CHURCH ARCHITECTURE IS A SUBJECT OF MORE THAN PASSING INTEREST
I studied architecture at Rice University in Houston and took my degree in architecture from the University of Houston where I joined the faculty after graduation. I also became a member of the architectural firm of Donald Barthelme and Associates in Houston. Church architecture probably played a greater role in influencing my vocation to the priesthood than I realized at the time. Throughout my 46 years of active ministry as a priest and bishop there was never a time when I was not actively involved in either designing churches or critiquing the church designs of others.
The primary purpose of a church is to provide a sacred space in which the Eucharist can be celebrated in a way most beneficial to the People of God assembled for worship. The secondary purpose of a church is to provide a sacred space in which the People of God can come, individually or as a group, for private devotions.
There is no single form for the floor plan of a church that has been ‘canonized’ by the Church. The rectangular “Basilican plan” evolved out of the Roman Empire and has served the Church well throughout the centuries. I has however, the disadvantage
of placing some of the congregation at a great distance form the focal point of the liturgy of the Eucharist: the altar. This is especially true of large churches.
Round churches,, square churches, and cruciform churches all have the advantage of bringing the people closer to the altar, but they are not well suited for the preaching of the word since the homilist has his back to some of the congregation. They are however well suited to serving the secondary function of a church, private devotion.
Semi-circular churches seem best suited for the celebration of the Eucharist since
all attention if focused on the altar and everyone is within reasonable distance from the altar. The also are well suited for the preaching of the homily. The principal disadvantage of the semi-circular church, however, is that the large auditorium-like
space of a semi-circular church is not well suited to private devotion.
So, architects throughout the centuries have struggled to balance the two opposing requirements of church architecture: provide the best sacred space for the liturgical action and provide the best sacred space for private devotion.
The struggle continues!
NEW CHURCHES, THE VATICAN FLUNKS THE ITALIAN BISHOPS
In “L’Osservatore Romano,” Cardinal Ravasi and the “superstar” Paolo Portoghesi criticize the new sacred buildings constructed in Italy with the sponsorship of the episcopal conference. Why they break with tradition and deform the liturgy. A commentary by Timothy Verdon
by Sandro Magister
ROME, February 14, 2011 – The three images juxtaposed above depict a detail of the wooden door of the Roman basilica of Saint Sabina, from the 5th century; the interior of the church of Saint Stephen in the Round in Rome, also from the 5th century; and the design of a church inaugurated in Milan in 1981, the parish of God the Father.
The question must be asked: are modern buildings like the third one depicted above in continuity or in rupture with the architectural, liturgical, and theological tradition of the Church?
Various modern churches are constructed in the form of a circle. Just as it is the circle that characterizes the two ancient examples of sacred art reproduced above. But is this enough to guarantee continuity with tradition?
Or are aesthetic criteria sufficient to judge the quality of a new church?
At this start of the new year, a controversy over this has exploded in Rome and Italy. And not only among the specialists. The newspaper of the Holy See, “L’Osservatore Romano,” has entered the fray, and on several occasions has severely criticized some of the most famous examples of new sacred architecture sponsored by the Italian episcopate.
It was started by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the pontifical council for culture, with a “lectio magistralis” at the architecture faculty of the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” reproduced in its entirety in the January 17-18 issue of the Vatican newspaper.
Ravasi came out swinging against those modern churches “in which we find ourselves lost as in a conference hall, distracted as in a sports arena, packed in as at a tennis court, degraded as in a pretentious and vulgar house.”
No names. But on January 20, again in “L’Osservatore Romano,” the architect Paolo Portoghesi took direct aim at the three churches that had won the national contest announced by the Italian episcopal conference in 2000, built in Foligno by Massimiliano Fuksas, in Catanzaro by Alessandro Pizzolato, and in Modena by Mauro Galantino.
Portoghesi is himself a world-famous “superstar”: the Grand Mosque of Rome is one of his designs. For some time he has criticized some of the new churches built by trendy architects and praised by the hierarchy. The most famous and talked about of these include the church built by Renzo Piano in San Giovanni Rotondo, over the tomb of Padre Pio, and the one built by Richard Meier in the Roman neighborhood of Tor Tre Teste.
This time, in “L’Osservatore Romano,” Portoghesi mainly goes after the church of Jesus the Redeemer in Modena, designed by Galantino. He acknowledges its aesthetic virtues, its harmony of form, its conceptual cleanness. He also acknowledges the architect’s intention to “give more dynamism to the liturgical event.”
But then he asks: “Where are the sacred signs that make a church recognizable?” On the outside – he observes – there are none, except for the bells, “which, however, could also be found in a city hall.” While on the inside, “the iconological role is assigned to a ‘garden of olives’ set up in a little enclosure behind the altar, and to the ‘waters of the Jordan’ reduced to a little trough of standing water hemmed in between two walls and ending at the baptistry.”
