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You are here: Articles > Art & Architecture > The Beauty of God's House  Back one page.
The Beauty of God's House
(Catholic Dossier) May 1997

Fr. Giles Dimock, O.P.

The fine arts are rightly classed among the noblest activities of man's genius; this is especially true of religious art and of its highest manifestation, sacred art. Of their nature, the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God's praise and of His glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men's minds devoutly towards God.
Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 122

It may seem strange, to those familiar with the "bare ruined choirs" which our churches have become in the aftermath of Vatican II, to see the Council's words of praise for the fine arts placed within its treatment of sacred art and sacred furnishings, which the Church wants to "worthily and beautifully serve Nave, St. Clemente, Rome, 1108 the dignity of worship" (ibid). This same section of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy makes it clear that while "the Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own," she has inherited "a treasury of art which must be preserved with every care" (no. 123). That this magna carta of the visual arts in the service of the liturgy has not caused a great flourishing of sacred images, architecture, stained glass, murals and the like, I think can be explained by certain principles embodied in the Constitution itself. Ordinaries are exhorted to encourage "noble beauty rather than sumptuous display" (no. 124), and while sacred images are encouraged, "their numbers should be moderate and their relative positions should reflect right order" (no. 125).

Section view of sanctuary, Parish Church, CA, by Duncan Stroik, 1996 While these two sensible caveats were welcomed by me as a young seminarian, when the Constitution was first promulgated (1963), 1 have lived to see these ideas profoundly misinterpreted, perhaps even officially. Noble beauty or simplicity has simply become the Bauhaus look or Le Corbusier's poured concrete predicated on Louis Sullivan's dictum that form must follow function, but perhaps the tide is changing.

Max Thurian, the theologian of the ecumenical Monastery of Taize, who later became a Catholic and a priest, wrote an important article on church architecture in L'Osservatore Romano (July 21, 1996) which turned out to be his last will and testament, for he died shortly after on August 15, 1996. His major concern in this article was the aesthetic dimension of the liturgy and its setting. After discussing the elements of the liturgical environment, he concludes with a wonderful description of the environment itself and what its affect should be:

The whole church should be arranged so as to invite adoration and contemplation even where there are no celebrations. One must long to frequent it in order to meet the Lord there .... The Church, by its beautiful liturgical layout, its tabernacle radiating Christ's real presence, should be the beautiful house of the Lord and of His Church, where the faithful love to recollect themselves in the silence of adoration and contemplation. Every church must be "praying" even when no liturgical celebrations are taking place; it must be a place where in a restless world, one can meet the Lord in peace.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes his perspective:

This house ought to be in good taste and a worthy place for prayer and sacred ceremonial ... In this "house of God" the truth and harmony of signs that make it up should show Christ to be present and active in this place (no. 118 1).

Indeed the Catechism sees the church as a sign:

Visible churches are not simply gathering places, but signify and make visible the church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ (no. 1180).
a sign that invites us to the recollection and silent prayer that extend and internalize the great prayer of the Eucharist (no. 118 5).

as Thurian suggests. The revised rite for the dedication of a church in its introduction states:

Because a church is a visible building, it stands as a special sign of the pilgrim church on earth and reflects the church dwelling in heaven (The Rites II, no. 2).


It should be dignified, evincing a noble beauty ... and should stand as a sign and symbol of heavenly things (ibid no. 3).

Tabernacle, St. Peter's, Rome, by Bernini, 17th c. Is this our experience of the churches being built today? Is this approach not opposed to the functionalism we are told that Vatican II's liturgy and liturgical environment demand? Let us examine the Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) of Vatican 11 (1963), the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1970), Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) of the U.S. Episcopal Conference (1978), the Code of Canon Law (1983) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), to see what guidelines are given us by the Church to create the setting for worship of God's holy people in His house.

