The Church of Saint
I know that I said in my previous posting on this topic that contemporary church architects need to find ways to create worship spaces in architectural styles that reflect our time and culture, but my own favorite church anywhere is Saint Anne’s near the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Saint Anne’s is built in the style we know as “Crusader Gothic,” though it was built between 1131 and 1138 which is just a shade too early for “gothic.” Nevertheless, the church gives an impression of being more gothic than Romanesque. It doesn’t have the large windows and flying buttresses of later gothic but it is far more open and airy than the typical Romanesque designs of the previous century. It is probably best put as a church in a transitional style and it certainly was avant-garde for its day.
A church, very similar in feel to Saint Anne’s though I think not nearly as elegant, is the Abbey of San Pietro in Assisi. While the monastery was established in the tenth century by Cluniac Benedictines, the current church was built by Cistercian monks in the thirteenth century. That might be why it appeals so strongly to me. I find traditional Cistercian architecture very prayerful. I think in particular of the abbey of Notre Dame de Aiguebelle or Notre Dame de Sénanque, both dating from the 12th century and perfect examples of Cistercian architecture.
What is it that makes these ancient churches—though up to the very latest architectural style when they were built—particularly prayerful.
First, I think, is their utter simplicity that permits for no distraction in prayer. There are simply no frills. There is nothing superfluous. While there is invariably a superbly striking representation of the Crucifixion and there is always a unique statue or icon of the Mother of God appropriately placed, there is generally no other decoration. The glass is generally opaque but not colored. The altar furnishings are of wood or iron, well designed but without decoration. Linens are only laid on the altar for the Liturgy and they are of high quality but utterly simple. The same is true of the sacred vesture in the Cistercian houses: all is well tailored but the beauty is in the design and quality of the material rather than in unneeded decoration. Vessels are of simple lines and generally of silver and without jewels. Everything bespeaks the Divine Presence, but nothing calls attention to itself.
Secondly—and perhaps more foundational—is that the beauty is created not by decoration but by the interplay of proportion and light. These churches were all built to depend on natural lighting and are designed to maximize the amount of light coming through the upper set of windows along the choir and nave. The dimensions of the churches are exquisite with relatively high vaults (not cathedral height but certainly of a height that is not merely functional) and spacious layout with nothing having a feeling of being crowded in. There is much use of the particular proportion known as the Golden Rectangle while windows, piers, and other functional features are often grouped in the sacred numbers of three or seven. Rational order is the consistent principle. There is always a perfect symmetry in the design. (By “always” I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t exceptions, especially where the original design was later altered.) The starkness of the design and lack of decoration increase the sense of open space. And the space gives plenty of room for liturgical action be it processions, or sacramental rituals such as ordinations, weddings, funerals that require sufficient space. I think the dimensions—both the height and the openness of the design help create that sense of solemnity that quiets us for prayer while the interplay of light and space gives the church a window into the Transcendent Mystery of the Divine Presence. All in all the starkness creates a sense of “less is more.”
While the Cistercian churches are traditionally minimalist in their décor, there always have been spaces, most notably the chapels that flanked the presbyterium containing the principal altar, that were discreet enough to allow for private prayer. Other unobtrusive spaces could be found in the transepts and in the aisles of the choir behind the monastic stalls. Of course the monks had other inconspicuous nooks and crannies for their lectio divina in the cloister, the scriptorium, or other parts of the monastery.
I wonder how these same principles, the use of light and proportion and the reduction of embellishment to well-crafted essentials, as well as the inclusion of small prayer chapels could be used in contemporary spaces to create a prayerful environment for the liturgy and for personal prayer.
When I see the abbey churches at Spencer and New Melleray, and to a lesser extent Gethsemane in Kentucky I see these principles being used in the renovation of older buildings to great effect. The Cathedral at Killarney, a Pugin building, is another example of a renovated older church that has been taken down to its basic superb architectural lines, though I think, like Gethsemane, it could use a bit more “softening.” I wouldn’t ordinarily advise stripping down the neo-gothic churches of the 19th century. You are never really sure what is beneath the faux marble and plaster-posing-as-stone. But also, and even more to the point, they are relics of a particular time and culture and generally should be preserved as such. And care needs to be taken in fitting them out for the liturgy. Modern design altars in older buildings are usually quite jarring and ugly (ugly makes a peculiar adverb) so. The contemporary altar (and matching pulpit and archbishop’s throne) in Paris is nothing short of hideous. A versus populum altar should have been constructed to harmonize with, not contrast with, the setting. Again it is innovation for innovation’s sake and that shows a distinct lack of spiritual depth and maturity. You don’t find this lack of aesthetic judgment in the English cathedrals. I suppose apostolic succession trumps good taste but sometimes I can see why we Catholics had a tough time gaining the esteem of the Granthams.
I write this because I think contemporary architecture could be well suited for worship spaces if architects would draw from the lessons of what has worked well in the examples I have cited. Not being an architect or familiar with the language of the trade, I will probably not express myself well but the first rule would be to avoid the spectacular that draws attention from the sacred action for which the church is constructed and puts it on the building itself.
The second rule would be to avoid functionalism and, for the sake of economy, reduce the building to a minimal utilitarianism. There is a need for quality in materials and luxury in the spatial dimensions that transcends parsimoniousness. Letting parsimony dictate the design of our worship space is so modern and so American.
The third rule would be to remember the importance of proportion for beauty. Height, not necessarily excessive but proportionate to the width and depth of the building, is of particular importance in lifting the human spirit.
The fourth rule would be to remember the effect created by natural light and to use natural light in relationship to the basic architectural lines.
The fifth rule would be to match quality with simplicity. Let the beauty come from the quality of the materials rather than from décor to be applied over the basic design.
When I see the church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem or San Pietro in Assisi or San Apollinaire in Classe in Ravena or San Georgio in Velabro in Rome—all centuries old—the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council suddenly makes sense. The Mass—the Novus Ordo—fits these churches, as old as they are, like a hand fits a glove. The challenge is how to take the design principles of these churches and express them in contemporary form. We need to make the artistic and architectural contribution to our western culture that the generations before us did.