II. Even more, there is a direct link between the beauty of art and the human longing for God. In that Letter to Artists, Saint John Paul tells us:

Art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. Insofar as it seeks the beautiful, . . . art is . . . a kind of appeal to the mystery. . . . True beauty . . . open[s] the human soul to the sense of the eternal. . . . Beauty . . . stirs that hidden nostalgia for God.3

John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, was to echo this:

Art is capable of making visible our need to go beyond what we see, and it reveals our thirst for infinite beauty, for God.4

And the current Holy Father, Pope Francis, himself adopts the theme:

Every expression of true beauty can . . . be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.5

Why such unshakeable conviction about the religious potential of art and beauty?

The French playwright Jean Anouilh said it best: because “beauty is one of the rare things that do not lead to doubt of God.”

III. But the question is: Where can you find a person who takes the evangelical power of beauty seriously?

That is why God raised up Dominican Father Michael Thomas Morris.

Father Michael was tuned in to a truth well expressed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:

The Church is to transform, improve, “humanize” the world—but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love? For together, beauty and love form the true consolation in the world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the Resurrection.6

With ominous foreboding, the great twentieth-century theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar warned that “whoever sneers at [beauty’s] name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past . . . can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”7

Ratzinger goes one step further in a statement some may find shocking: “A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music, and nature can be dangerous.”8

That is the reason why, for us, Father Michael Morris, true son of Saint Dominic and true brother of Blessed Fra Angelico—twin brother!—was so irresistible.

Saint Dominic at the Foot of the Cross by Fra Angelico in the convent of S. Marco, Florence

Saint Dominic at the Foot of the Cross by Fra Angelico in the convent of S. Marco, Florence. Photo: crashmacduff.files.wordpress.com

More than a PhD in art history and professor of religion and the arts, Father Michael was a kind of prophet, in this sense: a prophet is someone who announces the significance of the world and the value of life.9

For example, when Father Michael’s cancer doctor delivered his devastating diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer, Father Michael listened to the news and responded with complete peacefulness—nonplussed, composed, resigned.

The doctor was taken aback by this. Really? No agitation; no anger; not even a slight sign of surprise. Alarmed, the doctor spoke up again, repeating more clearly the terrible news. And, again, Father Michael stayed totally serene—nonchalant even.

This only unnerved the doctor, who feared Father Michael wasn’t really grasping what he was trying to communicate to him, or that he was in denial. So the doctor said to him directly and rather bluntly, “You’re going to die, you know.” And Father Michael, the picture of tranquility, replied, “Yes, I know. I understand.”

Well, the doctor was utterly undone by this. He told Father Michael that he had never met a patient who ever received such a dire diagnosis so calmly and acceptingly.

He then confessed to Father Michael that he himself was an atheist. And he went on to ask Father Michael this question: “Do you think the reason why you have no fear of death is because you are a Catholic priest?” Father Michael thought about it, and said in answer, “I suppose so.”

In one of his beautiful art commentaries, Father Michael speaks a truth that he himself exemplified, and that very likely he learned from his special patron, Saint Mary Magdalene, whose feast day is today, and in whose parish he was so honored and delighted to live and serve:

The cradle of contemplation begins at the foot of the Cross, in close proximity to the source of all grace. For it is there that one can penetrate the mysteries of salvation and gain true understanding.10

IV. Father Michael showed his prophetic grace in the wondrous way he looked at art and enabled us all to see.

The art-historical eye sees all! He held a deep conviction regarding artists: they are not just architects, sculptors, musicians, poets, and painters, but veritable preachers.

When we can see what they say, we receive what we need.

Father Michael had a large, ancient, painted wooden statue of Saint John the Baptist ensconced on a pillar in the corner of his bedroom—an object of his devotion.

In the Gospel, John the Baptist, seeing Jesus walk by, is so struck, so overcome by the beauty of Jesus Christ, that he can’t help himself. Intuiting something that Pope John Paul II would explicitly teach—“The Church needs art [in order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ]”11—John the Baptist is moved to point out Jesus to the world by way of a symbol in an artistic image: the Lamb of God.

Saint John the Baptist by Juan Van Der Hamen, 1625

Saint John the Baptist by Juan Van Der Hamen, 1625. Photo: wikimedia.org

And he instructs us: “Behold!” (which means a lot more than just “Look at him”). Father Michael’s genius was in the way he understood, practiced, and taught us “beholding”—because the ability to behold is a gift. “Beholding beauty is . . . a [method] of . . . trans-formation [by which we are able] to respond to God’s beauty in grace and so be gradually deified [made God-like], becoming more able to see beauty as [we] become more beautiful.”12

This is why we pray those words—“Behold the Lamb of God”—at Mass as a most proper way of preparing ourselves just before we receive Holy Communion.

