Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Church Architecture’

10 Myths About Modern Church Architecture

June 15th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

From The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA

by Duncan Stroik (originally published HERE)

1. The Second Vatican Council requires us to reject traditional church architecture and design new churches in a Modernist style.

This myth is based more on what Roman Catholics have built during the past thirty years than on what the Church has taught. Even by professional accounts, the church architecture of the past decade has been an unmitigated disaster. However, actions often speak louder than words, and the faithful have been led to believe that the Church requires buildings to be functional abstractions, because that is what we have been building. Nothing could be farther from the intentions of the Council fathers who clearly intended the historic excellence of Catholic architecture to continue. It is most important to keep in mind that…

Read the entire article and see photos HERE

“A tribute to the College’s Catholic heritage”?

June 10th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Below is a corrected version of the original post in which I made an ignorant statement concerning the placement of Tabernacles in newly constructed churches.

From Saint John Fisher College News

20160302_SJFC Chapel Design

The St. John Fisher College Board of Trustees recently announced the construction of the Hermance Family Chapel of St. Basil the Great… Read the whole article HERE

My comments follow:

The outside, not too bad. The inside… ?

“College News” calls the chapel “A tribute to the College’s Catholic heritage”. I certainly do not see a strong reference to Catholic heritage in the proposed architectural design for the new Chapel. The original founders/administration were Catholic, shouldn’t the chapel look Catholic?

This could be any mainline Protestant chapel; certainly not Catholic in any strong sense. Replace the crucifix with a plain cross and place a high back chair in front of the tabernacle and it might just be a Baptist church. Add the stained glass windows and you’re tilting toward the more liturgical wings of Protestantism.

What would make it “more” Catholic?

  1. Place the Tabernacle in the center behind the altar, incorporated into the wall on in front of the wall. Appropriately adorn the area of the Tabernacle with imagery appropriate to the Blessed Sacrament. Several sanctuary lamps alone would add a sense of the sacred. Right now the Tabernacle looks like an unfortunate requirement, off to the side and, most especially, lacking any elaboration suggesting sacred space.
  2. Treat the “sanctuary platform” –as College News calls it– as the chancel it is supposed to be. A Catholic church or chapel to be Catholic must convey a sense of sacred hierarchic space. That is basic to Catholic theology. What we see in the proposed design is a reflection of protestant theology: the complete absence of a sense of the transcendent and an emphasis on the merely human.
    • the altar needs to be prominent in a Catholic church: raised up and covered by a ciborium or baldachin or some form of tester. That is still a requirement for Catholic Churches although often left out in new churches.
    • the chancel in a Catholic church should be clearly marked off from the rest of the space. Usually that is accomplished by a railing or at least by a significant number of steps –at least three steps. The separation suggests a special, more sacred space.
    • the altar in a Catholic church is a sacrificial altar and not just a table. The Catholic Mass is a sacrifice, the sacrifice of Calvary made present. There is a meal component to the Mass but the element of sacrifice should not take second place and in this design it is not even evident. I would look for a solid stone, marble faced, or precious wood altar adorned with imagery.
    • Gosh! Is that music stand supposed to be where the Gospel is proclaimed from? Please, create a pulpit along the same lines as a proper altar: of noble material and appropriately adorned.
    • the wall behind the altar in the proposal appears as a demonstration piece (and an uninteresting one at that) for a gardening or landscape/masonry business. The sacred in Catholic churches is traditionally suggested by imagery around the altar. It is usually the grandest area of the interior space. At the very least the crucifix should be monumental and not the stingy sized one in the proposal. The stained glass windows should be a wonderful addition but the chancel should always be accorded the most important imagery or treatment.
    • the chancel is the throne room of the king (or the Holy Sepulcher or the sacred bridal chamber or the Holy of Holies). There are several possible interpretations from Catholic tradition of the chancel and altar area. Rich and intricate designs as well as regal colors suggest heaven and the transcendent. There is no decoration at all in this proposal. (The addition of a ciborium could minimize the need for imagery on the wall.) The furnishings as well are as plain as can be in this proposal.
  3. Is there even a statue or image of Saint John Fisher planned? Or Saint Basil the Great?
  4. Get rid of the piano. The organ has pride of place in Catholic liturgy, along with Latin and Gregorian chant.

The people responsible for this design have not considered what makes a Catholic church “Catholic”. They have consulted the anti-Catholic worship space designers of liberal liturgy that was barely recognizable as Catholic. That is especially unfortunate since the proposed chapel is meant to be a tribute to the school’s Catholic heritage.

Too bad the architects and sponsors are not aware of the resurgence of classical church architectural. “Classical” in the sense of the use of the esthetic principles of Romanesque, Baroque, Classical, and Gothic church architecture. That’s the latest. What they have come up with has been resoundingly rejected as “not Catholic”.

Like a Bride Adorned for Her Husband

May 30th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

This is a post originally published September 12, 2011. I am re-posting it after attending the rite for the ordination of deacon this past Saturday. I did a post yesterday that was critical of the lack of emphasis on the altar. From where I was sitting –on the right side of the nave about halfway down– I could not see the altar or more than the tops of the heads of the clergy at the altar. Not being able to see much of the liturgy I took to looking around and noticing, once again, some beautiful things, most noticeably the beautiful stained glass windows. They remind me of what I think is a very important concept a Catholic church building should convey.

The photos you see in this post are from the original post. The last one, especially, does not convey the full blue appearance of the windows as I saw them Saturday. The second to last window is a little truer to the effect I noticed.

