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Art & Religion Need Each Other

Mary, Queen of Peace church, Neviges, Germany (seier+seier/Flickr

Julien Meyrat has some thoughts on why modern church architecture has failed to inspire Catholics. Excerpt:

Outside a few rare examples such as Ronchamp,  I sense that Modernism has failed to deliver an architecture  that connects with most Catholics and other traditional Christians.  Much of this has to do with fact that Modernism as a cultural movement is inherently atheistic as it is based on a secular materialist philosophy.  Even Renzo Piano admits as much, describing his client from the convent: “She has a profound love of architecture, of landscape, of sacred space – and even of people without religion, like me.  She wanted a place of silence and prayer. I said: ‘I can’t help you with prayer, but perhaps I can help with silence and a little joy.”

And therein lies the crux of the problem: When one has done away with symbols, theology, and the act of worship, there’s little else to inspire a credible work of sacred art or architecture.  Piano, like any committed Modernist, is left with little more than a preference for abstraction, technology  and  some vague nostrums about nature and  space.  For a Modernist, the point of architecture is to convey an image of maximum clarity, in which all elements are related by function and little else.  As long as a space is adequately sheltered and functions for the use of its occupants, there is no need for decorative flourish.  Piano is reduced to checking off boxes for the client’s wish list, from the number of rooms, to furnishings, and to achieving a quality of ‘silence’.  There’s nothing all that particular about an architecture of silence–maybe  a dark room secluded from more socially active spaces.  Given the right palette of materials and details, any space can be turned into something contemplative.  But can this generic approach to design evoke much meaning beyond mere emotional states such as peace?

Sacred spaces achieve much of its effect by emphasizing mystery. This is at the core of any religion, in which divine truth is revealed beyond any logical or rational framework.  As is often said, God is revealed in mysterious ways, and the purpose of any sacred space is to embody this reality.  It is inherent that a secular space is completely  counter to this and thus adopts an architectural language devoid of mystery or even ambiguity.   Secular spaces instead embrace the language of the engineer, someone who works outside the world of art, poetry, and indeed of mystery, by solving problems with the most rational tools of math and science.  There is a lot of work that goes into making successful settings for secular activities, much of it having to do with the science of building, such as lighting, acoustics, and visibility.  There is also a tendency for generating phenomenological effect through technology, such as making walls highly transparent or reflective, surfaces either smooth or deliberately rough.  To the Modernist who puts its faith in technological progress, the more an effect can exceed what can be done by the human hand, the better.

Such attention to a material’s effects point to Modernism’s essentially materialist philosophy on architecture. In sacred architecture, the building and the spaces within serve  to connect users to a deeper reality that transcends its walls. They function as a gateway from the material world to a spiritual realm–the focus is on the eternal, not the object that portends to represent it.  In a secular context like Modernism, the object is the thing itself, and all meaning is tied directly to that object.


In addition, Christianity relies on communicating its ideas through allegories conveyed verbally in the Bible, musically in its music and visually illustrated in its art and architecture.  These are designed to make the message accessible to all people, as opposed to keeping revelations close to a self-selected elite.  The message has to be clear, the context must be provided and the characters believable.  Visually, this requires the use of lines and recognizable figures placed in a narrative relationship. These demands don’t lend themselves well to abstraction, the modus operandi of the Modernist.

I believed all this before, but after having read The Divine Comedy twice, I want to stand on a chair shouting, “Yes!” It’s a great essay; read the whole thing. 

It brings to mind a new piece up at Big Think, asking “Does art need religion?” Bob Duggan draws on the work of psychoanalyst Otto Rank to argue that art has to be connected in some way to the religious sensibility to have power. He’s not arguing that art should tell Bible stories. Rather, he’s saying that art must point beyond itself, and make the transcendent world accessible to the community:

In Art and Artist, Rank sees a tension between religion, which is “collective” and, thus, an immortalizing force for groups rather than individuals, and individual artists who long for individual immortality but need to find that immortality by reaching the collective energy found in religion. In other words, an individual artist needs community to reach his goal of being remembered, but to make that community the artist needs a collecting force such as religion, which can drown out his individual immortality so as to continue the immortality or continuation of the religion itself. Although religion and art seem to be at cross-purposes, they can reach a kind of détente because religion needs artists “in order to make concrete its abstract notion of the soul.” Thus, a Michelangelo finds personal immortality on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Catholic Church maintains its influence with one more visual blockbuster for the collective masses—a win-win for art, artist, and religion. Even Giovanni Bellini, himself a great artist but tier below Michelangelo, found a form of individual immortality in  The San Zaccaria Altarpiece (shown above) by taking the stock characters of the infant Christ story and giving them an individuality and life reflecting his passionately own.

