Can We Restore Sacred Architecture?


" RECONQUERING SACRED SPACE
Rediscovering Tradition in Twentieth Century Liturgical Architecture "


By Duncan Stroik
Edited by Cristiano Rosponi and Giampaolo Rossi
Editrice il Bosco e la Nave, Rome 1999

 

This important volume is an insightful collection of 10 bilingual essays (adjoining Italian and English columns) reminding us of our stunning Catholic heritage in the area of church architecture. It includes photographic sections manifesting the efforts of modern architects to restore the "sense of the sacred" in the building of contemporary churches. They provide sublime expression to the mystery of Christ and His beauty in our age of religious indifferentism, religious pluralism, and suffocating secularization. The reader will find consolation in knowing that there are architects who have a renewed sense of their own catechetical vocation, and who work to visualize for contemporary culture the beauty, splendor, majesty, and glory of God. Therein they strengthen Christian identity and the centrality of the Catholic religion in the "secular city."

In many ways, these essays may be considered a commentary on Pope John Paul II's recent "Letter to Artists", wherein he observed: "Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible, attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God." Our essayists take seriously the words of Bishop Reginald de Bohun, founder of the renowned Wells Cathedral: "The honor of God should not be tarnished by the squalor of His house."

But why has the "cult of ugliness" permeated the building of churches these last 50 years? These authors note the growth of modernism in art and architecture, the spread of the "God is dead" movement (it has "wounded the West profoundly"), and post-World War II nihilism, which has led intellectuals and artists to significant distress over the meaning of life. Voices of decadence and secularization, including those of certain theologians who deny any distinction between the "sacred" and the "profane," have brought about the inability of many contemporaries to sense the sacramentality of creation.

Such voices — both clerical and lay — have also proved disastrous in causing a lack of continuity with the Church's rich architectural tradition. Archbishop Albert Rouet of Poitiers is fittingly quoted:

"As a building, the church offers a sign of the presence of God in the world. In building it, man remembers God and remembers God to other men. The building is memory and sign."
(p.14)

Some contemporary liturgists and architects have forgotten this truth and have tragically ignored the principles of Catholic architecture. In doing so, they have engaged in building structures characterized as "worship spaces." pleasing to ancient Iconoclasts and modern Puritans.

In "Restoration and Promotion of Sacred Architecture", american architect Duncan G. Stroik's important contribution, he asks:

"How can we recover the sense of the sacred in our temples and shrines? We seem to have lost the ability to make new buildings which exude the ineffable sense of the 'sacred' which can rightly be called the presence of the Almighty. Recent structures often seem of the world rather than otherworldly, down to earth rather than heavenly, more secular than sacred. In this increasingly secular age our houses of worship, by blending in with contemporary architecture, are in danger of becoming mere theatres and assembly halls rather than sacred and prophetic places."
(p.25)

Fortunately, the volume itself is a harbinger of renewed hope. Stroik, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and a leader in promoting the revival of classical church architecture, notes:

"Today we are witnessing a growing number of enlightened patrons and talented architects who are bringing about a new renaissance in sacred architecture, promoting the sense of the Holy in our houses of God."

Also noteworthy is how the contributors to this volume give special attention to the design of the sanctuary and its adornment in order to further the spirit of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Although its English translation could use some improvement, the volume is important to students of "liturgical architecture" for its valuable observations concerning the history of architecture, both sacred and profane, and the need to observe the principles of traditional church architecture. Those principles can easily be adapted for the needs of contemporary churches seeking to serve, once again, as "catechisms in paint, and mosaic and stone," and to reflect for all people the truth, goodness, and beauty of God.



About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage