Series Launch: The Art of Church Architecture

[EDITOR’S NOTE:  Ewan Bowlby launches our series on The Art of Church Architecture with this introduction.  You may see the associated first piece in the series, originally posted in late 2019, here: Charlemagne in Chartres: Looking at Stained Glass.]

As the uncertainty surrounding safe access to churches persists in those countries affected by the Covid -19 pandemic, Transpositions is presenting a short series of articles reflecting on what it is that makes the physical space of a church distinctive and important. Each article in the series invites us to consider a different aspect of the art and architecture of a particular church’s interior, encouraging a renewed appreciation of what this holy environment offers to those within. During lockdown measures, becoming separated from the buildings that house the rhythms of the liturgical year left many Christians feeling bereft and disorientated, unable to enter the theatre in which the drama of the daily rituals takes place (an experience shared by those of other faiths). But these challenging circumstances also serve as an opportunity to consider what exactly we lose when we cannot access a church, and to pay attention to those special aesthetic qualities that define and demarcate these spaces – qualities that might otherwise blend into the familiar fabric of our everyday lives.

To this end, the articles in this series focus on examples of sights, sounds and sensations “unique to the church space”: stained glass, iconography, darkness, silence. Abbot Suger describes how the craftsmanship and “noble work” of church art and architecture should “brighten the minds” of believers, allowing them to travel “through that which is material” toward the “True Light” of Christ.

Each article looks at this relationship between the material and the spiritual, examining how wood, stone, glass and even concrete can guide our attention toward higher things. Yet the authors also touch on the connections between the church buildings and the quotidian, human world they exist in. Nayeli Riano’s article in November, 2019 on the Charlemagne window at Chartres Cathedral captures the capacity for church art to reflect the history and culture of a particular society, whilst also contributing to a “special effect” of silence and reverence that “detaches us from the noise of the outside world”. Ewan Bowlby writes about the reconstruction of Le Havre Cathedral following World War Two, intended by its designer Augustin Perret to function as a concrete “spiritual lighthouse” both lighting a path for secular society toward renewal and repair, and directing worshippers toward the True Light reflected in this ministry of reconciliation.

these challenging circumstances also serve as an opportunity to consider what exactly we lose when we cannot access a church, and to pay attention to those special aesthetic qualities that define and demarcate these spaces

These pieces speak to the power of art and architecture to capture and convey the paradox of a church that is at once per totum mundi (“for all the world”, Romans 1:8) – embedded in the tragedies and triumphs; wars, pandemics, and crises of earthly society – and set apart from this world as holy. Taylor Morgan also shows how the strikingly stark concrete sparsity of Marcel Breuer’s design for the Saint John’s Abbey Church uses mundane, human materials to express a compelling incarnational theology, embodying Christ’s commitment to this imperfect, insufficient world. This complex interaction of human, earthly concerns and mysterious, numinous realities is also a feature of Kate Banks’s reflection on the “luminous darkness” of Westminster Cathedral. Churches must be constantly reconstructed and rethought in response to decay or deliberate damage, but Banks suggests how incompleteness, fragility, and obscurity might be incorporated into the art of a church, as an evocation of the impenetrability in which the Divine “darkness so far above light” can be discerned.

The space of a church and all it affords can be both a refuge from and a response to events in the world beyond its walls, and we hope that this series will give readers a timely reminder of both the immediate and eternal relevance of the riches these spaces contain.

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