Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Modern Church Architecture

Andrea Sacchi (1599-1667), Filippo Gagliardi (died in 1659) and Jan Miel (1599-1663)
Pope Urban VIII visits the Il Gesù church in Rome on 2 October 1639 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Jesuit order 1640/41
Oil on canvas
11 feet x 8 feet 2 inches
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

The Gesù in Rome was conceived between 1568 and 1584 by Vignola (1507-1573), architect of the Farnese family who were patrons of the church, and completed by Giacomo Della Porta (1540-1602)

It lacked pictorial decoration in the nave and transept vaults and under the cupola until Father Gian Paolo Oliva, General of the Jesuit Order from 1661 to 1681, tackled the question

The above painting by Sacchi and others illustrates the appearance of the great Church in October 1639. Rome was not built in a day.

Sacchi worked for the Barberini Family in Rome and in particular Cardinal Antonio Barberini, the brother of the Pope. The Cardinal asked him to decorate the Gesù for the Centenary of the foundation of the Jesuits on 2 October 1639.

The Pope, Urban VIII, was Maffeo Barberini was educated by the Jesuits and was a great patron of the Jesuit Order. Sacchi put up a temporary decoration in the church and later painted with others the picture to commemorate the event.

The Gesù is a building whose importance for subsequent church architecture can hardly be exaggerated. It was the embodiment of the spirit of the Counter Reformation. Its design and decoration was copied for Catholic churches all over the world. For many its design and decoration became and is what a church should be.

Even before Vatican II, there was a movement to get away from this design and concept. Since Vatican II this trend towards Modernism and postModern design has increased and become the subject of much criticism. Often with good reason. See Modern Church Architecture - Italian style and Will you be assimilated ?

The blog The Last Papist Standing has highlighted a book by Moyra Doorly called No Place for God: The Denial of Transcendence in Modern Church Architecture and an interview with her in Ignatius Insight entitled Why Are There So Many Ugly Churches?

She made a number of interesting points:

"Ordinary Catholics must already be aware of the changes that have taken place in church architecture over recent decades. The architecture of Relativist space, like the universal model it embodies, is homogenous, directionless and value-free. A Relativist church building downplays or even denies the concept of sacred space, rejects linear forms, and is designed so that every part of it appears to be of equal importance. Outside it will resemble the local library or sports stadium, thereby proclaiming 'nothing special here'. Inside the people 'gather round' the plain and unadorned altar, having hardly noticed as they passed the Tabernacle, and the message is the same.

Once gathered, there is apparently nowhere 'beyond' to aim for because the circular or semi-circular liturgical space cannot suggest this possibility. The subjectivism of the Modern Age favours circular forms because in a Relativist universe there is no truth 'out there'. The denial of the transcendent vision is inherent in the form of the contemporary church building and the space it creates. This same blocking of the route to the transcendent is also the result of sanctuary re-orderings in traditional churches. ..."

"The modern age has witnessed the construction of the most banal and uninspiring churches in history. The attempt to create a church architecture that would meet the needs of the age has resulted in churches that are unfit for any age. Contemporary church buildings, as well as being the ugliest ever built, are also the emptiest.

Many atheists used to say that whatever they felt about religion, it was impossible not to admire church architecture. But now there is hardly a Catholic who can admire (modern) church architecture. Today's churches no longer point to a transcendent God, a God who inspires awe, reverence, and wonder. Today's churches are geared almost entirely to the celebration of the people who happen to be present because that is where God now is, within the worshipping community.

According to G. K. Chesterton, "Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the God within .... That Jones shall worship the God within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones." Men have always attempted to make magnificent and beautiful the buildings dedicated to the gods that are without. But when the god is within, what happens to the building? A glance at what passes for a church today reveals the answer, but the appearance is only a symptom. The underlying problem is that the contemporary church building is hardly a church it all. Instead it is more a temple to the spirit of the age.

When the liturgical revolution of the twentieth century deliberately shifted the focus of the Church's worship to God present in the people, this went hand in hand with a profound change in the idea of what a church is, how it functions, and the message it should proclaim. The modernizers claim, with justification, that church architecture has always responded to the needs of the times.

Over the centuries, the Church has adopted the stylistic and aesthetic ideas of the ages and fashioned her church buildings accordingly, thereby creating an architectural heritage that includes the wonders of the Romanesque, the Gothic, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. Accordingly, the claim is that the changes being undertaken today are simply the latest in a series of adaptations the Church has made to her buildings and liturgy. Future generations will look back on the churches of today with the same admiration we hold for the great churches of the past.

In fact what has been done to the church building in recent decades, and is still being done, is unprecedented in the history of the Church.

So radical is the break from tradition that the term "revolution" is barely adequate to describe what has happened. The later half of the twentieth century saw a lot of church buildings commissioned, designed, and constructed, the majority of them in the Modernist style, with its pared-down and stripped minimalism, its horror of ornament, and its rejection of narrative imagery in favor of the abstract. This was the predominant style of the twentieth century, and it could therefore be argued that today's baleful church buildings are simply the result of the Church having done what she has done for centuries, which is to embrace the architectural aesthetic of the age. Consequently, the merits, or lack of merits, of the Modernist style are merely a question of taste.

However, architecture is about more than appearances, and this is as true for the Modernist style as it is for any other. Of chief importance to the characteristics of any style of architecture are the spatial principles that determine them. The reason for this is that buildings, by their very nature, enclose space. There is no way around it. As soon as four walls are built and covered with a roof, space is enclosed. This is how buildings perform their function, which is basically to provide shelter and contain the activities carried on within them."

She makes a number of interesting points. But it should always be remembered that churches can develop over time. That is illustrated by Sacchi`s painting. All is not lost yet - provided the intelligence, the talent and the will are there.