It Doesn't Have to Be Ugly

July/August 2005By Michael Morris

Fr. Michael Morris, O.P., received his Ph.D. in Art History from Berkeley. He teaches at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, and is a monthly contributor to Magnificat magazine.

In Tiers of Glory: The Organic Development of Catholic Church Architecture Through the Ages .  By Michael S. Rose. Mesa Folio Editions. 136 pages.. $29.95.



Michael S. Rose is an intellectual street fighter. Nearly every one of his books published in the past few years has stirred up controversy. Goodbye, Good Men (2002) exposed the moral corruption of the American seminary system leading up to the pedophilia scandals of the clergy. Ugly as Sin (2001) and The Renovation Manipulation (2000) took on the deplorable state of Catholic culture from the viewpoint of Church architecture and liturgy. The arrows in his quiver can be stinging if you are a bishop, priest, liturgical renewal expert, or trendy architect. Rose’s books appeal especially to those lay Catholics who feel that they have endured nearly 40 years’ worth of Church leaders who do not seem to know God’s ways, leaders who have presided over the auto-destruction of a once vibrant Church.

This book is a less combative effort to shore up Catholic culture. In Tiers of Glory: The Organic Development of Catholic Church Architecture Through the Ages is a primer for those who may have forgotten or simply don’t know anything about the history of Church architecture. Divided into 11 chapters, In Tiers of Glory features a myriad of color photographs and illustrations that chart the origins and development of sacred space in two thousand years of Catholic history. It is, in essence, a kind of catechism of Catholic architecture for those who have been led to believe that Church history, theology, culture, and liturgy all began somewhere around 1968. It is a survival guide for those parishioners who have been victimized by the clerical conceit that Father still knows best in this so-called age of the layman, especially when it comes to matters of liturgy, art, and architecture.

In response to what Rose sees as so much banality and ugliness in contemporary Catholicism, he reintroduces the importance of memory. The Church was once the mistress of the arts, inspiring, guiding and enriching Western civilization with so many masterpieces of art that to ignore her formative presence would be pure folly.

Nevertheless, there have been occasional lapses in that history, when Gnostic and other zealots rose up and destroyed the imagery of faith, preferring their Christianity unadorned and stripped bare. There have been three great periods of iconoclasm in Church history. The first took place in the eighth century, when the Byzantine Emperor Leo III prohibited religious images in all churches of the Eastern Empire. Despite his excommunication by the pope, the imperial edict against images was strictly enforced, and centuries of religious art in the East were destroyed. The second great period of iconoclasm took place in the West with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The third great period of iconoclasm is peculiar to Latin Catholicism — the present period after Vatican II. Only now the banishment of images, the denuding of churches, the debasement of architecture, and the deconstruction of liturgy have been actions spearheaded by bishops, priests, and religious — in the name of renewal. For the most part, laymen did not ask for these changes. The gnosis of renewal was primarily a clerical impulse. The laity was expected to attend re-education programs and pay for the renovation of their churches — and like it.

Not all of them did. Many of them still don’t. And some, such as Rose, have become proactive in offering a counter-vision of renewal by sensitizing the laity and some disillusioned clerics to the memory of a Catholicism that fared much better when it was in the world but not so blatantly of it. Rose’s illustrated book recalls the many phases of Church architecture, the “tiers of glory” as he refers to them, with a short and concise history explaining the development of each style. Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Revivalist periods of Church architecture are addressed with the understanding that one particular shape has endured through the ages: the basilican plan. With its central nave, side aisles, sanctuary, and apse, the basilica seems to have provided for Christians of every age a floor plan that works. And because it has worked for so long, it has become one of those valuable memory links to the past, transforming architecture into “vessels of meaning,” something Rose views as vitally important to a contemporary Catholicism suffering from amnesia.

After an informative but brief tour of the history of religious architecture in the first nine chapters, Rose lays down his basic argument in chapter 10. This chapter highlights the numerous church projects (launched in the 20th century, primarily by clerics) that have strayed from tradition and indulged in the shock of the new. Novelty is a hallmark quality of the Modernist movement, and churchmen were not immune to its siren call.

The French Dominicans in particular were responsible for many of the religious buildings of the 20th century which are considered modern masterpieces: The churches of Assy and Ronchamp, the monastery of La Tourette, and the Matisse Chapel at Vence. The man behind these innovative works was an artist turned friar, Alain Couturier. In the early 20th century, Père Couturier had studied in Paris under the renowned artist (and Third Order Dominican) Maurice Denis, in an atelier devoted to reviving sacred art. Denis claimed that to be a good religious artist one must first be a stalwart believer. Couturier broke with his mentor on this point and enunciated a new philosophy claiming that the Spirit blows where it wills; trust in genius without worrying about religious affinities. With this new philosophy, Couturier was able to attract lapsed Catholics, non-Christians, and even atheists to work on church projects. Lipschitz, Leger, Braque, Bonnard, Chagall, Lurcat, Richier, Rouault, Matisse, and Le Corbusier were some of the artists, sculptors, and architects the friar convinced to contribute to his Order’s numerous building projects.

And the art world suddenly stood up and took notice, for it had long been estranged from the Church.

William S. Rubin, the one-time director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote in his Ph.D. thesis in art history at Columbia University about the conflicts that arose between the French Dominicans and the Vatican over modern religious art and architecture. Rubin contends that the Vatican was ready to censure Couturier, but the friar had the good fortune to die before his name was vilified. The revolution he began, however, lives on. And it is the fruit of that revolution which Rose finds bitter, if not rotten.

Rose does not actually mention Maurice Denis or Père Couturier in his brief book, but these two figures stand behind the ideological divide highlighted by Rose: between those who would tie religious art and architecture to the tenets of a faith system, and those who would rely on the artist’s artistic genius for spiritual edification. One stance places an emphasis on orthodoxy and a community of believers while the other emphasizes artistic inspiration and unfettered individualism. But just because an artist is orthodox does not mean that his work is good. Art history is filled with examples of tepid believers, notorious sinners, and spiritual renegades who produced great art. Faith alone does not an artist make. And it is especially rare in the modern world to see great artistic genius coupled with a sincere devotion to the faith. A noteworthy and rare example of this (cited by Rose) can be found in the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí. Although his faith was not particularly passionate when he began his masterpiece, the Church of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it became so over time. Eventually he earned the nickname “God’s architect.” He lived and worked inside his creation, and when he died in an accident in 1926, many thought him to be a very holy man. His cause for canonization is now underway.

How often does the Catholic Church find a Fra Angelico or an Antonio Gaudí in her midst? If Gaudí eventually becomes the patron saint of architects (as Fra Angelico is now of painters), then he will set the tone for what the Church sees as an ideal disposition for a designer of religious architecture. Because Gaudí called himself a “neo-medieval nationalist,” he garnered the hatred of the Left (especially anti-Catholic Spanish Communists), just as Salvador Dali did when he abandoned the anti-clerical stance of the Surrealists and started to paint religious subject matter. Both Gaudí and Dali have demonstrated that one can be refreshingly different stylistically, and at the same time remain traditional.

In his final chapter, “The Wisdom of Hindsight: The Restoration of Catholic Church Architecture,” Rose shows numerous sketches made by architects who would include themselves in the movement to retrieve Catholic architecture from the clutches of Modernism. Their atavistic revolt has gained them some attention, both in the religious and secular press. But do these contrarians constitute a full-fledged movement? That remains to be seen. The history of modern art is peppered with revolutionary groups who disagreed with the established rule of taste, and, in a backward glance in time, looked for something valuable and worth reviving that seemed to have been lost in the development of style. The Nazarenes and the Pre-Raphaelites formed brotherhoods in the 19th century in order to recapture the elements that contributed to the spirituality of religious painting before the High Renaissance. Beuron Abbey looked even further back in time and tried to create a new kind of religious art that fused ancient Egyptian style with Christian iconography. The brilliant architect and Catholic convert, Augustus Welby Pugin, dogmatically promoted Gothic-pointed architecture as the one and only true Christian style worth building. He loathed classicism and went so far as to declare St. Peter’s in Rome a pagan temple.

While the above created notable works of art in the 19th and 20th centuries, none of them, save for Pugin, can be aligned with an all-pervasive artistic style. And Pugin’s boost for the neo-Gothic had a deleterious effect, for it brought him into conflict with John Henry Cardinal Newman, who called the architect an artistic “bigot.” Pugin’s frustrations in promoting pointed architecture led to a complete mental breakdown, time in Bedlam, and an early death.