But the worst, in Portoghesi’s view, appears during the celebration of the Mass:
“The community of the faithful is divided into two sections facing each other, and in the middle a big empty space with the altar and the ambo at opposite ends. The two sections facing each other and the wandering of the celebrants between the two ends threaten not only the traditional unity of the praying community, but also what was the great achievement of Vatican Council II, the image of the assembly as the people of God on its journey. Why look at each other? Why not look together toward the fundamental places of the liturgy and the image of Christ? Why are the places of the liturgy, the altar and the ambo, on opposite ends instead of being together? Trapped in the pews, divided into sectors like the cohorts of an army, the faithful are forced, while remaining immobile, to turn their heads to the right, then to the left. The figure of the Crucifix is placed on the side of the altar, in correspondence with the section on the left, with the inevitable result that many of the faithful cannot see it without craning their necks.”
Portoghesi quotes Benedict XVI, and then continues:
“It is to be hoped that these timely statements from the chair of Saint Peter will make liturgists and architects understand that re-evangelization also passes through the churches with a small ‘c’, and indeed requires the creative effort of innovation, but also an attentive consideration of tradition, which has always been not mere conservation, but the handing down of a heritage to be brought to fruition.”
And he concludes:
“The new church of Modena is a glaring demonstration of the fact that the aesthetic quality of the architecture is not enough to make a space a true church, a place in which the faithful may be helped to feel like living stones of a temple of which Christ is the cornerstone.”
These criticisms were answered, in “Corriere della Sera” on February 8, by the architect Galantino and Bishop Ernesto Mandara, responsible for new churches in the diocese of Rome.
Galantino defended his architectural decisions, maintaining that he wanted to arrange the faithful “as around a table, conceptually reconstructing the last supper.” And he recalled that he had developed his reflections in the 1980’s in Milan, with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.
(An aside. The Milanese church in the illustration at the top of this page is one of the products of that climate. Planned by the architects Giancarlo Ragazzi and Giuseppe Marvelli, it was expressly conceived as “a place of encounter and prayer for the believers of all religions,” devoid of specific signs both on the outside and on the inside. Movable walls can divide the interior into three compartments: the middle one for Catholic rites, and the two sides intended for Jews and Muslims. The current pastor is laboriously restoring the church to entirely Catholic use, with two crosses on the outside, with stained glass and Christian images on the inside, and with a large Christ on the cross above the altar.)
Bishop Mandara also defended his actions and those of the Italian episcopal conference:
“Probably if we look at the past we find examples of unsuccessful buildings that lend support to Cardinal Ravasi, but I am deeply satisfied with the results of recent years. The churches that have been built express very well both the sense of the sacred and that of hospitality.”
On February 9, “L’Osservatore Romano” reported both of the statements of Galantino and Mandara. But it also gave another opportunity to Portoghesi, who said:
“After the Council, there were many attempts to leap forward, in various directions. The church has lost its specificity, it has become a building like the others. But recognizability is a fundamental reality, a stage of that re-Christianization of the West of which the pope speaks. As for the orientation of liturgical prayer, the people of God on its journey toward salvation cannot be static, it moves in a direction; the ideal would be to orient the church to the east, where the sun rises. We must not be afraid of that modernity which the Church itself has contributed to creating, every generation has the duty of reinterpreting the content of the past, but considering tradition as an element of strength to draw upon.”
Not only that. On February 9 and the following day, “L’Osservatore Romano” returned to the issue with two erudite contributions from two experts, both intended to demonstrate the distinctive characteristics of the traditional architecture of Christian churches.
The first of the two statements is by Maria Antonietta Crippa, a professor of architecture at the Policlinico di Milano.
It shows how the preeminence given by Christian architecture to churches in the form of a Latin cross is inspired both by the classical period (Vitruvius, with the analogy between the proportions of the body and of the temple) and above all by the vision of the Church as the body of Christ, and of Christ crucified.
But together with the square, the circle also has a place in this architectural tradition. According to the medieval authors, the Christian churches “have the form of a cross to show that the Christian people are crucified to the world; or of a circle to symbolize eternity.”
Or even of a cross and a circle at the same time. As happened in the 16th century with the prolongation of the nave of the new basilica of Saint Peter, originally with central symmetry in Michelangelo’s design.
The second and even more important contribution, in “L’Osservatore Romano” on February 10, is from Timothy Verdon, an American art historian and priest, a professor at Princeton and director of the office for sacred art of the archdiocese of Florence.
His article is reproduced in its entirety below. And it shows how the first great churches in Rome were built, in the 4th century, precisely by adapting for Christian use two models of classical architecture: the longitudinal one of the basilica and the circular one, with central symmetry.
