Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Temple as the Maternal Place of the Church

by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, O.P.


The Church must be a sacred space distinct from the profane, reserved for worship alone, for the sacred action of the liturgy.

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Ignatius Press, May-June 1997

What I want to say here is quite simple, but it is nonetheless somewhat delicate to express since it involves a very personal and, if I might so put it, intimate matter: I want to speak of that great image, so ancient yet so new, of Mother Church, of the Mater Ecclesia, the Church as the maternal place, the source of all that is living and thus the source of art as well.

The best way for me to do this is to speak to you of an unforgettable encounter that I had last October...

It was in mid-October, a sunny day filled with the sweet light of autumn. I was stopping at Coire, in the Grisons, and I went up to the cathedral on its impressive site, a rock seemingly suspended above the town. There, beginning in the Roman era, century after century, Christians have constructed their cathedral. It was going on noon when I entered the cathedral, silent, empty, flooded with a filtered light. Going up the nave I saw, far ahead, before a plaster statue of Saint Anthony, surrounded by flowers and candles, a young man on his knees, hands joined and raised toward "il santo," murmuring his prayer. His complexion suggested an Indian ... I was surprised, moved by the sight and I continued to watch him out of the corner of my eye.

After a moment I saw him get up, genuflect toward Saint Anthony, and go to the next statue, then the tabernacle on the altar. At each place it was the same rite, the same intense prayer, hands joined and raised, the same concentration in prayer. Finally he felt to his knees before a 14th century Pieta, she too quite surrounded by flowers and candles. That is when I approached and asked him where he was from. "From Sri Lanka!" He went on to explain, in bits of English and German, that he was Tamil and that he had come to seek asylum in Switzerland but that his family was still back there. After a bit I asked him, "Are you Catholic?" "No, I am Hindu, but it is the same God," he said, his eyes lifting.

What struck me in that meeting with the young Tamil in the old cathedral of Coire is that the poor foreigner found in that cathedral a maternal place, a place where he could find consolation and where he would no longer feel a foreigner. Seeing him pray, on his knees, to the Mother of Sorrows, the Pieta, I saw that the Church is truly the Mother of All, the mater ecclesia. The Fathers of the Church had called her Mother of all, the new Eve, mother of all the living, whether they know it or not, because she is the place of the presence of him who alone could say, "I am the Life."


What was striking about this young Tamil was that he, a pagan, a foreigner come from afar, had found spontaneously and immediately the attitudes and the gestures for which that cathedral, since centuries long gone, had been built, rebuilt, decorated, fashioned. That foreigner had the attitude of prayer, of supplication, on his knees before the God he adored without knowing him (see Acts 17:23). So it was he had found the meaning of the cathedral, the gestures from which it was born and that had caused it to rise over the centuries. That cathedral was born from the prayers of a people on its knees with their hands lifted as they went up to the high place to implore, to weep, to sing and then to go down again with their hearts lightened.

Our Tamil discovered the attitude of prayer of far off generations, of the 7th, of the 12th, of the 18th century; he had with a sure instinct discovered again the actions of ancient Christians in our ancient Christian land. Perhaps he had observed in the Christians as they came into the church on Sunday what had survived as vestiges of those old acts. But with him they had found a renewed strength and an immediacy that has become rare with us.

He went up to the cathedral simply to pray. For him, it was the temple to which one went to pray. He did not go there to look at the many works of art in that ancient cathedral. He had no Michelin Guide in his hand to track them down. Probably he ignored that it was a work of art. He did not know that the Pieta before which he prayed so long was a three star work of art and that the painted plaster statue of Saint Anthony was not, that it was even "Kitsch," out of place in this place of high ancient art, a statue which had survived an artistic cleansing during the last restoration of the cathedral. He had no idea either of the different stylistic epochs nor did he know that the cathedral is a must on the great sightseeing tours.

While our young Tamil was completely occupied in prayer, some tourists came into the cathedral. One hand in the pocket, the other holding the Michelin Guide, they strolled in order to see, following the Guide, objects of art "worth the trouble of seeing," the Pieta of the 14th century, the Gothic restorations, the archaic crypt. Their gestures were those of museum visitors, walking with slow steps, speaking in low tones, looking here and there as circumstances demanded, guided by artistic classifications, by the established reputations of historic monuments. Very likely they were baptized, Christians born of our ancient Christianity. Compared with the strolling tourists, our pagan at prayer made a strange figure, but he was at home!

Since the 19th century, the museum, a veritable temple of works of art, has been extended in such a way as to include cathedrals. Have our cathedrals, historical monuments, become museums where the vestiges of Christian worship and popular piety carry an air of folklore, and add a note of authenticity to the touristic experience?

I remember that in May of 1968 some Parisian priests proposed that Notre Dame be transformed into a museum. Were they entirely wrong? Some twenty years afterward, I would say Yes and No. Our cathedrals, completely integrated into the tourist visit, have become integral parts of the cultural consumer society, like the great Cistercian abbey near Vienna, nearer Meyerling, which has for that reason been included in the sight-seeing programs of buses which disgorge hordes before the tombs of the unhappy Prince Rodolphe and of Vetsera his beloved, and into the silent cloister of the Cistercian monastery next to them.

But there was something else involved in the 1968 proposal. It was not so much a criticism of the profanation of sacred places by tourism as a criticism of the very idea of a sacred place distinct from the profane, separated from other places and spaces, reserved for worship alone, for the sacred action of the liturgy. It was the very idea of a sacred place that seemed a museum piece, surpassed (in the jargon of yesteryear). Hence the idea of "polyvalent space," no longer a sacred place, but indiscriminately a meeting hall, a place for dancing and for the liturgical assembly. Since this space had to serve all that, it is not surprising that the liturgy came to resemble more and more a meeting than a liturgy.

However that be, I strongly doubt that our Tamil pagan would have sought a refuge for his heart in such a space. For it was not a "maternal place," and the cathedral of Coire, even transformed into a museum, would perhaps have been better able to speak to the heart of this stranger than a polyvalent space, even if it also served as a church. I say perhaps, for who can know for sure.

Indeed those who put forth the idea of transforming Notre Dame into a museum unintentionally got it right even while looking at it crooked: there are links between the cathedral and the museum, invisible ties which mysteriously bind the young Tamil with his hands joined in prayer and the tourists with their hands in their pockets. Those ties bind us all, invisibly but really, artists and priests, faithful and tourists, theologians and conservators of ancient monuments; they bind us all to a center, to a heart that that poor Tamil reveals to us. It is of this heart that I wish to speak.


I have heard it said that in Moscow people come to the Tretiakpv Gallery to pray before the celebrated Vladirmirskaja, the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, and before the icon of the Trinity by Andrew Roublev. At first this seems a paradox: the museum — a place of prayer because of the works of arts which have emigrated from the cathedral to the museum, bringing along with them something of the "maternal" place that gave them birth. Even more, thanks to the museum, thanks to the "museal" restoration by specialists, the icons have found again in the middle of a museum a beauty and proximity they no longer have in churches. In a way they have become more "praying."

The museum built in the 19th century as a temple of culture retains secret links to the temple it seeks to imitate, continue and even represent. Hans Sedlmayer in his famous work The Loss of the Middle has magisterially brought to light the ties that bind our museums, our grand operas, our great stores, banks, stations and hangars, to this original place that is the temple, and for us westerners the cathedral. For Sedlmayer this genealogy is put forward as a progressive decadence, as that "loss of the center" that he sees most purely represented in the medieval cathedral to which he has devoted another important book, The Evolution of the Cathedral (Zurich, 1950).

I do not think that these displacements of the center can be interpreted simply as a loss or lapse. Having recourse to the form of the temple or cathedral can be read as an indication of the permanence of the idea of a sacred place, even if this idea has become foolish, fallen or simply banal. Foolish for example in the grandiose "cathedrals" in steel and glass of the 19th century (such as the project of Hector Horeau, in 1837, of an immense exposition hall); banal, in those banks that suggest a sacred place (like the hall of the new State Bank of Fribourg, built by Mario Botta) or in the gigantic Palace of the Republic in East Berlin which tries to be imposing by means of luxurious marble, lights and open spaces. Even such caricatures bear witness to the permanence of this idea of a maternal place of which the cathedral was one of the purest representations.

Unbreakable ties bind these new temples to the cathedral but when one compares the crowds wandering in the hollow pomp of a Palace of the Republic with those that go through our cathedrals "like sheep without a shepherd," apart from the apparent similarity, there is a difference, for the most part unperceived. The soul finds in these cathedrals a space that belongs to it, even if it remains unconscious, a place where it can breathe and where, secretly, it guesses that it is not in a foreign land. Charles Peguy put it wonderfully in one of his quatrains:

Princesse cathedrale,
O Notre Dame,
Recoise cette humble femme,
notre pauvre ame.

These ties come together in a center, in a heart that holds them together and bonds them to one another. This knot is God's dwelling among men. Psalm 86, so often commented on by the Fathers of the Church, speaks openly of the place that, even unbeknownst, is each man's fatherland:

The Lord loves his foundation
in the holy mountains:
the gates of Sion,
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are told of thee,
O City of God!

I will add Rahab and Babel
to them that worship me:
behold, Philistaea and Tyre
and the people of the Ethiopians:
these were born there.

And of Sion it shall be said:
"Man by man were born in her,
and the Most High himself made her strong."

The Lord shall write in the book of the peoples:
"These were born there."
And they shall sing as they lead the dance:
"All my fountains are in thee. "

Because God has his dwelling place among men, the place of his habitation is the fatherland of all. " Sion, each man calls you Mother,' whether or not he was born there, the true habitat of every man is where God dwells. But this place, this dwelling, God himself built, it is "his foundation in the holy mountains," "the gates of Sion," "the City of God," the secret fatherland of every man, because God loves it, it is the place of God's heart and man's heart has no other home but in that heart. The Apocalypse of St. John is fulfilled in the great vision of the celestial Jerusalem, the text that the Church reads in the liturgy for the dedication of churches:

And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold the dwelling of God with men, and he will dwell with them; and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:2-4).

We know the role this vision has played in the history of Christian architecture. (See A. Stange, Das fuehchristliche Kirchengebaeude als Bild des Himmels, Cologne, 1950.) But this architectural transposition of the "spouse of the Lamb," of the heavenly Jerusalem, has only been possible because the Christian temple is the image or representation of the Church herself. It was of this Church that Saint Paul could say that it is "the Jerusalem on high" and that it is "our Mother" (Gal. 4:26).


Mater Ecclesia — this image is a synthesis of what the Church had been during the first centuries of Christianity. "In the conception of the first Fathers, the Mother Church sums up the whole Christian aspiration," Karl Delahaye says at the conclusion of his beautiful study Ecclesia Mater (Paris: Cerf, 1964). So too in the chapter on "The Maternity of the Church," in Henri de Lubac, Particular Churches and the Universal Church (Paris, Aubier, 1977). The vision of the Church as the spouse of Christ, as the New Eve, as Mother of the living sums up the ancient mythic images of the Great Mother, integrates, purifies, gives them so to speak their true fatherland.

The Fathers of the Church never stopped singing the maternity of the Church. Is not the Church that woman of the Apocalypse who gives birth, under the menace of the beast, not only to Christ but also to all his brothers (cf. Rev. 12)? So in the 3rd century Hippolyte of Rome, to take but one example, read this text of the Apocalypse: "The Church never stops giving birth to the Logos of her heart, although, in this world, she is persecuted by non-believers. She is said to give to the world a male child who will feed all the peoples, Christ the perfect male, the Son of God, man and God at once ... And because the Church ceaselessly gives birth to Him, she teaches all the peoples" (De Antichristo 61).

This Church, mater et magistra, is not only the Church to come; it is certainly celestial, the Jerusalem on high, but at the same time it pursues its path here below "between the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God," in the phrase of St. Augustine (The City of God 18, 51). More precisely, the Church is where Christ is: she is in heaven with Christ, but she is here below where Christ comes, where, in the eucharistic celebration, he has "his dwelling among men." So it is not surprising that the title Ecclesia Mater should also be given to the buildings of the Church, as for example in the 4th century mosaic of Thabarca in North Africa which represents a Christian basilica bearing the inscription Ecclesia Mater, or the miniature on the Exultet roll of 1191 which shows a woman seated in the middle of a church surrounded by the clergy and people and designated as Mater Ecclesia.

It is no accident that so many cathedrals are dedicated to Our Lady, for if the Church is mother this is above all because Mary is in the Church, because she is the Church in its purity, sanctity, maternity. It is in her that the Church is already without stain and blemish, as the Council said (Lumen Gentium, no. 25).


If our Tamil friend could find refuge in the cathedral of Coire, if he could pray there with all his heart, it is because that church, that cathedral, really represents the maternity of the Church of which she is a living image, a transparent icon of the Mater Ecclesia, of that holy city of God of which every man can say, "All my fountains are in thee."

All our sources, and those of art as well, not only of sacred art, but of all art. Is it not astonishing that so many churches still have today that quality that touches us? Whence comes it that centuries later these temples are maternal places? It was not the astuteness of the artists who knew how to produce such feelings, nor was it the ruse of the clerics who had secret recipes to overwhelm the simple and provoke such sentiments.

