The Spiritual Animal

Sacramental Nature of Church Art and Architecture

by David W. Fagerberg, appearing in Volume 13

Honesty compels me to admit the peculiarity of someone like me writing on sacred architecture.1 It’s like Helen Keller giving a tour of the Louvre. It’s like Ray Charles painting your portrait. It’s like the deaf Beethoven teaching my son’s aural skills class. I protest to my friends that although I lack an aesthetic capacity, I have learned to live with it, the way an adult who can’t read has learned to survive in society. The reader should therefore not look here for architectural detail, but rather for something that lies deeper. I should like to think about the theological underpinnings of liturgical architecture. I should like to look at the why, not the how. So I will take the reader on a short tour through anthropology and Christology and cosmic liturgy, and after you have indulged me in that, then I will bring myself back down to earth to make eight concrete statements about consequences for architecture.

Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo. Public Domain

If we’re going to talk about fundamental principles, then I feel obliged to include, sort of like bookends, both the beginning and the end—protology and eschatology. Only within such a vast scope does theology fully understand the place of anthropos in the cosmos. (I’ve taken to using the Greek word anthropos in order to refer to man as one person composed of many individually existing men and women.) The reason for starting with these parenthetical markers is not due to an idle curiosity about beginnings and endings, but rather to establish our proper trajectory. Fr Alexander Schmemann describes man’s unique role by calling anthropos homo adorans—men and women are beings that are capable of giving adoration:

All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens,” “homo faber” … yes, but, first of all, “homo adorans.” The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God. … The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.2

Anthropos is a hybrid composed of both matter and spirit, body and soul, and therefore able to participate in both realms. Angels can know the world, and animals can experience it, but only anthropos is an embodied spirit who can know by experiencing the material world. By reason of this conjunction of matter-spirit, anthropos was placed at the top of creation in order to mediate to the world the invisible graces of God from above and to mediate to God the praise of visible creation from below. This is how Fr. Louis Bouyer describes creation according to the mind of the Christian Fathers:

[T]he tradition of the Fathers has never admitted the existence of a material world apart from a larger creation, from a spiritual universe. To speak more precisely, for them the world, a whole and a unity, is inseparably matter and spirit. What we call the material world is only the reflection of a reflection.

We should think therefore of the material universe as a mirror held up to the spiritual. … It is, as it were, the fringe of their garment: the waves of its light are like the scintillating robe with which the Creator has been pleased to adorn his invisible creation.

Across this continuous chain of creation, in which the triune fellowship of the divine persons has, as it were, extended and propagated itself, moves the ebb and flow of the creating Agape and of the created eucharistia.3

Anthropos should have unified creation in his role of cosmic priest, mediating agape to creation and eucharistia to God. We are seeking anthropos’s place in the cosmos, and it turns out to be a liturgical place. Protologically (in light of his origins), anthropos is the voice of mute creation, able to put creation’s praise into words because he is made after the image of the Logos, who is the divine Word. They can see the logoi in creation—traces of the Logos left strewn through creation. Men and women have reason, speech, cleverness of mind, and cleverness of hand. They can express by word and artifact the glories of creation, thus adding material creation’s voice to the cosmic hymn of praise being sung to God. Other creatures praise God by their sheer being and obedience, but it is anthropos who is their priest and speaks on their behalf in liturgical song. The liturgical role of man and woman depends upon the twin capacities of sense and intellect, body and soul. They do a liturgy that neither angel nor animal can do.

Alas, the story takes a sorrowful turn from here. Anthropos is only too easily seduced by the Tempter and led into his rebellion. Anthropos neglects to bless God for the world, and at that moment, man and woman no longer see the material world as sacramental sign of agape and as raw material for eucharist. Instead, they see the material world as an end in itself, and as something for their own manipulation and pleasure. When we forget to bless God, the world is wronged.

Maximus the Confessor (died 662) speaks of five divisions of being in creation that anthropos should hold united. When anthropos fails this vocation of coherence, then instead of holding in union what would be divided, he adds to the alienation that creation experiences. First, the created is divided from the Uncreated (we no longer find our end in God); second, what is perceived by the mind is divided from what is perceived by the senses (we look without seeing); third, heaven is divided from earth (the angelic and earthly creations go their separate ways); fourth, paradise is divided from the inhabited lands (Eden, our original home, is far from our current place of toil); fifth, the division of man and woman appears (the need for reproducing the species through sexual union is a sign of death’s reign over every generation).4