A new document to replace EACW is in the making and it is just as well because EACW tends to see the church edifice less as a sign than as a function of sheltering the people, a "skin" for liturgical action (no. 42), true but redolent of the International Style and its approach of "form following function" first enunciated by Louis Sullivan. EACW focuses on hospitality, the human experience, the contemporaneity of art all valid points ? but it tends to see the sacred or mystery only in terms of "simple and attractive beauty," doubtless intending to echo the "noble beauty" called for by the Constitution on the Liturgy (no. 124). EACW does challenge artists and craftsmen to use their arts and crafts well so that their creations "bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder" (no. 21), but this does not give the eschatalogical dimension of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal that "the buildings and requisites for worship as signs and symbols of heavenly things should be truly worthy and beautiful" (no. 253).

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal reminds us of the hierarchical nature of the liturgy and that the church buildings should reflect that nature in a unity of space with diversity of roles (no. 257), whereas the U.S. bishops' statement seems to be chiefly concerned with showing that different ministries do not imply "superiority" or inferiority" (no. 3 7). It is interesting to note that the Roman document recommends some kind of emphasis on the sanctuary as special and different from the nave (no. 258), whereas the American document does not - an omission that reflects a less sacred view of the altar.


The altar itself is seen in the General Instruction as the table of the Lord and the place of sacrifice as well (no. 259), and ought to be free-standing so that "Mass can be said facing the people" (no. 262). A fixed altar, made of stone, is recommended (especially the mensa, i.e., table), but moveable altars of other materials are permitted (nos. 262, 263). Relics may be enclosed in or under the base of the altar, though this tradition is no longer required, and the altar ought to be blessed (nos. 265, 266). From the care of this legislation one can see the dignity and specialness of the altar. The U.S. bishops' document calls the altar "the holy table" and sees it as the common table of the assembly, not making any sacrificial reference, though it does say it "should be the most beautifully designed and constructed table the community can provide" (no. 71). It recommends a square or slightly rectangular shape since it is for the community and the functioning of a single priest not for concelebrants" (no. 72), but one can find no such bias against concelebration in the Roman document. It also presumes that candles and the cross will never be on the altar (no. 71), whereas the General Instruction allows this provided they do not block the view of the congregation (no. 269).

Since the altar is the place "where the sacrifice of the Cross is made present" (General Instruction no. 259), the preference in the Code of Canon Law is for stone or marble reminding us of the rock of sacrifice in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 22, 28: IS; Exodus 24:4) as well as the table of the Lord. Therefore it is "proper that in every church there should be a fixed altar ... attached to the floor" (Canon 1235) and "indeed of a single natural stone" where possible (Canon 1236). The altar, then is the central element. While it may be true as EACW alleges that the altar need not be "spatially in the center or on a central axis" (no. 73), nonetheless the Latin of the General Instruction says that the altar should be revera centrurn (truly central), which seems not to permit the casual off-center treatment which gives the lectern and altar equal billing. Thurian states:

The altar is thus at the center of liturgical celebration. It must be built and adorned so as to attract one's gaze and to cause admiration, as the gold of the showbread table or the altar of incense in the temple emphasized the glory of the Lord. It will sometimes be covered with beautiful fabrics in the liturgical colors of the season or solemnity. On it or right next to it will be placed the candelabra for lighting the space of the Lord, who came to meet His people ... The altar and the objects used for the Eucharistic celebration should rouse wonder in the presence of the beauty that leads one's whole being to adore the glory of the Lord. The altar is actually the sign of the sacrifice of the Cross as memorial, the table of the Eucharistic meal, the symbol of the tomb left empty by the Risen One.

Classically, the way to emphasize and draw attention to the altar was the baldachino in basilicas and the tester or hanging canopy in medieval cathedrals. They can be designed in such a way as not to obstruct the view of the altar by the congregation. In fact, Maurice Lavanoux, editor of Liturgical Arts before its untimely demise in the aftermath of Vatican 11, held that contemporary churches ought to have contemporary testers or canopies to focus on the importance and centrality of the altar. Where there are existing well-designed high altars against the back wall, Thurian suggests that they be used for Masses "versus apsidem" (facing the back wall) rather than turning to face the people, a view shared by Gamber and Nichols. But I agree with Cardinal Ratzinger, who holds that while we should carefully study the question, so much has been done in church renovation to accommodate the present liturgy that we ought to proceed very cautiously. I think such old high altars ought to be used for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and that brings us to the next topic.


Sacrament Tower, Cathedral of the Madeleine, Salt Lake City, by Beyer Blinder, Belle, 1993 Fr. Peter Elliot in his Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (Ignatius Press, 1995) has an interesting appendix on this question. He makes a good case for gradual evolution in Roman documentation on this point. He shows that in 1964 just before the Council, the Congregation of Rites emphasized the high altar as the place for the tabernacle with alternative placement in another distinguished altar in a special chapel. After the Council, a special chapel for reservation of the Blessed Sacrament was recommended in 1967, again in 1969 in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and again in an instruction of 1973. In 1980 in Inestimable Donum, the practical instruction following John Paul II's Eucharistic letter Dominicae Cenae, the emphasis shifted somewhat. That instruction stated:

The tabernacle in which the Eucharist is kept can be located on an altar, or away from it, in a place in the church which is very prominent, truly noble and duly decorated, or in a chapel suitable for private prayer and for adoration by the faithful (no. 24).

Note that a separate chapel, while an option, is no longer preferred, perhaps in reaction to abuses or complaints of the faithful. But EACW heavily emphasizes a separate chapel as almost the only option, citing possible confusion between the "static" presence of the tabernacle versus the "active" presence of Christ in the worship of the assembly (no. 78), a distinction I once bought, but now one I see as overblown and not making much sense to ordinary Sunday Massgoers! I think they're conscious of Christ's presence in the Mass as well as in the tabernacle, in a general way, but not as to oppose one mode of presence to the other. I think the same could be said of the other modes of Christ's presence at Mass: in the assembly gathered, the word proclaimed and in the priest presiding. In any event, the Catechism would have us situate the tabernacle:

in churches in a most worthy place with the greatest honor (Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei). The dignity, placing and security of the Eucharistic tabernacle should foster adoration before the Lord really present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar (no. 1183).

Elliot feels that special chapels are warranted in much visited cathedrals, shrines, and major historic churches, or perhaps where perpetual adoration will take place, but not in ordinary parish churches. He thinks that academic liturgical rationalism has taken the Blessed Sacrament away from the people who now complain that their churches are barren and empty. The Blessed Sacrament may be reserved in a wall safe (I've seen beautiful new ones in Italy), a sacrament tower, a hanging pyx, a regular tabernacle on a pillar, or an altar especially in a special chapel or perhaps the old high altar, where a new center of liturgical action has been created further out front in the nave. No matter how the Sacrament is reserved it must be in "a noble place in the Church and suitably adorned" (General Instruction, no. 276). Many unworthy solutions to this problem have helped in the breakdown in Eucharistic faith and decline in devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Recovering this devotion will help to make our churches redolent with the Presence of Christ. Max Thurian rightly says:

The consecrated Eucharist will remain in the tabernacle ... to manifest the Lord's Real Presence outside the celebration for the adoration of the faithful when they come to pray in church. It is fitting that the tabernacle be placed in such a way that it can be seen on entering the church. It should be beautiful and illuminated, like an act of praise to the glory of Christ truly present.