Launching an artistic movement is a difficult thing to do. It necessitates some kind of manifesto wherein aims and purposes are clearly articulated; it needs a number of talented adherents; and lastly, it needs some outstanding masterpieces. In Tiers of Glory is too general to be a manifesto. Except for Modernism, it praises every architectural style found in Church history. Still, the architects promoted at the end of the book seem to be intent on reviving only one style: a type of classicism practiced by Renaissance architects. Why should this be? Pugin must be rolling in his neo-Gothic grave!

In his blanket condemnation of Modernism, Rose fails to appreciate any subtleties inherent in the Modernist movement. Would not Modernism’s starkness have tickled the austere taste of St. Bernard, who deplored the fanciful richness of Abbot Suger’s new Gothic style in medieval Paris? While every heresy has at least a kernel of truth, there are at least a few Modernist structures that rise above novelty, ugliness, and megalomania, and achieve something sublime. I lived at La Tourette, that ultra-modern monastery of stark, poured concrete (condemned in In Tiers of Glory), where once the ancient Dominican liturgy was celebrated, and the monastic lifestyle flourished. I went there looking for the ghosts of Dominicans past, those who dared to enshrine an ancient rite inside a colossal concrete shell. The photographs of that historical lifestyle are fascinating and haunting to look at. But when I saw the place in the mid-1970s, that delicate balance between old and new was not to be found. The Dominicans had tossed out their habits and other monastic customs and were playing popular records at Mass. The entire Dominican Province of Lyon was in a state of collapse. It wasn’t the architecture that caused them to do this. It was a mindset that infected religious life around the world.

For all of his condemnation of Cardinal Mahony’s new cathedral in Los Angeles, with its secular asymmetry, hulking shape, and an unfocused sanctuary that looks more like a liturgical playground, Rose neglects to mention the superior effort of a previous cardinal in that city to conform modern architecture to Catholic tradition. When it was built, St. Basil’s Church on Wilshire Boulevard had all the trappings of an urban cathedral (including Cardinal MacIntyre’s broad red hat hanging by a thread high above the sanctuary). It tried to blend the old with the new. An ornate medieval treasure box served as a Tabernacle, flanked by two neo-classical angels. Undulating concrete walls of massive proportion separated by shards of colored glass created a womb-like enclosure reminiscent of the ancient catacombs. But this jewel was built too far from downtown and was passed over by the desire to have a new cathedral in the Los Angeles civic center.

In Tiers of Glory cites other recent Church commissions and holds them up to ridicule: the mitre-shaped cathedral made of glass that was designed by Santiago Calatrava and proposed for the Diocese of Oakland (a provocation, without a doubt, for any drive-by shooter), and “The Millennium Church of the Great Jubilee” built by Richard Meier (of Getty Center fame) for the Diocese of Rome. The latter shows with its concrete sails and glass ceilings an intentional effort to be non-traditional. For Rose, it proves that the Modernist rot has reached into the very heart of the Church. But should we be surprised? Despite the valiant efforts of John Paul II’s administration to uphold traditional Catholic doctrine, it has conversely jettisoned with apparent ease some of the more traditional trappings of that old-time religion. The sedia gestatoria, which originated in antiquity and came to be associated with the papacy until the death of John Paul I, has been replaced by that pop monstrosity known as the “popemobile,” a vehicle with all the dignity of an ice cream truck with bay windows. How can you expect your diocesan bishop to have any taste in building and furnishing churches (let alone your parish priest) when even the pontifical universities of Rome make no effort to teach students about sacred art and architecture, despite the Second Vatican Council’s mandate that every seminary in the world do so? Ignorance may be at the core of the hierarchy’s fascination with cultural Modernism. It is certainly a less culpable excuse than plain old bad taste.

While one might disagree with Rose’s complete disdain for modern religious architecture, one can at least be open to his reasons for why it so often fails the Church and the people of God. In Tiers of Glory invites debate. Exquisitely packaged, it deserves to be on the shelf of every parish and pastor’s library. Bishops should take note as well. In our day, when Rome no longer sets an example for promoting sacred art, spirited laymen such as Michael Rose ought to be heard. For his is a clear voice crying out in a cultural desert that is filled with many mirages.



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