Click on the Photos to see larger images.

Rev 21 [1] Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. [2] I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.


Rev  21 [11] It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.


Rev 21 [18] The wall was constructed of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. [19] The foundations of the city wall were decorated with every precious stone; the first course of stones was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald,[20]the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh hyacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. [21]The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl; and the street of the city was of pure gold, transparent as glass.

The church building in the Catholic tradition is more than just a gathering space for an assembly of people. It is a symbol of the New Temple –the people of God- and of the Heavenly Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven” dressed like a bride. The building should predispose us to experience the liturgy as timeless, incorporating in worship both all in heaven and all on earth. It is difficult to see how that experience can happen in a minimalist environment. I’m not going to say impossible, but, for most people, difficult.

Look around carefully and you can find in the Cathedral several suggestions of the heavenly Jerusalem in addition to the windows.


I can say something positive about our Cathedral even after the notorious renovation: the beautiful windows are still there. They form the equivalent of walls of jasper, gold, precious stones, pearls, sapphires and such, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The bride –the Church—is adorned in beautiful garments as she goes to meet her Lord.

Take heart! Not all is lost.

Restoring A Sense of the Sacred in Sacred Heart Cathedral

May 29th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

pair psdClick on the picture to see a larger image.

While attending the deacon ordination rite on Saturday, I realized, once again, a major weakness with our cathedral: the altar is not prominent. It is in the middle but it is too low and there is no suggestion of it as sacred space. That was by design, of course.

The people in charge of the renovation of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester believed the congregation or community should be emphasized, not the altar and not the priest. Sacred space, to them, is the whole space when occupied by a congregation. They did not believe in a hierarchy of spaces. No space is more sacred than another in their theology of liturgy. In fact, no space is really sacred in itself. Only people gathered make a space sacred, according to their thinking. It is not a concept without some merit, in my opinion –“Where two or three are gathered in my name… ” But, of course, we also have in our tradition the influence of the Old Testament Temple layout and liturgy with its sacred spaces in hierarchical order , actions, prayers and theology. Jesus, we recall was a Temple goer. So were the earliest Christians until they were excluded from the Temple and synagogues. The Eucharist that they had always had to celebrate apart from the Temple/synagogues took on an increasingly Temple-like liturgical style to fill the void. Fairly early on in Christian history the priests/bishops, when celebrating the Eucharist, were compared to the High Priests of the Jerusalem Temple.

A desacralization of churches and the liturgy followed Vatican II. (We could argue endlessly as to whether that was what the Council Fathers had in mind.) But, tradition seems to be making a comeback. Slowly but surely –“brick by brick” some say– we are returning to a sense of the sacred. A more balanced understanding of liturgy in line with tradition and Vatican II thinking on the liturgy is evolving.

I have a proposal that would, I think, restore a sense of the sacred in our cathedral. You can see my proposal in the illustration at the top of this post. I think my proposal to raise the altar one step higher and to cover the altar with a ciborium would go a long way to restoring the Cathedral to Catholic tradition.

This is not the first time I have posted this proposal. It is the third time.

Saint Mary’s Church, Dansville, NY

April 13th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Dansville, New York, has a beautiful church that has avoided ruin through “Spirit of Vatican II” activism.

web 01bae5e57efea590ab7f6be82aaf955e110c7f55a5_edited-1Saint Mary’s in Dansville is a mix of styles. I would call it Romanesque but it has a Renaissance/Baroque main entrance, Gothic Revival coins at the corners and a prominent pediment, and touches of Byzantine in a domed cupola and stone/brick banding toward the top of the tower.

web 01f23438a9bcb34ca34acc4936d10c22ceb3a99c10_edited-1The church is in the style of an early Christian basilica and includes an open timbered ceiling, characteristic of the earliest of Christian churches. There is a large nave and two side aisles but no side chapels. The apse houses a gorgeous classical Renaissance altar designed to appear to have a baldachin or ciborium. The tabernacle was never moved after the Second Vatican Council and so is in the center of the cancel, on the altar. The vaulted ceiling is  coffered with rosettes.

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Appropriately, the back and side walls of the apse are painted in a rich, gold pattern reminiscence of a king’s throne room.

The draped opening between the columns of the altar cries out for a painting but we are offered an aesthetically underwhelming (to me) suspended sculpture of the risen Lord. I’m wondering if a painting was once there or was at least planned for that space.

web 01d6a58bd89dcbcc95e6b8ac98d69b2c006c25f0c6_edited-2Unfortunately, banners have been hung on some of the sides of the piers (square columns). They are at least well designed but, alas, they are banners and I dislike banners. In this case I think they distract from the Stations of the Cross. The piers were designed to be unadorned except for the Stations. Thankfully, the colors of the banners harmonize with the architecture and they are in good proportion to the sides of the piers.

web 01db2453d20195dda066a1a05767c9c2c69bb836ab_edited-1The Stations of the Cross are outstanding in Saint Mary’s. Renaissance in style, each has a touch of Byzantine in the gold mosaic-like skies.


Yet another style appears to us in the spandrels between the piers (those triangular spaces over the piers). A heavenly host of angels rendered in the Art Nouveau style look down on us and announce that we are in sacred space –the throne room of the King, the temple of the Lord. (Yes, yes, I know, in the New Covenant the people are the Temple.)

web three windows

Like nearly everything else in this church, the stained glass windows are beautiful. Rich in detail and outstanding in rendering they each invite study and reflection.

web 01e00df7767c17fa51f22ea19b6ea8e78071a45f0b_edited-1 Look at the wonderful elaboration of the main entrance. Something important happens here. This isn’t just any building.