In all he taught us, in all he preached to us, in all he shared with us, Father Michael so well communicated an insight of Saint John Paul II:

Beauty makes one feel the beginning of . . . fulfillment, and seems to whisper to us: “You will not be unhappy; the desire of your heart will be fulfilled—what is more, it is already being fulfilled.”13

V. Father Michael could not have foreseen the radical evangelical initiative that Pope Francis would launch in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium—The Joy of the Gospel.

The pope there calls for “a renewed esteem for beauty [that serves] as a means of touching the human heart.” He says that “each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization” and that “we must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols . . . [that] prove particularly attractive for others,”14 because “the Church grows by attraction.”15

Pope Francis calls this new initiative the via pulchritudinis—the “way of beauty”—and he declares that “a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the Faith.”

No brag, just fact—who could name a more outstanding patron, formator, and priestly proponent of the via pulchritudinis than Father Michael Morris?

It is not a coincidence that, during these eighteen years of the publication of Magnificat, one remark that is invariably made to me again and again, when I have the chance to travel and meet subscribers to the magazine, is “When my Magnificat arrives in the mail, the first thing I read each month is Father Michael Morris’s art essay.” The via pulchritudinis in action!

VI. But, of course, as Pope Benedict reminded us, “the truest beauty is the love of God.”16

And to be true to this truest beauty, Father Michael was the truest and most generous of friends, who lavished the love of God on others in gracious and extravagant ways.

Just one story: In addition to all his many other astonishing talents, Father Michael was a marvelous cook. He loved food. He loved to talk about food. He referred to delicious food “ambrosia.”

Keep this in mind now as we travel back to one week ago—to last Friday, the day Father Michael died. He was returning from a treatment at the hospital. I was accompanying him. As we walked in the corridor of the rectory that leads to his bedroom, Father Michael became short of breath.

He slumped against the wall. I rushed right behind him. And then I held him as he collapsed to the floor, fighting hard to breathe.

I called 911. I gave Father Michael absolution. Very quickly, the EMTs came. As they were performing CPR, I saw Father Michael’s dear friend of decades, Dominican Father Michael Carey, arrive, across the way from me. I called to him to come around to the other side of the hallway where I was, and to bring the holy oils so that we could anoint Father Michael, administering the Sacrament of the Sick.

Father Carey had just moved to Saint Mary Magdalen and did not yet have the chance to unpack his holy oil stocks. So I asked him to go down to the kitchen and bring up some cooking oil—which he did. Father Carey blessed the oil, crawled on the floor close to his beloved friend of so many years, and then anointed him, giving Father Michael the Last Rites of the Church.

Now I have to tell you this: no one besides Father Michael Morris would have been so delighted by the fact that his ultimate, sacramental entrance into the long-awaited eternity of God’s Paradise was expedited by means of Kirkland Signature Greek Olive Oil.

Extra virgin.


The official, recorded time of Father Michael’s death was 4:15 p.m.—“Around four in the afternoon.17 Saint John the Evangelist wanted to be sure that the approximate time of their encounter with Jesus was specified in his Gospel so that at four p.m. every day they would remember what had happened to them and relive the wonder of meeting the Man who changed everything in their lives. May we do the same.

On the day of Father Michael’s death, Friday, July 15, Pope Francis sent a telegram to all the Dominican provincials of the world, assembled these days in a General Chapter in Bologna, Italy. In that telegram, the Holy Father declares: “Dominicans should be signs of the nearness and tenderness of God.”

Father Michael, we thank you for being an obedient Dominican—for being such a loving, compelling sign of the nearness and tenderness of God.

We beg you, Blessed Virgin Mary, Most Holy Mother of God: Behold your son, Michael, and love him who so loved you.

O Lord, grant eternal rest to Father Michael, and let perpetual Beauty shine upon him.

Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P., is chairman of the department of homiletics at Saint Joseph’s Seminary—Dunwoodie, New York, the artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York City, and the editor-in-chief of Magnificat.


1. Letter to Artists, no. 11.

2. 1998 Fraternity Exercises, 16.

3. Letter to Artists, no. 16.

4. General Audience, August 31, 2011.

5. Evangelii Gaudium, no. 167.

6. The Feast of Faith, 124–125.

7. The Glory of the Lord—Volume 1, 18–19.

8. The Ratzinger Report, 130.

9. An insight of Monsignor Luigi Giussani, Servant of God

10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0nnCP6PT_w

11. Letter to Artists, no. 12.

12. Fr. Gabriel Torretta, O.P., Beholding Beauty: A Theological Aesthetics of Deification (Tesina, Pontifical Faculty of Theology of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C., March, 2015), 72.

13. Message to Rimini, August 20, 2002.

14. Evangelii Gaudium, no. 167.

15. Ibid., no. 14.

16. Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 35.

17. John 1:39