Architecture as a Moral Force

Unless you happen to be an architecture buff, you may not know the name Pugin, though you’ve certainly seen some of his work. The Houses of Parliament and St. Stephen’s clock tower (known colloquially as “Big Ben,” which is actually the name of the bell inside) in London are two of the 19th century architect’s most famous contributions. But they’re not his most important contribution.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was born in 1842 and died a mere 40 years later. During his short life, his work inspired an architectural movement that changed the British landscape and gave us many of the structures that today we so readily identify as British.

Pugin had a powerful moral vision for Britain, which was at that time experiencing the disruption of the industrial revolution and the decadence of the Georgian monarchy. A convert to the Catholic faith at a time when being Catholic was still a risky career move, he believed that architecture was the key to bringing about a renewed Christian society. For him, this Christian architecture was Gothic. The Gothic style represented a pure, medieval Christian faith and morality: precisely what the country had lost after the Protestant revolution. His Gothic revival churches in particular, such as St. Giles in Cheadle, Staffordshire, are testaments to his Catholic faith and medievalist vision.

Why is Pugin important for us today? We’ve talked a lot at St. Mark about the concept of lex orandi, lex credendi. That is, the way we worship both influences, and is influenced by, what we believe. There’s a similar idea in Pugin’s thought. For him, “bad” architecture is a sign of a spiritually sick society. But he also proposed that creating better, spiritually uplifting architecture would help cure society’s ills. He believed in the power of beauty to change souls. 

Take an hour sometime to watch the video linked below. Not only is it a superb presentation, but it tells the deeply moving story of the young man whose heart burned to restore a more moral, a more Catholic, Britain. 

Renovating the Renovations

One of the curious things about late-20th century church “renovations” is the sheer amount of work that went into hiding or eliminating many of the beautiful elements which marked these older buildings. These modernizations have not aged well, and a lot of time and money is now being spent to undo the changes and restore these buildings to something resembling their former dignity. For another example of this, look at the before-and-after shots in this article from the Liturgical Arts Journal

As we consider the future of our own church building at St. Mark, let’s try to think beyond contemporary trends and imagine how what we do will be received by future generations. 

What a Difference a Little Color Makes!

Here’s an another great example, by the way of the Liturgical Arts Journal, of how restoring color to our Catholic churches can make such a big difference. This is from St. Patrick’s Oratory in Green Bay, Wisconsin. As we’ve learned watching the videos by Denis McNamara, returning beauty to our church buildings is not just about making things pretty—it helps churches fulfill their role of making Heaven present to us.

Art Instruction for Kids

Children are naturally interested in making art, and of course this should be encouraged. In fact, basic art skills such as drawing should be a part of a well-rounded education. Many well-known artists first learned to draw in school. 

Catholic artist David Clayton provides a valuable perspective on art education for kids (or anyone, for that matter):

Illuminated Altar Cards

For something a little different, here is a link to an article in the Liturgical Arts Journal on hand-made altar cards, created by Pelican Printery House in Lincoln, Nebraska. For those not familiar with altar cards, these are the cards that are framed and placed on the altar, containing some key Mass texts for the priest to refer to during the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. It’s wonderful to see this kind of art still being made today.

https://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/2022/03/the-lost-art-of-hand-made-altar-cards.html

Catholic Church Architecture, Part 8: Rediscovering Liturgical Images

How come churches don’t look like they used to look when I was a kid?

Last week, we saw how the use of sacred images in churches has waned over the past half-century or so, and why it’s important to rediscover them, as they are a legitimate part of the liturgy itself. In Part 8 of the series, Dr. McNamara draws our attention specifically to liturgical images, and explains why the good intentions of liturgical reformers ultimately resulted in the beige, sterile church environments we often encounter today. He goes on to 

distinguish liturgical images from the other types of sacred images (devotional and historical) and calls for the return of images to their rightful place in the liturgical space.

Catholic Architecture, Part 7: Sacred Images

…a colorful pulse of life.

In Part 7 of the Catholic Architecture series, Dr. McNamara addresses the importance sacred images in the church building. Like many of the things we’ve been looking at in this video series, the use of sacred images suffered a bit of a decline in the years since Vatican II, at least in the Western Church. Some spoke of images being a “distraction,” taking your attention away from the action of the liturgy. 

But as Dr. McNamara points out, far from being a distraction during the liturgy, sacred images are part of the liturgy itself. They make visible things that are ordinarily invisible. They enable us to encounter people (and other beings) who are not physically with us, but who are nevertheless present spiritually. Images also make us aware that we are worshiping with a much larger community than we can see with our eyes. 

Vestments: a Tradition of Beauty

For centuries, it was de rigueur for the Church to invest in beautiful appointments for the celebration of the liturgy, including the vestments worn by the clergy. Even humble rural parishes acquired the best they could afford. It was generally understood that divine worship required the best we could offer. However, like much of the Catholic artistic tradition in recent decades, vestment quality has often taken a back seat to more “practical” concerns. 

There are still some vestment manufacturers who produce genuine works of art. Here’s a post from the Liturgical Arts Journal showing some contemporary examples of fine vestments:

https://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/2022/02/a-brief-survey-of-some-recent-vestment.html