Why Seminarians Should Study Sacred Art and Architecture

One of the recommendations of Vatican II was that priests be formed in the arts: “During their philosophical and theological studies, clerics are to be taught about the history and development of sacred art, and about the sound principles governing the production of its works. In consequence they will be able to appreciate and preserve the Church’s venerable monuments, and be in a position to aid, by good advice, artists who are engaged in producing works of art” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 129). This is not a bad idea, considering that priests are the caretakers of the Church’s artistic patrimony. Each pastor is ostensibly the curator of a small art gallery as well as the overseer of a physical plant which needs constant maintenance, repair, and additions. Then there are the lucky few, or perhaps not, who have the opportunity to build anew. Building a church is a grand undertaking which includes thousands of decisions from hiring the right architect to raising millions of dollars to critiquing the statue of the Blessed Virgin to deciding whether the door hardware should be bronze or polished brass. And it all has to be done in addition to the full time job of running the parish.

Given that many pastors have to be shepherd, curator, head of the physical plant, chairman of the music and education programs, and chief development officer, does it make sense that they should have some training in art and architecture? If it could be fit in—and seminary education is packed as it is—what would it look like? An introduction to Catholic art and architecture should include three broad topics: the history of sacred art and architecture, the architectural design process, and the process of construction. A history of sacred architecture is hard to cover in one semester (think eighteen centuries of material across many countries) and the necessary inclusion of art makes it even more difficult. Yet if seminarians could study a few of the great monuments produced by the Catholic faith, it would be inspirational as well as eye-opening. Not all priests will be experts in the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas or the theology of Saint Augustine, yet it is important that they have read them and have a familiarity with these giants of the faith. So with knowledge of sacred art and architecture.

What do future priests need to know? To understand the distinctiveness of different periods and styles while at the same time studying their development and continuity with the past. We see this in the development from early Christian architecture to the Romanesque and then to the Gothic. The Renaissance church plan and bay module develops ideas begun with the Gothic. To be familiar with some of the great patrons and their architects including Constantine, Bishop Suger, the Medicis, and Pope Julius II up through Archbishops Carroll, Hughes, and Ireland in the United States. These men set the standard for us today, and their buildings continue to inspire. To inculcate in future priests a love of the great tradition of sacred architecture. This means valuing not just the churches they grew up with but also the early Christian basilica, the Byzantine dome, the Gothic cathedral, and the exuberance of the Baroque. There is not one Catholic style nor is there one formula for creating a beautiful church. Rather there are timeless principles of sacred architecture such as verticality, procession, the body analogy, symbolism, and durable construction, which can be found across all centuries and styles.

In terms of design, it would be helpful to offer background on the role and benefits of hiring a professional architect, how to hire an architect, and the different services they can provide. As someone who “professes,” the architect’s role is to assist the pastor in designing a work of art that is durable, serves the liturgy, and can be constructed for a budget. A successful project requires the involvement of the priest as patron, leader of his parish committee, with reasonable expectations of his architect, engineer, and contractor.

Finally, future priests would benefit from an introduction to the fundraising and construction process. Just as in the design process, there is no replacement for the pastor being involved. He is the agent of the bishop, and a shepherd who looks out for the faithful’s needs. Alternatively, a do-it-yourself approach has many potential pitfalls; it is no less crucial to hire professional fundraisers and competent general contractors than a competent dentist to pull out your teeth. Many have learned the hard way that if you go cheap you often get what you pay for. Either way, building or renovating a church, like many things in life, is not easy, and there is of necessity a lot of hard work!

Can all of this be done in a seminary education? A course that covers it all would be most beneficial, though it could only be an introduction to these topics. At the minimum, I believe a course on the history of sacred art and architecture would be a wonderful foundation for a lifetime of learning, curating, and beautifying. The design process and construction process could be taught as part of a class on running a parish. Alternatively, these topics could also be covered in a couple of daylong or weekend seminars. In this way we could help our future pastors and bishops in their work of appreciating, preserving, and adding to the Church’s rich patrimony of sacred art and architecture.

This editorial appears in the current issue of Sacred Architecture (Vol. 22) and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Duncan G. Stroik


Duncan G. Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame where he helped implement a new curriculum in classical architecture in 1990. He played a central role in the revival of interest in sacred architecture that led to the formation of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and the journal Sacred Architecture, of which he is editor. He is the author, most recently, of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal (2012).

  • hombre111

    Good article.

  • ATT

    Well, I’m entering the seminary with a degree in art history, so at least some of Prof. Stroik’s wishes will be satisfied in this young man.

  • wva88

    A good seminary curriculum will include many of the components that Professor Stroik describes throughout the existing courses and the pastoral formation structure. Professor Stroik gave a lecture on Church architecture at a formation conference at the seminary I graduated from.

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  • Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI

    Professor, seminarians have so many “shoulds” in their lives in the seminary that one more just makes people feel guilty that they are not getting it. What seminarians do not learn before ordination they can in fact learn after ordination, but on going training is rare.

  • Alecto

    I know this is a Catholic website, but I have to make a plug for William Craft Brumfield’s work documenting Russian architecture and especially Russian sacred places. I have several of his books including “Lost Russia” and “A History of Russian Architecture”, both of which document the great legacy of breathtakingly beautiful churches and monasteries: the monastery of John the Baptist at Viazma, the St. Tikhon Monastery cathedral ruins, the Savior-Yakovlev Monastery in Rostov, the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Ostrov, or perhaps one of the most stunning pieces of architecture in my mind: the Church of the Transfiguration in Kizhi with its beautiful cupola. So many beauties waiting for restoration. I am so appreciative of his efforts to document these sacred places.

  • Paul Tran

    Reading the article I cannot help but feel there’s a detachment or disconnection between Christ’s teachings and the opulence of many church buildings. Although it would be great to integrate study into the Sacred art & architecture but only as background historical reading & an overview on church building per se. As useful as it may be, one needs to ask oneself, as a Christian or a Catholic, if Jesus were alive today how would he view the opulence of the Vatican versus millions of Christians & Catholics who are struggling to survive daily ? After all, churches are just physical conduits and must not distract from the all important teachings of Christ.

    • Bob S.

      Large Church construction projects, like any public works, DO feed and clothe the poor. The money required to build churches and other large scale beautification is not poured into an abyss. Rather, these projects provide jobs to artisans and craftsmen, demand materials and supplies, and therefore generates economic stimulation that goes toward the common good of all, including the poor. Projects like this put people to work and give to a city a permanent product that can be enjoyed by all for generations. What sort of city would Rome be if none of the grand architectural projects had been undertaken, but the money just passed out ephemerally to “those struggling daily”? Finally, Jesus is alive today, and I’m certain that he approves of “opulence” made in his name, for his glory, and for the uplifting of the least of his people, both economic and spiritual.

  • Sem

    As a seminarian,I would love to have classes on sacred architecture and art. A beautiful church that helps worshipers pray and leads them to the transcendent is priceless. We need to use all our options that lead people to the sacred. I just got back from a movie, believe me Hollywood is using all their options to lead people astray and worse.

  • art bowman

    How true is the saying that, “We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us. Every diocese should have someone to advise priests on what a church building is all about if and when the reality of new construction arises. Art Bowman