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 Portals of Heaven

Although there is still a little bit of work to do with lighting and one or two other details, the new front doors at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in Washington, D.C. are now in place. The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl, will be coming to dedicate the new doors on Sunday, November 20, 2011 at the 11:00 am mass for the Feast of Christ the King, and I have been fortunate enough to be selected to serve as one of the lectors for the mass and dedication. The process of commissioning, fundraising, and installing these beautiful doors has been several years in the making, but they are already doing precisely what it was hoped they would: attract attention from those passing by the church, inviting them to linger.  Yet I also hope that they will call people to reflect on what makes a Catholic a Catholic, particularly for those of us who choose to pass through these portals every Sunday on our way to mass.

The bronze panels inset into the doors are the work of Philadelphia-based artist Anthony Visco, and depict scenes from the life of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose life and death are recounted in The Acts of the Apostles. I took some photographs [N.B. apologies for the somewhat poor quality] yesterday morning before mass, and present them to you below. The large, central double doors showing the panels with the martyrdom of St. Stephen and his vision of Christ in Heaven will only be opened for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or visits from the Archbishop. The two smaller doors on either side, which feature panels showing scenes from the life of St. Stephen and the early community of Christians under the Apostles, serve as the main points of entry into the church.

As you can see St. Stephen’s is not, on the outside anyway, a particularly inviting building. The interior of the present church is a wonderful mix of architectural ideas from people like Gaudi and Saarinen, all parabolic arches and cool spaces. The exterior however, presents something of a blank wall to the passerby, which unfortunately is the case with many buildings built during the Eisenhower-Kennedy years.

So it was interesting while taking these pictures yesterday, and then standing far back for several minutes and thinking about the doors, that a significant number of passersby did exactly what I recall our previous pastor, Msgr. Filardi, hoped they would do. The doors would catch someone’s eye, and they would stop and look at them. Sometimes they would just pause for a minute or two, but some people did so for several minutes.  Others went up to the bronze panels to examine them more closely, and to touch them. Some people even then took the opportunity to open one of the doors and step into the church for a few minutes, and came out holding a copy of the parish bulletin.

Clearly this is an example of church art that appears to be serving its purpose very well, and well-designed doors can certainly make a difference, particularly compared to the somewhat dark and dingy, unadorned doors that used to mark the entrance to St. Stephen’s. Of course, probably the most famous ecclesiastical doors in the world are those with the 24 magnificent bronze door panels made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Cathedral Baptistery in Florence, and which Michelangelo himself once called “The Gates of Paradise”. Beautiful as our new doors at St. Stephen’s are, I do not mean to suggest that they are equal to Ghiberti’s masterpiece. Yet in showing the death of St. Stephen, these doors do provide something more than simply a decorative entrance to our church building: they are a reminder that being a Christian means being prepared to sacrifice everything for Christ and His Church, as St. Stephen did, to gain access to the portals of Heaven.

Frankly, it was a bold decision to portray the martyrdom of St. Stephen so publicly, on such a large scale, in an age and in a city where so many in the press, in public office, and the commentariat would prefer that Catholics would keep their mouths shut, or at least keep to themselves and “play nice”. These doors tell those who reject and fight against the Church that we are not prepared to capitulate to the false philosophies of moral relativism and materialism, merely because public opinion happens to be heading in one direction or another. Rather, we believe we have something better, and something infinitely more permanent than public opinion, to guide us in how we live our lives – something which those outside of the Church can be a part of as well, if only they would choose to come in.

At the same time, these doors are a reminder to those of us within the Church that the call to holiness may very well require us to reject what the world tells we must accept or do. To be a Christian is not simply about being nice to people for the sake of being nice. If you want to be nice, there are plenty of religions or non-religions where you can go be nice to people without the burden of having to carry a cross.

We have grown too comfortable with the idea of a laid-back, Baby Boomer concept of Christ, going about acting like some sort of perennially smiling 1970’s guru, spreading peace, love, and hash about the Judean countryside.  The truth of the matter is that Christ speaks far more about the wages of sin, God’s judgement, and the redemptive power of suffering and sacrifice in the Gospels far more than He does about anything else. Jesus’ bloody, public execution was embraced and emulated in the countless bloody, public executions of the early martyrs who followed Him, including St. Stephen. These men and women built the Church not on the ramblings of some sort of hippie philosopher telling people to “Have A Nice Day”, but on their firm belief in Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

We forget very often in this country, perhaps because it has been so long since Catholics were persecuted and discriminated against, that we must be prepared to lose everything because of our Faith: our family and friends, our livelihoods, our freedoms, or even our lives. Yet the reward for losing everything, as St. Stephen saw in his vision at the moment of his martyrdom, is worth far more than the cost. For then one may finally meet Christ in Heaven, see Him face to face, and hear Him tell us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Your Boring Old Church, and What You Can Do About It

