Faith Roused Through Sacred Art and Architecture
It is quite possible these days for Catholic children to grow up without ever setting foot in a traditionally designed church. Buildings that can easily be taken for concert halls, multipurpose centers, or even gyms have become commonplace substitutions for structures that clearly and beautifully express the unchanging truths of the faith.
If modern church structures contain any artwork, it is often watered down so that effective symbolism is lost. Also lost in this drab milieu, Pope Benedict XVI has indicated, are souls. The former Holy Father was credited in the pre-pontifical Ratzinger Report (Ignatius Press, 1985) with the exhortation that Christians “must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell.”
There is hope.
According to a 2017 study by a British group called Hope Revolution Partnership, approximately 13 percent of responding teenagers said that they made the decision to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral. Church buildings were even found to be more influential on the spiritual lives of young people than verbal communication regarding religion.
While the study was confined to the Church of England, there is more than enough hope for Catholics. Indeed, all Anglican architectural beauty comes from the Catholic Church, not only by way of inspiration for structures built after King Henry VIII’s revolt from Rome, but by way of ecclesiastical theft during that revolt.
Conversion of atheist Charles Rich
New York City has its fair share of beautiful churches, one of which had a profound impact on a young man in the early 20th century. Charles Rich, born one year before that century began, was raised Jewish, but became an atheist. Despite studying philosophy and religion in his twenties, even the writings of great saints, he became depressed— then suicidal.
One warm day during his 33rd year of life, Rich entered a Catholic church. Looking up at a beautiful stained-glass window depicting Christ calming the storm at sea, Rich thought of how wonderful it would be to believe what was expressed before his eyes in glass. Such a belief would bring the consolation he so longed for.
Rich had been “pulverized” by the possibility of life being meaningless, like a rock reduced to a thousand pieces of sand. Yet on this warm day, the rough and gray “sands of his soul” were heated and molded by the Divine Artisan into a smooth, colorful reflection of what stood before him. Charles Rich, after so much study of religion, had become convinced, via sacred art, of the authenticity of the Catholic faith. The light shone into his soul.
Priest quit sports career for beauty of Rome
Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, who left a professional soccer career in 2008 at the age of 26 to enter the seminary, recounted how he was subsequently overwhelmed by the architectural arts of Rome. He was, as he had expected, amazed by the beauty of historic structures such as St. Peter’s Basilica and the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, but he was not prepared to be completely awed by the spirituality that made these structures possible.
He explained: “The majesty was endless and I couldn’t fathom how all of this was done. Then in a moment of grace and reflection I marveled at how all of this beauty was the result of many peoples’ encounter with one Person.” Fr. Hilgenbrinck, who now serves souls in Peoria, Illinois, emphatically asked himself, “Why would anybody go to such great lengths of spending so much money and putting in so many years of effort in these monuments of faith if the Incarnation wasn’t real?”
Fr. Hilgenbrinck has maintained a much deeper appreciation for the dynamic role of beauty in evangelization. He knows that genuine beauty can express, far more eloquently than words, the wonder of the Incarnation. The Blessed Virgin’s sinless role leading up to the Incarnation is reflected in the mother church of Fr. Hilgenbrinck’s diocese. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria was renovated by Chicago’s own Daprato Rigali Studios from 2014 to 2016.
Sacred architect left former business
Dan Rigali, of Daprato Rigali Studios in Chicago, is pleased by the results of his studio’s labors and believes that the beauty found therein can be a major force for passing on the faith. He had started working in another field after graduating from the University of Denver in 2009, but soon realized how transformational sacred art can be. “I could have done well in another business” he said, “but it dawned on me that church design and decoration is a field that has irreplaceable value. It goes beyond simply supplying for material needs; it uses material things to remind us of God and to actually draw us into a better relationship with Him.”
Rigali has found that faith communities take on a renewed sense of purpose when beautifying their churches. ”It only makes sense,” Rigali said, “since church beautification is about making the Catholic faith more explicit—about bringing it to life so that people see its value and get motivated to become better followers of Christ. As Pope Benedict has alluded to in the context of Plato, beauty provides a ‘holy shock’ that draws us out of our everyday existence and inspires us to reach new heights.”
Architect’s epiphany’ while restoring cathedral
It was in one of the highest points in a beautiful church that Steve Baker, principal architect at Baker Architects in Denver, Colorado, had a revelation. While working at the Gothicstyle Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky in 2001, his then- 30-year-old faith was given a boost. He was already aware of the possibilities of ecclesiastical structures, yet something new occurred to him at this project. “When in the attic of the basilica looking down on the nave,” he said, “I was hit in a new way at how amazing church architecture can be. It’s in the choir lofts, bell towers, and other out-of-the-way places that you literally and figuratively get a different angle on things.”
Now even when he is at ground level, Baker brings his renewed appreciation with him. Baker, who recently completed a doctorate at the University of Colorado Denver on sacred architecture humanizing the divine and divinizing the human, said, “Christian architecture is supposed to help restore to humanity what had been lost. It lifts us up and ennobles us, making us, not less human, but more human, because we’re drawn closer to God’s original design for us.”
In fact, a traditional church floor plan resembles a human person. The nave (the central part of the church containing pews) is the core of the body, the sanctuary is the head, and the transepts (extended sides, often with minor altars) are the arms. These elements taken together are also cruciform, calling to mind the work of Redemption.
A clearly distinguished sanctuary, prominent tabernacle placement, and accurate iconography are among the most important interior elements of a church building. Once the faith is made present materially, it is far easier for it to be made present in souls. Showing the interconnection of these two elements, Pope Emeritus Benedict was quoted in The Ratzinger Report as saying, “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”
TRENT BEATTIE is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.
Transcendence at work
“Do we wish to become beautiful with Christ’s own beauty? If we do, it is to the Church of Rome that we must go for that kind of beauty, and beauty [is] to be found in everything she promulgates by way of her liturgy, her chants, her statues, and her paintings. It is to the Church of Rome we have to go to get a living experience of the beauty of Christ’s being, seeing that that beauty of His is enshrined and interwoven with everything she does and is.” —Charles Rich in Honey From the Rock, published by Ignatius Press in 2007
“On the one hand, it is the continued embodiment of God that started in the Incarnation, and on other hand, it is the continued elevation of humans back toward God.” —architect Steve Baker
“Art can make the next world come alive in this world.” —church designer Dan Rigali