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You are here: Articles > Art & Architecture > Liturgical Architecture  Back one page.
Liturgical Architecture
Its Abuse and Restoration
(Sursum Corda) Winter 1999

Author:
Anthony Delarue


Westminster Cathedral When combined with an uncannily matching liturgy (both its cause and its fruit), the result has been an alienation of many ordinary Catholics-that is, not those who are experts in this field, or those of an unusually heightened piety or sensibility, but those who were once regarded as immutable members of the great body of the Catholic faithful.

Of course, we must be wary of laying all our ills at the door of insensitive architecture or liturgical ineptitude, for many other factors have also been at work in luring our faithful away; but whereas we might have used the beauty of tradition to entice them back, current practice has been to force the door shut on those souls who waver on the threshold.

The ignorance of Church arrangement and design is made more serious by not being confined to the artists and designers involved, who might be expected to work and learn, as had always been the case, under the expert hand of the bishops and diocesan liturgists. But these too, for the most part, are woefully unaware of the requirements of the modern Church, and labor under their own errors and idiosyncratic prejudices, or a vague and inaccurate notion of what the "spirit of the Council" was aiming at. Any documentary evidence from the Council against them is either not understood or pooh?poohed as a reactionary rear?guard action of no relevance. After all, the argument often runs, the Council fathers sometimes lacked the courage of their own convictions, and we must make up for this. (The argument is very similar to that used by feminists who claim that Our Lord was too weak to overcome the social customs of His time to ordain women as He really wished.)

There are several diocesan liturgy committees in England (and physical evidence alone suggests that the same situation obtains elsewhere) which are clearly quite unaware of the liturgical requirements of the new rite, although these have been set out plainly enough. The English Bishops' Conference has produced a guide to new and reordered churches, as all conferences were required to do, which is a clear exposition of the requirements of the Council (including the clear injunction to make no changes where artistic or pastoral considerations suggest they would be damaging), even if one may have preferred certain emphases to be slightly different. Unfortunately, this document has been out of print for ten years, apparently at the instigation of the Bishops' Conference. Use is sometimes made of the Irish equivalent, which is also well produced, considered and moderate, but, from the evidence of new Irish churches and the draconian reorderings of older ones, presumably nearly wholly ignored at home.

We have, too, a new cathedral, designed by a nonconformist Protestant architect of admitted architectural skills, working closely with the Bishop, which appears to have been designed solely on the premise of overturning every tradition the Church has clung to for over 1,000 years, while fondly following architectural tradition, which only emphasizes this rejection of Ecclesia. It is unrecognizable as a Catholic church, although with fine arcades of classical columns, and in spite of its architectural uniqueness shares with many new churches an emptiness of spirit. There is no sanctuary; rather, the table-altar stands in the center on a few steps, remote from the Bishop's and celebrant's chairs, and from the ministers, who are reduced to the level of the nave floor, where the choir sits among the laity, and thus become their equals. Gone is the presbyterium where the priests serve the holiest, gone are the canons' stalls, gone the shrines of the saints. The sanctissimum is relegated to an empty corner of the retained old church, set tastefully in an antique tabernacle displayed more as an objet d'art than a center of devotion, and the Stations of the Cross are reduced to a row of architectural medallions, set high up above the arcade far from the field of vision of the faithful, and incapable of a processional progress around them. The whole creation is devoid of emphasis or direction, set in a stark pagan light that, on account of the myriad brass chandeliers that hang down in place of the crucifixes, baldacchini and lamps of a holier age, has been compared to a Dutch synagogue. A blow for ecumenism?

All gone. Gone the numinous holiness that even the great Baroque churches, in their glorious humanist triumph, could never dispel. Gone the sense of awe as we approach the altar, God's angel whispering to us at every step, "Worship, worship!" Gone the hierarchy of the Church, that imperfect but divine reflection of the world which may one day be ours for eternity. Gone that odor of sanctity, as incense and candle smoke fill the air and filter the colored light of a painted window. Gone the dark corner welcoming the prodigal son as he makes his first tentative steps on his journey home.