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More Information about Saint Mary’s

Blessed Sacrament Front and Center

March 4th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

From the National Catholic Register

Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison Wisconsin discusses diocesan deadline for suitable tabernacle placement.

Read more here.

When to worry about the bathrooms, diversity and community.

February 7th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

I have not been called, yet; not from the rebuilding committee at Saint Pius Tenth Church. I expect a call anytime now requesting my guidance on making the new church building truly Catholic.

(chirp, chirp… )

I will be ready, however. Here is the list I have been preparing (for any new Catholic church in the planning stage, not just Pius Tenth).

1. Make it look like a Catholic church both inside and out. The Romanesque style is my preference and the most recognizable as Catholic. The Baroque, too, fully espouses Catholic theology, as well as the Byzantine but with an eastern twist. Modernism, however, has proved a failure. Please avoid it.

Use stone, brick, wood and stained glass. Hide the steel. (Concrete, only if you must.)

Please tell the world through the architectural style you choose that the building is a church: not a store, bank, Target, suburban house, town center, concert hall, or a dairy farm. May the new building announce that something really, really important and serious happens there. A church building is sacred space in which we offer sacrifice in worship of the Holy Trinity led in that worship by the Second Person of that Trinity, Jesus Christ. We have malls, senior citizen centers, youth centers, theaters and town halls to do other things; places meant to cater to us and our personal and community needs.

Please, not like this.

Please, not like this.

2. Use the traditional basilica ground plan: Latin or Greek Cross. It has worked for 1,700 years. Emphasize the linear, not the circular. We are traveling to heaven, not wandering around in circles. Our focus is on God and we want to rush toward Him without sociological, political, or faddish distractions.

Latin Cross Plan

Latin Cross Plan

The governing concept here is that salvation history has a definite beginning and a definite end. It is a whole lot different from the thinking of far eastern religions that delight in endless and limitless oceans of “being”. So, stress linear movement to the altar and not so much a gathering “around” the altar.


3. Speaking of beginnings and endings: Place the main entrance at the opposite end from the altar and make that entrance glorious. It is, after all, meant to mark movement from secular into sacred space. Symbolically, those doors represent the gates of heaven. Surround the doors with images of the saints and angels. Christ enthroned, the vision of Ezekiel or Last Judgment scene would be most appropriate over the doors. The doors themselves must be heavy wood or bronze and display Biblical scenes –perhaps the Annunciation, the angel on one door and Mary on the other. I prefer heavy doors on churches; doors that insist on being taken seriously. Please, no see-through glass doors. This isn’t K Mart.

arkansa door

Bronze doors with images of the Twelve Apostles.

The concept here is mystery: Catholicism exudes mystery and the doors should convey that experience.

Additional entrances should be treated in the same way except, perhaps, in scale. Marian and saint themes might be best at those entrances. (A “Marian” door and a “Saint Pius Tenth” door would be nice.)

4. Yes, the baptismal font should be right inside the main doors. I prefer the combination pool and pedestal style. Whatever it is, include imagery of the Baptism of Christ as part of it. At least that. There are plenty of other figurative baptismal imagery from our Catholic past that could be used.

5. At the far end opposite the main doors and font should be the altar, freestanding and covered by a beautiful ciborium (if the building is Classical, Romanesque or Byzantine) or a baldachin (if the architecture is Classical or Baroque).

The altar itself should be stone or at least one with marble facing and sculpted on all four sides, perhaps with the Last Supper on the front and scenes of Old Testament prefiguring of the Eucharist –Melchizedek, Sacrifice of Abraham, multiplication of the loaves and fish– on the sides.

The altar should be raised on a platform, 3 steps high. Some kind of railing or boundary should enclose the chancel marking off the space of the chancel as special.

6. For the love of God, visually center the Tabernacle in the church. It’s the Catholic thing to do. I prefer that the Tabernacle look like a temple or an ark. Images of angels all around the space, please.

7. Lavish the inside and outside of the building with images of saints and Biblical scenes carefully programmed to reinforce Christian teaching and that convey a sense of hierarchy of theology as one moves from the doors to the altar. Include rich patterns, especially in and near the chancel that suggest a king’s chamber or a paradise.

8. Please, original works of art only –created by liturgical artists with training in traditional Catholic styles! No insect-like figures. The best figurative styles to use as a guide can be found in our rich Catholic tradition: Gothic, Baroque, Byzantine, and even Art Nouveau. Avoid Realism. Figures should express a sense of being redeemed, transformed by grace, transfigured. They are in heaven and should appear noticeably ‘better’ than they would on earth.

Art Nouveau Style

Art Nouveau Style

9. After all that –and only after all that– you can concentrate on bathrooms, building community, and respecting diversity. Anyway, those are things of concern like coffee hours, movie nights, social justice committees, Rosary Society, Knights of Columbus, youth organizations, choir. You should have all those things already.

Can’t wait for my invite! Excited!

The “New Classicism”

November 7th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

From the New Liturgical Movement website

by David Clayton

Here is the fourth in the series of short videos by Denis McNamara, Professor on the faculty of the Liturgical Institute, Mundelein; his book is Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.

