Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Need For Sacred Space II

The Church of Saint

Anne, Jerusalem
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. 


  1. Have you ever seen the abbey church at Novy Dvur?

  2. It's funny that you would mention Novy Dvur. Some years ago a friend was showing me an article by Duncan Stroik with several accompanying photos. I saw this one church and said: I do like that. It turned out that Stroik was using it as an example of everything he thinks is wrong with modern churches. I didn't remember the church at the time, but as soon as I looked up Novy Dvur on the internet to respond to your question, I recognized it. I have been to the Czech Republic several times and it is my favorite country in Europe, but I have not been to Novy Dvur so I can only judge it by the photos I have seen What I see I like. It has that sense of proportion and light that I wrote about. I would like to prove the pudding by going to see it but I am not sure when that will happen.

  3. I notice that you still can't resist taking a gentle shot at the Anglicans. It is amusing to note that Roman Catholic traditionalists feel the same way about your priests and bishops ordained, or, as one of them would have it, installed according to the nouus ordo.

  4. Actually, if you read my series on the history of Anglicanism--as yet unfinished, I need to get back to it one of these days--you will see that I think the arguments of Leo XIII in Apostolicae Curae are flawed and that the entire matter of the Apostolic Succession needs to be not only restudied but rethought. So my remark was not so much a gentle shot as a cheap shot. You just have to live with the fact that I take those once in awhile. it relieves my boredom and makes my readers pay attention.

  5. This was fascinating and very good, thank you.

  6. In the tradition of Cistercian architecture, have you been to the abbey chapel at the Cistercian Abbey in Dallas. It was built in the early 1990s and was designed by an alumn of their prep school, who studied the history of Cistercian architecture while designing the chapel. You can see pictures at their website: The walls are massive pieces of Texas granite with a floating wood ceiling that filters light down into the space. Ornamentation is minimal, and the pieces on the wall behind the altar come from Hungary and the motherhouse of that monastery.

    The community is somewhat conservative theologically, though I suspect its schools of thought were mere diverse when there were more Hungarians alive in the abbey. It is not a traditionalist community by any means though. The chapel was built for the reformed liturgy. In an interesting note in the liturgy wars they have retained some traditions from their Hungarian Cistercian life that are not part of the Roman Missal, most notably during Holy Week and the Triduum. One of their members was for 30+ years the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Grapevine, TX, and he built the current church there. It is remarkable to see the conversation between the two spaces, with the parish being both CIstercian and for a living parish.

    As an aside, you mentioned many posts ago about the community in Dallas being a short-time home for a krazy who ultimately became a schismatic bishop. I think you were wrong on this detail. He never was there. There are and have been, however, many very smart and very holy monks in that community, and the community has been very dedicated to living their traditions in the context of the reform. The Abbot emeritus, for example, is a well-known biblical scholar, a member of the pontifical biblical commission, and ecumenical in his approach and scholarly contacts.

  7. No, I have not visited the Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas. I did check out the website for the photos and I must admit that it doesn't appeal to me. It seems to lack both that light and open space that marks Cistercian architecture, but it may only be the photos. I also didn't care for the roughness of the stone. But all this is a matter of subjective taste. I am familiar--somewhat--with the community and it has an excellent reputation for scholarship. The problem which I try to address in this blog is not liberal/conservative but, on the one hand "evangelical"/vs establishment, and on the other critical thinkers/vs ideologues.
    I need to go back and check on the Bishop Dolan matter that he had studied at one time for the priesthood with the Cistercians at the Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas. I took this from material produced by Dolan and his associates but perhaps he meant that he had studied at the seminary they run there at the University of Dallas, though the implication was clearly that he had been a member of the monastic community before moving on to Lefebvre's seminary in Econe.

    1. I suspected they went to Spring Bank (which has now closed) and seem to be confirmed in this at this website: ("Both His Excellency and Father Cekada were born in 1951, meeting each other at the Cistercian seminary outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1969."). Some of the Hungarian Cistercians had been sent to Spring Bank originally, but the relationship did not work and they had left (I think) entirely by 1969. See

  8. I'm a bit are not a fan of things pre-VC2 (at least not like someone like Scalia from other posts) as far as liturgy, laity vs. clergy involvement, placement on the altar, seem to have a deep appreciation for the beauty and splendor of authentic Catholic basilicas and cathedrals.