In Jerusalem, the church of the Holy Sepulcher built by the emperor Constantine combines both models. But also in Rome, the first great church with central symmetry, that of Saint Stephen in the Round from the 5th century – the interior of which can be seen in the illustration at the top of this page – rises from a huge rectangular courtyard.
In any case, the churches with central symmetry are not devoid of decoration, much less do they make the assembly of the faithful fold back on itself. The faithful enter them as on a path of initiation, up to the column of light that is at the center of the building and is Christ “lux mundi.”
That Christ who in the contemporaneous door of Saint Sabina – see the illustration – appears at the center of the celestial circle and receives the “oriented” prayer of the woman below him, the Church crowned as his bride.
This is the great architectural, liturgical, and theological tradition of the Christian churches. Of yesterday, today, and forever.
BASILICA AND CIRCLE. THE TRADITION OF THE GREAT CHURCHES OF ROME
by Timothy Verdon
One of the distinctive characteristics of Western Christianity is the desire to build great churches: still today, in a Europe that does not want to recognize its Christian roots officially, the most imposing historical buildings of the cities are cathedrals, monastic churches, or shrines. How did this tradition emerge?
The Christian idea of the place of worship underwent a first fundamental transformation in Italy, and specifically in Rome, beginning at the time of Constantine.
Previously, as we learn from the letters of Saint Paul, in Rome and in other evangelized cities the Church was structured in small communities identifiable on the basis of the private homes in which the members gathered. In his letter to the Romans, for example, greeting his friends Aquila and Priscilla, Paul also greeted “the community that meets in their home” (Romans 16:3-5).
But the homes used in Rome in the 1st century also included the patrician “domus” and perhaps even the imperial “palatium”: writing from Rome to the believers of Philippi between the years 61 and 63, Saint Paul would say: “All the holy ones send you their greetings, especially those of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22).
With the conversion to the new faith on the part of the highest ranks of society between the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century, some of the “homes” that were permanently dedicated to the service of the “ecclesia” were grand and luxurious: these included an audience hall of the residence of the mother empress Helena, the Palazzo Sessoriano, which later became the basilica of The Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
It would be above all Helena’s son, the emperor Constantine, who would give official dignity to this tendency, exalting the new faith through the construction of a real and proper network of great churches on the architectural model of the public halls or royal residences of the empire: the basilicas.
Just as for three hundred years the Christian communities had celebrated their rites in ordinary rooms, in private homes and in the “insulae” of the Greco-Roman cities, without feeling a particular need to distinguish their places of worship from the world around them, so also, even after the Church’s rise through society, the grandiose structures built by the imperial government were inserted into the existing architectural fabric of the cities in which they found themselves.
The Constantinian foundations and those of the 5th century were many, and very large: Saint John Lateran, possibly begun as early as 312-13, was of titanic dimensions: 98 by 56 meters; the cemetery basilica of Saint Sebastian, on the Appian Way, was 75 meters long; the original basilica of Saint Lawrence on the Via Tiburtina was 98 meters long.
There was a basilica on the Via Labicana, next to the “martirion” of saints Marcellinus and Peter, containing the mausoleum of the empress Helena, and there was another on the Via Nomentana, near the memorial of Saint Agnes, where Constantine’s daughter, Costanza, had had her mausoleum built, the present-day church of Saint Costanza.
Above all, the ancient basilica of Saint Peter was colossal, with a facade about 64 meters wide and a portico 12 meters deep. The naves, excluding the sanctuary, were 90 meters long, and the central one was 23.5 meters wide, with a height of 32.5, while the lateral aisles were respectively 18 and 14.8 meters high.
In the setting of the imperial court, a step was then taken that was full of significance for the history of Christian architecture: the adaptation for liturgical purposes of the circular or cylindrical building typical of the mausoleums of illustrious figures in late antiquity.
For the Greco-Roman sensibility, in fact, the cylindrical-closed form suggested the mystery of death; precisely this configuration had been used in the 4th century in Jerusalem for the Constantinian structure of the “Anastasis,” containing the empty tomb of Christ. The same form was then used by Constantine’s daughter for her own mausoleum on the Via Nomentana, next to the ancient cemetery basilica of Saint Agnes.
Such circular structures have a particular symbolism. While the more common longitudinal basilicas imply a journey – from the entrance to the altar – the circular form, without beginning and without end, speaks of the infinite: arriving at its center connotes the end of the search, the arrival at the greatly desired port.
At the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where one first passed through a longitudinal basilica to then – across a courtyard – enter the circular structure, the overall spatial experience was almost a metaphor of search and discovery: of the journey of faith and of the certitude with which God puts an end to man’s searching, admitting him into the infinite light.
