What Makes A Church Beautiful?

When I saw the plans released yesterday for the new Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California, I was put in mind of the so-called “graduation ceremony” in “Star Wars”.  You’ll recall that’s when Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca received medals from Princess Leia for their services to the Rebel Alliance, inside a grand, but colorless ceremonial hall, like the one about to be foisted upon the good people of the Diocese of Orange County.  While seeing this animation of the completed building might make Seymour Skinner give out an award for best diorama, when it comes to ecclesiastical architecture, such an association is not an enviable one.  For it seems that, once again, the Church is not practicing what it preaches, when it comes to encouraging the beautiful in our contemporary society.

The most important question to ask in entering any Catholic church is, “Where’s Jesus?” The answer in this case is, “Somewhere over there.” In this absolutely vast sanctuary, which seats about 2700 people at present, there was apparently no room for the Son of God, at least not in the Real Presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  Instead, the Tabernacle sits like a gilded Tardis, surrounded on four sides by asymmetrical pews, in a side chapel.

There are other curious details, as one might expect given the commentary of the liturgists in the film linked to above. Nearby, one can see what is termed the baptismal “font”, really a pool in the shape of a cross, where I imagine the celebrant will be tossing in the infants and crying, “Swim for it, little pagans!” The narthex of the Cathedral will feature a giant, decapitated head of Jesus, copied from the 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the Hagia Sophia.  Without the symbolism of the original, showing Jesus seated as the judge and ruler of the whole world flanked by His Blessed Mother and St. John the Baptist pleading on our behalf for mercy, the image is thereby stripped of its purpose and theological meaning, to become little more than a massive decorative accessory.  This is not Jesus as Holy Icon, but Jesus as Andy Warhol icon.

It seems that the diocese completely missed the lessons to be learned from the construction of the present Los Angeles Cathedral, a.k.a. the “Taj Mahoney”.  Spending an estimated $52 million on a project which will result in something that looks like an airport concourse rather than a church is a colossal waste of funds.  If buying the former Crystal Cathedral was a mistake to begin with, which I believe it was, then we are about to witness a very expensive attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

What is irritating beyond anything else however, is not really the building itself.  One can hardly blame the late Philip Johnson, himself a former Nazi sympathizer and an atheist of the Nietzschean variety, for not having built a structure designed for Catholic liturgical use, when it was originally commissioned by a Protestant televangelist.  Rather, this entire project is a prime example of the “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy espoused by some in leadership positions of the Church.

We are constantly being told by popes, prelates, theologians, and Catholic commentators that we are supposed to be encouraging “beauty” in the world, because beauty brings people closer in contemplation to the Divine.  Every time we are told this, in books and articles, in television programs, interviews, retreats, and addresses, the people in the pews nod and agree, thinking that at last, things are finally going to get better.  We hear and read their words, and fully expect that those with the authority to make decisions about things such as church buildings will be presenting us with beautiful reminders of the Faith.

Except more often than not, they don’t.

We keep shoving the Blessed Sacrament off to the side, as if we’re embarrassed by it.  We keep commissioning religious art that belongs in a 7th grade religion textbook, if anywhere at all.  We keep printing cheap missalettes full of hymns with theologically unsound lyrics, and Mass settings that sound like themes to Saturday morning cartoon shows.  And it’s all terribly, horribly, ugly.

This artistic ugliness is all of a piece, of course, along with trite homilies about recycling or how our pets will go to Heaven, being told in the confessional that it’s almost impossible for anyone to commit a mortal sin, and nudge-nudge, wink-wink attitudes toward cohabitation and contraception at virtually every Pre-Cana weekend I’ve ever heard of.  For some, unknown reason, when decision-makers are presented with the opportunity to do something beautifully and uniquely Catholic – like building a new cathedral – they fantasize that they are presenting an alternative to the present culture.  When really, as we can all see plain as day, they are just aping the ugly externals of that very culture, albeit in a dreary fashion.

In his book “The Imitation of Christ”, Thomas à Kempis notes the popularity of pilgrimage to the architectural wonders of his time, back when architecture was indeed very beautiful.  Yet even then, he was not deceived by vast spaces or sumptuous materials.  “When visiting such places,” he comments, “men are often moved by curiosity and the urge for sight-seeing, and one seldom hears that any amendment of life results, especially as their conversation is trivial and lacks true contrition. But here, in the Sacrament of the Altar, You are wholly present, my God, the Man Christ Jesus; here we freely partake of the fruit of eternal salvation. as often as we receive You worthily and devoutly.”

