We need a new Counter-Reformation in sacred art and architecture. What was the Reformation’s effect? First, it preached iconoclasm, the rejection of the human figure in religious art. Second, it reoriented worship, so that people gathered round the pulpit rather than the altar and the baptismal font became more important than the tabernacle. At the same time, it lessened the distinction between the clergy and the laity, creating more equality and decreasing hierarchy.
Third, the Reformation taught a functionalist view of worship, rejecting anything “unnecessary.” The altar should not have anything on it, for example, and churches should be designed according to seating capacity, with sight lines like a theater. Fourth, it elevated the quotidian over the sacred. Churches are thought of more as meeting houses than sacred places. They’re designed to be intimate rather than awesome.
These churches did not, to put it another way, express the Terribilità, the awesomeness of God. What have we been living through for the past sixty years? A second reformation, only this one came from within. All four of those points characterize mainstream Catholic church building since 1960.
And what do we need in response? A second counter-reformation. One that learns from the first Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries how to make a creative and serious response to the iconoclasm, functionalism, egalitarianism, and “quotidianism” of our time.
The New Counter-Reformation
And not just in our church-building and our ideas of church architecture. In the Counter-Reformation bishops were commanded to return to their dioceses and to take care of their flock, to become the chief teachers of the diocese. Priests were to celebrate mass daily, laity go to mass and receive Communion more often, and better preaching and more confession were promoted. Eucharistic adoration was emphasized through the joining of the tabernacle to the altar, as well as the forty-hours devotion. There was a new emphasis on catechesis and education, including the invention of the seminary for the training of priests.
These developments pushed the Church to renew her commitment to making her churches and her liturgies as beautiful as the Faith itself. She employed art, architecture, music, and liturgy to draw all to the church and then to uplift their minds to those things that are eternal. Elizabeth Lev brilliantly tells the story of Counter-Reformation Art in her new book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art.
We need an architecture today that can do the same in response to the second reformation. It must symbolize the antiquity, universality, and beauty of the Church, as Vignola’s Gesu and Palladio’s Redentore did in the sixteenth century. This will mean an employment of art and architecture that is evangelistic and catechetical. Buildings that are icons on the outside, large and beautiful, with warm yet awe-inspiring interiors that are foci of the community. Churches must express for modern people the Terribilità.
We need a recovery of ancient principles and a restoration of what is timeless and classic. The basilica form and the baldacchino, for example, as well as altar rails, side altars and shrines, solemn confessionals, a place set aside for baptism, and saints buried beneath the altar or relics visible for veneration.
The sanctuary should be set apart, raised up to be the most beautiful part of the church. It should be the focus and the identity, liturgically and devotionally.
We need to revive the iconographic program, the creation of a narrative within the whole building. We can’t settle for the “America formula” of a crucifix above the altar, Mary on the left, and Saint Joseph on the right. Churches need to be like a good book that can be re-read, like a good symphony listened to over and over, with new things always seen or discovered.
That means the commissioning of custom art should be a priority: durable and high-quality materials shaped by highly skilled craftsman and top-quality artists and architects who can employ inventiveness in developing the tradition. No copies or regurgitation. No off the shelf statues. New paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and murals push the artists to develop new and authentic ways of expressing the timeless truths.
This does not mean antiquarianism, employing a particular style, or trying to go back to a golden age, whether the 1950s or a Romantic notion of the Middle Ages, as wonderful as those times were. It means creating churches that are traditional yet contemporary, universal yet local, Roman yet catholic – both/and, not either/or. Churches that combine unity with diversity and learn from the local character, express modern saints, and inventively develop the tradition. Like the great artists and architects of the Counter-Reformation, we must defend the faith of the Catholic Church through beauty.
Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in the current issue of Sacred Architecture (number 34), published by The Institute for Sacred Architecture and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Jesuit Baroque Church, Lucerne, Switzerland / Shutterstock)