A story caught my eye yesterday regarding Boston’s historic Episcopalian Cathedral of St. Paul. It has been announced that the tympanum of the building, which has remained unfinished since the church was completed in 1820, is to be filled with a sculpture by Philadelphia artist Donald Lipski. Originally, the tympanum was supposed to feature a sculpture of St. Paul preaching, but this was never realized. So now, instead of honoring its patron, the cathedral has decided to honor…a mollusk.
The planned work represents a cross-section of a chambered nautilus, and will be artistically illuminated at night to highlight the swirls and curves of the piece. It is admittedly a lovely design, and makes an interesting use of the triangular space available on the facade. However, the rather obvious problem with this sculpture is that it is has nothing to do with St. Paul, let alone with Jesus Christ.
Of course, this is not the position of those who have commissioned the work. Consider the statement released with the announcement of the selection of this sculpture proposal by the cathedral’s bishop:
We are doing something bold and extraordinary with the front of our cathedral church because what God has given us to share with the world in Jesus Christ is bold and extraordinary. This sculpture is a major contribution to the public art life of Boston, and it is also a profound one, because the simple beauty of it conveys complex symbolism broadly to anyone passing by, while also being deeply Christian in the way it draws us into the mystery and creativity of the Divine. I’m especially proud of our cathedral church for doing the work of Jesus Christ, feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger, and now our façade will invite everyone into the beauty of that.
In addition, according to the dean of the cathedral, “Lipski’s beautiful and visionary proposal is utterly consistent with St. Paul’s longstanding ministry to invite people into the mystery of Christ and echoes Jesus’ invitation to followers to ‘come and see.’”
As it is, aesthetically there is nothing wrong with the piece. Imagine how wonderful it would look, for example, above the entrance to a museum of natural history, or a foundation or institution dedicated to science. Architectural purists may well take issue with the placement of a modern sculpture on the facade of an historically significant, 200 year-old Neoclassical building, but at least it is a modern sculpture which is carefully designed to look like what it is meant to represent. That being said, I do not intend to wade into a discussion over whether putting something new on top of something old is de facto a bad idea.
Nor is there anything unusual or untoward about using artistic representations of nature to give greater glory to God in a Christian building. If you visit almost any church you will see architectural and artistic elements that incorporate natural forms. The capitals atop columns may be carved to resemble flowering plants, for example, or there may be mosaics of vines interspersed with depictions of animals covering the floors. From the earliest Christian structures in the days of the Roman Empire, to the Gothic glories of medieval France, to modern buildings such as Gaudí’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, nature has traditionally been an important design element in Christian architecture and decoration.
The example of Gaudí, love him or hate him, is rather instructive in this instance. As it happens Gaudí, too, incorporated the nautilus into the design of the Sagrada Familia, as becomes clear when examining the staircases inside of the Basilica’s giant bell towers. And the entire plan of the building is based on a recreation in stone of the mountain of Montserrat, where the abbey-shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat is located. Both the interior and exterior of the church are covered in all sorts of natural forms, from birds and trees, to turtles and snails.
Yet there is one inescapable difference between the Barcelona church and the Boston church: there is no question, when you look at the former, what its purpose is. Every single one of those massive nautilus towers which Gaudí designed is topped by a gigantic cross. All of the entrances to the church are covered in religious imagery, including scenes from the life of Christ, carvings of words spoken by the angels in the Scriptures praising God, or even the words of Jesus Himself, cast into the massive bronze front doors of the Basilica. Gaudí may have loved nature, but as a devout Christian he knew that like man himself, the nautilus is subservient to God.
Now of course, it may be unfair to compare the highly idiosyncratic work of Gaudí to this rather plain structure in Boston. So let us take the Boston building for what it is, as an American interpretation of classical architecture, and ask ourselves whether we can tell, in any way, that this is a church. The answer is quite obviously, “No.” If there were not gold letters across the facade, under the porch, giving the name of the building, one could very understandably be forgiven for thinking that this was a bank, a library, or a government office of some kind.
One of the problems with classical architecture when it is used in a religious setting is that those who choose such a design have to be careful to differentiate their building from secular buildings in the same style. For example, the very classical Holy Trinity Church here in Georgetown has the letters “IHS”, i.e. the monogram for Jesus Christ, in the center of its tympanum, and a large cross on the front of the peak of its pointed roofline, facing the street. The equally classical Madeleine Church in Paris features a sculpture of Jesus rendering the Last Judgment in its tympanum, and its front doors bear bronze sculptures representing the Ten Commandments. Personally I do not care for either of these churches, but at least their respective architects made some effort to indicate what the purpose of each of these buildings is.
And this brings us to the point, which is that this Boston church, or rather its leadership, does not seem to know what its purpose is. It is all very well to want to draw attention to a church by commissioning a work of art for its public face. It is being done in the not-unreasonable hope that people will want to stop and come inside, based on what they see on the outside.
However it is important to keep in mind that a church is first and foremost a place where Christians gather to worship God. It may also provide hospitality, or charity, or other virtues to those who enter its doors, but these are all secondary matters to its construction. When the fundamental nature of a church is overlooked or obscured in some way, particularly in how it presents itself to the viewer’s gaze on first encountering it, then no matter how noble the architecture or how lovely the decoration, the end result is not only a frustration of purpose, but a lost opportunity to witness to the Gospels.