It is very difficult for many traditional Catholics to put forward with confidence the arguments which can and must be used if we are to fulfill that work of charity, the opus Dei, of striving to serve our fellow man and correct his error; difficult because we often feel that in so doing we are adopting that very lack of humility, that celebration of self and intellect that we recognize to be the enemy. However we do so not on our own authority or preference, but within the framework of the teaching of the Church, contained in tradition and within the documents of the Council; for the abuses of the last decades have come about not because of, but in blatant disregard of that framework. Those involved in the work of building and reordering churches, and those who are called to give advice, have an obvious duty to acquaint themselves with these texts.

What we must strive for is to maintain and reinstate the Catholic atmosphere of the sacred, the numinous, by architectural means of light, color or space, and particularly by means intrinsically Catholic, the juxtaposing of various spaces and elements in the timeless hierarchy common to all church buildings, whether Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque or modern, to create one of the sweetest essences of true Catholic character, that of belonging, as an individual being, to a greater whole. Every element must be subordinate to things around it, throughout the cosmos, for only God Himself is independent of His environment. Even in the smallest chapel, this visible hierarchy should be maintained, not necessarily by aisles, arcades and chapels, but still by levels, windows, color and decoration, so that it may fulfill that role of reflecting the celestial realms, as the earthly liturgy should reflect that eternity of praise and adoration where its Creator dwells.

The starting point for the reform of liturgical architecture is beauty and order. They are characteristic marks of the Catholic faith and, consequently, of authentic Catholic worship. Beauty and order, therefore, should determine the nature of the sacred spaces in which the liturgy is enacted.

Convent Chapel, Bayswater, London These qualities transcend all styles and periods of the Church's history, and reflect the beauty and order of the heavenly realm. They are, of course, one quality, since one flows from the other. Both are reflections of God. just as in Heaven God presides over the heavenly court which is perfect beauty and in which perfect order reigns, so in a Catholic church Our Lord presides in His true Body and Soul from the tabernacle, and it is our duty to surround Him (for here it is within our power to do Him honor or to withhold it), with that reflection of the heavenly hierarchy from which will emanate the beauty that lifts our souls to Him. To all those to whom this responsibility is given I would say: remember that your place in Heaven depends on where you place God in this world.

Consider, then, for a moment, the General Instruction of the new Roman Missal, dealing with this proper hierarchy:

The people of God assembled at Mass reflects an organic and hierarchical arrangement, expressed by the various ministries and actions for each part of the celebration. The general plan of the building should reflect in some way the image of the congregation.... The priest and his ministers have their place in the presbyterium or sanctuary. This part of the church shows their hierarchical position as each one presides over prayer.... While these elements must express a hierarchical arrangement and the differences of office, they should at the same time form a complete and organic whole which clearly expresses the unity of the people of God. The beauty of the space and appointments should foster prayer and show the holiness of the mysteries which are celebrated (GIRM 257).

This is a description of Heaven, as well as of the natural order of creation, and should pervade the spirit of everything we design and build in our churches.

In the matter of the liturgical plan there is frequent ignorance. The obsession with the free?standing altar to celebrate versus populum seems to be the only point most priests have really grasped, and all the rest of the richness of the liturgy is laid aside. This is in spite of the fact that an altar which prohibits celebration facing east was wholly unforeseen by the Instruction on the Pauline Missal and by its rubrics.

At the center of our churches, as of our lives, should be Our Lord. This is the teaching of the Council documents. If the tabernacle is not set at the center of the sanctuary, it ought to be placed (in busy churches with many distractions) in a worthy and dignified chapel where He may truly be the center of all that is around Him.

In recent years many churches in Europe, previously reordered, have had the tabernacle restored to a central position in the sanctuary; and indeed the Bishop of Dijon, France, has recently recommended this throughout his diocese, saying that this is the only worthy location, and a reflection of the place which Christ should occupy in the lives of the faithful.

