Church architecture: overcoming iconoclasts and cult of ugliness

Church architecture: overcoming iconoclasts and cult of ugliness

Larry Henderson

It has become clear that we are living through an iconoclastic era. We have had these ages before: once during the fifth century in the Eastern Church, and again during the Puritan revolt in the West in the 16th century, when heads were struck off images, and (today) when churches are built like barns.

I personally do not have a fixed image for the House of God. Jesus did most of his preaching in the open air, in crowds, from boats, etc. But since we have come to live in houses, it seemed natural there should be a house for God.

Quite early on, we began to build very fine churches. Santa Sabina in Rome is an example of an early Christian Church, both prayerful and beautiful - and still in use. The instinct to build for beauty is very old. It goes back to the catacombs. (The Catacombs of San Calixtus are very beautiful, as we saw in the film Quo Vadis).


The tendency which is upon us today to build for ugliness is very new. Even the public is beginning to notice it.

There really are people who have imposed themselves on the Church who have no feeling for holiness. They are the iconoclasts and Puritans of our era. But their ideas will not last, because holiness is one of the paths to God.

I do not mean that there is any one particular way in which we should be holy. I do not care if we use as our model a Romanesque church, or a Gothic church. What I look for is a sacred church. And the trend today has been against the sacred.

Also, there is a certain sort of person who likes ugliness. He or she thinks this is more honest, more real. But, if I may be allowed to say it, such people are very superficial.

Yet, they have got hold of many of our churches. They are on church committees. They have forced their way to the front, and we have been slow to react. They have imposed themselves on the priest as the "voice of the people." (Although the priest has in some cases sought them out).

This is why their will has prevailed. The first a congregation hears about plans for reconstruction is after a consultant has been chosen, (usually someone like Fr Richard Vosko, the destroyer of churches from the US). The rebuilding plans are all in place, the budget is approved. It is a form of hijacking.

The congregation is faced with a fait accompli. "Well," says the church committee, "you don't want a leaky roof, do you?" Then, out go the sanctuary, crucifix, altar rails, tabernacle, even the sanctuary light. It is called "getting back to basics."

The plan seems to be that those in charge "know best." They all agree with one another. The "in" word is simplicity; and yet, it can cost millions.

But the current trend has gone beyond questions of what is sacred. It also involves the aesthetic instinct, i.e., the whole idea of what is beautiful, and what is not.

Of course, artists themselves started it with the cult of ugliness (cubism, etc). Soon our architecture began to look aggressively ugly and "in your face." Buildings were designed to look hideous, like a tent or gymnasium. Naturally, our churches were roped into the trend.

Far from being examples of Biblical teaching, as they once were, churches actually seemed to mock the purpose for which they were built.

The fact that the same trend established itself almost everywhere, in many parts of the world, but especially in Europe and North America, makes it seem to be the work of the Father of Lies.

But, like all devilish tricks, only the most normal and natural motives were used. It required a time when clergy threw off ecclesiastical control, when "front runners" among congregations took over, when laity bemused by change went with the tide, for all this to happen.

But increasing numbers of Catholics are now awake.

A reverse trend has established itself. The story of Our Lady of Guelph, Ontario (Canada), set a new pattern. When the wreckers arrived, the congregation stood firm against them. The Church authorities were dumbfounded, and had to bow to the popular will. This ancient and beautiful church was saved by the people.

Hundreds of examples soon followed. All over North America, the designs of Fr Richard Vosko and his ilk were frustrated. A few examples, like Milwaukee's Cathedral of St John, slipped through the cracks. Too late, alas. But most of the wrecking was done in the 60s and 70s.

Not only that, but the cult of ugliness is already being replaced. Churches that were desecrated 20 or 30 years ago are now being renovated again. Holiness is back in style as Michael Rose amply illustrated in his book Ugly as Sin.

New architects

I am not making out a case that everything old is sacrosanct; for example, a lot of bad art was foisted on the public during the Victorian age. But this is what gave the wreckers their opportunity. They were going to build new, fresh and holy churches. But they didn't. They built barns.

The trouble was, in many cases it was churchmen with an agenda who did the designing. Having decided that Christianity had taken a wrong turn, these architects manqués used it as an excuse to get rid of the sense of holiness and put dullness in its place. That is the reason for the tents and the gymnasiums.

In his book on restoration, Michael Rose shows that you can build for holiness today. After all, holiness is eternal and one of the identifiable marks of God. Today, there is a whole list of new architects who have built churches in the Byzantine, Roman and Gothic traditions, as well as brand new ones.

What was praised yesterday is no longer good enough for today. Many church buildings which were vandalised in the 60s and 70s have already been rebuilt for the new millennium.

Larry Henderson is a Canadian Catholic journalist and commentator. His article (here edited) originally appeared in the Canadian Catholic monthly 'Challenge'.

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