Before I sat in on some of his lectures this summer, I had been aware of Denis’ emphasis on the classical tradition in architecture. I have to admit, I did have half a suspicion that his…

Read more here.

View 5 minute video here.

The Jewish Roots of Catholic Church Architecture

October 29th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

From The New Liturgical Movement website

by David Clayton

Denis McNamara on the Jewish Roots of Church Architecture

In this, the third of a series of ten videos, Denis McNamara discusses how church architecture reflects the roots of a church’s function in those of the Temple and the synagogue. Read more….

See 5 minute video here.

God’s Time

October 27th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie
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Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.

(click on photos)

Sainte-Chapelle is considered one of the highest artistic achievements of the medieval period. Consecrated in the spring of 1248 it was created by King Louis XIV to house the relics of the Crown of Thorns. Sainte-Chapelle, on the Île de la Cité in the middle of Paris, consists of one of the most extensive “in-situ” collections of 13th-century stained glass anywhere in the world. The “walls” of the chapel are veritable curtains of stained glass.

The thirteen huge windows are a pictorial presentation of the events of the Bible. Both the Old and the New Testaments are depicted with the New Testament scenes occupying the eastern apse. Old Testament scenes are depicted in the north and south windows. A rose stained glass window depicts the Book of Revelation in the west end.

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In Sainte-Chapelle, Paris.

(Isaiah 42:6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles… ) Standing in the center of the chapel you feel engulfed by the light of salvation history. Sunlight –Divine Light, if you will— shines through the pictorial images of the Bible. It’s impressive: the Bible glowing, floating and projecting its content on the floor and walls of the church. Each episode in the Bible in this experience seems timeless, eternal. Each episode emanates Divine Light. (Psalm 36:9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.)

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In Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.

Christianity is an historical religion; everything has a this time, this place, this person historical reference (Jesus suffered “under Pontius Pilate”). Historical events have a definite time limit and reference, yet, in Christian theology, Biblical events are eternal as well as “in time”. They exist “once and for all time”. They are eternally efficacious. Similar to the Passover and the Sacrifice of the Cross they are always present. They exist in God’s time.

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In Beauvais Cathedral, France.

Figurative stained glass windows effectively communicate the experience of the essential and eternal nature of salvation history. It’s not the only medium able to do so but it might be the most effective given its great dependence on sunlight, and also effective because of our awareness of the ubiquitous references to light throughout the Bible that convey the sense of divinity. (Matthew 17:2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.)

The divine is eternal and divine light is therefore eternal, driving away the darkness forever. (John 1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.)

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From the beginning, Catholic churches were meant to convey a foretaste of heaven. Down through history images from salvation history (and also images of the saints in heaven) were always numerous and richly presented in our churches. The experience was of beautiful timelessness. Worshipers entering Catholic churches had a sense of entering into God’s place and God’s time.

When we enter our contemporary Catholic churches whose time zone do we feel we are in: God’s or ours?

True Beauty

October 20th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Video: Catholic Church Architecture – Episode 2

Originally published July 9, 2012

Dr. Denis McNamara, faculty member at the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois, speaks on church architecture and its relation to beauty, theologically understood.

More from the New Liturgical Movement website:

Text introduction by David Clayton: Denis McNamara on the Meaning of Beauty and its Importance in Church Architecture

…he points out that beauty is not simply “in the eye of the beholder,” but is a property of the object itself…

Is there an “architectural theology” that should govern how we design Catholic churches?

October 17th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

This first in an excellent series on church design by Dr. Denis McNamara, faculty member at the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois, speaks on the concept of architectural theology. (Originally appeared in 2012.)

Click here to view “Architectural Theology”

Well presented 6 min. video clip

Majestas Domini and the Angels of Judgment

August 10th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

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Mosaic ceiling of the interior of the baptistry of Saint John the Baptist in Florence, Italy.

(Click on pictures to see larger images.)

Begun in 1225 and completed in the 14th century, the mosaic composition is dominated by a Last Judgment scene featuring a Majestas Domini familiar to us as of the same type as we saw in the Blessed David Chapel, Thessalonica (ca. 425-50). The four creatures of the apocalypse are not present in this image, however, and Christ here extends his arms and hands as we saw in the scene of the Last Judgement in the tympanum of Autun Cathedral, presenting to us the saved on his right and the damned, on his left.

Choirs of Angels –Dominations, Powers, Archangels, Angels, Principalities, Virtues and Thrones occupy the top tiers of the ceiling and scenes from Genesis, stories of Joseph, stories of Mary and Christ and finally, in the lower tier, stories of Saint John the Baptist, fill out the other sections.

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Constructed in what is called the Florentine Romanesque style, sometime between 1059 and 1128, the baptistry itself is one of the oldest buildings in the city of Florence. The octagonal shape of the building signifies the six days of creation, the Day of Rest, and a day of re-creation through the Sacrament of Baptism. It is an ancient tradition of the Church, going back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, to construct octagonal baptistries and/or baptismal fonts.

Basic Christian Iconography: the “Majestas (Maiestas) Domini”

July 28th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Majestas Domini is Latin for “the majesty (glory) of the Lord”.[1]

This iconic image is arguably older than the cross –especially the crucifix– in Christian art, having its origins in the 4th century, whereas the cross did not appear until the 5th century and the crucifix, even later.

The Majestas Domini is not often employed now-a-days perhaps due to the ascendency of a theology of “Jesus, our brother” or even “Jesus, our friend” and the simultaneous suppressing of a Christology that emphasizes the divinity of Christ along with his humanity, as the Majestas Domini does.