That is what makes any church, whether a humble parish or a grand cathedral, truly beautiful.  It isn’t grand designs, or spectacular architecture, or lavish decorations. It is His Presence.  Otherwise, it’s just a building where “stuff” happens, not to use another “s” word.  Perhaps it’s time that those in positions of authority in the Church did a better job of remembering this, when they are presented with the opportunity to practice what they preach concerning what is beautiful about our Catholic Faith.

"Christ Pantocrator" by Unknown Artist (XIIIth Century) Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

“Christ Pantocrator” by Unknown Artist (13th Century)
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The Crumbling Cube

Surprise, surprise: an iconic example of contemporary architecture is falling apart, after only 25 years.

I have never had the misfortune of visiting the bleak, “Logan’s Run” Parisian district known as La Defense, but I have winced many times at seeing images of it onscreen or in print.  A monument to the bloated and bewildered state of architecture today, the centerpiece of this massive zit on the face of Paris is a structure known as La Grande Arche.  Opened on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution to complete an axis with the Arche de Triomphe, La Grande Arche is not really an arch, but rather a large office block: a cube with a huge hole cut in the middle of it.

George Weigel made this structure the jumping-off point for his seminal 2005 book, “The Cube and the Cathedral”, which explores some of the reasons why today, Europe and America tend to see the same issues very differently.  In an excerpt published in Commentary, Weigel noted that “La Grande Arche was nicknamed ‘Fraternity Arch'; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.”

Of course, the irony is that while the roughly 700-year old Notre-Dame de Paris hosts thousands of worshipers and visitors daily, the quarter-century old Grande Arche is now considered so unsafe that the building is completely closed to the public.  The rooftop views of Paris which Weigel described in his book have been cut off to visitors since 2010, thanks to elevator problems.  Only part of the cube is currently occupied, mostly by French government offices, since no one wants to rent space in the cramped, dark interiors.  And famously. the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once got stuck here, when the door handle of the ladies’ room broke off; her security detail had to break down the door to get her out.

La Grande Arche was expensive to build, and will be expensive to fix, with renovation estimates currently at $270 million.  That figure will no doubt rise as contractors and engineers begin to tackle a host of problems, such as replacing the failing marble panels which act as its skin with more durable granite.  While common sense would dictate tearing the thing down and starting over with something more traditional and practical, the building is also sadly emblematic of what has happened to France, and indeed much of Western culture, for two reasons.

First, the self-interested tendency of many contemporary architects to build whatever is theoretically possible and damn the consequences is a headache which we are passing along to future generations.  Rather than needing renovation after a century of use, these structures begin to fail almost immediately after they are built.  The so-called “innovation” which goes into their design guarantees that the architectural practice which comes up with the building in the first place, being paid millions of dollars to do so, gets a guarantee of additional income in 5, 10, or 25 years, when some aspect of their project needs an overhaul.

Second, while most articles and guidebooks mention the fact that the city’s Cathedral could fit inside La Grande Arche, they fail to see the irony of this statement.  La Grande Arche was built to celebrate the supposedly humanitarian French Revolution, yet like that revolution the core of the monument is a massive, meaningless void.  Anyone who has studied the French Revolution beyond the basic overview typically given in secondary school knows that the entire experience was quite literally a bloody, godless mess.  Whereas the American Revolution brought the people to their knees, in prayer for God’s guidance, the French Revolution brought people to their feet, in a blood-soaked, violent rejection of Faith.

The fact that modern-day France celebrates itself in this quite literally heartless building, which is now crumbling before our eyes, has broader implications.  There is a gaping hole at the center of Western culture at present, with the removal of Faith from the heart of who we are and what we do.  We have yet to hit on any satisfactory, alternative means of filling that void.

La Grande Arche, Paris

La Grande Arche, Paris

 

Denver Diary: Darkness and Light

Concluding my brief series of posts on my recent trip to Denver, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to two very different, but very beautiful buildings there, which told me a great deal about the people of that city.

The reader will recall that I was out in Colorado for a wedding, which took place at Holy Ghost Church in downtown Denver on Saturday night.  Because it was an evening event and I was serving as an usher, there was not a great deal of time nor any daylight available for me to wander around the church and pick up on the subtle details of the architecture, which this building has in spades.  I was told by those who had been there during the day that because the windows are not very large, there was not much more I could have seen, but nevertheless any building looks different depending on when you visit.  The play of darkness and light changes as the hours progress.