    If you are going to "modernize" the Mass why care if you have these beautiful churches to celebrate it in or if it's just a glorified Knights of Columbus sterile bandbox (or the Taj Mahony out here in LA) ?

    Seems a bit of a contradiction -- something out of place -- to have these majestic churches....huge raised altars....high lecterns...and then just have a priest or cardinal address the flock like Rev. Lovejoy on "The Simpsons."

    If we are going to celebrate our architectural triumphs of the past -- heck, if people travel to Europe just to see them !! -- why would we be so quick to ditch the ceremonies that they were built to house ?

    I think the disgust so many felt for the Taj Mahony out in LA is somewhat analagous to the dislike for the more modernized NO Masses and the hunger some of us have for the TLM (even though many have never attended, just read about it).

    Am I right or wrong?

  9. Well, to begin with I am a historian. Historians study the past in order to take its lessons for the present and the future. Those who want to live in the past are antiquarians. The Liturgy is not an ecclesiastical Colonial Williamsburg where we try to step out of the present into the baroque world of the late 16th century, or even into the 1950's Chicago Catholicism which neo-traditionalists hold up as some sort of Catholic ideal.
    The Liturgical Reforms that followed on the Second Vatican Council--but which were in the works, at least from a study point of view for a century before--were in great part an effort to reshape Catholic Worship drawing from the lessons of liturgical history by cutting away many of the accretions that had built up over the High medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. It was not an effort to restore the liturgy of an earlier period--say the period of Pope Saint Gelasius or Pope Saint Gregory (though it did draw on their sacramentaries) as much as to shape the liturgy for our day according to historic principles of the first seven centuries or so of Christian worship. There were many later accretions that were retained: the penitential rite, the use of the Glory on most Sundays, kneeling as a posture for the Eucharistic Prayer, to mention only a few. On the other hand elements that were theologically problematic such as the double sacrifice (bread and wine at the "offertory," Christ's Sacrifice of the Cross in the Eucharist) were clarified by peeling away confusing elements that had been introduced between the 9th and the 16th centuries.
    When one knows the historical architecture one gets a clearer view of the nature of the liturgy than one might get from a tour of the now empty, and generally abandoned, churches of the old South Side of Chicago. Go to Rome and see the Church of San Giorgio in Velabro or Santa Maria in Dominica and you will see how the 1970 liturgy is a return to the sources of Christian worship.
    I think we saw in the funeral Mass for Justice Scalia that the Novus Ordo fits well in great spaces. I will be the first to admit that there are more than a few priests who lack the ars celebrandi and "say Mass" with all the panache of a bored matron folding the laundry but I am also old enough to remember the pre-conciliar liturgy which was almost invariably done badly with fly-specked altar clothes unchanged for weeks and priests scratching their rear-ends as bent over the altar whispering the magic words. No we have a need to make sure that the Mass is always done with the appropriate amount of gravitas and beauty but the answer is not to go back to the 1570 rites. Jesus did not die on the cross for us to take the Colonial Williamsburg approach to our faith. I can't help but remember the words of the great Patristic scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan: Tradition is the living faith of the Dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.
    Now, I am inclined to agree with you on the Los Angeles Cathedral save for the incredible tapestry on the Communion of the Saints that leads down both sides of the nave from the bapistry (with its magnificient tapestry of the Baptism of the Lord) to the altar. Oh, and the pipe organ. phenomenal. But that is what motivates this series: can't modern architects come up with something as beautiful as the Hagia Sophia or Chartres or Burgos?

  10. Gotcha....thanks, that cleared things up (a bit). I sure don't want the Catholic Church to start building some of these tiny, all-white, simple Protestant churches I see dotting the countrysides when I drive, that's for sure.

    Maybe you can have a Consol Top 10 list for us in a separate posting ? It can be ones you visited or at least have seen (books, internet). I would like to hear your Top 10 Most Beautiful Churchs/Basilicas/Cathedrals.

    On that score, assuming they didn't make your list, I want to know what you think about and how your rank St. Patrick's Cathederal (NY), St. Matthews (Wash), Immaculate Shrine (Scalia's Basilica), The Sistine Chapel, Cathedral of ND, etc. and other Vatican/Italian dated churchs/basilicas/Cathedrals. Must be some good ones in Spain, too.

    No rush, but would love to hear your comments/thought/rankings on the names we are most familiar with. Thanks, James in LA

    1. instead of responding here in the comments area, I will try to handle this in postings over the next week or two