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Church Building: The Highest Form Of Architecture, The

by Michael S. Rose


An essay explaining the specific language used to construct a church building and the three required principles: verticality, permanence, and iconography.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


8 - 13

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, February 2002

In 1955, American author Allan Temko wrote a "biography" of Notre Dame cathedral, the crowning jewel of medieval Paris. His account brings to the modern reader not only the full flowering of medieval life and medieval arts and craftsmanship, but it provides a glimpse into the testimony of the faith and the heroic efforts of the mostly nameless thousands who shared in its building. Notre Dame de Paris is arguably the most universally recognized of Christendom's great cathedral churches, and it will surprise no one that countless chronicles, poems, novels, and artistic treatments have been devoted to the subject of this architectural masterpiece. Yet considering it is neither the tallest nor the biggest, nor even the most beautiful of cathedrals, Notre Dame's appeal to literati is not easily explicable on the natural order. There is something more.

Paris, of course, as the capital city of France, provides a prominent locale for such a gem, but it is the building's transcendental qualities — of goodness, beauty, and truth manifested in built form — that have led countless pilgrims from all parts of the world to marvel at its presence and enter into its sublimity. As Temko writes, "Itinerant merchants and priests, pilgrims, diplomats, foreign students, traveling knights and crusaders, freed serfs seeking new homes — the whole wandering human fabric of the Middle Ages passed through the capital of France and admired its Cathedral." These pilgrims, he adds, called Notre Dame the ecclesia of Paris — the church par excellence, in a city of many remarkable churches. And since that time long ago, pilgrims and tourists have never ceased to come to this heart of medieval Paris on the Isle de la Cite.

The cathedral is no mere icon for the city, as one might say of the Eiffel Tower or even the great Arc de Triomphe. Rather, it is truly the centerpiece — the soul — of one of the great cities of Christendom. In 1902, Hilaire Belloc even described sprawling Paris as the fringe of the great cathedral's garment. He spoke of the church in distinctly human terms: Notre Dame, he wrote, "is like a lady grown old in a great house, about whose age new phrases and strange habits have arisen, who is surrounded with the youth of her own lineage, and yet is content to hear and understand without replying to their speech. She is silent in the midst of energy, and forgotten in the many activities of the household, yet she is the center of the estate."

Nearly a century earlier, Victor Hugo brought the cathedral to life, although in a somewhat more symbolic way, in his novel about the hunchbacked bell-ringer of the great Notre Dame. Quasimodo, in more than literary terms, represents that peculiar bond of intimacy between man and the Church, ultimately between man and God. Notre Dame is to the hunchback egg, nest, home, country, and universe, just as is the Church universal for the baptized. When still a child, Hugo wrote, Quasimodo dragged himself through the cathedral as if "some reptile native to that damp, dark pavement upon which the Roman capitals cast so many grotesque shadows." He might almost be said to have assumed the cathedral's form, as the snail assumes the form of its shell. Indeed, Notre Dame was the hunchback's dwelling, his hole, his wrapper; peopled with marble figures — kings, saints, and bishops — who blessed him and looked upon him with good will. In a certain sense, Hugo likens this dwelling place to a living, breathing soul prepared for the intimacy of mere mortals — and this coming from the pen of a man who would not have considered himself a child of God! Nevertheless, the great Cathedral of Notre Dame transcended Hugo's own reality, whether he knew it or not. He could not escape the "other-worldly" of this great monument and the author betrays that he gave himself up to a power and order greater than himself. In short, Hugo discovered, however unwittingly, the domus Dei, the House of God. This can be sensed on almost any page of Hugo's acclaimed novel of 1831.

To hear the sculptural programs described, as by Temko, gives one the further sense of God's house as being intimately connected to the Heavenly Jerusalem, accompanied by the communion of the saints and angels. Describing one of the front portals, for instance, he writes:

Around the Virgin in majesty, in tiers of glory, is her Court of Heaven. Closest to her is a corps of fourteen angels; then fourteen patriarchs and sixteen prophets; and, outermost, sixteen old men of the Apocalypse, with their musical instruments and vials, as they were seen by St. John the Divine . . . Singing dancing, their rich beards tossing in the winds from the corner of the earth, they sail upward, as if mounted on a wheel of air, to the Lamb of God and, at the apex of the triangle, to the Christ of the Apocalypse — alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, whose terrible, two-bladed sword, after seven centuries, has shattered his teeth.

Faith here in the cathedral, whether we read of it or experience it ourselves, is incarnational, the communion of the saints too. The Kingdom of God is manifest to us, century after century, through the medium of the church building, stone laid upon stone, sculpture after sculpture hewn from rock, built and carved of human hands — a Gospel in stone brought to life! But the biographer stops not there. In the same breath, he describes too the hundreds of gargoyles — inhuman birdlike figures with half-human faces — perched and grimacing on the balustrades overlooking the city. These grotesques, hated and feared by saints such as the puritan Bernard, Temko explains, were driven from the interior of the church by the Virgin, who banished them from her sanctuary, but kept them as terrifying guardians of her outer walls and towers. This one building, we easily understand, is a representation in toto of Christendom, from the saving power of Christ to the doom of the fallen and damned. We sense the spiritual struggle between good and evil, between the sacred and the profane, between the eternal and the temporal.

It is interesting to consider at first just this one building in order to understand the eternal principles of church architecture that must be respected throughout all centuries in order to faithfully render such a noble and worthy House of God. Notre Dame is easily recognized as art in the noblest sense, architecture of the highest order. But why? For its grandeur and historical significance for sure, but there's something much simpler. The cathedral is a "sacred place," and this sacred place is first of all, a house of God, a place of His earthly habitation, wrought in the fashion of heavenly things. It has served as a silent witness to the tumultuous history of France over the past 800 years in the heart of its grand capital. It has stood as a survivor of many epochs, witnessing to the permanence of the Gospel and Christian society, despite the secularization of almost everything around the great cathedral. The edifice has transcended both time and culture, not an easy feat. We can almost hear the patriarch Jacob during his dream of angels going up and down from Heaven, announcing, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

Significantly, throughout the Christian centuries, we have called our churches Domus Dei (the house of God) and Porta Caeli (the gate of Heaven) — a dwelling place where we go to find God, a sacred place in which we seek the treasures of the heavenly kingdom. Ever since the days when King Solomon received the commission directly from God to fashion the holy temple, men of every epoch have toiled and labored with devout hands to build splendid palaces for the King of Kings. Throughout the ages men of every rank have brightened Christendom by building the houses of God, sparing no resources or treasures in order to construct as worthy a place as possible for Christ present in the world. This is why Notre Dame is so successful: it is a house of God and gate of heaven par excellence. It achieves the rank of a "sacred place" as all Catholic churches ought.

In fact, the Church's Code of Canon Law explicitly defines the church building as "a sacred building destined for divine worship." In a sense, one might argue that the Church mandates that its church buildings achieve what Notre Dame has achieved. But each church must establish first itself as a sacred place.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates this point yet goes further by stating that "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" (paragraph 1180). This is a tall order, to be sure — and the architect today naturally wonders how a mere building can accomplish so much. Fortunately he stands not alone in a perilous vacuum but has at his command more than a thousand years of his craft on which to reflect. If he merely had Notre Dame as a precedent he would perhaps be adequately assisted, but to think that today's architects, artists, craftsman, patrons, priests and bishops have such an incredible treasury to assist them in establishing new sacred places that fulfill the Church's expectations is exhilarating. In a sense, the Catholic community — diocese or parish — in any given place on the globe is given this great challenge.

The Catechism also speaks of the church directly as the "house of God," in which the "truth and harmony of the signs that make it up should show Christ to be present and active in this place" (paragraph 1181). This is precisely what church designers have been doing for centuries, using a specific architectural "language" to construct the Temple of God (another term for the church building). This language is what transforms bricks and mortar, wood and nails, stones and buttresses, into a sacred place worthy of God's eternal presence. This language is what renders a mere building not only to function as a church but to look like a church and fulfill its mandate of making Christ and His Church present and active in a particular locale. The language used is not one of a magician but one of an artist, who has in mind the greater glory of God in his work. "How awesome is this place!" — the words of the patriarch resound.

Although the language used by men to construct a House of God is diverse in its execution, its genesis is simple. Not to be confused with fashion, whim, or style, the language itself is objective and must be respected. Its subversion carries with it the consequences of eternity. In beginning to define this language, three principles must be considered: verticality, permanence, and iconography. These first three principles are perhaps taken for granted by some, yet they tend to be the most obvious starting points. Without Notre Dame's characteristics of verticality, permanence, and iconography, Hugo never would have written a novel about the hunchback bell-ringer, nor would Temko have composed a biography of the great cathedral. In fact, in the absence of these principles, Notre Dame de Paris would not exist today in any meaningful way. Lacking verticality, the cathedral would not have inspired us toward the "other worldly"; it could not have effectively served as the soul of medieval Paris, let alone the present metropolis, nor would it have effectively marked Christ's presence active in the French capital. Without permanence, the building would have been destroyed by barbarians or revolutionaries centuries ago, and devoid of iconography Notre Dame would never have attracted pilgrims as the Gospel in stone. In other words, without verticality, permanence and iconography, Notre Dame de Paris would not be known to us today. Thus, let us admit these three principles as prerequisites for the language of an authentic Church architecture.