This is perfectly clear from the relevant texts: "The place in a church or oratory where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved should be truly prominent ... so that the faithful may easily and fruitfully, by private devotion also, continue to honor the Lord in this Sacrament." (Eucharisticum Mysterium, 1967, 553). "The Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a solid ... tabernacle in the middle of the main altar, or on a side altar, but in a truly prominent place" (ibid., 554). The new Missal and the Code of Canon Law (in canon 938 52) repeat this, and the new Catechism quotes Paul VI in Mysterium Fidei (1965) as calling for the Blessed Sacrament to be reserved in churches "in a most worthy place with the greatest honor."

To anyone brought up in the culture of the Catholic world this clearly excludes anything off-center, since symmetry is central to our understanding of beauty. It should be noticed too, that an altar is expected as a worthy support, not a pillar of pagan association, and apparently never a room without an altar, where Mass cannot be said and the visual connection with the Eucharist may be lost.

Clearly this must be set against certain regional traditions of elaborate Sacrament houses at the side of the altar, but since these do not come from, but pre-date, the introduction of the Roman rite, they are not relevant in new churches elsewhere. Hanging pyxes are still used in France in unbroken tradition, often in the form of a dove, and may be very worthy places, notwithstanding matters of security and convenience.

We have spoken of the tabernacle and, if in the sanctuary, of the primary place it must occupy. It should, if space allows, be so arranged as to share its prominence with the altar (for these two are also one) without dominating it or appearing to be ignored during Masses versus populum.

The altar too should very clearly take its place above everything else in the sanctuary, and this is so clearly explained in the rubrics that it is a great mystery why the custom has developed of setting it at the same level as the rest of the sanctuary, with the seats, lectern, credence and other things. The altar should always be raised up on a step, or predella, which sets it above and apart from the rest. It is, we must remember, not only the place of Sacrifice, but also the sign of Christ Himself (cf. Eucharisticum Mysterium 524 below).

The greatest difficulty-and this is unique to the new liturgy-is giving due prominence to the celebrant's chair (I shall not refer here to a bishop's cathedra or a faldstool). Most people seem to get this wrong, and so often it resembles the throne so clearly prohibited by the rubrics: a natural consequence of cushions and steps. Under no circumstances should it be higher than the altar, as this is clearly confusing; and this would seem to preclude placing it behind, if the priest is to be seen. The rubric calls for a "central position," and one "facing the people" (GIRM 271). This is, however, difficult to achieve if everything else is to be in its proper place. (We must remember that the new rubrics were created; they were not an organic development, and therefore can contain inconsistencies. Interpretations must be made in the light of tradition.)

It is worthy of note that at Notre Dame in Paris, hardly a bastion of traditional liturgy, when the choir altar (the old high altar) was reordered, the sedilia was placed facing across on the south side. This brings us to the forgotten matter of hierarchy, the organic relationship between altar, priest and people. These are interdependent, and neither link should be exaggerated or diminished in relation to the other. One thinks of the recent disastrous "restoration" of Puglia's Birmingham Cathedral, where the internal arrangement of the sanctuary is fine, but the whole thing is raised on a vast flight of steps which completely breaks the link between priest and people, and converts the liturgy into a piece of theater on a stage. The opposite error is more widespread in liberal circles, and visibility, once so highly prized, is sacrificed to egalitarianism, the sacred being wholly ignored. To quote Eugen Egloff:

The priest is, in a real sense, the head of the Church when he stands at the altar, and the faithful are the mystical body of the Church: the basilica form of plan is hence an expression of the Body of Christ. The gathering of the people around the altar masks this polar arrangement, and should be avoided (Liturgie und Kirchenraum, Zurich, 1963).

Church of the Holy Rood, Watford The use of arches, changes of volume and the judicious use of steps by our forbears, never laid down in rules, was adjusted organically to suit the scale of the particular building to maintain this relationship, seemingly unconsciously. This must be possible again today.