The present Holy Ghost Church was built between 1923-1943, with the long period of construction explained by the bane of many large and sumptuously decorated churches, insufficient funding.  It is an idiosyncratic mixture of both early Italian Renaissance and Spanish Plateresque elements, though the net effect put me more in mind of something Tolkien might have imagined, rather than the hill towns of Tuscany or the plains of Castile.  The mixture of different shades of beige and pink marble is very pleasing, and particularly for an evening wedding there was a glimmer and shine about the sanctuary which added to the formality of the occasion.

If I was to pick a single notable feature of the building to draw the visitor’s attention to however, it would be the arcade located in the narthex.  Two rows of short columns flank the main doors which give entrance to the nave, so that even before one enters and has to bless oneself, the high altar with its huge monstrance can be seen.  The arcade itself is very beautifully proportioned, but what I found particularly unusual was a series of geometrically carved oak panels between them, which are set into a kind of soffit hidden above the arcade.

These panels can be pulled down almost like overhead garage doors, to close the spaces between the columns.  Presumably these were designed for the environmental purpose of helping to keep out the chill of winter from the nave.  However for the wedding they worked perfectly as a kind of screen, to let people know that the bride and her attendants had arrived, since the panels were pulled down to keep the ladies of the wedding party hidden until that moment when the doors into the nave were opened and the procession began.

If Holy Ghost is a somewhat dark building referencing the 15th-16th centuries in Italy and Spain, Denver’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is a structure completely flooded with light, recalling the glories of 13th-14th century architecture in France.  Built between 1902-1911 and just a block away from the Colorado State Capitol, this is a very grand church, tall and wide but not particularly deep, put up in a remarkably speedy period of time for a prosperous and growing city.  Unlike Holy Ghost, the Cathedral obviously suffered a bit at the hands of the tambourine and felt banner crowd after Vatican II,  but the damage is not completely horrid nor ultimately irreparable.

The visitor is struck by two distinct yet related elements of the Cathedral upon entering the nave.  The first is the sense of height, particularly at the crossing, which is only accentuated by the many, enormously tall stained-glass windows from Munich that surround the space.  Second, the interior is almost blindingly white stone and marble, with very little color employed in either the architecture itself or in the furnishings and statuary.  Even the aforementioned windows, while featuring the rich colors typical of the Neo-Gothic movement in the figures themselves, are dominated by white stained glass forming the framework for the scenes.  It is surely appropriate for the Cathedral of the Mile High City to be not only a lofty structure, but one which calls to mind the snow-covered Rockies.

I attended Sunday mass at the Cathedral the morning after the wedding with several friends, both fellow wedding guests and some Denver tweeps (i.e. Twitter followers, for those of you not using Twitter) whom I had known for years but was finally able to meet for the first time.  Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila was the celebrant and yes, I got to kiss his ring and chat with him briefly after mass.  However the thing I will remember most about this church was something rather simple.

In a corner over to the right of the sanctuary in the Cathedral hangs a reproduction of the famous Polish icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, so dear to the late Blessed Pope John Paul II.  The reader may recall that JPII came to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day, and during his stay celebrated mass at the Cathedral.  Hence the presence of a rather attractive and dynamic statue of him in the grounds of the Cathedral, and also of this icon inside the church itself.  The unexpected success of the Denver WYD had a tremendous impact on many young Catholics, particularly in this country, and one cannot underestimate its lasting influence on those collectively known as the “JPII Generation“, i.e., those of us who grew up knowing no other pope than John Paul II due to the length of his pontificate.

I left some flowers before the icon of the Blessed Mother and her Divine Son, and took a moment to pray for a couple of special intentions, as well as to reflect briefly on my trip to Denver – a place which in all honesty I had never planned to visit in my life.  Certainly now, following this experience, I would not say no to a return visit sometime, so that I could hang out with Greg and Jennifer Willits a bit longer, for example.  And a repeat stay at the Brown Palace Hotel would certainly be most welcome.

On a spiritual level, it was good to be able to visit these two very different, but very beautiful churches in the Mile High City, and see how much the Catholic community there cares about the Real Presence of Our Lord.  Both in the darkness of Holy Ghost Church, with its enormous gilded monstrance above the high altar, and in the light of Denver’s Cathedral, its high altar surrounded by gleaming white marble, candles, and flowers, the Divine was there, waiting for us to visit Him.  That Presence remains regardless of the contrast between darkness and light paralleled in our own lives, where just as in these two buildings, Christ is there in our dark moments and in our bright ones as well.

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Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa,
Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver