Anatomy of the Catholic Church: A Brief History of Catholic Church Architecture
As in you, as in me, there is a pattern in our bones, a memory of what we are before we are, as so it is in the bones of the church, the basilica and cathedral, a chain from conception through generations, the influence of time, place, mate. Judaic, Greek, Roman, Syriac are each woven into our fabric, the flesh around the bones of God’s house lending ordered variation, a gradual development neither surprising nor shocking. Logic and use awaken each thing to maturity, the slow growth into increasing complexity, even to the senility of the Progressive, a species of corruption that ends in death. Here, below, a brief recital of the House of God from its homey genesis until a fulfillment this past week, the glorious consecration of Immaculata Church, Kansas (3 May 2023).
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,” so we learn from Acts of the Apostles, 2:46. These meetings were outside the Judaic temple, in the courtyards open to all Israelites where before required services neighbor would meet neighbor, where Jewish Christians converted their fellows. Gradually, Christians expanded beyond Israel, beyond the Jewish temple into greater Rome, Britannia to Africa to Orientis, to communities peopled with temples of Zeus, Minerva, Athena, Apollo and all the gods, divinities, and spirits.
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The House Church
Jesus Christ was born in the 42nd Year of Augustus (754 ABU [Ab Urbe Condita from the “founding of the city”, Rome]), died in the 19th Year of Tiberius. The Jewish revolt concluded at Masada, 74 AD (after the Death of Christ). We Christians, thought to be a Jewish, cannibalistic, atheistic sect (because of the eucharist and the refusal to acknowledge the gods of Rome), were persecuted, and so we removed our worship from courtyards into houses.
“On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting,” Acts 20:7-8.
For some 200 years the Mass was celebrated in typical Roman houses, Britannia to Orientis (England to Arabia). You know the type, walled to the street, a single door opening to a foyer which itself opened to a gardened courtyard that gave light and breeze into the surrounding rooms. The first house dedicated to the Mass, the first House Church for which we have physical evidence, is found at the Hellenistic city of Dura Europos, present day Eastern Syria (closer to Baghdad [ancient Babylon] than to Beirut [ancient Phoenicia]).
The Dura Europos Church (in use, circa 250 AD) had a bench for gathering near the door (East); through the door a foyer into which a courtyard. The Baptistry and font was off the courtyard to the NE; the Catechumen room was to the North; the Chapel and dais for altar and priest was the West room. Here, our first Christian art, aesthetically primitive pictuary of The Good Shepherd, Adam & Eve, Mary (we suppose) at the Tomb, Healing of the Paralytic, Christ and Peter Walking on Water, a David and Goliath some 1,200 years before Verrocchio’s elegant representation, et cetera. After the looting and destruction of Dura Europos by ISIS (2011–2014), nothing remains but rubble, low and level sands.
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House Church Elements
The House Church at Dura Europos contains the essential elements of Christian (Catholic) architecture. See “Duro Europos” diagram at bottom.
A font where Christians are baptized, a sacrament that recalls Jesus baptism by John at the river Jordan. Your church’s baptismal font is likely within the main church, though you might have a separate, freestanding Baptistry with a Narthex (anteroom) where catechumens can be instructed in the rite, et cetera.
The narthex is not the “church proper” but a common gathering space that precedes the Chapel and follows the sacred rite. At Dura Europos, the room between the Baptistry and the Chapel, a place where the acts of the apostles and the life of Christ might be discussed and considered. Your Narthex might be a porch or the open space preceding the Nave.
The altar table, a place of sacrifice in commemoration of the Last Supper, et cetera. Here, an area raised, separated from the common everyday, an area that might also include both altar and ambo, the pulpit-like speaking platform from where sacred text would be spoken.
“Nave” from the Latin word for “ship”, a large, open deck-like area where we laypeople would gather, observe and participate through the priest in the sacred rite, and to hear the sermon as in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, et cetera.
From Acts, we suppose that some of these House Churches contained statues of the antique gods, Apollo, et alia, as would have been typical of the Gentiles, the Greco-Roman Hellenes. We can suppose from Acts that the Christian churches were in houses of the everyman and the official, the soldier and the widow. Rome was a broad empire, larger than Europe, where all spoke a common language, shared one currency, an equal law, and where every variation of custom was allowed, so long as it was moral, ethical, and patriotic.
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As mentioned, Christians of the first three centuries after Christ suffered many hardships, used as human torches to light Nero’s parties, gruesome and sporadic murdering by governors and emperors, organized mass executions, the sentence of Damnatio ad Bestias (execution by feeding to wild animals), especially the attempted genocide by emperor Diocletian; and yes, Christians were murdered in Rome’s Colosseum … how many, well, we are uncertain. Logically, Rome considered a people who offended the gods’ traitors, a criminal organization that by denying the gods a just sacrifice would weaken a weakened Rome. And so it was until Constantine I (the Great) witnessed the Chi Rho, symbol of Christ emblazoned … the story in brief is worthy of review.
Following the death of Diocletian (311/312) there were numerous battles in a war between generals to achieve supremacy and become emperor of Rome. Constantine, son of the tetrarchic emperor Constantius, contemplated the losses of generals who fought under symbols of the many gods, choosing instead to fight under his mother’s (Saint Helena’s) One God, Jesus Christ of the Trinity, and to seek Christ’s divine aid and guidance. Next day at noon, before the whole army, the Chi Rho appeared in the sky along with the slogan, “in this, conquer”. That night, Christ appeared to Constantine and told him to make a replica of the Chi Rho as defense in battle, and next day each soldier bore upon his shield the Chi Rho. So defended, Constantine was victorious over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, became sole emperor, and welcomed Christ into the pantheon of Roman gods. Christians were no longer a people who denied the gods of Rome, though it was nearly a century before Christ was the one God of Rome, and Christianity the only state religion.
Constantine chose the basilica (a public building containing law courts and administrative offices) as the temple-form for worship of Christ, a new god of Rome. You might think of a Roman basilica as a Greek stoa, a place where citizens would meet for public business; in fact, “basilica” is the Latin word for “stoa”. As in Greece, in Rome, the stoa/basilica was the centrally located center of town and city, and Christ’s temple, the basilica, soon became the center of Roman civic life, Britanniarum through Asiana, Africae to Orientis.
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For the most part, Christian basilicas were smaller than the great administrative basilicas of the empire, smaller than Constantine’s own basilica, The Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, largest Roman building of the time, a place where Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge could be celebrated and where he, Constantine, could be worshiped … his colossal statue was 40’ high, seated, similar in height to the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, Olympia. Notable among Constantine’s Christian basilicas, Saint Paul Outside the Walls (above the grave Saint Paul the Apostle), Old Saint Peter’s Basilica (above the grave of Saint Peter), and Saint John Lateran, archbasilica, Mother Church of the World where the porphyry sarcophagus of Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, was located.
The Christian basilica is similar to the secular basilica, both are rectangular with side aisles that flank a peaked, elevated center (nave) that encourages an appropriate humility when approaching the seat of power. At nave’s ending, the apse, and on the apse, the throne where clients would come in petition and for redress, as to Constantine, regally seated before his colossal statue. As so in the Catholic church where is found the elevated altar and God present in the body of the host, enshrined in a tabernacle beneath a statued crucifixion or a Holy Spirit emblazoned in glass.
Saint Constantine (Constantine I, the Great) commissioned and perhaps himself added the transept, the cruciform (cross architectural footprint) of Old Saint Peter’s, et cetera. The transept, sometimes called “the cross”, remembers Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, and here in the transept there might be a chapel with a second altar. Constantine’s cruciform plan is standard in Classive churches to this day. See “Transcept diagram” at bottom.
Often, the apse opens to the nave through a triumphal arch, and sometimes, as when the church body is summited by a dome (symbol of heaven), a second triumphal arch opens from the crossing to the nave (and from the crossing to the transepts).
The area between nave, sanctuary, and transepts, often summited by a crossing tower or minor dome. See “Crossing diagram” at bottom.
The high walls above the nave is the clearstory, a place of windows that rain light upon the dark, hollow nave below.
Either side the nave, a single or double colonnade creates a side aisle for seating, pictuary and statuary, Stations of the Cross, et cetera. See “Crossing diagram” at bottom.
The space to the west of the apse for singers of the liturgy, the choir. The 10th century and after, the choir is most often elevated, located above the narthex or a transept.
The house atrium, the familiar, common place for gathering persons, beauty and light, was continued in church architecture through the Roman into the Renaissance … Bernini’s piazza at New Saint Peter’s Basilica is an atrium, grand, yet even so.
A vaulted, semicircular recess. When liturgically East, in the sanctuary with the altar. Apse are also found in chapels. See “Apse diagram” at bottom.
In time, Rome disintegrated, as some say, for lack of morals, crushing taxation and strangling bureaucracy, as some say, as did Gibbon, for abandoning the gods of Rome, and as some say, by the unchecked migration of hordes into the Roman Empire, a dissolution of tradition, loss of purpose, rampant homosexuality and immoralities, et cetera. Whatever the cause, Western Rome cracked, divided, mostly along borders of its provinces, provinces which would become England, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, et alibi (a decline from the death of Julian in 363 [last pagan emperor] until 476 when Odoacer, King of the Goths, conquered Rome and deposed the child emperor, Romulus Augustus).
Worth noting: the Eastern provinces of Thracia, Asia, et alibi, the “Eastern Roman Empire”, continued uninterrupted until 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II defeated Constantine XI, Palaiologos upon the ramparts of Constantinople (now Istanbul) … and this, a mere 40 years before Columbus discovered to the knowing world, America.
Next stages in Christian church architecture mirrored the diversity of a fractured, disunited civilization.
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Churches and Cathedrals of the East
Churches of Constantine in the East wedded the Pantheon form with the basilica, as is seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem, built over the tomb of Christ) and in Hagia Sophia, “Church of the Holy Wisdom” (Constantinople). Too, you will notice a similarity between the Eastern church’s domed barrel ceiling and the mausoleum, as in the mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian. Differences in liturgy between East and West caused diversion, unique developments. Churches of the East retained the eastern orientation, the porch, narthex, nave, sanctuary, and yet added the templon, the choros, and celebratory dome.
The templon (iconostasis) is a barrier that separates the nave from the sanctuary. Likely, the templon began as a low wall that in time grew, assumed the character of a skene, as in the Greco-Roman theatre screen where gods, divinities and scenes were pictured to suit the play or performance … or perhaps the templon remembers the synagogue’s Torah screen. Either way, the templon is rich in iconography, the icons, the “spirits” in the pictures of saints and angels.
The choros is a manner of chandelier adorned with icons of the numerous saints and innumerable angels. And the choros is practical to the liturgy; when hymns are chanted, the choros candles are lit, and the choros is nudged to swing in turn and return, the glowing, flickering light seeming angelic in its floating course.
Dome of Christ
Christ Pantocratoros, “Ruler of the Universe” is often found on the interior dome of Orthodox churches, Hagia Sophia being the model. You will notice in best examples of Christ Pantocratoros, Christ of two natures, human and divine … from a line down-the-middle one side is ideal, the other side is natural.
As you know, the Orthodox church continues in vibrancy, Greece to Russia and beyond. The Orthodox onion dome is a late invention, likely imported from Islam. Too, the Orthodox commonly employ the squarish Greek Cross rather than the rectangular Latin Cross in a church footprint … ontologically correct, the square centers worship beneath the Dome of Christ, Ruler of the Universe. In this, the Greek geometers translate the logical, predictable universe into a simple, bold form, as will later be found in the Pazzi Chapel, a high, abstract expression of the Renaissance.
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Before the Romanesque, the Carolingian, an architecture hard, thick, sparingly beautiful, an architecture of bold, decisive men, brave in battle as in Charles Martel, “Charles the Hammer” who pushed back Islam, defeated the Saracen, the tough Saxons and the rest. Pepin, Charlemagne, and others of Martel’s ascendents consolidated, stabilized what would become France and Germany, a Holy Roman Empire reconstituted with the blessing of popes. The palaces and churches of the Carolingian are fortresses constructed to withstand enemies physical and spiritual, to protect inhabitants, to foster learning, wisdom, devotion. Eastern, Western, and something more, Germanic French, the Carolingian is an architecture of forest that retains in its classive elements a memory of the Mediterranean sun. At Charlemagne’s palace, Aachen (consecrated by Pope Leo III in 805), the Palatine Chapel, honoring the Virgin Mary.
The Carolingians conserved what could be conserved of Rome, saved, as much as possible, their fellow Christians from slavery in Islam, and created court culture, the high culture of aesthetic elites through whom, as Sir Kenneth Clark observed, we were saved by “the skin of our teeth”.
The word Romanesque means “ascended from Rome”, as were the Rom[e]ance languages ascended from Roman Latin. And what ascended? The Romane Christian, a Rome without Greece, without classical virtues, without paideia, without memory of democracy, republics, humanity; a Rome of authority, submission, moral excellence, and Christian virtue. By practice, some little memory of Roman construction and engineering survived, though refinements disappeared leaving the um of uncertain walls punctuated by an ejaculation of windows and of random arches in repeating sequence. Architectural language was forgotten, was replaced by the broad articulations of baying arched windows, mass, stone, and sometimes, impressive height.
The Romanesque was an architecture of solid defense, of assertive presence, an architecture of the retreating monastery, the feudal prince, the crusading knight, and the devout faithful who lived Christ’s words as best they understood through long years of repeating seasons. You might in the Romanesque make comparison between Christian architecture and Christian man, solid and strong, massively faithful, willing to challenge all foes, to retake the Holy Land from the infidel, to defend God’s kingdom on earth.
In conquest, in crusade, Europeans saw first-hand ancient Roman pagan basilicas, each converted to Christianity, made into a church or dismantled and reassembled to make new churches and new palaces. A Crusader might return from the Holy Land with a relic that would be venerated in the local church or cathedral. If a Crusader did not return, instead leaving his bones in the East, the Crusader’s relic would be remembered in the stones or pictures of his church. Churches have always been a gift of the people to God, a returning, a sacrifice, and this is why church hierarchy is wrong to jackhammer altars, destroy statuary, dismantle chapels and distribute the waste of penitence and worship.
There is that and there is Pilgrimage, the Christian tradition to encounter God through Christ, his place of living, teaching, and dying, a tradition encouraged by Saint Jerome, established by Saint Helena (mother of Constantine I) who endowed churches at the site of Christ’s birth and of Christ’s ascension, the Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem), and the Church of Eleona, Mount of Olives (Jerusalem). The Pilgrim Church created our first Romanesque innovation, the ambulatory.
The ambulatory, ambulatorium, “walking place”, was created for the sacred walk by pilgrims through Pilgrim Churches, the walk extending the nave’s side isles around an apse, where behind the chancel and high altar were projecting chapels that might take the form of a diminutive apse, some with their own, smaller altar. In the apse there might be a saint’s relic rescued from Islam, brought by a crusader or pilgrim to his or her community church, and here were the reliquary, statuary and pictuary that elevates a person toward sanctity. The first ambulatory, Saint-Martin at Tours, consecrated in 471, expanded under Charlemagne, completed with ambulatory in 1050, burned by protestant heretics and demolished by atheists of the French Revolution. The reconstructed church was designed by the significant Laloux, funded by the faithful, and reconsecrated in 1925.
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The Romanesque church has a single portal, not unlike the opening of a drawbridge, an opening large and imposing, receding into a tympanum richly carved with saints and angels, or sometimes frescoed, centered with heavy, ornate oak doors.
Stained glass windows allow spectered light into vast, dark Romanesque churches. The window might be abstract, as in a rose window, though the stained-glass window is usually pictorial, depicting a saint, an angel, a telling episode from the Bible. In truth, the stained-glass is back-painted, a craft of the painter’s art. Most often, the painter works in grisaille (gray painting), articulating with wash, brush, or sgraffito, allowing more or less light through the pigmented glass, lending spirit to material.
Ancient churches tended to be decorated in mosaic. Romanesque churches tended to be decorated with frescoes … the large, broad walls needing articulation, the congregation needing instruction, the amusement of distraction, and the necessity of beauty.
Since antiquity, barrel vaults and groin vaults were known and employed. The old, Romanesque rib vault increased the height of aisles and naves, an innovation that encouraged growth within tradition. Composed of four pointed arches, the rib vault distributes weight outward and downward allowing for greater height with less material.
Most Romanesque churches had a towering presence, a symbol of wealth, power and authority standing over the low, land-wedded peasant, vassal, subject to the baron. A ruling family, patron of the church, might employ the tower in defense. Then too, the Romanesque tower is aspirational, a reaching toward God, as we will see in God’s houses of the next generation, the Gothic.
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Remember when a child you would stand upon tiptoe or chair, smile and remark, “I am bigger than you”. Yes, there is something of childish ego in building high, as in the old, tiresome competition for the world’s tallest, ugliest building. Yet in the Gothic there is something more, Beauty, the reaching toward heaven, the giving of God-like things to God. And there is this, the feeling, the force that bends the body when offering the rosary, that submission of the body to the soul that enlarges, raises you and all you are into the heavenly realm. You know the feeling. Just so in the Gothic cathedral.
Before the term “Gothic”, coined by Raphael in derision, a style of the Goths who raped and degraded Rome, the Gothic was the French Style, Francigenum (French work) flamboyant and flowery, as yet we Americans say, “Frenchy”. Progressives, whose mission is to give credit where credit is not due, refer to the style as “Saracen”, meaning a style of the European slaves of Islam … any queerish assertion will do when undermining Classive Civilization. In fact, the Gothic is a style of afront to Islam, a triumph of will, of cultural achievement … the construction of a cathedral is civilization’s greatest accomplishment, after putting an army on the field: without the army, no cathedral, without the dedication of men, no civilization.
The Gothic cathedrals of Europe surpass all previous architecture in bold exuberance, cultural commitment, and fealty to authority, authority to the lord, and to the Lord. The Gothic cathedral is the work of will, minds, and hands, skill generation into generation, an offering by a people to a God unchanging, fixed as are the stars, true as in the just conscience of the heart. Difficult for a frivolous people, creatures of hope and change to understand a consequential people, creatures of perseverance and faith. Yet, to see into a Gothic cathedral one must see with the heart’s eye into the soul of things.
And there is this: the building of a Gothic cathedral was the length of three generations, sometimes as-many-as five generations; son would follow father, follow grandfather in the trades of cathedral building (as in sculptors of our National Cathedral, whom I know); in finance, fortunes were given in exchange for a higher place in Heaven (indulgences, a contract between Christ’s vicar and a soul, a concept ontologically sound and likely true); from the 12th Century (1100s) until the 14th Century, circa 1350, Europe’s population doubled, allowing labor and wealth toward construction; the Black Death, circa 1350, killed 30% – 50% of Europe’s population (75 to 200 million people – actuaries are uncertain) … cathedral building stalled and faded, with but a brief, late resurgence, after the fall of Constantinople and the reawakening of the Classive.
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Imagine all the universe, its innumerable angels, the vast communion of saints, the canonical Bible whose stories extend to all that is possible in the human and the divine, and you will understand why, how the cathedral façade and every inch of its interior speaks. Build a tall wall of stone (as I have done) and you will understand the necessity of innovations in structure, scale, weight.
The pointed arch redirects weight better than does the barrel arch, allows greater stability in height. The lessening of stone and mass allows large areas to be open and light, open to allow light.
A half pointed arch anchors, stays a wall, discourages a wall from tipping over and collapsing. The rows of buttresses flanking a cathedral might be an expression of form following function, if the function intended is Beauty … reduce a flying buttress to its structural necessity and you will notice that Gothic form aspires to beauty, that Progressive form descends to ugliness, that Progressive function is dull, without meaning.
An aspiration, ambitious and proud, desirous of notice, as in the pointed, veil draping conical hat of a Gothic lady. The needle-like spier atop the tower of a Gothic cathedral reminds us of a tree’s uppermost branch and the arrested, arresting naturalism of Gothic stones.
Most often flamboyant, a stone canvas on which to draw-out God’s creation in all its variety and unity. Statuary and the yet unnumbered variations in architectural decoration overfill the eye and the mind with potentialities of God’s grandeur and human gratitude … imagine the knuckle-bruising effort in the carving of each leaf or figlet, the eye fixed in a concentration of hours, the minute-by-minute virtue-in-workmanship that denies the vice of but one error, and you will understand your awe when gazing up beneath a rising, Gothic façade.
An oft quoted detail of an edict from the Second Council of Nicaea, 787, declared, “The composition of religious images is not to be left to the inspiration of artists; it is derived from the principles put in place by the Catholic Church and religious tradition. Only the art belongs to the artist; the composition belongs to the Fathers.” Perhaps, but then Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini; before, Polykleitos, Lysippos, Praxiteles; yet of the Gothic period, true enough, and descriptive of a sculpture more crafted architecture than artistic statuary, hos epi to polu. Then again, the grotesques and gargoyles, tortured demons forced by God into serving his Bride, the Church, by directing water away from her delicate skin. I have heard many explanations of gargoyles (and have known the sculptor whose moniker is “the Gargoyle Guy”), and no explanation serves both reason and practice. Perhaps demons are merely an integral part of God’s creation, and so are pictured with all other things.
A decorative round window, most often radiating alike petals of a flower. Flamboyant and deeply, richly colored, the rose window tends to kaleidoscope-like abstraction.
Tracery, the dividing of windows (screens, panels, and vaults) into small, weight-bearing sections, allows an entire wall to serve as window. In fact, a dozen, or even a hundred little stone and metal framed windows might become a wall, a wall of light, of color that awakens our mind, as does a hymn to the stable, unchanging music of the spheres, the balance and symmetry that precedes and exceeds us, that true something that is forever without us, that we can know but cannot touch.
For a thousand years Rome of the West survived by the organizational structure of the Christian Church, and through the Church a continuation of Rome’s traditions of knowledge and wisdom, and education … even though Greek books of philosophy and art were lost and mostly forgotten. And yet, the Greek love of wisdom survived, prospered, prompted 13th century popes to seek proofs of God (for instance, Clement IV was Thomas Aquinas’ patron) which are the beginning of our empirical science. And the popes insisted on an educated priesthood, an informed laity, an insistence that created the university, and, so that the faithful could come to knowledge, prompted the building of churches within reasonable walking distance of population centers. Then the Black Death, then the decline of Rome in the East and the scholars who fled before conquering Islam, each scholar bringing with him ancient Greek knowledge and Greek books, philosophy that grounded the emotive aspirations of the Gothic.
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Much has been said of the Renaissance, its nearly miraculous occurrence, its innovations and energy, its lasting effects, and much credit is given to its philosophers, authors, artists and architects, and justly so. Most everyone knows that Renaissance means “rebirth”, yet few know what was reborn. Many will say, “The Renaissance is the rebirth of Classical Greco-Roman Civilization,” which is partly true. A fuller truth is that Greek culture and Roman values were sifted through Christian virtue. Gone are Rome’s murderous gladiatorial games and innumerable cruelties, gone are the Greek gods’ debaucheries and Greek effeminacies, and what is left is Plato’s purity of thought, ideal statuary, Aristotle’s classifications, the Causes and the ordered Orders of architecture; of the Roman, the common and universal law, equal justice, civic pride and stoic ambition remain.
And this, a most important Classive feature arisen from antiquity, Socrates’ notion of soul, reasoned, preceding revelation, the proposition that we are spirit and material … a notion contrary to Socrates’ contemporary, the materialist Democritus who proposed that all is but atoms and the void, that all that is, is merely chance. Later, the materialist Progressive will destroy everything in its path including the Renaissance idea of spirited material, spirited man, and spiritual churches suitable to God. (The materialist cannot survive if it has nothing to eat away.) And one thing more, Classive Civilization. We are yet a civilization born in classical Greece, matured in Socrates (et alia), expanded through Rome, and through Rome the Church of Christ with its Abrahamic heritage; these, Abraham, Greece, Socrates, Rome, and Christ combine to create a Classive Renaissance of fullness and great breadth.
Now, let us look into the Renaissance. But where to begin. In 1462, Cosimo de’ Medici installed the young Platonist, Father Marsilio Ficino, at the Medici’s Tuscan villa, and here Marsilio translated Plato and other Greek authors (whose books recently arrived from Constantinople’s diaspora) into Latin, sharing his translations with other scholars, civic leaders and artists who discussed Greek philosophy, and who would enlarge Roman ideas of God, man, and society. These Classive scholars formed a manner of school, the Medici’s Platonic Academy. Among its members, Lorenzo de’ Medici (later, Lorenzo the Magnificent), Pico della Mirandola (who composed Oration on the Dignity of Man, manifesto of the Renaissance), Bishop Gentile de’ Becchi, and many others, including the young Michelangelo. In 1492, year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Ficino wrote, “This century, like a golden age, has restored to light the liberal arts, which were almost extinct: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music…”.
Cosimo’s Florence villa, the Palazzo Medici, cradles within its enormity the Magi Chapel, a private chapel that pictures Angels in Adoration and the Journey of the Magi, a fresco of Greek Orthodox and the Roman Magisterium reunion. The centered altarpiece, Christ, Mary, Joseph, the Holy Family with John the Baptist, is flanked by devoted angels. Contiguous with the sacristy, the nave, and here verdant nature, fashion and civil concord, the Medici family and notables of the West; and there, the East, the Patriarch and the Emperor and scholars and priests and camels and horses on a road that meanders through the Tuscan hillside. This comingling of the Greek Church of the East and the Latin Church of West records an actual event, a healing of the schism that was nullified when Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, 1453. The quiet Magi Chapel is something less and something more than an expansive House of God, it is a retreat into excellence of a family ambitious of virtue and service, it is a precious jewel box that cherishes what is good and best of us all.
Around the corner from the Palazzo Medici is the Medici’s House of God, San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence, a Greek philosopher who converted to Christianity, became a pope, Sixtus II, and was martyred). Attached to the church, the Laurentian Library where recently discovered ancient books were mined for treasures of wisdom, knowledge, invention, and the Michelangelo designed Medici Chapel, a Classive room, neither Classical, Romanesque or Gothic, but a new thing, an inheritance of all best things, an invention from the mind of Michelangelo. When in the chapel you will notice that you are in a mind that knew the best of the best, a mind that had wisdom sufficient to curate then improve all of history. And you will notice that Michelangelo’s mind was not antique classical but a new thing, Classive, a distilling of the Hebraic, the Christian, the Greek and the Roman. And here a new man, heroic alike a saint, alike a soldier, a scholar-artist, the type that constructs the world, the type you know as Classive “genius”. This Medici Chapel is unlike the prettiness of the Magi Chapel, it is architecturally bold and certain, muscular in the ideal, and its heroic statuary fashions man as before the Fall, God-like, as in the family of Adam, as in the family of Laocoön whose statue Michelangelo witnessed when it was brought up from the rubble of Roman ruins.
Two-hundred seventy-five miles south of Florence, Rome and the Pantheon, a building that Michelangelo knew, a temple to the principal, pagan gods (in 609 reconsecrated the “Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs”). Its dome, largest in the world until Brunelleschi’s Florence Cathedral dome, forms a perfect sphere, a geometry of space and of time … at noon on 21 April of each year, Dies Natalis Urbis Romae, “the birthday of Rome”, streaming light from the Pantheon’s oculus shines fully upon the Pantheon’s gargantuan front doors. From the Pantheon’s example, many Renaissance churches divinely conceived in physical and mystical geometries, as is Santa Maria Novella, a geometry often unrestrained, exuberant, playful, clever, joyful and free.
A long mile from the Pantheon, the Old Basilica of Saint Peter, built over Nero’s Circus and centered upon Saint Peter’s grave. Commissioned by Constantine I (circa 320), old Saint Peter’s was designed in Constantine’s favored basilica form with, we are told, references to Solomon’s Temple, including the temple’s twisting, decorative columns, the so-called Solomonic columns of the Corinthian Order carried from Jerusalem to Rome and set into a niche of the wall in gargantuan Saint Peter’s.
By the ending of the Quattrocento (15th Century, 1400s) Old Saint Peter’s, home of the popes, had fallen into disrepair. A new building was needed, and the Colosseum was dismantled to provide materials for the new Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. Many popes contributed to the planning, designing, and building of New Saint Peter’s, including Pope Julius II (Rovere, for “Julius” Caesar) the Warrior, Leo X (Medici) who excommunicated the heretic Martin Luther, Pope Paul III (Farnese), humanist, patron who defended the Faith, the Magisterium, and Catholic dignity.
To build this magnificent House of God, largest in Christendom, larger than any temple of antiquity, Bramante, Raphael and other geniuses contributed designs, and yet the work exceeded to Michelangelo who consolidated all previous designs into a tight, expansive geometry capable of every adornment of statuary and pictuary. In all, the project was under construction for 120 years at a cost in gold yet uncalculated, at the cost of a Catholic – Protestant schism for which we are yet paying, and at the cost of souls who lost Faith, and perhaps, Heaven.
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As in the spheres of God’s balanced, measured universe, all architectural elements are geometrically composed with symmetry and harmony, rationality with proportion in both plan and elevation. Renaissance architecture is Platonist, alike Plato’s Theory of Forms, pure idea manifested in crafted material, artistic as in the poetics of Plato’s dialogues. See the Pazzi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.
Among the many books rescued and revitalized during the Renaissance, Vitruvius’ De architectura, “On Architecture” (dedicated to Augustus Caesar, circa 10 BC) from which the motto of Renaissance architects and all we Classives, firmitas, utilitas, et venustas, “firmness, commodity, and delight”, a prescription for good building and good design.
Also revived from Vitruvius, the proportioned man of a proportioned universe, that is, man as design, as designed by God … you know the concept through Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.
From Vitruvius, many translations and inspired treatises that dilate on the architectural Orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian columns and their features), appropriate use and creative potentialities. Of these Vitruvian books, Palladio’s (1508–1580) treatise I quattro libri dell’architettura, “The Four Books of Architecture” is most remarkable … the book includes Palladio’s measured designs, geometrical, symmetrical and proportional, beautiful in the way of God and man, designs that influence our domestic and civic buildings chapel to capital, to the upstanding American house upon the hill.
Statuary and Pictuary
Alike a church, man too is a temple, a vessel for the will of God, a heroic creature engaged in a spiritual battle of Good against Evil, Angel against Demon, a creature created to fulfill God’s design of time and of matter, a creature quite unlike the mud-made man of Prometheus, quite different from meaningless random atoms of the Progressive.
Standing-in for man, statuary and pictuary are wedded to a building. In their way, statuary and picturary become the building, necessary elements alike doors, windows, and ceiling. And yet the statue and the picture are something more than utilitarian; they are the idea of the building, objects that lend a building meaning, and sometimes, purpose.
Statuary and pictuary are necessary to a church, not only as Biblical narratives and reminders of saints and angels … statues and pictures carry the idea of saint or angel or parable into the object, inhabit the object of the church, and give the church a living presence. You will notice that the Renaissance statue and picture is not a clothed mannequin, as in Progressive sculpture, the Renaissance work-of-art is first, by design, the thing, the virtue, the idea, “Beauty, Goodness, Truth” merely pretending to be a statue or picture.
Upon his deathbed, Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of arts and science, benefactor of church and city, was bowed into submission to the theatrical friar, Savonarola. You will remember Savonarola for his Bonfire of the Vanities that induced Florentines to burn the beautiful things of this world, as did Botticelli who burned his own pictures, fell into penniless despair until rescued by the Medici family. Savonarola is often classed the first Protestant for his opposition to the Magisterium of the Church of Christ, a magisterium that excommunicated the friar. Soon, the Florentines put Savonarola to death, burning him upon the spot the vanities were burned. It is one thing to suggest destroying what is beautiful, true, and good in the world, it is another thing to make people do it.
As mentioned, building New Saint Peter’s Basilica, a house fitting to the majesty of God, was enormously expensive and partly paid by granting indulgence, forgiveness of sin in exchange for doing good financial or practical service in building God’s house … an indulgence condemned by the heretic priest, Martin Luther. In this, Luther was supported by German (read “gothic”) princes who resented their subject’s giving gold to the Church, gold the princes considered their own. In support of the princes, and in a personal conscience, Luther would claim that deeds are not necessary to achieve Heaven, that Heaven is achieved by faith alone, whatever the peculiar faith might be, a confusion that has in error augmented itself into the present day. So furious was the resentment that the Germans (the Goths) again burned Rome (Sack of Rome, 1527–1528), murdering 6,000 to 12,000 people, raping nuns and abusing priests, pillaging treasures, destroying and defacing pictures and statues, including Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican where MARTIN LUTHER was carved into Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, as can yet be seen.
As you would expect, Rome was again in ruin; Pope Clement VII was prostrate before princes who conquered the Papal States, keeping Italy in bondage until the late 19th Century (later than Greece was in bondage to Islam). As you might not expect, in response to chastisement and the intended degradation, The Holy Roman Church, now the “Catholic Church”, celebrated Christ in exuberance with renewed commitment in that energy we name “Baroque”, borroco, the “imperfect pearl”. The Protestant (from, “protested”) stripped their churches naked of art, first building Classive new churches, humble and spare, later building churches decorative and grand, often Gothic and rich. As you know, people will give gold to love, especially to the love of deity, as was recently seen in the many gifts to the departed princess Diana … why, 40 million dollars in flowers alone. But the old, Roman British have always emulated Rome, witness Wren’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, a Saint Peter’s Basilica, though smaller. Later, more on Wren’s Palladian Baroque-lite and the austere Protestant Church. Next, the inspired Catholic.
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Pope Paul III (Farnese) achieved the papal throne after the Sack of Rome, and immediately began to unify the Church, to reform Protestants, and to extend the Church to lands recently discovered, all in attempt to save souls. The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, were Spanish missionaries forged by the centuries-long battle to drive Islam from Spain, an order of faithful men, an order recognized and encouraged by Paul III; Soldiers of Christ whose mission was the saving of souls from damnation. From Asia through Africa to the Americas, Jesuits sought and found converts, organized congregations and constructed churches, Baroque churches, as in the Spanish Missions of our Southwest, as in the first great Baroque church in Rome, Chiesa del Gesù. Sculptor-architect, Giacomo della Porta, designer of the Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, designed Gesù’s façade, and also designed and sculpted Pope Paul III’s tomb in Saint Peter’s Basilica, a materially rich, flamboyantly colorful monument that admits a credit to Michelangelo. Notable of Paul III’s Early-Baroque, restrained expansiveness, the Sublimis Deus, the papal bull which forbids the enslavement of the Indians of the West and the South, and all other people who might later be discovered.
A few blocks from Chiesa del Gesù, in Piazza Navona (formerly The Stadium of Domitian) is Sant’Agnese in Agone, a baroque masterpiece by the temperamental, melancholic Francesco Borromini. Here, in the Baroque church is worship as theatre, as opera (coterminous with Sant’Agnese, mid-17th Century), poetry set to music and incorporating acting, scenery, costume, dance, each architectural element a stage set to surprise, to overwhelm, to move the spirit into union with scripture, a whirling twirling spinning of reason into faith. “Dizzying” you might say. There is in the High-Baroque church no place to rest the eye and ease the mind. Ceiling, walls, even the floor of the Baroque moves the eye by emotion to the enormity of God’s grandeur.
As in the competition between Catholic and Protestant to overwhelm the other, never before were artists so fully competitive, because never before were artists so challenged to redeem themselves in genius. Unfortunately, Borromini was a genius; unfortunately there was Bernini. Borromini, overborne by Bernini, desperately, theatrically fell upon his sword, severed himself and died. “Very Baroque of him,” some have said.
Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), painter, sculptor, architect, poet, playwright, designer of furniture, operas, festivals and cities was a prodigy who created his first marble statue when 8-years old, who when 15 scorched his leg with hot iron so that he might witness the face of agony, the face he put on his statue of Saint Lawrence … so great his accomplishments, so great his fame that when invited by Louis XIV to France, Parisians lined the streets for miles to see what a genius looked like. Tell me, has anyone seen an artistic genius, lately. At the ending of his life, Bernini engaged in religious exercise, attending Mass, worshiping God (asking forgiveness of his many mortal sins, as who would not), and making statues, even after a stroke and the amputation of his arm (see Bernini’s Bust of the Savior).
Bernini, so committed to exceeding that when his grandiose, monumental bell tower for Saint Peter’s Basilica was taken down, because of a structural crack, Bernini took to bed nearly starving to death, torturing himself, convinced that the pope’s chastisement for prideful negligence was justified. In truth, the crack was in the Basilica’s façade and not Bernini’s fault. I mention the preceding detail to demonstrate the devotional commitment of the Catholic artist, and to show why the Catholic did not surrender to the Protestant.
Magnificent Baroque Houses of God are found from Asia through Europe to the Americas, each church exhibiting something of that exuberance and theatricality by which the Baroque is known. Most churches of the style remember the Roman, Michelangelo, and the Architectural Orders. In some places, churches are softened into pastels, in some, starkly drawn in white, everywhere the Baroque church is embellished with statuary, pictuary, and those flourishes of decoration both natural and abstract. We might conclude this observation of the Baroque with Pietro da Cortona’s Santi Luca e Martina church and his architecturally suburb fresco, Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power, glorifying Pope Urban VIII (Barberini), a picture that suggests the Late-Baroque, the “Rococo”, that onomatopoetic word which describes a delightful, frivolous lightness. Instead, for example, Bernini’s Baldachin ensemble and his Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, also known as the Transverberation of Saint Teresa, is theatrical statuary set within the most Baroque of architectural stages. Pictured within the stage, Saint Teresa quivers in ecstasy as God’s sensual angel delicately pierces her heart with a silver arrow. Above and behind the dreamy cloud upon which Teresa and the angel float, the Holy Spirit’s golden light rains down. In the theatre boxes to either side the central stage, marble men of the Cornaro family react to the semi-erotic scene. All around, the geometry of precious stone, cavorting cherubs, flowing coats of arms, blossoming Corinthian columns, and that dynamic bending of space that excites the senses.
Centered in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Bernini’s 93’ high Baldacchino that covers the great altar, which itself covers Saint Peter’s subterranean tomb. Beyond, the magnificent Chair of Saint Peter lightly held aloft by doctors of the Church, Saints Augustine, Ambrose, John, and Athenais. Above floats a choir of angels upon a starburst of cloud. Centered in the starburst, the Holy Spirit pictured in luminous, golden glass. And treasured within the ensemble, the actual oaken chair of Saint Peter, God’s vicar on earth, a relic last publicly seen in 1867. Mounted high upon contiguous walls, two almost unnoticed niches that contain columns from the Temple of Solomon, looking tiny and simple in this greatest of the houses of God.
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We know ourselves by story, by the poetry of parable. The Bible, often subtitled, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is held true, factually, absolutely True by the Magisterium and many Protestant … well, by the Magisterium until the Progressive apostasies of Vatican II. Point is, artists and architects of the Baroque thought the stories true, as in “literally”, and told the stories in the grandeur God deserves. We cannot say that Baroque artists believed the stories. No, belief admits possibility of untruth. Baroque artists knew the stories True by faith, true by evidence and by account. For instance, Bernini illustrated the written account by Saint Teresa as the script for his theatrical statuary.
The proper response to God is awe, on your knees awe, bent to earth … consider your quivering submission if Saint Michael was to tower in flame before you, how much more awed would you be bent in God’s magnificence … at the least, thrown from your horse hard upon the ground, quivered, blinded by the Divine Presence, as Paul relates he was when on the road to Damascus. Point is, Baroque art puts you in the presence of God, in His House, where each device of human invention is employed to express all Creation in forms worthy of God’s grandeur.
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Trompe-l’œil, “fool-the-eye” pictuary and statuary of angels and saints and all manner of things upon ceilings, the whole composed to give the impression of three-dimensional heaven.
Ellipticals and Ovals
Ellipticals and ovals eliminate corners, expand spaces and distort perception … useful devices in suspending disbelief.
Alike an emblazoned shield upon which messages in word and image can be conveyed … most often curved, oval, elaborate with scrolls and leaflets and festoons.
The Solomonic column is like a corkscrew, alike a corkscrew it implies the sprung, impending action of change, the turning of the cork, transfiguration from a bottle into poured wine, water pressure exploding in energy with force; not at stretch to say “as in the transfiguration of the Host”. Anthropomorphism, as in Vitruvius’ personification of columns, Doric, the stout man, Ionic, the gentleman or lady, Corinthian, the great lady, Solomonic, the man in action, as in Bernini’s David who constricts himself to a full tension whose inevitable return is the spring that hurtles the stone that fells Goliath, and all that came after.
After an exuberant storm we appreciate the retreating quiet, the return to stillness, the rest from awe and the return of reason … the patterning of repeating elements that calm the soul. Next, sincere worship, justification, and the laconic House of God.
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Christopher Wren (1632 – 1723), a scientist, professor of mathematics and astronomy, designed 52 churches for London after the Great Fire of 1666. Most notably, Saint Paul’s, built upon London’s highest point, then the largest Protestant Church in all the world, a church in the family of Palladio’s Il Redentore, “Church of the Most Holy Redeemer”. When I think of Redentore, I recall the 46,000 people who died of the Venetian Plague for whom the church is a votive offering; when I think of Saint Paul’s I recall Churchillian doggedness, its bold stand against the Nazi Blitzkrieg, and its faithful rebuilding. The Italian church, an overflowing of gratitude; the British church, a business of getting on with it; both domed, double towered, with Roman façade and arched vaulting. The British (Roman since 42 A.D.) quit the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 because the Pope would not grant King Henry VIII another divorce. The royal, Catholic-lite Anglican Church (most catholic of Protestant denominations) was formed by Henry as an expediency, an arm of power subject to his will and the vagaries of change.
Wren’s other London churches are also Palladian, sober with those reductions urged by the peculiar Protestant liturgy. In the protestant there are few angels, no saints, sometimes a pictured parable, and often a prince or benefactor in statuary set to the wall. Should mention, in churches converted from Catholic to Protestant a prince might remove sacred relics, et cetera, while roving Protestant mobs would often strip churches of decorations, tear pictures and hammer statues into submission, as lately the Progressive Catholic Church has done to its beautiful churches and traditions. And then, since deeds and sainthood are in the Protestant, nonstarters, the Word is emphasized, and refinements of acoustics are developed, the sounding board, hollow space, raised pulpit, shallow ceiling, organ loft, or as in these days, blaring speakers.
Many of Wren’s other London churches are steepled, that form now common to much of Europe and to the American small town and countryside. As in London, as in most places, churches are built upon hills, the physical and ontological high-point of a place, and are built tall, taller with an aspiring steeple so that the church might be seen, both by man and by God. And the steeple when a belltower (belfry) will call the faithful to service, will call on the hour the faithful to remembrance, will in occasional beautiful snatches of song call everyone to goodness and holiness … the mind likes reminders. And too, Wren’s steeple designs remember the Gothic, though streamlined with a single centered tower rather than with redundant double flanking towers. American examples are usually alike the boxy, whitewashed New England meetinghouse fronted with a respectable tower, sometimes plain, sometimes elaborate (always in the steeple I am put in mind of a respectable, upright gentleman or lady, but then, I am a sculptor). Each nation will have a remembrance of its towering tradition, as does Germany with its Bavarian elements, as in Thomaskirche, “Saint Thomas Church”, where Martin Luther preached, where Mozart played the organ, where Wagner studied music, where Bach was choir composer and choir director … why, his Mass in B Minor is almost worth all the trouble that Luther caused.
Alike Wren, James Gibbs was scientific in his archeological, anthropological architecture. Typical of his time, Gibbs was an empiricist, one who believes that knowledge comes from sensuous, physical experience. As you know, empiricists would catalogue everything, giving us encyclopedias and sticker books by which the all of everything can be seen, posted and identified. Gibb’s pattern books of architecture (Book of Architecture, Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture, and Bibliotheca Radcliviana) feature houses for government, people, and God, subdivided and catalogued. So much did Gibb’s influence American houses of God, that with copies of his books in hand you can identify a specific design by page and numerical reference. In fact, when traveling along the Eastern seaboard, a Gibb’s steepled church can be found in one town and the next, and the next, until you run out of gas. His Saint Martin-in-the-Fields is something of a prototype, and rightly so, it is lovely and seemly. This material, empirical chic of picturing all variations of possible features in each prototype of every category is yet in vogue, as is seen in these pages of The Beautiful Home.
Saint Martin-in-the-Fields recalls the Roman bishop Martin of Tours, not the European Martin Luther, the first empiricist. Saint Martin-in-the-Fields was built upon a Roman Christian cemetery in Westminster, London, then a country field, now a Classive piazza. Saint Martin in fealty to the Church built the parish system; Martin Luther in revolt against the Church destroyed the parish system. The one accepted Church authority, the other rejected authority, accepted reasoned opinion. Empiricism is reasoned opinion based on observation, empiricism is not wisdom, but a knowledge gained from sensual experience, knowledge subject to chance, condition, and situation. The empiricist looks for the example, the model of some fact, and from this fact derives a subjective truth, a particular truth that might suggest a universal ideal. All empiricism is a search for the ideal, the ideal form, the ideal object, the ideal society. There is something heady in the dizzying supposition that personal experience accomplishes enlightenment. The Enlightenment, from Luther to Descartes to Locke to Voltaire to Jefferson to Adam Smith to Darwin, the declining Western mind that died in the gas of Progressivism, was an Age of Reason, of experiment whose greatest experiment, the political American Experiment was its greatest production.
Churches of the Enlightenment are classical in the Platonic Ideal, that fealty to an ideal form beyond the physical, an abstract form in the ineffable image of God. Greek, Roman, Hellenistic forms were most ideal, the most ideal until the new classical, the Neoclassical, the Classive variation that chronologically follows the Renaissance and Baroque. Neoclassical churches continued in strength until the insinuation of progress weakened the ideal. Progress does not allow the ideal, stability in an ordered universe; progress demands change, insists on freedom to destroy, alike the notion of the Progressive Tree of Death, that elimination of species by random experiments of chance, condition, and situation, each new species eliminating, supplanting the tired old species. This is Modernism, the cult of the new. Stability and change are not compatible; evolution and creation not compatible: God in the ideal survived until change killed God, sacred architecture and the ideals Beauty, Goodness, Truth.
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New Classical Elements
The pulpit, a raised stand from which to share the Gospel, the “Good Word”, predates the gospels, is ancient and was employed by Greeks, Romans, Hebrews as a speaking platform. In the traditional church, the pulpit and ambo were placed at the side of the sanctuary, near the centralized altar. Sometimes, the pulpit is in the nave, close to the congregation and topped with a canopy that serves as sounding board. The Protestant, having no or little use of altars, gives the pulpit primacy of place, Word before body, talk before Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass. Often, in the Protestant church the pulpit is celebrated, elaborate, impressively high, the one extravagance in an architecture of restraint. In Progressive churches the pulpit is usually an abstract sculpture, a species of modernistic icon.
Occasionally a tower is found adjacent to an antique temple; Gothic churches often sport a spire or two; the practice of a single steeple, tamed, well-measured and well-behaved began in England with Wren and other 17th Century architects. A steeple might be small, a spire upon a box, or it might be a belfry, lantern and spire topping a tower. Most often a steeple is centered above a church’s front pediment, and often the steeple will have a clock and belfry; the belfry, a room for the bells of song.
The organ loft is a raised platform that houses the organ and usually the organist. Sometimes, an organ will be placed where once there was a choir, sometimes the organ shares space with a choir. Since Bach and other musical masters of the 18th and 19th centuries, organ lofts have become common, most often found above the narthex, at the church entrance, opposite the sanctuary.
Regrettably, now we come to the tedious, ubiquitous “Theory of Evolution”, a dubious supposition born of empirical cataloging, wild speculation, and the dogmatic impulse. And we come to poor, confused, misused Darwin, a hopeful scientist who got most everything wrong, trusting that time and evidence would prove his theory. Neither time nor evidence were his friends … mathematics, physics, geology, anthropology, biology each day remove themselves farther and farther from tired old evolution, despite enforced compliance to the dead theory in education, government, and society. Yes, we’ve all seen Haeckel’s fish embryo to human embryo graphic, we have all seen the Tree of Life drawing, and we have all seen the walking monkey to walking man diagram. Look again.
In truth, there is no evidence of evolution from chimpanzee to human, and no “missing-link” has been found, never will be found because Darwin’s theory is wrong. Haeckel’s human-fish embryo sketch was a fraud, made-up, and yet it is used in classrooms to this day … actual photographs of embryos show the human embryo to be unique, nothing like the fish embryo. The “Tree of Life” is a Tree of Death, a record of extinguished species that offers no evidence, none!, of new species creation. Look around: species go extinct; show me a species evolved to existence. Species are fixed and do not change, though variation within species offers limited adaptations, yet not enough for a monkey to someday carve the David or compose Hamlet … a billion years and monkeys will not solve a complex equation, baboons will not compose a musical score, apes will not design a space craft, this will not happen. And yet, the Theory of Evolution, a Progressive, soulless, materialist theory can change, can devolve churches and corrupt civilization, as we shall see.