As to the content of our churches, so often we are subjected to objects clearly designed or chosen by those who either have not studied, or have chosen to reject, the tradition in Christian art. Not only the artistic styles (which, of course, are rightly subject to constant development) but the subject matter, in terms of iconography or symbolism, is often chosen in opposition to our tradition. However well meant, this can only serve to create a confusion between the teaching of the Church in Scripture and homiletics and the visual images that are intended to support it. Church art is not decoration, in the manner of secular buildings, but throughout history has had a didactic or devotional purpose. The words of Sir Ninian Comper, that great and sensitive architect, written in 1947, are still all too appropriate:

The man who sets to work to design an aeroplane or a motor car has no self-conscious strivings to express himself or his age, like the pathetic artists and architects of today. His one business is to make it go .... and he would not be so mad as to think he could do this without knowing the tradition of all that went before. Moreover, if he fails, there is no question of his failure; he cannot hide behind fine words and theories (Of the Atmosphere of a Church).

Sometimes the motivation is not just one of ignorance, but malice, and priests and laymen are often deceived in their desire to be modern and relevant. Although he writes about music, the following words of Cardinal Ratzinger are appropriate to art in general, and particularly to that brutal modern art-often expressed in concrete or transient modern materials, devoid of the natural decoration common to all civilizations-which we are told celebrates the modern age:

... satanical cults and satanical types of music are constantly spreading today whose dangerous power intentionally to wreck and eradicate the person has not yet been taken seriously enough.... Since rock music seeks redemption by way of liberation from the personality and its responsibility, it fits very precisely into the anarchistic ideas of freedom that are manifesting themselves more openly all over the world. But that is also exactly why such music is diametrically opposed to the Christian notions of redemption and freedom, indeed their true contradiction. Music of this type must be excluded from the Church, not for aesthetic reasons, not out of reactionary stubbornness, not because of historical rigidity, but because of its very nature (A New Song for the Lord, pp. 123-24).

Stern stuff-and the same might be said for rock music equivalents in painting, sculpture and architecture.

So the fittings of our churches are expected to be art, reflecting Christ and His creation, not just a furnisher's decorations, and they are to be Christian art?that is, firmly rooted in our tradition, both spiritual and cultural. This inherently excludes any transient fashion or the adoption of inappropriate secular styles.

Great caution is always advocated in dealing with existing artifacts (both true works of art and designed objects). In the English-speaking world, with our Protestant history, the Catholic Church has few ancient possessions, compared to Catholic Europe. For this reason, the strictures imposed by the authorities should be more widely applied, not less, for even the humdrum products of the nineteenth century, which may be deemed of little worth in a Tuscan city, are often amongst the oldest things in any community, and have a valid role as a link to the tradition of the Fathers, whose artistic styles they frequently, if imperfectly, emulate.

But let my words be seen not as advocacy of the rigorous application of rules, as if slavishly obeying rubrics could ever produce either art or sacredness, for these things can never be dictated. I quote again from Sir Ninian Comper:

No observance of rules even in these important details ... can ever produce an atmosphere.... [In Spain] in 1744 a national school for architects was founded. A royal decree prohibited the erection of any public building the plans of which had not been approved by the Academy.... The authorities of St. Ferdinand's Academy become a sort of artistic police force. All freedom of design was lost, and with it those most precious gifts, originality and vitality.

This problem already recurs in our own time with the civic planning and heritage authorities. Let all diocesan liturgy and art committees beware of falling into this trap, and killing what little inspiration we still possess.

Historically, ours has been a cautious Church. Not for her the hasty and the rash: that path leads to endless dead ends and fatal errors. Through the ages she has frequently been criticized for acting too slowly, and we find ourselves in this situation todayThe errors come about by putting aside this tradition of caution: this is the Devil's way, and we shall rebuild by returning to the path of caution. Siren voices call for sweeping reforms, but we must not heed them. Let us, each in his own way, follow the path that the Church's history shows to be right. In that way will tradition be restored-not by decree, but by example- and our children shall again know that beauty of holiness which we have been promised forever. "This is the house of God and the gate of Heaven; and the gates of Hell shall never prevail against it."

Anthony Delarue is a London architect. (©) Oriens


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All contents © copyright, 1998-2014
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