Sunday, November 12


To Our Visitors from JunkYardBlog

First, the obligatory gratuitous links of some of my hypothetical projects and ink drawings:

Christ the King Seminary, La Crosse, Wisconsin
Church of Our Lady, Queen of the English Martyrs, Chicago
A New Church Building for St. Agnes, 43rd Street, New York
S. Saviour's Parish Church, Generic Suburban Location
S. Gregory the Great and His Parents
Portrait of the Authoress Dawn Eden with an Allegorical Image of Chastity

Christ the King Seminary, La Crosse, Wisconsin

And now that we've got that out of the way, we're glad to have you here! Both Dawn's very kind comments earlier this week and the JunkYardBlog's intriguing take on the troubling state of the arts among our Protestant separated brethren offer some food for thought. My blogging confrere Drew has discussed the monumental awfulness of Thomas Kinkade before as symptomatic of a vacuum in American religious culture regarding the notion of kenotic suffering as a background against which joy can only be understood.

Still, I think in this instance this question of church architecture can be chalked up only partially to theological difference (meeting-house vs. Domus Dei), but at the same time, it is also symptomatic of an across-the-board throwaway attitude to church design which impacts Catholics and Protestants alike, and even secular architecture. There is, first, an absolute bare minimum of quality in design required by human dignity that is not being met in most secular architecture--and if it's not being met for places we sleep and dine and live in, how much less with God's house! Compare, for instance, the utilitarianism of two hundred years ago, with that of today. Even a disused Victorian warehouse with mass-produced cast-iron decoration is a world apart from the corrugated metal of today's quonset hut.

It's an issue of quality and laziness, in part; with regards to ecclesial architecture, it comes down in many respects to an indifference towards thought, any thought at all. Often, the whole notion that an architecture can signify something is totally forgotten, much less the question of what it should signify. Before we even get to the meaty theological questions of the house of God and the house of God's people, there's a rock-bottom modicum of thought required by good architecture, that a building is more than just a roof over one's head, that it can actually convey some sort of meaning--even if we may disagree over the substance of that meaning, or its propriety--that is not being met today.

I understand we may disagree, Catholic and Protestant, as to what the ideal results ought to be, but at least realizing that some thought has to be put into it is a fairly major mental step for many out there. It just doesn't come up. Someone may think that the stained-glass of Chartres is beautiful, but they often leave it at that, rather than pursuing it beyond art for art's sake. What does this tell us about God? About what the Catholic Church teaches? On a more personal level, what does my awestruck response to it tell me about the impact of God working through the arts, and through physical means in general?

It is interesting to note that the recent outlet-mall megachurch trend is in fact something of a deviation from the last century's trends in Protestant architecture, which was previously moving towards a more liturgical model, even in denominations not known for ritualism. The Catholic and Catholicizing Oxford Movement and the work of the Ralph Adams Cram caused an invisible revolution not only in Catholic but in Protestant churches as well. No longer was the simple white country meeting-house a model, but instead some American Protestants aspired to create their own versions of Europe's Gothic monuments. While not totally successful, at the very least, Puritan clapboard was replaced with stained-glass and grey stone as the stereotypical ideal.

(Cram once commented that the only thing that his monumental East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pitsburg required to celebrate a Catholic High Mass were a crucifix, six candlesticks and twenty minutes of prep time.)

In some instances, this change in design also accompanied a change in theological perspective, as with the Anglo-Catholic party within the Church of England, while in other places, it was more of a shift in taste than in theology. The pulpit did not give way to the altar in the chancel, and the attendant theologies of sanctoral devotion and sacramental realities did not take hold among the Presbyterians and Methodists. There nonetheless remained an openness to artistic and spiritual beauty in some form. Even then, there were a few cautious but significant shifts in emphasis: one particularly interesting case-study is that of Cram's Euclid Avenue Presbyterian in Cleveland, which ripped out an old shallow chancel with a dominant pulpit and organ and replaced it with a freestanding and distinctly altar-like communion table with an ornate Gothic reredos-cum-backdrop in the 1920s.

But even before we reach that point, there is a bare minimum which is far from being met in both the sacred and the profane. The plainest New England meeting-house had a spare sort of dignity to it, and was consistent with the theology preached within, even if the theology it expressed was radically different from that of, say, my beloved St. Vincent Ferrer. While Puritan austerity is at odds with Catholic theology, it was not aggressively ugly in the way that most contemporary designs are. At the very least, some thought was put into what a building meant, and starkness was chosen not because it was cheaper, but because it meant something--just as we ornament our churches to express the timeless truth of the Incarnation. (And certainly simplicity and austerity are Catholic and incarnational virtues when properly understood, as in the case of Cistercian architecture, a world apart from the Astrodome churches built today.) Even if we may disagree on the existential significance of the church building, there is a basic common denominator that a building, any building, can be more than just about structure or shelter, or be more than simply about itself, that we all can agree on that requires us to demand to look deeper into the philosophy we express in our churches, and the message that it may send, intentional or not.

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