Being a young country, at least as compared to European countries, the United States does not have many layers of artistic strata through which creative types may dig.  For Catholics, the vast majority of our pre-modernist churches are revivals of earlier styles, drawing on certain tried-and-tested formulae, particularly as regards art such as painting and sculpture.  As a result, the observant eye will often pick up a kind of cookie-cutter quality to the interior of historic parish churches.  I have seen the exact same crucifixion group for example, in different color combinations, in historic parish churches in my home town, on Capitol Hill, in New York City, and in Chicago.

The standard explanation as to why these churches have a boring sameness to their interiors is that they were often built by poor immigrants, and mass-produced art from factories in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore was generally the cheap and safe way to go.  To my mind this is not, however, a valid justification as to why they are still boring on the inside, many decades or more after they were built.   Just because a building is historic, and perhaps even architecturally beautiful, does not mean that one is therefore prevented from criticizing its interior decoration for fear of being branded some sort of po-mo Catholic, who wants felt banners and “Risen Christs” popping out all over the place.  What history does tell us is that European parish communities made a point of decorating the interiors of their churches with the same care and attention to detail that they paid to its architecture.

Take, for example, the popularity of Romanesque art in church design in Catalonia.  Today the Arts sections of the major Spanish and Catalan newspapers are reporting on the re-opening of the Romanesque galleries at the National Museum of Catalan Art (“MNAC”) in Barcelona, which display what is considered by many to be the finest collection of Romanesque art in the world. What is interesting to note is that in many cases, these works of art came not from cathedrals or palaces, but rather from parish churches, oftentimes in rather poor, remote areas.   While there are thematic similarities in what these churches placed on their walls, the diversity of the results proves to be endlessly fascinating to the viewer.

The Romanesque is something of a red-headed stepchild in the world of art and architecture. It is not as popular as the Gothic style which followed it, in part because there is a kind of bulky crudeness to the Romanesque which puts many people off.  Romanesque interior spaces could be vast or tiny, but they were usually rather dark, given the limitations of contemporary engineering methods to allow the use of anything more than small windows to admit natural light.  Yet the painting and sculpture which survives from this period gives us at least some idea of a magnificent, lost world, closer in feeling to what those of us in the Latin Rite might perceive as vaguely reminiscent of the Eastern Rite or Orthodox churches, rather than what we have come to think of as a standard Latin Rite church.

The experience of being in a Catalan parish church of about 1100, with walls covered in brightly colored frescoes and altars adorned with carved statues of Christ, the saints and angels, all painted in equally vibrant tones and illuminated almost exclusively by candles, must have been overwhelming.  For those who stepped into a church in the Romanesque period, there was no question that they were entering the house of God.  The kind of hyper-spiritual, indeed mystical style adopted by Western architects and artists during this era reflected a very deep understanding that God is God, and we most certainly are not.  And this is the experience which the parish priest and his parishioners wanted, when they came to worship God and receive the Sacraments – that they were in a kind of local branch office of Heaven on Earth.

This brings us back to where we began, and the question of why there are still so many things like mass-produced statues of Our Lady of Grace cluttering our churches, instead of original sculptures of the Blessed Mother.  While as an initial matter, I can sympathize with the fact that a parish purchases these sorts of things because it wants to beautify the interior of its church building and may not at first be able to afford an original work of art.  However the fact is that in most cases these factory-molded, plaster figures are simply boring, at best, rather than beautiful.

Our ancestors in places like the Catalan Pyrenees – not the most hospitable or wealthy place on the planet circa 1100 A.D. – were mostly poor, illiterate herders and agricultural workers.  Yet at the same time, they were deeply devout Catholics who wanted to build a beautiful house for God.  They thought it was important to come up with beautiful, original art for the interiors of their churches: surely they were not possessed of better material resources than we are today.

I would challenge those of you who have some influence with your parish to consider the possibility of commissioning original art to replace some of the mass-produced things currently hanging on the walls or standing around the nave in your church.  No doubt this will meet with some hefty resistance from certain quarters.  Yet we have matured enough as a country, and Catholics have become wealthy enough as a group, that we no longer require cookie-cutter religious art to decorate our sanctuaries.  There is no reason why Catholics in America today should not be able to commission beautiful art for their parish churches just as our Catholic forbearers did in Catalonia a thousand years ago.


A visitor in one of the new Romanesque galleries at the
National Museum of Catalan Art, Barcelona