Anthropos should hold these extremes of being together in himself. This was the reason why “the human person was introduced last among beings,” says Fr. Andrew Louth, in summary of Maximus. Anthropos is “a kind of natural bond mediating between the universal poles.”5 But preserving this unity is precisely what anthropos has failed to do. The fall is the forfeiture of our liturgical career. In sin, we no longer stand aright as homo adorans. And for this reason the Son of God took on flesh to do as the second Adam what the first Adam was supposed to do, but did not. Christ is now the unity of cosmic creation. The divisions that the first Adam aggravated by his fall are redeemed by the second Adam’s incarnation and ascent to the Father. Maximus says, “Christ fulfills the great purpose of God the Father, to recapitulate everything both in heaven and on earth in himself.”6 Creation is repeated but this time correctly; capitus means “head” and the body of anthropos receives a new head; creation is headed up and united at last in anthropos; mankind is finally headed in the right direction.

Church of Our Savior, New York City. Photo: Duncan Stroik

This is the other bookend I want to use—the eschatological bookend. We are initiated into this God-Man at baptism, and his identity becomes ours, his work becomes ours. The eschatological task of the members of the Mystical Body is to continue the work of the Head. Christ recapitulates all things, the cosmos as well as human history, as we were reminded by Fr. Emile Mersch in his historical study, The Whole Christ:

The idea that the Incarnate Word is in Himself the unity and harmony not only of men, but also of the entire universe and even of material things, was to remain a favorite theme for the Fathers of the Church. … Athanasius in particular is so penetrated with this thought that he expresses it often. He loves to repeat that Christ is the leaven of the world: pasa ktisis, ta panta, the whole universe is the mass that He leavens and the body to which He gives life.7

Or, in the words of my teacher, Fr. Aidan Kavanagh, “liturgy is doing the world the way the world was meant to be done.”

With this protological and eschatological foundation in place, I can make the following eight propositions about Church architecture.

1. Because of the Incarnation, therefore all matter and space and time is available for liturgical use.

The Word became flesh and consecrated all matter, and now all created things are available to the Church’s liturgical use: Sundays and seasons, icon paint and scripture ink, altars and vestments, priests baptized and ordained, candles and incense, water and oil, bread and wine. Paul Evdokimov can say about the world’s end that

everything is destined for a liturgical fulfillment. ... The final destiny of water is to participate in the mystery of the Epiphany; of wood, to become a cross; of the earth, to receive the body of the Lord during his rest on the Sabbath ... Olive oil and water attain their fullness as conductor elements for grace on regenerated man. Wheat and wine achieve their ultimate raison d’être in the eucharistic chalice. ... A piece of being becomes a hierophany, an epiphany of the sacred.8

Christ was a new thing, and it is this new thing that liturgy celebrates. Liturgy is a new humanity anticipating a new heavens and a new earth. Therefore, all space, time, and matter are available for liturgical use.

2. Everything has to pass through the hypostatic union before it is of any use to us, including church architecture.

Everything in Christianity derives from the Incarnate Christ. Mersch does not hesitate to say that “the hypostatic union does not affect our Lord alone, but that it is somehow prolonged in us, the members; that we are the prolongation of the Head, and that the hypostatic union renders us divine by reason of our continuity with the Man-God.”9 Everything in Christianity is a participation in Christ, and reflects Christ, and is Christ’s mystical presence in our midst, and comes from Christ’s humanity, which is divinized by its union to a divine nature and shared with us as grace. Everything in Christianity flows from Christ’s hypostatic union, including sacraments and priests and the people of God and Scripture proclaimed and hierarchical structures and magisterial offices—and architecture flows from the hypostatic union, too.

Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece. Public Domain

This means we cannot use any other religious building, sacrifice, or ritual as prototype for our Christian temple, altar, or liturgy. On this point we should give credit where credit is due. This was a cause championed by the liturgical movement. Josef Jungmann, writing in 1939, identifies three subjects who do liturgy in the totus Christus: “The first of these is Christ Himself. The second is the body of the faithful as a whole. … The third is the bearer of the official priesthood who stands at the altar.”10 Pope Pius XII makes the same point when in Mediator Dei he defines liturgy as “the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members” (para. 20). The point here is that the Incarnate one remains active in his Mystical Body. Jungmann therefore concludes that the architecture that houses the Mystical Body is different from a religious temple:

The Christian place of worship differs essentially in plan from the temples of the ancient pagan religions. The Roman and Greek temples, as also those of the Oriental races, were open edifices erected in honor of their gods. They were externally ornamented. … The interior of the temple was but a narrow dark cell in which the image of the deity was set up. Priests only were allowed to enter it, at the time when they had to perform their functions. No provision at all was made for the people; here the people were not bearers or repositories of divine worship.11

That we have slighted the ordained priesthood, or slighted the baptismal priesthood, or reduced the scale of the cosmic liturgy to the group in attendance, or weakened the sense that Christ is the premier liturgist, does not alter the fact that the liturgical renewal once had it right. Whatever problematics have arisen in execution, we must acknowledge the liturgical renewal’s role in recalling the Church as an arena for a corporate activity.