In the iconic image, Christ sits regally upon a throne (signifying his authority to make laws) surrounded by a special halo called a mandorla, an almond shaped aureola[2] that encircles the entire body, signifying holy or divine status. He raises his right hand in the ancient gesture of an authoritative orator, teacher or law giver. He is not giving a blessing as some believe.[3] His left hand holds a book that is sometimes open with an inscription that varies depending on the contexts in which the image is deployed.

In some renderings Christ holds a closed book which is interpreted as a book of the Gospels, the “new” law.

The image is very much in the spirit of the opening chapter of the Gospel of Saint John; “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God…  “ establishing Christ as divine, consubstantial, co-eternal, and co-creator with the Father.

The image of divine creator, ruler of the universe and authoritative teacher and law giver that we see in the Majestas Domini does not fit the softer, more ambiguous and non-judgmental “Jesus our friend/brother” theology of the modern liturgist and that may account for why the icon is seldom used today but it may also explain why we do not see, anymore, the various themes or dogmatic images it was paired with –the Last Judgement or Second Coming. In fact we don’t see anything concerning judgement or law in contemporary liturgical art.

Following are just a few of the various appearances of the Majestas Domini icon in Christian art history.

(Click on pictures to see larger images)

"Codex Bruchsal", Romanesque illuminated manuscript Gospel Book, c.1220. Here we can see the basic "Majestas Domini" icon in one of its most common presentations; with symbols of the four evangelists depicted in the corner medallions (upper left: winged man for St. Matthew; upper right: an eagle for St. John; lower left: a winged ox symbolizing St. Mark; lower right: the winged bull symbol for St. Luke. One interesting aspect is almost always include in the Majestas Domini: the Lord's orator hand and one or both feet overlap or even extend beyond the boundary of the mandorla/full body halo.

“Codex Bruchsal”, Romanesque illuminated manuscript Gospel Book, c.1220.

Above, we can see the basic Majestas Domini icon in one of its more common appearances, with symbols of the four evangelists depicted in corner illustrations (upper left: winged man for St. Matthew; upper right: an eagle for St. John; lower left: a winged lion symbolizing St. Mark; lower right: the winged bull symbol for St. Luke). The arrangement of the fingers on the Lord’s extended hand is the standard ancient Roman arrangement utilized by teachers and orators when teaching and speaking.

Central tympanum of the Royal portal, Chatres Cathedral, 1145-50. The "Majestas Domini" in the typmanum of the Main potral of the Chartres Cathedral is usually called a "Last judgement" as the symbols of the four evangelists are often interpreted as the four beasts of the apocalyse although the title would be more obvious if the Lord was seated on a rainbow as mentioed in Old Testament phrofit's vision.

Tympanum of the Royal Portal of the Cathedral of Chartres, France, 1145-150.  The harmonious style and coordination of shapes within the design offers us a simple but very powerful image. The four symbolic figures next to the image of Our Lord, in this instance, represent the four beasts of the Second Coming (tetramorphs).

During the Middle Ages, the Majestas Domini icon was often paired with the theme of the Second Coming over the central entrance to a church. Doing so suggested to the faithful entering the church the glory and power of the Lord and the promise of future glory for the faithful.

Below is a depiction of the Second Coming as the Last Judgement with several scenes from the story paired with the icon of the Majestas Domini. The faithful were reminded, as they entered through the portal of the church under this image, to live according to the divine law if they wanted to enter through the gates of heaven.

"Last Judgement" in the typanum over the central portal of Autun Cathedral, ca. 1130.Lazare, Tympanon Autun (Saone-et-Loire), Kathedrale Saint Lazare. Westportal, Tympanon: - Christus als Weltenrichter in der Mandorla und Juengstes Gericht. - Skulptur von Gislebert von Autun, um 1140. Foto, undat. E: Autun, Cath. Saint Lazare, tympanum Autun (Saone-et-Loire), Cathedrale Saint Lazare. West tympanum: - Christ as Judge in the mandorla with the Last Judgement. - Sculpture by Gislebert von Autun, c. 1140. Photo, undated.

The Last Judgement in the tympanum over the central portal of Autun Cathedral, ca. 1130. (Click on the image in order to read the labels.) The right hand and left hands of the Lord are empty but appear to be presenting to us the two groups of people: the condemned on the left and the saved, on the right.

During the Middle Ages, disputes, both secular and religious, were decided in the portals of churches under the depiction of the Last Judgement.

The next image (below) is of  the earliest known Majestas Domini image in a church setting. The mosaic icon is in a 5th century small apse in the chapel of Hosios David (Blessed David) attached to a monastery in Thessaloniki, Greece. A young Christ appears in front of a radiantly colored aureole, seated on a rainbow. Four abbreviated creatures –the beasts of the Second Coming– flank the central figure of Christ and are partially overlapped by the transparent aureole. Below the figure of Christ, the four rivers of paradise flow from a hill. Christ holds a scroll that reads “I am the spring of living water”.

"The Vision of Ezekiel", apse mosaic in Blessed David Chapel, Thessalonica, ca. 425-50. The "Majestas Domini" depicted with the Lord seated upon a rainbow is usually associated with "Last Judgement" themes. (Ezekial 1: 1 - 28: "...and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it [the mandorla]. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord").  The term "Majestas Domini" comes from Ezekial's last sentence of his description.