Scripture gives a quite different explanation which has become strange to us but of which the ancients were convinced. It is common to the great religions to see in the temple a visible sign of a heavenly prototype. Before putting up the Tabernacle of the Covenant with the help of the best artisans and artists, Moses was instructed by God himself on all the details of the tabernacle (Exodus 29:9; 40:26; 27:8; Numbers 8:4). God himself was the author, Moses was only the transmitter of this celestial prototype and it was according to his indications that the artists executed the visible tabernacle. Nor was it any different with the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Ez 40:4) and it will be the same with the great Christian churches. Their power, their "maternity" comes to them from their conformity with the celestial model. The Christian (and Jewish) liturgy too lives on this correspondence between heaven and earth.

That is the classical structure of sacred art. Because Moses saw the celestial tabernacle, the prototype, artists could faithfully follow his directions. In order to tell artists how to build a temple it is necessary to have seen its model with God. That was the conviction of the builders of the old basilicas, the medieval cathedrals and even of the great architects of the baroque churches. All churches were born of a vision of realities on high, from a vision strong enough to inspire a whole epoch.

Nowadays such an idea of church construction and, in a wide sense, of sacred art, seems somewhat surprising to us, if not aberrant. Nonetheless it really inspired whole epochs whose works continue to impress us.


In conclusion I should like to state three objections that one might make to this idea and propose some answers.

1. The idea of the artist's dependence on a vision of spiritual realities seems to deprive the artist of his autonomy and prevent the free flow of his creativity.

Ad 1. It is quite otherwise. In fact, the ideal case is that of an artist who himself has the mystical vision that he seeks to represent. In his admirable book on artistic creation, Ikonoastas (the Italian translation — Milan, Adelphi, 1977—calls it Le porte regali (The Royal Gates), the great Russian sage and theologian Pavel Florenskij fully develops this conception of the artist that he found realized in the case of Andre Roublev as of Raphael.

One could certainly compare it with theology. The ideal would certainly be that theologians should be saints, and that their sanctity would give them that connaturality with their object that would enable them to speak not only of theological ideas but, on the basis of experimental knowledge, of divine realities. If one is not a Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas one had better take inspiration from the vision of the great masters rather than wish to be original at the expense of being empty. If the artist is not a saint, if he does not have experimental knowledge of the things of Cod, let him be inspired by those who have.

2. Moses gives instructions, the artists execute them. But later, when Moses was no longer there and clerics who had neither the vision nor the experience become guardians and conservators of the orders inspired by Moses, is not the artist then caught in a strict and dry observance of old rules mechanically transmitted?

Ad 2. One cannot deny this danger and the history of relations between the Church and art could furnish examples. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that even a tradition transmitted in a somewhat mechanical fashion can still be a vehicle of the condensation of spiritual experience that can be rediscovered and take on new life. That I think is the importance today of the study of the old Christian architectural and iconographic traditions. They are authentic experiences of the faith, they are common expressions, tried, recognized over many generations. Their rediscovery could give rise to new and unsuspected light. Perhaps that is one reason for the undeniable success of the art of icons in the West. This art was in fact born of an artistic vision of the Christian mystery and is a particularly profound transcription of it. (See my book L'Icone du Christ: The Icon of Christ Paris, Cerf, 1986).

3. Isn't the exclusion of innovation typical of western art, above all since the Renaissance?

Ad 3. Paradoxically, fidelity to the vision of realities on high engenders both artistic continuity and innovation. In sacred art, in art simply, every true innovation arises from a new vision of the same realities. It is obvious that a taste for the new cannot as such be the criterion. In Christian art there have been ceaseless innovations, but each time there was need to be authenticated to see if they truly arose from a vision or experience of divine realities.

Suger of Saint Denis was a prodigious innovator (Cf. Otto von Simson, Die gothische Kathedrale, Darmstadt, 1966), but innovation proceeded from a vision looking toward the "celestial prototype." His innovation has been authenticated; Saint Denis, Chartres, the Gothic cathedral, has become a "maternal place." Roblev innovated with his ikon of the Holy Trinity and his vision has been recognized as authentic by a council (the Synod of Moscow, 1551) and by a whole people.

Sacred art can innovate if it is faithful to the celestial prototype. The vision of the artist or of the priest who is the mediator of this vision, will have need, once the work is realized, of being received and recognized as true. The most convincing reception of the work will perhaps be this: that in such a church, before such a work, a young pagan can kneel and pour out his whole heart. Then the artist will know that Cod is truly served by him. What a recompense!


1. Charles Peguy, Oeuvre poetique, Pleiade, p. 1306.

Archbishop Christophe Schonborn, O.P., of Vienna is the editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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