The cathedrals of Chartres, Paris, Cologne, Florence, Siena and Toledo open their doors each day to thousands of pilgrims and tourists alike. They come to look, to gaze and to stand in wonder at these majestic marvels of architecture. Pugin, the famous British architect of the nineteenth century, once remarked that the Gothic style of these magnificent cathedrals was the only architectural and artistic style which Christianity created for itself.
At its birth, the Christian church simply worshipped in the houses of believers, most often those of its wealthier members. The very first followers of Jesus in Galilee assembled as church in St. Peter’s house in Capernaum along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The Christians at Corinth met in the home of the wealthy business couple Aquila and Priscilla (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:19).
When the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century, Christians began to build churches. They simply adopted existing architecture. They turned away from the temples of their pagan neighbors to their basilicas. The temples did not have the space necessary for congregations to gather and worship. But the basilicas did. The basilicas were used as courts of law and as meeting places. Rome’s St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran come from this earliest period of church architecture.
Over the centuries, Church architecture changed both in the East and the West. Gradually, the Orthodox Church introduced strict norms regarding sacred art. This process reached its high point in a 16th century council held in Moscow called “the Council of the Hundred Canons.” Even our Islamic neighbors have rather strict norms that make a mosque immediately recognizable anywhere in the world. Not so the Catholic Church.
Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Modern and Post-Modern: there is no one style that the Church has canonized. In fact, in its document on the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council noted, “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 123).
Different theological points of view, coupled with the technology of each new age, have produced churches whose spires stretch upward to heaven to churches in the round whose simple form encircles the congregation gathered within. In the course of time, there have risen magnificent cathedrals and modest country churches. While not canonizing any particular style, nonetheless, the Church clearly embraces sacred art as a legitimate and needed expression of faith.
However, some more recently built churches and some churches renovated in the last forty years raise a serious question. Does it not appear that “a considerable part of the Church’s cultural and artistic patrimony has been squandered in the name of honesty and simplicity”? (Uwe Michael Lang, “The Crisis of Sacred Art and the sources for its renewal in the thought of Pope Benedict XVI,” Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy, p.105).
Vatican II instructed bishops to “carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 124). Such an admonition almost seems useless in face of the iconoclasm that has stripped so many churches of sacred images and beauty. The desire for simplicity and practicality has led to churches empty of much religious symbolism.
With the Industrial Revolution came steel, plate glass, and mass-produced components. Bold, new imaginative structures arose. Emphasis on form made decoration something of a crime and led to the disappearance of much artistic imaging within our church buildings. Abstract images and splashes of color have replaced the biblical scenes and figures of the Gothic cathedrals that remind the worshippers of their place in the history of salvation and the communion of saints.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the theological emphasis on the people of God gathered for liturgy led to some very healthy changes. Churches have been built to allow for the greater participation of the laity in the liturgy. But there have also been some rather questionable results.
Some churches have the altar situated in the middle of the congregation. At times, this violates the architectural line of the building itself and loses a sense of coherence. As a result, there is structurally no longer the vertical direction of the ancient cathedrals that gently draws the worshipper into the liturgy and upward to heaven.
With a rightful emphasis on the place of music in the liturgy has come the positioning of choirs and musicians in full view of the congregation. At times, this boldly detracts from the worshippers’ attention on the altar and can make worship seem like a performance. With a greater emphasis on music, organ pipes have assumed more than a functional position in church buildings!
Unfortunately, the theological emphasis on the liturgy as action has often led to the removal of the Eucharist from a central position in the Church. Tragically, we have churches with the tabernacle off to the side of the church. Others less felicitously with the tabernacle placed behind the congregation. Peoples’ backs to the Lord! How uncivil! In either case, the position of the tabernacle no longer leads the faithful to adoration and worship.
Removing the tabernacle from the central position in the Church can lead to an anthropocentric view of liturgy. Liturgy easily becomes about us and not about the divine presence into which we are being drawn. When a church positions the tabernacle in a prominent and central place, the worshipper is caught up in the action at the altar and visually led to the Real Presence in the tabernacle.
Sacred art is faith translated into vision. It is both an apologetic of the faith and a catechesis in faith. Both the architecture of the church building and its interior decorations are always at the service of the liturgy.
Sacred art is “oriented toward the infinite beauty of God… redounding to God's praise and glory in proportion as [it is] directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men's minds devoutly toward God” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 122). As the Church continues to renew the way in which we celebrate divine worship, ennobling our language of prayer and focusing us on God, there stirs the hope of recapturing the treasure of sacred art within our churches.