The Bright Abyss: A response to ‘The Art of Church Architecture: The Light of Reconciliation in Post-War Church Architecture’

For the next reflection in our series honouring the work of Dr Ewan Bowlby, Dr Sarah Moerman looks back at Ewan’s discussion of post-war church architecture and what this can teach us in light of the realities of pain, hardship and suffering. 

Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura is renowned for incorporating the kintsugi technique into his creations. Kintsugi is the art of using gold lacquer to repair broken pieces of pottery – and by so doing, creating a new piece even more beautiful and valuable than the first. Like that estimable philosopher-poet Leonard Cohen, who famously sang ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’, practitioners of kintsugi recognise that brokenness can be honoured, even emphasized. Kintsugi is not a method for ‘fixing’ something, to restore an object to its previous use; instead it sees potential beauty in broken shards, ‘lets the light in’, and then honours the brokenness with something wholly new. Like Christ’s wounds still visible in his resurrected body, the pottery’s cracks are still visible, mended and highlighted by precious metal.

What do we do with heartbreak, be it personal, communal or national? How can grief be rightly acknowledged, and can it be incorporated, even transfigured, into something beautiful? Dr Ewan Bowlby’s insightful piece on reconciliation in church architecture recognizes that ‘Remembrance and commemoration are integral, but so too is a renewed commitment to the future: the solemn promise of “never again”.’[1] In this article, Ewan considers the reconstruction of two churches destroyed in bombing raids during the Second World War and how the architects of these two buildings incorporated the ruins into new structures in ways that not only attested to the grief and horrors of the War but also sought to serve as visible, constant calls to peace and reconciliation.

First, Ewan presented the French reconstruction of St Joseph’s Church in Le Havre, by architect Augustin Perret. Perret saw in the ruins ‘an opportunity to place a “spiritual lighthouse”’ in the city, its concrete spire a beacon meant to serve as both ‘“searchlight” for sailors and a “landmark” for travellers.’[2] For Ewan, this church simultaneously ‘incarnates grief and regret for a city that had to be remade, whilst … illuminating the city’s role as a sign of new life and hope.’[3]

Second, Ewan considered the symbolism present in architect Basil Spence’s design when rebuilding the bombed St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry (commonly known as Coventry Cathedral). This Cathedral’s reconstruction also poignantly observes both remembrance of past wounds and conciliar movements to the future. Significantly, Spence built the new Cathedral alongside the ruins of the old, preserving the ruins as a memorial garden. In the ruins there is an Altar of Reconciliation, built from the rubble; on the Altar stands a cross fashioned from two charred roof beams. Three nails from the medieval structure were likewise fashioned into a cross, now located in the new structure. This Cross of Nails has become an international symbol of peace and reconciliation, with similar crosses being presented to churches and communities, first in Germany, and then around the world as a sign of friendship, creating an international Community of the Cross of Nails, which continues to grow.[4]

Ewan’s discussion of remembrance and reconciliation in ecclesial architecture was one article in a series on the art of church architecture which launched in the autumn of 2020, when Ewan noted that the closure of churches during lockdown measures meant that many people of faith felt ‘bereft and disorientated, unable to enter the theatre in which the drama of the daily rituals takes place’.[5] Ewan saw opportunity in the loss of regular access to church buildings: it was a call 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’.[6] It was the disorientation and disruption that effected a timely reminder, not only of our fragility but of the eternal reality and eschatological hope that the daily rituals of the practice of faith are meant to signal.

The tension is, of course, that we wish these things never happened in the first place. Pottery shouldn’t break, wars shouldn’t decimate, disease shouldn’t disrupt. Ewan shouldn’t have died. Yet – we suffer, and we cause others to suffer. In ‘Little Gidding’ (which was also born in the shadow of the air raids on Britain), T.S. Eliot writes, ‘The only hope, or else despair / Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre – / To be redeemed from fire by fire’.[7] The paradox is that is there is no choice between ‘pyre or pyre’; there will be fire. Fire destroys – but, as Eliot reminds us, fire also redeems, refines and restores. So the question remains: What do we do with grief, heartbreak, suffering? Will we be consumed by its fire, or restored by its fire? Can we hope for potential and opportunity for renewal?

For kintsugi artist Fujimura, art borne from suffering can simply be reactionary; like Picasso’s Guernica or Munch’s The Scream, both ‘emblems of the pain-filled realities of the twentieth century’.[8] Or, Fujimura suggests, art borne from suffering can bear the marks of kintsugi. ‘Our wounds will be healed, but if we take Christ’s example, they will still accompany us into the New Creation, although such gold remains of our past will be made more beautiful in the New Creation. God does not just mend, repair, and restore; God renews and generates’.[9] Thus, our art and architecture become ways of practicing the eschaton, of looking forward in generative hope to reconciliation and transformation.

And all shall be well and / all manner of things shall be well – [10]

 

[1] Ewan Bowlby, ‘The Art of Church Architecture: The Light of Reconciliation in Post-War Church Architecture’, Transpositions, October 30, 2020, https://www.transpositions.co.uk/the-art-of-church-architectire-the-light-of-reconciliation-in-post-war-church-architecture/.

[2] ‘St Joseph Church: an aesthetic and spiritual vertigo’ (Le Havre: Le Havre Office de Tourisme, 2005), as quoted by Bowlby in ‘The Art of Church Architecture’.

[3] Bowlby, ‘The Art of Church Architecture’.

[4] ‘The Cross of Nails’, The Archbishop of Canterbury, accessed April 1, 2023, https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/priorities/reconciliation/cross-nails; see also https://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/reconciliation/community-of-the-cross-of-nails

[5] Bowlby, ‘Series Launch: The Art of Church Architecture’, Transpositions, October 9, 2020, https://www.transpositions.co.uk/series-launch-church-architecture-as-art/.

[5] Bowlby, ‘Series Launch: The Art of Church Architecture’.

[7] T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, 1971), 57.

[8] Makoto Fujimura, Art + Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 140.

[9] Fujimura, 141.

[10] Eliot, quoting Julian of Norwich in ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets, 59.

Author

  • Dr Sarah Moerman is a research fellow (theology and music) in the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts.

Written By
More from Sarah Moerman
Review: David Brown and Gavin Hopps: The Extravagance of Music
David Brown and Gavin Hopps. The Extravagance of Music. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave...
Read More
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,550,109 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments