Modern Church Aesthetics: Back to the Future


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Note: This article is part of a continuing series on Catholicism and art.

A common complaint about modern churches is that they look like “warehouses”—bare, soulless barns rather than church 13houses of worship.  Such a style of architecture, many feel, renders the religious experience banal and devoid of transcendence.  Many Catholics attribute this style to the influence of Vatican II, or more accurately to that nebulous “spirit of Vatican II” which blew around for so many years.  But recently at a thrift shop I came across an old, yellowed book called Contemporary Church Art which puts the lie to that assumption.  Written in 1956 by a German author named Anton Henze, the book shows that “modern” church architecture was making the rounds long before Vatican II.  Your stark “space-ship” church down the block has historical forbears going back nearly a century.  The modern, in this case, is quite old.

Contemporary Church Art is not some sort of “fringe” book; it was published by the respectable and mainstream Catholic publishing house of Sheed and Ward.

church 7I flipped through the book and saw an array of black and white illustrations of modern-style churches in Europe and America, all built between the 1920s and the 1950s; many of the pictures featured in this post are from the book.  Not all of the churches look terrible; some are decent, some are not-half-bad.  But more than a few are eyesores.  One, by the famous French architect Le Corbusier, looks for all the world like a boat surmounting a block of Swiss cheese standing next to a grain silo.  The interior shots show bare concrete walls, teeny-tiny crucifixes, altars that are no more than wooden tables, and light fixtures that resemble lamps in police stations where criminals are interrogated.  One church features Alexander Calder-like flappy birds hanging from the ceiling in front of the sanctuary (an attempt at depicting the Holy Spirit, perhaps?) Often missing is the clear focal point that in a more traditional church is provided by the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, or preferably all of the above.

Next I turned to the illustrations of modern church vessels, furnishings, and vestments; on one crucifix, Christ’s human form is distorted and stretched out, abstract-style.  He looks like some sort of doll or puppet rather than the Son of God.  The artists of the Renaissance depicted Our Lord’s humanity in glorious realism; in Contemporary Church Art he appears to have regressed to…well, something much less than gloriously human. church 8

Henze makes it clear that he wants all new churches and church furnishings to look like these illustrations.  He decries any attempt to reuse the architectural or artistic styles of the past (an attitude he labels “historicism”); he believes that we must follow the natural course of history.  Each historical epoch, he argues, develops an ecclesiastical style suited to its social needs and conception of God.  And Henze has devised historical schemes and tables to chart and interpret the development of church art throughout the ages; for example, he explains the rise of the Gothic cathedral in the High Middle Ages by the fact that the “ruling group” at the time was the “Christian knight.”

And what is the “ruling group” circa 1950? According to Henze: “Technical industrial workers, homeless and looking for ‘redemption.’” What does their church look like? A “light, airy, tent-like structure of steel-frame construction, originating in industrial buildings.” Henze calls it “tent of labor” (the slight socialist undertone is not untypical).

Thus we have Henze’s theological justification of the modern-style church: it resembles a tent and thus revives the Old Testament idea of the “Tent of God,” the movable tabernacle in which Yahweh met with his people in the midst of the Exodus.  There are problems here.  First, we are no longer living under the Old Testament; that much is obvious.  But equally obvious is the fact that a church is not a tent, but a building.  No Christian worshiper thinks of his church as a tent and no amount of inculcation will induce him to do so; the idea is a triumph of academic theorizing over common sense.

True to form, Henze explains and justifies the emergence of the tent-church with reference to the social conditions of the twentieth century (remember, he is writing not long after World War II). Twentieth-century man has been buffeted about by external forces and is in need of shelter and security; so he quite naturally takes refuge in a tent-like structure.  The book includes photographs of a number of churches that were bombed out in World War II and then were rebuilt in modern style.

So it would seem that modern man, buffeted about and without a home, is an industrial worker who finds his refuge…in a church 9tent that also looks like a factory.  Henze presents this jumble of non-sequiturs as plain reason and undeniable truth, while denigrating those who prefer the artistic styles of the past as sentimentalists.  He never explains how a tent, which is a provisional and temporary thing, could possibly function as a symbol of permanence.  Henze’s historical scheme, whether for the Middle Ages or for the mid-twentieth century, verges on historical determinism and the reduction of theology to social conditions.

Has your Baroque church been bombed out? Then make it over in modern style and ensure that it will continue to appear bombed out.  Far from a solution to the inhumanity of modern life, this sounds like capitulation to it.

Yet the author of the book is not a wild theological liberal; on the contrary, he is an orthodox believer in the Real Presence who is interested in safeguarding the sacredness and centrality of the Eucharist.  He wants to involve the faithful in the Mass bringing them closer to what is happening at the altar and by stripping away everything (such as statuary and other decoration) that distracts from the central act of worship.  The problem is not so much bad theology as bad aesthetics.  Henze’s orthodoxy has been vitiated by contact with minimalistic, utilitarian aesthetic modernism.  He has become an orthodox puritan.

bauhausThe Bauhaus movement of the 1920s sought to revolutionize architecture through an anti-traditional, “start from scratch” approach.  Bauhaus architects wanted buildings to be “pure,” functional, and devoid of ornament: a blueprint for aesthetic minimalism.  The author of Contemporary Church Art has essentially taken the Bauhaus aesthetic and applied it to Catholic church architecture.  It’s a honeymoon between Catholic theology and artistic modernism.  But it’s a forced marriage, and it’s destined to end in divorce, because the common believer likes richness, specificity, and ornament.  Henze’s ideal seems to be an antiseptic worship space that will allow the “workers” to file in and practice their tidy, “just the essentials” liturgy.  But real life is not so tidy.  The Catholic Mass did not develop through rationalistic social engineering; and the Catholic artistic tradition is rich and symbolic, not minimalist or stripped down.  It’s often claimed that modern church spaces are conducive to meditation; but in Catholicism you must meditate about something, and how can one do this in an environment that is largely whitewashed of content?

Walk into any church of traditional (cross-like) design and you are struck by the orderly, hierarchical nature of the layout:Basilica_National_Shrine_Immaculate_Conception_DC_34 everything leads one’s eye to the altar, the locus of the Mass.  It is transcendent; it leads you beyond yourself into a higher reality.  This is true of the exterior outline as well, with the tower or spire reaching for heaven.  More and more, churches in recent times have tended to be built in a circular or semi-circular pattern.  While the original intention was to bring the faithful closer, this has also tended to make the liturgy more anthropocentric, man-focused as opposed to God-focused.  The church feels like a large living room, an arrangement that goes well with the modern (and, to my mind, odd) emphasis on the Mass as a “meal.”

G.K. Chesterton memorably analyzed the difference between the cross and the circle.  The cross is “centrifugal”; it breaks out and reaches upward.  The circle “returns upon itself and is bound.” We can extend this idea and suggest that a circular worship format leaves people closed in on themselves, closed off to the transcendent mystery of God.  Bad aesthetics and bad theology feed off each other.  To the extent that Catholic churches adopt the typical modern aesthetic features (bare, geometric design; deemphasized altar and crucifix, etc.), they are becoming less and less Catholic in spirit.

To countless believers, modern-style churches are “ugly”; yet this style has been long imposed upon the public like medicine that they must swallow down for their own good.  Many Catholic churches today look like the illustrations in Contemporary Church Art, and worse.  Even so, new churches in classic styles were being built as the book was written (witness the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, finished in 1959) and continue to be built.  Probably Henze would have considered these churches to be aesthetic crimes.  He would have insisted that we stop looking backwards and get in line with history.

But is history always right? Perhaps the fact that large numbers of people have rejected the modern style is a sign that artistic history and the Christian tradition have parted ways.  Perhaps when western culture has reached the end of the line, it’s time to turn back.

art deco 2To be perfectly clear, the architectural style we have been discussing is what is commonlyart deco 3 known as “Mid-Century Modern” — a style which originated in futuristic art of the 1930s and received great impetus in the decades after World War II.  The Art Deco style, by contrast, had its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s.  Not many examples of Art Deco churches exist, but as you can see from the illustrations (St. Gabriel Church in St. Louis, Missouri), it is an attractive style of considerable charm that is modern yet at the same time rooted in tradition; one of the best things to be said for it is that it does not abhor ornament.  It’s a pity that Art Deco was largely overlooked as a source of church architecture in favor of the brutal deformations and obsessive geometrical abstraction of Mid-Century Modern.

Let’s close with a picture of a modern-style church interior that, in my opinion, gets things right.  It’s St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and while modern in design it is traditional and Christocentric in its furnishing.  I’m happy to call it my parish church.

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