3. This corporate activity of the Church is not the Jesus Club getting together in its club house.

To think of Christian liturgy as a community religious event fails its cosmic and eschatological dimensions (protology and eschatology). In his study The Angels and the Liturgy, Erik Peterson writes that “The worship of the Church is not the liturgy of a human religious society, connected with a particular temple, but worship which pervades the whole universe and in which sun, moon, and all the stars take part. … [T]he Church is no purely human religious society. The angels and saints in heaven belong to her as well. Seen in this light, the Church’s worship is no merely human occasion. The angels and the entire universe take part in it.”12 If this is so, then Christian sacred architecture will look neither like other temple architecture nor like other secular meeting halls. Columbia Marmion wrote, “The Church … has a part too in the religion of Christ towards His Father in order to continue upon earth the homage of praise that Christ in His Sacred Humanity offered to His Father.”13 I conclude from this that there is no altar in the Church as the pagans knew it, but there is the hagia trapezia (holy table), which presents Christ, who is the altar of God. There is no sacrifice as cults knew it, but there is the Eucharist, which is the body of Christ, in which sacrifice the Church sacramentally participates. Likewise, there is no temple as religious impulse builds for the deity, but the assembly becomes the living body of Christ and the building that houses Christ’s nuptial embrace of his bride is a sacred place.

4. The Church is liturgy symbol-izing the Kingdom.

The Church does not exist in our minds, any more than Jesus exists as an idea. The Church is an ekklesia—which means a people called out. A Church assembly is a sacramental sign of Christ’s whole Mystical Body. As there is one sacrifice at many altars, there is one Church at many assemblies. The particular assembly is not its own end, then, but rather the symbolization of a reality larger than itself. We could express this by saying the liturgy symbol-izes the heavenly liturgy. Adding the suffix -ize turns a noun or adjective into a verb, in the sense of “causing it to be or become.” To verbal-ize is to express verbally, to sanit-ize is to make sanitary, to jeopardy-ize is to put into jeopardy. The liturgy symbol-izes the Kingdom of God: it makes God’s reign into a symbol for our participation. The Mystery passes over into the mysteries. Each liturgy symbol-izes an assembly of angels and archangels and saints and martyrs and the righteous.

5. The Church’s building visual-izes this liturgy.

I do not mean that Christians close their eyes and form mental images of angels with wings. I mean that iconographers take up their brushes, sculptors take up their chisels, architects roll out their blueprints. Symbols are real, visible, material, actual things, therefore to call liturgy a sacramental symbol of the Kingdom is to say that the liturgy real-izes, actual-izes, and material-izes the very eschatological redemption that Christ is accomplishing in the world. And this requires the assistance of artists and architects. “Holy Mother Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts,” says Sacrosanctum Concilium, “and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world” (para. 122). What the liturgy symbol-izes, the architect visual-izes. There is a synergistic, synthetic, living relationship between liturgy and architecture. Liturgy is to architecture not like a hermit crab is to the tin can it crawled into, but rather like a snail is to the shell it has grown. This leads Kavanagh to write:

Raw space becomes liturgical place through the change [Christ’s] presence by grace, faith, and sacrament causes. … As it meets for worship of the Source and Redeemer of all, the assembly is the fundamental sacrament of God’s pleasure in Christ on earth. … Christian instinct has been to house this assembly as elegantly as possible, avoiding tents, bedrooms, and school basements. The assembly uses its place to do something in. … It is a vigorous arena for conducting public business in which petitions are heard, contracts entered into, relationships witnessed, orations declaimed, initiations consummated, vows taken, authority exercised, laws promulgated, images venerated, values affirmed, banquets attended, votes cast, the dead waked, the Word deliberated, and parades cheered.14

If we don’t like how Church architecture should look, we must ask ourselves whether we know what we’re supposed to be doing in it.

6. What the Church does includes visual-izing the potency of the world.

Olivier Clement says, “in its deepest understanding, the Church is nothing other than the world in the course of transfiguration.”15 This transfiguration and redemption is the mystery of God, hidden before all ages, placed in motion with the call of father Abraham, and by the Torah brought down Sinai by Moses. Cardinal Journet writes, “The Church made its appearance in time before Christ did. The frontier of the Church passes through each one of those who call themselves her members.”16 This transforming grace arcs like an electric spark between two poles, from protology to eschatology.