Stay with me for a second, and check this out: the liberal Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese shares his ideas for the kind of liturgical reform he hopes Pope Francis will undertake. Excerpt:

A more intelligent and pastoral approach to liturgical change would include three things: centers for liturgical research and development, market testing, and enculturation.

Every successful business does research and development on new products. While there are liturgical scholars who do research, they are forbidden to take the next step in developing and trying out new liturgical practices. New liturgical practices require testing to find out what works, but not every priest has the training and skill to do this.

What is needed are centers for liturgical R&D where scholars and artists can collaborate with a willing community in developing new liturgical practices. Seminaries and universities with liturgical scholars are obvious places for this, but some parishes might be willing to be beta sites for new practices, especially if they were allowed to give feedback.

Bishops should be allowed to set up centers for liturgical R&D, operated by creative experts with appropriate supervision and review. Once new liturgical practices are developed and accepted by church officials, they should be market tested in a variety of pastoral settings before being offered to the rest of the church. Only the most arrogant business rolls out a new product everywhere in the world at the same time without market testing it.


The reader who sent me that said:

And here is exactly what liturgy is not. Can you think of any approach more antithetical to true liturgy than modern corporatism, mass marketing and bureaucratic management?

Exactly right — and here’s the point I want to make about religion, art, and the liturgy. It is laid out in much more intelligent terms by the Calvinist theologian James K.A. Smith in his great book Imagining The Kingdom: How Worship Worksbut here’s the simple version. Liturgies — by which I mean not just the mode of worship but the art and aesthetics attending worship — teach us what a good life is by conveying to us an image of the good life. To learn to worship in a certain way (including, I would say, learning certain sensual codes — symbols, sounds, and so forth) is, says Smith, “to be incorporated into a social body and its vision of a way of life. … In short, the way to the imagination is through the body.”

“We become a people who desire the kingdom (or some other, rival version of “the kingdom”) insofar as we are a people who have been trained to imagine the kingdom in a certain way,” Smith writes. And:

I come to imagine the kingdom in certain ways — and come to desire that kingdom in unconscious, automated ways — because I have drunk up the stories of a people or a culture. I am incorporated into the habitus of a people, and that habitus is inscribed in me, because I have been immersed in the stories of the body politic. Liturgical animals are imaginative animals who live off the stuff of the imagination: stories, pictures, images, and metaphors are the poetry of our embodied existence.

Father Reese’s idea of the liturgy has as its goal the community expressing its itselfness. This is not a sacred liturgy, but a profane one, in that it is geared towards worshiping the communal self. I don’t mean that as an insult, but a description of what that approach does. It refers back to itself, not to any reality outside of the self, of the particular time and particular culture. It does not lead one to learn the narrative of Catholicism, or to love the things Catholics are supposed to love as Catholics. It is ultimately a form of individualism.

Now, to be sure, not all art is liturgical art, which is designed to incarnate in time the community’s idea of the transcendent and eternal, in the context of a sacred rite. But it’s closer than you might think. Julien Meyrat speaks specifically of Modernist church architecture failing to do what church architecture is supposed to do, but following Bob Duggan’s line of thought, is it not the case that the Modernist sensibility in all art fails for similar reasons? That is, it turns in on itself, is only about itself, and therefore denies the transcendental aspect of human nature? Modernist aesthetics ultimately fail because Modernist anthropology fails.

I don’t at all say that all modern art and architecture is bad. I don’t believe it is. But I believe insofar as art fails to connect us in some tangible way with the transcendent mysteries of our existence, it is mere design and decoration. There’s a lot to be said for design and decoration, but “that’s art” is not one of them.

I could be wrong.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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