The Natural Laws and Essential Elements of Catholic Church Architecture

Cathédrale-Notre-Dame-de-Paris-Vue-panoramique---630x405---©-Fotolia-rdnzl

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (credit: Paris Tourist Office)

The following points are taken from Michael S. Rose’s book: Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again

From Chapter One: “The three natural laws of church architecture: or, the minimum you need to know to evaluate the church down the street”

  1. Permanence — a sense that the building will remain and stand against the vagaries of time a taste
  2. Verticality — a sense of the building rising or pointing to Heaven and things transcendent, and leading the thoughts of worshipers in that direction
  3. Iconography — art, statues, icons, stained glass, and other items that express and speak of Christian things, especially the holy sacrifice of the Mass

From Chapter Two: “Our pilgrim goes into the house of the Lord: or, the essential elements of every proper church”

  1. The church beckons to souls from afar
  2. The atrium leads us from the profane to the sacred
  3. The façade tells us of the riches awaiting us inside
  4. The narthex draws us toward the sanctuary
  5. The baptistry reminds us of our entrance into the Church Universal
  6. The nave declares that the Church is the ark of salvation
  7. The pews promote adoration, directing our eyes to the altar
  8. The confessional prepares us to receive the Eucharist
  9. The church’s columns enhance its verticality and permanence
  10. The pulpit is subordinate to the altar
  11. The choir serves the Mass without calling attention to itself
  12. The sacred art teaches and evangelizes us
  13. The stained glass creates a heavenly atmosphere with light
  14. The sanctuary set apart the holiest part of the church
  15. The altar is the focal point of unity, reverence, prayer, and worship
  16. The crucifix tells us of Christ’s redemptive Sacrifice
  17. The tabernacle reminds us that Christ is truly present here

The laws and elements are not presented by the author without an agenda in mind. They are to be used as a list for architects and church renovators, but also as a source of critique of modernist church designs. With this list in mind it is interesting (troubling??) to see how many Catholic churches fail to meet many of these laws and elements. Most of these church buildings were built in the past 50 years or so, and from a more modernist approach — a kind of “spirit of the age” urging towards “relevance” and man-centeredness.

The rest of the book examines examples of  church architecture that deviate from these laws and elements, and the reasons why churches where either altered away from tradition, or built according to modernist standards. Then finally the book speaks to what can be done to rectify the problem.

Personally, I love much of modern architecture. I’m not a modernist, but I appreciate much of what modern architects were trying to do, even in their failures (which were many). Still, what constitutes proper sacred architecture, that is architecture designed around the Eucharistic liturgy of the Catholic Church, seems to me fundamentally in need of something other than the modernist approach.

However, I’m also not a traditionalist in the sense that the “solution” is that we go back in time. We can and should learn a lot from the past, including examples of church architecture, but we must remember we shouldn’t just copy from the past, but create based on principles. It’s tradition for the sake of truth, not tradition for the sake of tradition.

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Beauty, Catholic Church, Church History, Liturgy, Reading, Sacraments, Tradition

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