Therefore, if the architect will visual-ize this liturgy-in-motion, he or she must find a way to display a reunion of the divisions Maximus lamented and that Christ united. How will an architect show that because Christ sits at the right hand of the Father in his human nature, creation is no longer divided from the Uncreated? How will you show that because Christ has ascended with his sacred humanity into heaven, the division between the intelligible and the sensible is overcome and now we can see all matter in a spiritual light? How will you show that because heaven and earth were reunited by Christ’s ascension, we join the angels in praising God? How will you show that the distance between our current site of toil and the paradise that was our original home has been overcome in the baptistery that is a New Eden? And how will you show that the mortality at work in the cycle of generations has been conquered by eternal life? A tall order for architects.

7. Churches are decorative, not cosmetic.

Chesterton wrote that “Decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck.”17 Churches do not exist for a cosmetic purpose, i.e., to disguise the ugliness of the world. They exist for a decorative purpose, i.e., to display the loveliness that the world was intended to have.

When Christians bejewel the landscape with light from stained-glass windows, and appoint the calendar with holy days, and spiritualize matter into sacrament, and canonize saints who walk among us, and build edifices of splendor and glory, they do so in order to proclaim to the world the beauty that it has from the hand of the Creator, but that sin has failed to actualize. They do so in order to display before the world the potential with which it was created, and which is being secretly worked by Christ’s recapitulation. The gift of the Church to the time in which it lives is the holy day; and the gift of the Church to the place in which it dwells is a beautiful church. But this requires extravagance and luxury, as does all decoration. People seem to have difficulty understanding that wastefulness in decoration is precisely its whole reason for being.

8. Church architecture must be true, and truth will be beautiful.

The word “truth” applies not only to propositions but also to reality. A person can be true or false, but succeeding (or failing) to become the idea God had of him when he was made. Something is beautiful when it becomes what it is supposed to be and shines forth (splendor) its essence. We use the word beauty in close connection to truth when we see an act of generosity or humility or kindness and say, “That was a beautiful thing to do.” It was a true thing. The person is beautiful for acting fully, with integrity, proportionate to his being, acting as a full human being. The saints grow more beautiful. In fact, the reason to become a saint is to become beautiful at last: the relationship between “beautiful” and “beatific.”

Apse mosaic at St. Paul's Outside the Walls, Rome. Photo: Fernandez

The task of the architect is to build true buildings: churches that display the inherent truth in matter, which is that all things exist to be building blocks for the Heavenly Jerusalem. The church building displays to the world its potential. Plato said that the splendor of truth is beauty. He meant that beauty is truth’s luster or brilliance. But splendor does not exist in the abstract—it must be concretized, made real, made hypostatic. The splendor of God is the beauty of Jesus. And architecture is evangelical insofar as it offers to the world something better than the ambiguous beauty it knows. It offers Christ’s beauty, which the world seeks. The Christian is an icon of Jesus’ splendor repeated in each glorified face, and the church building must also be an icon of Jesus’ divinized humanity. Anthropos is the cosmic priest of the visible world, and he adds the splendor of created matter to the celestial praise of God when he offers it up in “reasonable worship” (Rom 12:1—logiken latreian). Paul Evdokimov elaborates:

Alongside “kosmos noetos” (the intelligible world) Holy Tradition sets “kosmos aisthetos” (the sensible world). This latter encompasses the whole realm of what belongs to the senses in the sacraments, in the liturgy, in icons, and in the lived experience of God. … The beautiful then is as a shining forth, an epiphany, of the mysterious depths of being, of that interiority that is a witness to the intimate relation between the body and the soul.”18


I will stop with eight propositions. I am talking about living in the Eighth Day, so it seems fitting. This liturgical cosmology depends upon several things. (I mean by “depend” what the word literally means, namely, “to hang.”) Liturgy as heaven-on-earth hangs upon several theological pegs. It depends first upon a protology that believes all being is good; second, an eschatology that believes everything is destined for glory; third, an anthropology that believes the image of God can, by grace, attain the likeness of God (which is deification); fourth, a Christology that believes the Reign of God has begun; and fifth, an ecclesiology that believes the Church visualizes the potency of the world and its final end. The Church-in-motion, the Divine Liturgy, makes visible the transfiguration worked upon the world by supernatural grace. The marching orders given to architects is to visual-ize that transfiguration.