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At the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter, Rome, in the fifth year of his Pontificate, on the 8th day of September 1907, Pope Saint Pius X issued the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, “On The Doctrines Of The Modernists”, a definition and a warning of Progressive Modernism, its atheism and destructive power. Long before others warned of atheist communism, progressive debauchery, destruction of beauty, and the corruption of society, Pius X foresaw all that was to become ugly, evil in our Modern world. On the 1st day of September 1910, Pius X issued a motu proprio titled Sacrorum antistitum, the “Oath Against Modernism” which prescribed that all clerics and seminary teachers take an oath denouncing Modernism, which all did, many with fingers crossed. From these deceitful, finger-crossing clerics came Vatican II, weakness and failure of the Catholic Church, the destruction of altars, the emptying of pews, the degradation of society. With Catholic Church failure, abdication of responsibility and rejection of Christ’s tradition, our Classive Civilization has weakened to near collapse.
From 1962 through 1965, modernists orchestrated the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, “Vatican II”, a reimagining of Christ’s place in the world, a remaking of ancient liturgy, a remodeling of church buildings … the demotion of Christ, the promotion of a distracted world, a rearranging of church furniture for convenience of visitors. As in earlier Protestant remodelings, altars were destroyed, paintings were torn away, statues were dumped in rubbish piles, sacristies were dismantled, et cetera. In the end, it became fiscally convenient to demolish old Classive churches emptied of beauty and to construct new, liturgically empty Progressive church buildings, churches typical of Progressive architecture, structurally brutal, ignobly material, uncomfortably anti-human, and most thoroughly soulless.
Vatican II deconstructions were aggressively enforced in 1971, intolerant enforcements that have increased with less or more energy these past 50-years. This year, 2023, one of the numerous synods assembled to hurry along modernization of the Catholic church. This synod, a most Progressive synod, the “Synod on Synodality” (scheduled October), is intended to complete the work of Vatican II, to demote traditional bishops, promote anti-Catholic laity, queer theory, marriage between non-binary priests, and other changes to construct a new church on the bones of the old. This new construction has been compared to the building of new Saint Peter’s by Julius II (1506) upon Constantine’s Old Saint Peter’s (333). Progressives have stated that the old Classive walls have been torn down and that what is now needed is a new, Progressive roof to close all in. Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic church, intends (as he has said) to upside the world’s pyramid, placing the most unknowledgeable, most ungodly of people (the vast majority) on top of faithful people and the clergy. Pope Francis refers to this upsidedowning as the “Will of the Holy Spirit” at work upon the earth. The pope’s Holy Spirit is “prevailing popular opinion”, an abdication of Catholic authority, a submission to worldly whim that will reduce the Catholic Church to just another Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), a not-for-profit that serves the interests of secular governments.
The “Impulse for Change”, the philosophy that orders a world extraneous from God, has many names, each with a common organizing principle. Progressivism, Modernism, Materialism are all one in Atheism … materialism being the first atheism. Materialism, the proposition that “all is but soulless atoms and the void”, and that “all change is mere chance” is an old proposition, a very old proposition that began with Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 B.C.), contemporary of Socrates and Plato. Materialism (material body) proposes that “all is material without purpose beyond what is randomly ascribed”. Socratic Spiritualism proposes that “bodies have souls infused with the Ideal spirit” (this a Dualist principal, the material body and spirited soul as one). Socrates and Plato assumed that by virtue each person could emulate the supreme Ideal, that by learning and practice a person might approach and perhaps achieve Beauty, Goodness, Truth, id est, God.
Christ completed the Platonic concept of the Good by directing each person to perfection of the soul by subordinating the body to virtue, by discouraging the base appetite for vice, those pleasures destructive of God’s goodness. The Materialist proposition assumes progress by change in chance (as does Darwin) when each person creates a separate, unique goodness that serves whim or necessity, whims and necessities that have no end beyond ending. The Dualist (spirit & body) proposition is classical Hellenic, the insight that each person has a destiny in part God given, in part personally determined. The Christian Dualist understands that by virtue in emulation of the Good, life accomplishes the glory of God’s plan.
In brief, in truth, the Classive is souled, the Progressive is soulless. This truth is seen in all buildings designed by Progressive materialists, the moderns of whom Saint Pius X warned. You will notice in all Progressive buildings haphazard chance, gaping spaces, the void, patterns alike textbook atoms, materials disarranged by prideful whim, materials inconvenient to bodies, inconsiderate of souls. You will not find God or the human in Progressive Materialist churches, you will not find parables beautifully pictured, saints ideally formed in statues, you will not find God’s natural beauty of leaf and flower in sanctified ornaments. You will find nothing human in Progressive architecture, nothing of God’s nature, you will find cold gaping spaces, empty abstract symbolism, walls and ceilings that hover or attack.
Buildings designed for persons without souls are different than buildings designed for persons with souls. The soul has different requirements than the body, the soul wants Beauty, Goodness, Truth, and eternal life; the body wants some convenience, food, and an easy death. Architects who design for the souled are Classives; architects who design for the soulless are Progressive. Progressive architects conflate newness with change; Classives know that the new is development within tradition.
Among Progressive liturgical changes, a turning away from God in His tabernacle to people in their pews, an offering toward people who watch a show, as one watches in a theatre, rock stadium or classroom. This, the Novus Ordo, the “new order of the mass”, a liturgy that breaks Christ’s Last Supper tradition, a touchy-feely newness composed to fill seats and offering baskets. The theatre-like quality of churches has created theatre-like buildings, sometimes in the round, as in a stage-in-the-round, that stage that juts into an audience as in Brechtian theatre or Cirque du Soleil. Sometimes, Progressive churches assume the form of fan-shaped amphitheaters, oval basketball courts or squared spectacle spaces, and here are found deafening magnified speakers and huge television screens that project preachers into god-scale proportion.
For a time, the acoustic-guitar church was popular, intimate, often of homey brick, heavy wood-beam and paneling, decorated in folksy hangings and artsy-craftsy stuff, the whole dimly lit by oddly cut multi-colored glass in the manner of Mondrian or of Chagall. Lately, the starchitect church, the “signature” church composed to attract news stories and hipster praise, built to be featured on magazine covers, to win fame for architects who are the most new, most Progressive, most advanced in the front line of attack upon Classive tradition.
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Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, England (1967) is a concrete abstraction of the tabernacle tent, setting for a James Bond villain, an oppressively heavy cement pile, part bunker, part radio tower.
The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, United States (1970) is alike a washing machine appliance with a spun twisted cross that tips its top; its interior has a massive anthill ceiling that threatens collapse upon flattened pews.
Santuario Madonna della Lacrime, Italy (1966 – 1994) is part tent, part appliance, part sorcerer’s hat, a structure that might be centerpiece of a rural sculpture park, a star destroying lazar gun, or evil-scientist headquarters.
North Christian Church, United States (1964) is a modernist masterpiece celebrated in press and histories, a beam-me-up structure whose interior is subterranean, a hall for the high inquisition, a money-pit, a failed structural experiment, a landmark given its “Celebration of Life” funeral (2022); now condemned.
The Church of light, Japan (1999) is a tight concrete prison block structure with speakers, wall-fan and inquisition lights.
The Parish Church of Santa Monica, Spain (2015) is a slow crawling Star Wars junk-truck, the thing of a desert planet with many projecting eyes that google themselves in search of you; inside, crumpled paper in lieu of sacred statues, etch-a-sketches and splotches in place of divine pictures.
The Nova Serrana Chapel, Brazil (2016) is ecumenical, a space that is empty … yes, empty, nothing in it, it is a concrete twisty with a hovering lid, the perfect metaphor of Progressive collaboration.
Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Germany (2007) is tranquil, like a prison cell; dedicated to Saint Nicholas von der Flue, constructed of 120 trees cut from a nearby forest, encased by concrete, then set alight, burned in the concrete bunker until each living tree became blackened coal and fallen ash … very modern German in metaphor, allegory of the Progressive, Catholic Church.
Should mention, the Synod on Synodality is lead by the German Bishops, boosters of queerness, diversity, inclusion, the obliteration of tradition, convention, and memory.
Each Progressive church answers the requirements of Vatican II modernist potentialities, each is a theatre for the Novus Ordo, each is stripped of all that is naturally human, that is divinely harmonious in the way of God, each Vatican II modernist church is disconcertingly asymmetrical or oppressively symmetrical. Each Progressive church erases the 2,000-year tradition of Christ’s Church, its resonances, references, and regal authority.
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Bald concrete and other materials, rusted steel, stainless steel, and plate glass replace the angels and saints of the sculptural liturgy, the statued hagiography necessary to Catholic orthodoxy. Bold modernistic materials proclaim themselves, deny all claims of saintly predecessors and angelic posterity. Concrete, steel and glass become symbols of pride, huge, intolerable, ponderous.