“The Vision of Ezekiel”,
apse mosaic in Blessed David Chapel,
Thessalonica, ca. 425-50. This Majestas Domini depicts the Lord seated upon a rainbow surrounded by rainbow colored bursts of light [the mandorla]. It is based on the biblical text of Ezekial 1: 1 – 28: “…and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around [the mandorla]. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it  This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord). The term Majestas Domini is an excerpt from Ezekial’s last sentence.

The scene is of the prophet Ezekial’s vision as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The figure seen cringing and turning away in terror on the far left, hiding from the vision, is the Old Testament prophet, himself.  St. John the Evangelist, the writer of the Book of Revelation, is shown seated to the far right in the mosaic. John describes a similar vision to Ezekial’s in the Book of Revelation, but he is calmly writing done what he is seeing. In the Hosios David mosaic we see depicted the two contrasting images favored by the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. The Old Testament vision of the god-head, Ezekial’s vision, was favored by the Eastern Church. [4] The New Testament vision revealed to St. John was favored by the Western Church.

Below is another composition using the Majestas Domini in depicting the Second Coming. In this tympanum the centrally placed iconic Majestas Domini is surrounded on three sides (left, right and bottom) by the twenty-four elders described in the Book of Revelation.

Tympanum, Second Coming, Moissac Abbey, ca. 1125

Tympanum, Second Coming, Moissac Abbey, ca. 1125

details of Second Coming, Moissac Abbey. The central Majestas Domini image and the left hand Elders.

details of Second Coming, Moissac Abbey. The central Majestas Domini image and the left hand Elders.

Another tympanum from the Middle Ages (below) employs the Majestas Domini in a most interesting composition as it might stand as a visual metaphor for a couple of important religious activities that took place at the time: pilgrimages and crusades.

The Vezelay tympanum is in the narthex of the church, just over the door into the nave.

The tympanum is in the narthex of the church of Saint Mary Magdeleine in Vezelay, France –just over the door into the nave.

The theme of the composition, above, is the Commissioning of the Apostles: “Go out into the whole world and… ” spread the good news. Surrounding the central image of the Lord are compartments –symbolic of foreign lands– occupied by figures representing the different peoples of the world, many of whom were not well known at the time.[5]

Sending the apostles out involved travel, of course, and so did going on pilgrimage and joining a crusade, both of which were happening at the time this tympanum was created. This church was the point of origin or staging for many significant pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and it was also the site of the preaching of the Second Crusade.[6]

Tympanum of the Church of the Abbaye Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay, "Commissioning of the Apostles", 1130

Tympanum of the Church of the Abbaye Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay, “Commissioning of the Apostles”, 1130

The Majestas Domini in the (above) tympanum is significantly different than the usual. Here, the symbols of the four evangelists (or the beasts of the Apocalypse) are missing and the Lord is not teaching or holding a book. Rather, both arms are extended with palms of the hands open and rays of light (or power) emanating from the finger tips to the heads of the apostles. There is still a regal pose to the figure of the Lord and there is still a mandorla but we can see that there are significant changes in some of the specifics of the basic iconic image.

The poses of all the figures in the composition of the Commissioning tympanum suggest a kind of jittery and intense movement that conveys excitement and movement (traveling?).

Russian, 1874?

Russian, 1874?

In the particularly beautiful ceiling fresco shown above we notice that the normal flat Byzantine Eastern icon style has given way to the influence of the European  style of “Renaissance” space and form. The symbols of the four evangelists are shown as if in real space, two in front of the throne and two farther back. The mandorla looks almost as if it is a snow globe enclosing the symbols of the evangelists as well as the figure of the Lord. The Lord holds the Book of the Gospels in his raised right hand and an Eastern crozier or staff in his left indicating teaching and governing authority. He wears the vestments of a tsar.

Below is a photo of a late 4th century apse mosaic in a church in Rome. In it we see a Majestas Domini depicted as a rather natural Christ seated upon on gem studded throne under the gem studded cross of Golgotha, erected on orders of Constantine the Great in the 4th century on the actual site of the crucifixion of Christ. The Lord, wearing gold vestments with purple trim (a sign of imperial authority), sits regally and yet comfortably holding an open book in his left hand and teaching with his right. The four evangelists (we can only see two from this angle) are in the sky over Jerusalem. Acting as a virtual mandorla is the profile of the hill of Golgotha just behind and over our Lord. To the Lord’s left and right are his apostles.[7] Standing behind Saint Peter, on our right, and holding a wreath over Peter’s head is a woman who symbolizes the Church of the Jews. On the left is depicted the same idea only it is Saint Paul being crowned by a figure representing the Church of the Gentiles.


Below are two “modern” uses of the Majestas Domini.

web 250px-RabulaGospelsFol13vAscension

The large tapestry of Christ (Majestas Domini) in Coventry Cathedral, England, designed by Graham Sutherland. 1962.

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Christ in Glory, “Christ the Light” Cathedral, Oakland , California. 2008. The window depicts a 90 foot image of Christ in majesty taken from the transept of Chartres Cathedral in France (see the second photo at the top of this post). The image is created by natural light passing through aluminum panels that have been pierced with 94,000 holes.

Finally, the Majestas Domini icon is thought to have originated in the 4th century with the so-called Dominus Legem Dat (the Lord Gives the Law to Peter [and Paul]) image.