First then, in contrast to most other building types, the church ought to be so constructed that the vertical element dominates the horizontal. The soaring heights of the spaces ought to speak to us of the reaching toward Heaven, of transcendence — bringing the Heavenly Jerusalem down to us through the medium of the church building. In other words, the interior spaces ought to be characterized by a dramatic sense of height. In a word, verticality. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Without verticality, the church is effectively emasculated, its raison d'etre subverted.

The church building, representing Christ's presence in a particular place, is also necessarily a permanent structure (Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever) conceived and executed "with a firm foundation." Nineteenth century architect Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc writes of Notre Dame that "everyone who understands construction will be amazed when he sees what numberless precautions are resorted to in the execution — how the prudence of the practical builder is combined with the daring of the artist full of power and inventive imagination." Viollet-le-Duc refers to the permanence of what has become known to us as the Gothic structural system, an ingenious method of building that lends itself both to verticality — soaring heights enabled by the system of buttressing — and permanence. The Gothic churches constructed in Europe throughout the medieval centuries cannot be accused of being cheap and tawdry structures doomed to decay. No, structures such as Notre Dame were conceived as solid and enduring temples, a perpetual reminder of Christ's presence active in the world. The same can be said of many churches built in the Romanesque, Byzantine, Baroque, and Neo-Classical styles. Each of these architectural epochs has respected the necessity of permanence.

There are several ways a church can assert its permanence. First, and most obviously it must be built of durable materials. Mere sticks and stones, shingles and tar will not do. The church must also be of significant mass. And it must be designed in continuity with the history and tradition of Catholic church architecture. The architect then cannot be — or pretend to be — ignorant of the Church's historical patrimony. In fact, "continuity" is just as important as mass or durability when considering the permanence of a house of God. Another way of understanding this principle is to realize that a church cannot be subject to the whims of man or the fashion of the day. When it is, the structure forfeits any claims to permanence and finds itself difficult to serve God in any meaningful way.

The third aspect is that of iconography, which speaks specifically to the "sign" value of the building. First, the structure ought itself to be an icon. This is accomplished through its massing, its form, and its relation to the surrounding environment, whether urban or rural. (Simplistically put: the church must look like a church!) Secondly, the worthy church building presents an iconography that points to something other than itself. It is here that art comes into play. It is here that beauty creates the environment that lifts man's soul from secular things to be brought into harmony with the heavenly. "Art has been, is, and will be forever," wrote architect Ralph Adams Cram, "the greatest agency for spiritual impression that the Church may claim." And it is for this reason, he adds, that art is in its highest manifestation the expression of religious truths. It is through art that mere men have developed the ingenious symbolism that raises our minds and the faculties of our souls to God.

The old masters, for instance, expressed the Catholic faith in the very birth of their art by means of elaborate high altars and tabernacles; special niche and aisle shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary and other saints; prominent pulpits for preaching; and an abundance of art in glass, sculpture or painting to teach the truths necessary for salvation. The atmosphere created via these means is one of religious mystery wherein one can experience a little of the unearthly joy of the New Jerusalem, where one's soul can meet with Christ in a unique way. These iconographic churches, these icons, tell the story of Christ and his Church; they teach, catechize, and illustrate the lives of the Church's saintly souls. Again, if we are to look at Notre Dame, we understand easily how the pilgrim can spend days — no, weeks — meditating on the mysteries that are "enfleshed" in the architecture of the cathedral's sculptural programs. The student of the Church may spend months and years reflecting on the ingenuity and beauty of the Catholic truths revealed in the art and architecture of this Gospel in stone. The ordinary layman too will be drawn into the church, into the house of God, attracted by the iconography of this medieval edifice, which still speaks clearly to us today, 800 years later.

When all is considered, the church, as we understand Notre Dame for example, ought to be both the highest form of architecture — not a mere building — and the noblest form of art. It will be transcendent — of time, place, and culture — through its inherent qualities of goodness, beauty and truth, all put at the service of God and bringing man into an intimacy with his creator. In the end, it is a catalyst for the earthly pilgrim on his journey to the eternal Kingdom of Heaven above.

Mr. Michael S. Rose is author of The Renovation Manipulation (2000), and Ugly As Sin, (Sophia Institute Press 2001). Mr. Rose holds professional degrees in Architecture (B.Arch.) and the Fine Arts (M.F.A.) from the University of Cincinnati and Brown University. This is his second article in HPR (the first appeared in June 1998).

© Ignatius Press 2002.

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