Rebuilding the City of God: Thomas Gordon Smith, 1948-2021

Thomas Gordon Smith
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Everyone knows that a good man is hard to find, but a good artist is even harder—especially in the Catholic art scene. As a result, what is not hard to find are churches resembling space stations, sentimental plaster saints, and modernist nonrepresentational adornments. Sacred art is in crisis, and on June 22, the world lost one who gave his extraordinary talents in response to this crisis by restoring a classical sensitivity and a traditional Catholic architecture. At the age of 73, artist, architect, and professor emeritus of Notre Dame University, Thomas Gordon Smith passed away in South Bend, Indiana.

Of his many ecclesiastical, public, and residential projects, Professor Smith’s memory is especially enshrined in his designs for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, in Denton, Nebraska, and Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, in Hulbert, Oklahoma. These two places and their buildings are hubs of a wonderful revival of the Faith, with the seminary attracting many vocations to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the monastery gathering both monks and families around its church and cloister, recreating the monastic community and culture of the Middle Ages. And it is the noble, traditional beauty of these particular structures designed by Professor Smith that have lent themselves to the growing inspiration of these centers for the Catholic Faith in America, and for these alone he should be revered and remembered.

In these places especially, as well as others, Professor Smith’s legacy serves as an active part of the solution to the crisis of sacred art and the graver crisis—that most Catholics do not realize that sacred art is in crisis. In his life and work as an artist, architect, and teacher, Thomas Gordon Smith recognized that this prevalent artistic ambivalence is one of the sad fruits of the crisis: ambiguous art lends itself to an ambiguous church. Meaningful art, on the other hand, glorifies God by reflecting God and imparts sensitivity to the faithful by participating in the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the Light. Thomas Gordon Smith knew that if sacred art was to play a role in the restoration of Catholic culture and the new evangelization, it must first be reinfused with meaning, and he strove to give it a meaning—one that was not so much new and exciting as it was old and exciting.

A native of Oakland, California, Smith received his bachelor’s degree in art and a Master of Architecture degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975. He won the Rome Prize in Architecture to study at the American Academy in Rome in 1980 and had a major exhibition of architectural designs at the Venice Biennale. Professor Smith went on to teach at UCLA, Yale University, and the University of Chicago until his appointment as chair of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame (1989-1998). Besides the projects that were set in stone, Smith’s professional achievements have graced over thirty exhibitions and have been published widely. 

At Notre Dame, Smith brought his gentle enthusiasm and genuine love for classical architecture with him and helped establish a curriculum which soon took the lead in a widely acclaimed resurgence of classicism in contemporary American architecture. And his love for beauty, tradition, and the Catholic history of art and architecture that shone from his labors inspired a new generation of architects who have since done much to restore the vitality of classical art and architecture to the Church. One of the protégées of Professor Smith is the well-known architect, Duncan Stroik, who released this statement upon the death of his dear colleague:

One of my heroes died this morning. The man responsible for turning Notre Dame into a school devoted to Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas. And for changing the culture of architecture in America. He was passionate about Greek furniture, Vitruvius, classical architecture and Italian culture. He brought all of these interests to bear on his broad and influential practice, his writing, and most especially on his students and disciples. May we continue the great things he began and support his vision for the balance between practice and theory. Thomas Gordon Smith was a great mentor, supporter, and friend.

Thomas Gordon Smith gave his life to reconnect the Church with her artistic heritage and artistic patronage, which has been in decline arguably since 1764, when the Church ceased her patronage of Jean-Antoine Houdon, one of the greatest artists of the 18th century. This decision was largely inspired by the societal tendencies of the French Enlightenment, in which—as in any period of enlightenment—emphasis on rationalism, humanism, and individualism de-emphasized spiritualism. The Church not only abandoned its patronage of artists like Houdon who were beckoned by worldly clientele, but she also refrained from patronizing art in general. Patrons arose and abounded from secular powers and private individuals, becoming the principal dictators of art and taste instead of the Church. These new sponsors, being products of their age, supported the new fashion in art, which exchanged themes of Catholicism for themes of Neoclassicism—the rhetorical object was changed. 

Professor Smith’s passions worked to reverse the trajectory that has resulted over these two centuries in which the Church has developed a poor taste stemming from her lack of patronage for good artists in the realm of sacred art. Much of what is considered sacred art today is immured in that poor taste, and Catholic artists like Smith have undertaken to change that for the glory of the Church. For, in the end, such art is not worthy of its subject because it is not truthful, didactic, or luminous. It is, however, everywhere, enshrined in both homes and churches. Cotton-candy clouds. Passive poses. Chubby cherubs. Simpering expressions. No proportion. No humanity. No truth. No meaning.

The challenge for artists like Thomas Gordon Smith is to ensure that sacred art does not lose its meaningfulness, for then it will simply not mean much to people. But this meaningfulness comes with risk, as do all worthy things, and Professor Smith took that risk with the same boldness that he assumed linen suits, bowties, and tortoise-shell spectacles. Like all artists, Smith knew there is a danger involved in beholding the world honestly and an even greater danger in representing it honestly, because reality is not always benign. Worthy art is honest and, therefore, dangerous—and Smith undertook the danger of building things like traditional monasteries and seminaries. 

Security in the Faith, however, can navigate the hazards of art, as the career of Professor Smith shows, for it is through blind trust in grace that men may see the mysteries of existence as they subsist in matter. All art—especially sacred art—must surrender itself to what is if it is to capture it. The failure to engage reality seriously and humbly oftentimes results in the sentimentalism that is devoid of meaningful engagement. It is damaging rather than dangerous, and it is this sentimentality, this sensationalism, that poses a central problem in sacred art to this day.

Thomas Gordon Smith recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, Marika, and he is also survived by his six children and ten grandchildren. May God bless them all as He brings the soul of His good servant, Thomas, to eternal rest. Professor Smith ran the risk of creating beautiful and traditional works of art and, though he is gone from this earth, they will stand for generations to come as bright and solid witnesses to the devotion of this man who left the mark of his faith for all of us in stone. And though he will be missed, it is wonderful to envision Professor Smith, with his customary, dignified delight, inevitably bumping into St. Peter with an “Oh my, please excuse me,” as he takes in the proportions of the Pearly Gates and all the eternal architecture of the City of God. 

[Image: Thomas Gordon Smith/Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary]

By

Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

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