Dominus legem dat Petro, from the 4th century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Dominus legem dat Petro, from the 4th century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Above, Christ sits or stands with his feet on Caelus, the Roman sky god. This image proclaims that the new law of Christ has defeated the world of the ancient gods and goddesses (represented by Caelus) and all the worldly powers that invoked them. The two apostles (Peter on Christ’s right and Paul on his left) symbolize the proclamation of the new law to the entire world for Peter symbolizes the Jewish wing of the Church and Paul, the Gentile wing. The new law is, therefore, for everyone –Gentile (the non-Jewish world) as well as Jew. Many times in the history of Christian art the Majestas Domini appears as a Dominus Legem Dat.

There are even more compositions we could look at that derive from this basic dogmatic icon but this will serve as a basic introduction to those not familiar with The Majestas Domini.


[1] The image (icon) is usually referred to as “Christ in Glory”

[2] a full body halo or nimbus

[3] Eastern Roman Catholic and Orthodox priests use it when giving a blessing (which is why some say the Lord is giving a blessing. He isn’t)

[4] The Hosios David type Majestas Domini is assumed to have been a popular image in the churches of Constantinople because they were frequently deployed in the apses of Egypt and Armenia. Some survive in Cappadocia, Turkey. Constantinople, as the Eastern capital would have influenced the decoration of Egyptian and Armenian churches and those in Cappadocia. At that time, the image was known as the theandric or god-man image.

[5] Many of the figures in the boxes are distorted characterizations of reports made by people who had been in those foreign lands or who had heard from people who had been there.

[6] by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, beneath this very tympanum.

[7] Two are missing, cut off from the ends, unfortunately, when the mosaic underwent restoration in the 16th century.

Saint Mary’s, Geneseo

June 6th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie


Saint Mary’s in Geneseo, New York is a charming little church in a college town 40 minutes south of Rochester. It has changed very little over the years as far as I know. I suspect there was once a communion rail which has, sadly, disappeared. Fortunately, The Tabernacle has not been moved from its central location on the permanent altar. The floor of the church is still, delightfully, creaky wood.

The architecture of the church is Medieval Revival with Gothic and Romanesque characteristics. The front facade of the church is Romantic, arranged asymmetrically with the towers unequal in height. Brick is often the material of choice for Medieval Revival.

The sectioning of the apse and side chapels reminds me of the dome of the Cathedral of Florence and even the dome of Saint Peter’s in Rome.

The funeral Mass I participated in recently was, for the most part orthodox, if celebrated a little too informally by the priest. Unfortunately, not much was used from the rich musical tradition of the Church but the young woman who was the cantor has a beautiful voice.





Make Confessionals Prominent, Again

June 1st, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie
Confessional in Vatican

Confessional in Vatican

Go into any European Catholic church with a couple of hundred years of life under its belt and you find yourself in a sacred space usually filled with dark furniture. Pews –a relatively recent addition– yes, but most strikingly you will see confessionals: lots of confessionals. They march up alongside the side aisle walls of the church. In the larger churches they can also be found attached to the nave columns or piers.

There are so many of them that it is easy to unwittingly pause too near one that is being used. In Italy, while pausing to admire a church’s architecture, I have been “ahem-ed” by a priest hearing a confession. Confessionals are all over the place.

In contrast, think of our churches here in the U.S., especially our modern ones. Where are the confessionals? You will look long and hard to find the ones at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester.

The post Vatican II trend has been toward “reconciliation rooms” that are nondescript and almost hidden –if not actually hidden. Often, there is no permanent confessional, merely a portable screen with a chair on one side for the priest and a kneeler on the other side for the penitent. It is put away between confession hours –usually only 30 minutes a week; make an appointment during “off hours”. Most often, however, the confessional is not easily noticeable. Clearly the message is Confession is not important.

The architecture of our modern churches has dropped confession from the three biggies: Eucharist, Baptism, and Confession. (Confirmation was lost centuries ago.)

IMG_9027While in Poland recently, I took notice of the number of confessionals in the older churches. I also observed that they were being used every day at almost any time. Not all of them all the time, but in the larger churches at least, one was operational with a priest and penitent. In others, a priest’s stole draped on the front railing indicated it was often open for business.

The Faith is still strong in Poland although liberals would probably quarrel with the quality of that Faith. The Faith has, in fact, been weakening even there ever since the fall of communism, the enemy of Polish culture. Still, is there a relation between the number of confessionals in a church and the strength of the Faith in that community?

Of course, we don’t have the priests to man more than one Confessional in a church. But, shouldn’t that one Confessional be really present in the church? And, shouldn’t it be an admirable piece of art?

IMG_8917A theological argument could be made for the edification of the Sacrament of Confession through artistic expression and prominent location of the Confessional in a church. First, confession should have a public element to it as sin is a separation from the community of Faith, from the Church, as well as a fracturing of my personal relationship with God. Reunion or reconciliation with the community should therefore be public –have a visible liturgical presence– accomplished in a public place and not squirreled away in a private “office”. The public element also invites reflection for those who see it happening: “Am I so perfect that I don’t need Confession as so many others seem to?” “We are all sinners, in need of forgiveness.” “Why do I struggle with guilt when forgiveness is so available?”

Second, Confession is a monumental Sacrament, an incredibly merciful action of Christ through His Church that should be celebrated in an appropriately grand manner and not “hushed up”. All the angels in heaven rejoice at the return of a sinner. Shouldn’t our confessionals aesthetically express that thought?

Make the confessionals visible and impressive once again and I think we will see an increase in the numbers of people taking advantage of the Sacrament.

