The Ancient architecture was always using material things as signs of something spiritual. But today our architecture is flat, nothing but steel and glass, almost like a cracker box. Why? Well, because our architects have no spiritual message to convey.
Venerable Fulton J. Sheen
Archbishop Fulton Sheen was not an architect, but he knew a thing or two about theology and philosophy, and so could diagnose the spiritual sickness lurking behind modernist architecture. Moreover, he knew what architecture—sacred architecture in particular—is supposed to be: a kind of sacrament.
For your weekend viewing pleasure, here’s a tour of 10 amazing Catholic churches in the American South. There’s a surprising amount of notable Catholic heritage in our Protestant country (link below).
Here’s some food for thought: Throughout much of American history, Catholics (with some exceptions) tended to be an out-of-favor minority. They also tended to be working-class immigrants. Yet, they managed to fund and build many beautiful churches like the ones in this article, giving glory to God and visually propagating the Catholic Faith. How did they manage that? Is there something we can learn from our Catholic forebears?
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.
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 is clear… is that forcing modernist principles of building design upon unwilling church congregations and passing them off as if they were principles of the Council simply must stop.
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about what church architecture ought to be; that there is a “theology of architecture” developed and passed down over centuries that should inform how our church buildings are designed.
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.
All things are set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful signs and symbols of heavenly realities.
Sacrosanctum concilium, 22
In this tenth and final episode, Dr. McNamara looks back at the Second Vatical Council and makes a claim that may surprise many people (except those who follow this blog!). Namely, that a careful reading of the documents of Vatican II reveals the traditional nature of the Council.
In this ninth video in the series, Dr. McNamara describes how a church building should be a reflection of Heaven, a foretaste of our future in Glory in the presence of God. He paraphrases an unnamed saint who said something to the effect of, “A church is an earthly Heaven, where Christ walks about with us.” But what does this look like?
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.
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.