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.

“Liturgy Wars”: Isn’t There a Better Way?

The article from The Catholic Thing linked at the bottom provides an interesting perspective on the ongoing conflict over the two forms of the Latin Rite Mass, a conflict sometimes referred to as “the Liturgy Wars.” 

This unfortunate battle involves a small but vociferous minority of Catholics who have only hardened their positions since Pope Francis issued Traditionis custodesWhether you’re a partisan in these “wars,” or merely a bemused bystander, we should be able to agree on one thing: this is NOT the way forward for Christ’s Holy Church.

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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:

Catholic Church Architecture, Part 6: Columns

A church building is a sacramental image of the mystical body of Christ.

Dr. Denis McNamara

When you think of columns, you probably think of “old-fashioned” buildings, and it’s true that the column is a staple of traditional architecture, giving buildings a “classical” look. Of course, they also perform the practical function of supporting the structure. But if you’ve followed this series thus far, you have probably guessed that there’s a deeper meaning behind even this architectural element.

In the 6th part of the series, Dr. McNamara explains how even back in the ancient pre-Christian world, columns were an architectural representation of people. This concept was easily taken up in later Christian architecture, where Scripture speaks of the faithful being “living stones” building up the mystical Body of Christ, the Church.  

Catholic Architecture, Part 5: Decoration and Ornament

In the modernist movements of the 20th century, the use of decorative elements in architecture fell out of favor. Leaving the bare structure exposed on a building was considered more “honest.” But even here, there are deeper considerations, even theological ones, that we need to recover in order to save our buildings from a kind of visual nihilism. In part 5 of this series, Dr. McNamara looks at the meaning and importance of decoration and ornament in architecture. 

A Music Meditation: the Presentation in the Temple

Set aside some time and try this meditation, based on the Gospel reading of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, accompanied by music.

  1. Read the Gospel for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
  2. Listen to this recording of the Nunc Dimittis (which is the prayer that Simeon says aloud, translated here) by Arvo Pärt. Read the Gospel aloud or silently over it. Imagine the temple. Imagine the darkness, the light, the smells and sounds.
  3. Imagine Simeon coming “in the Spirit in the temple” and taking the child Jesus into his arms while proclaiming this prayer and revelation.
  4. Imagine Mary and Joseph’s reactions and how they would ponder this and what was to come for their Son.

Remember to join us to celebrate this revelatory Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Wednesday, Feb 2 at 7:00 pm. The choir will be singing another evocative setting of the Nunc Dimittis by Paul Smith, which you can also use for meditation.

Catholic Architecture, Part 4: The Classical Tradition

Classicism is not a style; it is a way of imitating the mind of God in architecture.

When it comes to church architecture, are we merely talking about this style vs. another style, or are there deeper considerations? Having watched the previous three episodes, we can see that there is more at play here than aesthetic taste. 

In part 4 of the “Catholic Architecture” series, Dr. McNamara asks why, in spite of the architectural fads that are always coming and going, the classical tradition (or, “classicism”) remains so attractive to so many. 

Catholic Architecture, Part 3: Synagogue and Temple

Model of the Jerusalem Temple

In part 3 of his Catholic Architecture series, Dr. Denis McNamara looks to the Old Testament to find clues to the ideal design of churches. In ancient Israel after the period of exile, Jewish worship was divided between synagogue and temple. Synagogues were places of gathering where Jews went to hear the Scriptures proclaimed. The temple in Jerusalem was the place of sacrifice.

In the Christian era, synagogue and temple come together. Catholic churches are places of both Scripture and sacrifice (the Eucharist), and this truth has implications for church architecture.