In the following article, David Clayton, artist and lecturer at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, reflects on a talk about sacred architecture from Sacra Liturgia 2013 in Rome, where he joined hundreds of other participants in the conference that aimed to study, promote and renew appreciation for the liturgy. The Newman Society sponsored Clayton's attendance and hopes to help spur on this liturgical renewal in Catholic higher education.
In his talk on sacred art and architecture, Fr Uwe Michael Laing spoke at length of the importance of the non-verbal language of beauty. Most scholarship in regard to the liturgy focuses on the text, which is natural as these are the records that remain. But when the liturgy is experienced, the non-verbal communication of the ritual, procession, architecture, music and art speaks loudly to us. In order to convey this non-verbal sense, these expressions should be in harmony with that ritual. This means that even if those who create them - the artists, architects and composers working for the Church - are not highly knowledgeable theologians and liturgists, they should at least be in dialogue with people who are and who can direct them.
Talking of the ignorance of some architects about the theological considerations that govern church design, Fr. Laing cited, amusingly, a quote from the architect who designed the recently completed Los Angeles cathedral who claimed that he was doing something new by ignoring the tradition that all churches face Rome! Were the patrons who commissioned him neglecting to direct, or directing badly, Fr. Laing asked.
He showed us a number of other horrendous and ugly modern churches in Italy that were clearly unsuited to their purpose of being places of worship and had been commissioned and designed without reference to tradition. What was dismaying to me was how recently these had been finished. I thought that we were over the worst and that now we were beginning to create better new churches. Clearly I live in more of a traddy bubble than I realised.
Just to give us some enthusiasm Fr. Laing did show us work in traditional styles in the US by Duncan Stroik and Thomas Gordon Smith. He mentioned that these were clearly imitations of past styles. While the hope is always for something that participates in tradition and also speaks to its time, we should not be afraid of imitation at this early stage of re-establishing a culture of beauty. From this foundation, something new will very likelydevelop. He highlighted three core principles that architects should bear in mind:
2. Orientation - there should be a sense of directionality and a clear axis. There was no circular church with the altar in the centre before the 20th century. And East is the ideal (not Rome!).
3. Thresholds - these mark the building as something set apart, i.e. holy. So these might be:
a) An entrance through which we pass from the world into the temple.
b) The Sanctuary should be set apart by structure and ornamentation
a)We must have beautiful images in our church that support our worship.
b)They should have an element of abstraction to communicate the supernatural.
c)There should also be a symbolic content
d)Pure abstraction is not appropriate for theological reason.
I am assuming on this last point, that he has in mind the portrayal of those things that are material. For example, you cannot portray man separate from his body (as the abstract expressionists wished to do). If I want to show a man, it must look like one. The icon, the gothic and the baroque (the three authentic liturgical traditions of art according to Pope Emeritus Benedict) all have a degree of abstraction that is governed by theology. This means that each is a move away from strict natural appearances towards a greater realism. If any representation of man becomes so distorted that the body is not recognisable as such, then there is a theological error driving it.
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