The antithesis of human bilateral symmetry, of comfort and order is everywhere subverted in the asymmetries of Progressive, modernist churches. If symmetrical, insistently so, alike the beehive, the patterned prison-cell or stamping machine.
Stadium seating, speakers and stage-set concert lights are common in the new Protestant church and new synagogue, rare in the new, oppressive Catholic church. Fully integrated with contemporary fashions and clever invention, the stadium church is an events space, a place of performance and fell-good activity.
Increasingly, the church, the temple, the synagogue, the mosque are plugged in, electrical and bureaucratical, integrated with Modernity, the technologies of entertainment, information, and observation. Security cameras, computerized lights, sound systems are integrated, self-consciously modernistic in design, digital in aesthetic.
Extraterrestrial, Martian-like alien qualities of science fiction is the rule for Progressive, modernist churches. Think of buildings from a foreign planet with no knowledge of human history and you will know the prototype of all modernist churches.
The Progressive intends to destroy tradition, to deny humanity, to erase history to change the world in preparation for the new god of Progress. The Progressive cannot be stopped in a universe of atoms and void, inevitably changing without meaning or purpose.
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With each tired Progressive church building comes manufactured excitements that fade alike excitements from public relations firms and issues boosters, windy prevarications that permeate like breezes from the waste disposal plant. Since the advent of Modernism, each new church emulates each old new church, and each new, new church proclaims itself to be the church of today … in truth, all Progressive churches of the past seventy years have been churches of the old 1960s, the passé revolution, dated, unloved, most often condemned by building departments and congregations. Each tired Progressive church has a mission statement or artist statement, proclamations and fibs that appeal to the moment’s fashion. The fib, the happy-talk, the prevarication and proclamation are often all that remains when a congregation abandons the new, ugly church building.
As with all that is Modern Progressive, a cataloguing and survey. For instance:
58% (the highest percentage) say that traditional sacred art is most important.
Progressive architects seldom include art in design (sacred or secular), and if they do, the art is most often modernistic, awkward and vile, seldom, if ever, traditional. Progressive architects consider their buildings to be sculpture, abstract and aggressive.
Only 10% of congregants prefer churches in the round.
Architects overwhelmingly prefer to build churches in the round … subverts hierarchy and patriarchy.
In another survey, 73% of congregants said that traditionalism is important in church design, and 89% admitted that church design strongly effects their experience of the Mass. If, as has been claimed, Vatican II invited the architectural profession to contribute “its own voice” to the liturgy, for the most part congregations would like modern architects to shut up.
Unfortunately, most Protestant and Catholic churches are Progressive, dying, losing authority, delivering congregations to the world and to the devil. And yet, where there is tradition within faith, congregations grow, renovate Progressive church buildings, return beauty and meaning to experience in faith. Traditional, faithful congregations commission beautiful new churches designed by Classive architects, architects who remember tradition, respect liturgy, and honor God.
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The renewed Classive church building, often misnamed, “neoclassical”, became popular in response to tradition destroying Vatican II, became widespread in response to the anti-human, ugly churches spawned by the Progressive inclinations of Vatican II. Classive churches of the murderous, increasingly atheist late-20th Century employed a cautious Protestant floorplan, a plan suited to Ordinary Rite classroom instruction rather than to Catholic sacrificial ritual. With good will, architects of Classive churches tended to respect Vatican II, its professed intentions and proclamations. When papal encyclicals were shown to be modernist manifestos, when professed “good intentions” were proven to be malice, congregations rebelled, religious orders resisted, architects rethought alliances and designed renewed Classive churches for the Extraordinary Roman Rite, the Traditional Latin Mass.
As we know, the Ordinary Rite is directed to an audience of people; the Extraordinary Rite is directed to the worship of God. Each rite requires floorplans and spaces suited to its liturgy; the ordinary Novus Order (new Order) might take any form typical to theatres, performance and observation; the extraordinary Roman Rite is suitable to temple procession, sacred ritual, worship and sacrifice. To serve the new Church of the new liturgy, Vatican II bureaucrats demanded changes in existing churches, ordered design of new churches. Soon, the Vatican inspired a vogue for tearing away pictures, smashing statures, and jackhammering altars. The Vatican was surprised that jackhammering proved unpopular with congregations but was satisfied by praise from modernist architects. The Holy See might have expected that reoriented, art-empty churches would soon be emptied of congregations, and might have guessed that brutal Progressive churches would not attract replacement congregants. But no. In an unforeseen double whammy, the Catholic Church was diminished, left with worthless, expensive real-estate holdings both of brutalized Classive churches and of Brutalist Progressive churches.
Recently, Classive architects have designed churches for traditional Catholic, ceremonial worship, rich in statuary, pictuary, and other ornaments whose beauty urges devotion and inspires faith. This return to tradition is often opposed by Progressive, modernist Vatican hierarchy. Even so, beautiful churches rich in ecclesiastical ornament have returned … and with the return of beauty, congregations have returned to the Church and the Faith.
In retrospect, it was obvious that Progressive architects would fail to create spiritual spaces suitable to good people, to the enlargement and improvement of souls. There was wisdom in the 3,000-year Classive tradition of Beauty, Goodness, Truth in pictuary, statuary, and ornament. There was successful precedent in Christ’s example through nearly 2,000 years of the Roman Rite. Both the Roman Rite and Classive Beauty were jack-hammered by Vatican II Progressives.
Sacred images aid liturgical understanding, fellowship with saints, inspiration to do good and be good. We are God’s creatures, natured in the way of God, made to fill His Creation; we do not create, we make from what God created designs after the pattern of divine reason. Classive architects know this; Progressive architects do not. Contemporary Classive churches are soulful, human, divine; contemporary Progressive churches are soulless, anti-human, atrocious. Pope Saint John Paul II, the Great, in his “Letter to Artists” (1999) encouraged a return to beauty and tradition, inspired a renewal of the Classive that is now in early flower, a renewal that perplexes Pope Francis, that stymies the Modernists of Vatican II.
You will find in new Classive churches of the Catholic faith beautiful pictuary of The Good Shepherd, of Mother Mary, of the saints in telling episodes of martyrdom and devotion, you will find respectful, intelligent statuary of Joseph, the Mother & Child, Christ Jesus, Saint Thomas and Saint Augustin, you will find respect, honor, humility, goodness and beauty.
Often, the Classive Renewal is found in refurbished churches once stripped of beauty by the Vatican II impulse, and in sincere, folksy churches that lend themselves to beautification. Orthodox Modernist churches are beyond reform and are abandoned or ignored by Classives and congregations. Classive Renewal churches are pure in sincerity, essentially apostolic, and true to tradition. It might be said that “Classive Renewal churches are remembering the reality of a universe defining Catholic Church”. With each Classive Renewal church, sacred atmosphere and Christian form comes better into focus. From respectful, intelligent Classives, we can expect beautiful innovation and we can anticipate inventions true to ancient tradition,to established liturgy, and to the glory of God.
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Concluding with a beginning: To the south of Jerusalem in an area named Beit Loya there is a mostly forgotten cave that was occupied during a period of intensive Christian persecution (circa 200). Within the cave an inscription in Greek, IECOYC ODE, which reads, “Jesus is Present”. Preceding the inscription, a primitive cross of that period; below, a developed cross added later, we assume. This cave at Beit Loya is the earliest Christian church yet found.
You will recall that Christ died for our sins, removing sin so that we might be near sinless God, the source of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, the All of all that is. But why in this earliest of early churches the inscription, “Jesus is Present”? After crucifixion, Christ arose from death that He might be with us, present in the world that He might lead us. As Christ said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them”. Here at the cave of Beit Loya, the Mass and our first house of Christ Jesus.
Contemporary with the Beit Loya church, the oldest known Christian hymn, the Oxyrhnchus Hymn (circa 260), composed in Greek and yet surviving with musical notation:
Let it be silent
Let the luminous stars not shine
Let the winds … and all the noisy rivers die down
And as we hymn the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit
Let all the powers add Amen Amen
Empire praise always and glory to God
The sole giver of good things Amen Amen
translation, M.L. West
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Featured image, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. credit: Dino Ph
For more on the Houses of God, see The Beautiful Home: American Sacred Architecture
Catholic Church Architecture
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