In the 5th century, the largest Roman church with central symmetry, Saint Stephen in the Round, would propose a new experience. The longitudinal basilica becomes an immense rectangular courtyard around the circular element, which in turn becomes a concentric labyrinth with multiple entrances. From the chapels one then passes into the penultimate ring, higher and more luminous than the outer ones, which finally gives access to the highest cylindrical central space, a well of light in the heart of the building.
This means that at Saint Stephen in the Round, the meaning of the Christian journey was articulated in terms of mystagogy, of initiation into the mystery: no longer as a linear movement, nor as a simple arrival, but in the experience of a penetration by degrees: from the outside toward the center, from the shadows toward the light, this perhaps being a metaphor for the life of a Church that had found the reason for its communion not only in the historical roots of a shared “romanitas,” but also in the convergence toward Him who is the light of men.
It is evocative, in fact, to place the circular plan of this church beside a contemporaneous image of Christ who ascends in the circular “clipeus” symbolizing the light, in one of the wooden panels of the doors of the basilica of Saint Sabina, on the Aventine hill.
It is the Christ of Revelation, the Alpha and the Omega of human history, presented among the symbols of the four evangelists, with – below him – saints Peter and Paul, who are lifting a wreath onto the head of a woman. She, with her arms raised in prayer, symbolizes the Church herself, who yearns for her Bridegroom.
In Rome, for the first time, the Church is identified by extension with Him who, immolated, is now “worthy to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12). It spontaneously occupied, transforming them, the architectural and conceptual spaces of the ancient empire, convinced that God, in addition to manifesting himself in the moral greatness of Israel, had also manifested himself in the material splendor of Rome. The marble magnificence of the once pagan city was interpreted as a foreshadowing of the city of Revelation, the heavenly Jerusalem whose walls will be covered with rare and precious stones.
Rome is, in fact, the city of the Apocalypse – of the unveiling of the hidden meaning of history – and from the 5th century onward, the messages communicated in the iconographic layout of the most important Roman churches have been “apocalyptic.”
Christ dressed in the golden toga as “Dominus dominantium,” Lord of lords, seated on the throne or standing with the inscription of his divine power in hand and, in front of him, the twenty-four elders who worship him day and night, wafting incense that symbolizes the prayers of the saints: these are the images realized in the sanctuaries of the great new basilicas.
In a number of these churches, moreover, the scenes revelatory of eternity completed grandiose historical cycles on the side walls, with episodes from the Old and New Testament, thus insisting on heavenly glory as the resolution of earthly events.
At Saint Peter’s on the Vatican hill, this message was already anticipated on the outside, with a monumental mosaic that covered the upper part of the facade of the basilica (drawn in an 11th century codex originally from Farfa and now kept at Eton College near Windsor), placing before the eyes of faithful and pilgrims the Lamb, the elders, and the countless multitude of those who stand “before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes” (Revelation 7:9).
This characteristic of life in the ancient capital, the multitude, would also take on apocalyptic connotations in Christian Rome. The city whose theaters and amphiteaters had received immense crowds would become the papal Rome that regularly receives men and women “of every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Revelation 7:9). This phenomenon explains the creation – first at the Lateran, and then at the Vatican – of spaces sufficient for the crowds of pilgrims from all over the world, spaces that express continuity with the ancient empire: Saint Peter’s basilica and the square in front of it, in fact, stand on the site of a circus built in the 1st century by the emperors Caligula and Nero.
The gigantic theaters and amphitheaters of the City, which still today testify to the empire’s capacity to channel oceanic crowds toward one point, are part of the experience of the primitive Church of Rome. Even if the converts to the new faith must not have been assiduous patrons of the theater and the circus, they certainly could not have ignored the attraction that such places exercised on their contemporaries.
This means that not only the idea of magnificent spaces of collective life, but also that of spectacle – of gatherings to see together events that create unity through the emotion shared by hundreds of thousands of people – were part of the cultural and human climate of the primitive Roman Church.
The article by Timothy Verdon reproduced above was published in “L’Osservatore Romano” of February 10, 2011, with the title: “La tradizione europea delle grandi chiese. Dagli angoli della vita al cerchio dell’eternità”:
The article by Maria Antonietta Crippa in “L’Osservatore Romano” of February 9, 2011:
The article by Paolo Portoghesi in “L’Osservatore Romano” of January 20, 2011, reproduced on the website of the parish of Jesus the Redeemer in Modena:
And the “lectio magistralis” of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” published in “L’Osservatore Romano” of January 17-18, 2011:
The article from http://www.chiesa on the Roman church of Tor Tre Teste, built by the “superstar” Richard Meier:
All the articles from http://www.chiesa on these topics:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.