Bishop's Chair, Brentwood Cathedral, U.K., by Quinlan Terry, 1992 The chair is treated first in EACW - before the altar - and one might ponder what ecclesiological point is being made here. EACW and the Instruction both stress the symbol of the cathedra or chair as the seat of authority of the one presiding; presiding in charity, as St. Ignatius of Antioch would say of the Bishop of Rome and as we would say of all bishops and priests presiding over this assembly of the faithful in persona Christi. The Instruction warns against the appearance of a throne in the celebrant's chair (no. 271), while this admonition is not mentioned in the American document. Indeed, in an illustration in EACW, there is a throne that would put Bernini's Altar of the Chair to shame! In a wonderful old German Gothic church in Minnesota, the carved reredos has been preserved by Frank Kacmarcik, but rather than being a backdrop for the altar facing the people as one might expect, it has instead become an extension of the chair towering to the heavens, while the altar is shunted to the side to share equal honor with lectern, a solution which does not seem to have much merit. While the Instruction seems to prefer the basilican arrangement with the chair directly behind the altar facing the people, that will not work in all churches, and if elevated too high it becomes a throne dwarfing the altar. Yet it ought not to be a sedilla where the priest sits on the side waiting for the next thing to happen. if the chair is off center, it ought to face some of the people so the celebrant is seen to "preside in charity. "


Ambo, Brentwood Cathedral, U.K., by Quinlan Terry, 1992 The Catechism quotes the Instruction on the importance of the lectern:

The dignity of the Word of God requires the Church to have a suitable place for announcing his message so that the attention of the people may be easily directed to that place during the Liturgy of the Word (no. 1184 or no. 272 in GIRM).

The Instruction sees it as fixed ordinarily (no. 272) because of its dignity. EACW describes it simply as "a standing desk for reading and preaching," although it prescribes beautiful design and fine materials because it "represents the dignity and uniqueness of the Word of God and reflection on that Word" (no. 74). Practically speaking, it ought to be wide enough to hold the Lectionary and preaching notes, and not be so slanted as to make keeping them on it precarious.


Baptismal Font, Brentwood Cathedral, U.K., by Quinlan Terry, 1992 The Catechism next treats the baptistry since:

The gathering of the People of God begins with Baptism; a church must have a celebration for the celebration of Baptism (baptistry) and for fostering remembrance of the baptismal promises (holy water font) (no. 118 5).

Some would place the font near a church entrance, since we enter the Church through Baptism. if this can be done that's fine, but the font must be visible to the congregation since Baptisms now often take place at Mass. EACW very practically reminds us that fonts now should accommodate immersion, at least for infants, as well as pouring (no. 76). The Catechism sees Penance as a renewal of Baptism and speaks of an appropriate place for this reconciliation to take place (no. 1185), whereas EACW rightly describes the reconciliation room as a more of a chapel than a lounge or counseling room, offering the penitent the option of face-to-face confession or the anonymity of a screen (no. 8 1).

Baptismal Font, Cathedral of the Madeleine, Salt Lake City, by Beyer Blinder, Belle, 1993 Whereas the Instruction encourages images of Christ, Our Lady and the Saints, provided they are not too numerous, do not distract or have more than one image of the same saint (no. 278), EACW treats them with seasonal decoration and is worried that they might compete with the Liturgy (no. 98)! There ought to be at least a crucifix, a Madonna and an image of the patron saint in the church edifice, where people can see them easily and pray before them. The placement of the organ and choir admits of different solutions, in terms of their assisting the congregation, as well as their special mission of making great music to be listened to. A place directly behind the altar or too close to it is distracting.

In times past the sanctuary was often seen as paradise and a statue of Our Lady was frequently placed near the entrance steps as the Porta Caeli or the Gate of Heaven. Indeed the whole of God's house was replete with stained glass, mosaics, statues, paintings, frescoes, icons, carvings, tiles and marbles. I don't think this need conflict with the "noble beauty" of Vatican 11, if all is coordinated and planned well. Indeed a merely functional Bauhaus approach no longer gives our artists, architects and designers transcendent goals for which to strive, unfortunately impoverishing us all. The glory of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, needs to be incarnated in paint, stone and glass to give us hope for the journey and a glimpse of the ultimate beauty for which we yearn.

Fr. Giles Dimock, O.P. is a Doctor of Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2019
The Catholic Liturgical Library