“The Little French (Romanesque, Baroque, Italianate) Church”

April 28th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Our Lady of Victory RochesterJust down the street about a block from the remains of Saint Joseph Church is one of the architecturally unique churches of the Rochester Diocese, Our Lady of Victory/Saint Joseph Church, designed by noted Rochester architect Andrew Jackson Warner.

Like the German Saint Joseph Church down the street, Our Lady of Victory had an ethnic beginning. Immigrants from Canada established a French chapel on the site in 1848. I do not know what the ancestry of these first immigrants was but the chapel was later established as a parish to serve the needs of Belgian immigrants. Were the original immigrants from French speaking Belgium, coming to the United States via French Canada (Quebec)? Maybe someone reading this knows and can inform us.

The architecture of the exterior of Our Lady of Victory strikes me as Italianate in style but is listed as Early Romanesque Revival on authoritative sites. Indeed, the architect, Andrew Jackson Warner designed several buildings in the Romanesque style. The Mansard roofs atop the slender square towers, however, are actually French, the basic form of which was popularized by Francois Mansart (1598-1666). Mansart was a successful architect of the French Baroque period. Mansard roofs were also popular in Victorian architecture. But, the combination of the Mansard roofs with the slender towers creates a rather picturesque building. Indeed, we have in the architecture here eclectic elements. The upward curves of the façade “roof” lines, similar to what we saw in the façade of Saint Joseph’s, are 295925_163703637057698_1990723907_ncapped by an opposing curved pediment with an interrupted (or “broken”) cornice characteristic of the Baroque style. But, aspects of the Baroque style such as the sweeping roof lines were also part of the Italianate style. I don’t think of them as Romanesque. There are other elements that are Romanesque.  The façade has some architectural detailing suggestive of Romanesque Lombard banding over the porch windows, in the blind niches under the cornices of the towers, and above the center window (below the bottom of the pediment). The prominent porch is a Romanesque characteristic and it’s heavy looking as Romanesque usually is.

An Italianate feeling is conveyed to me by the pronounced eaves supported by corbels topping off Italian campanile-like (towers). Italianate roofs, however, are usually rather flat whereas these on the towers are steep and curved. The windows and blind niches are also tall and slender and topped off with round arches, characteristics of the Italianate style. Short, wider windows I associate with the Romanesque. Brick was a favorite Italianate building material but it was a favorite of the Romanesque Revival, as well.

Stepping inside (by way of an old photograph), we can see –as we saw in Saint Joseph’s Church– a Baroque-like interior. This is a rather small church and so we see no columns or nave arcades separating the nave from side aisles. Instead we see what I call “dripping arches” (hanging arches?) which are suspended from the ceiling where a nave arcade would ordinarily be located; no columns support these arches which repeat, somewhat, the Lombard banding theme that we see on web double altarthe front façade. Notice that those ceiling arches align with the right and left ends of the apse and, considered with the side altars, suggests a nave/side aisles basilica plan.[1] The wooden reredos of the altar almost suggests the façade of a Baroque church. The interesting scrolls on either side of the tall fastigium visually transitions the vertically of the fastigium to the bottom horizontal temple-like structure (or, the other way around, leading the eyes upward). Scroll buttresses are a characteristically Baroque element but they are not unknown in other styles. These, however, are rather elaborate which makes them Baroque. The interior looks French Baroque: white painted wooden structures with gold color on mostly floral or organic detailing. I associate it with small or rural churches in French Quebec.

Regrettably, the mural originally on the back wall of the chancel, is now gone. In the photo we can see that a prominent balustrade appeared in the painting. Actual and painted balustrades are a common feature of the Baroque style.

web IMG_3550The left side chapel that we see in the old photograph was dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. It was constructed to appear as the actual grotto in Lourdes where the apparition took place. This kind of dramatic and emotional tableau-like feature was common in many Baroque style churches. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the tableaux was eliminated during later renovations.

When Saint Joseph’s Church burned down, the parish merged with Our Lady of Victory parish forming Our Lady of Victory/Saint Joseph Church. You can see in more recent photos that the interior lost much of its original decoration and detailing during renovations.

Our Lady of Victory is, architecturally, a baffling style to pigeon hole –as least for me. Maybe we should call it “eclectic”. Are there any architects out there who can set me straight?

Practical information about the church and parish:

Should you wish to visit OLV/SJ [2] be aware that the parking lot to the right of the church is open only on weekends for Mass times. It’s gated, but the arms will go up for you (arriving and departing) on weekends. There is a security guard on duty in the parking lot on weekends.

On weekdays, you will need to park on the street at the meters ($.25 per 15 minutes?) or in the ramp garage ($2?) on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Pleasant Street, down towards Saint Joseph Park (church). It’s not far from the church. Don’t park anywhere other than at a meter on the street or in the parking garage on weekdays. Anywhere else and your car will be ticketed or, worse, towed! You can bet on it.

Masses at 4:30 pm Saturdays, 9 and 11 am Sundays. Confessions (11:30) are every weekday and Saturday before the 12:10 Mass. The church is only open for Masses. It is not open on Thursdays at all –no Mass or confessions on Thursdays.

The OLV/SJ church bulletin can be viewed HERE.


[1] OLV/SJ is actually a hall basilica plan; there is just a nave –no side aisles.

[2] the church has a beautiful set of painted Stations of the Cross, and lovely stained glass windows.

IMG_3624_web   IMG_3515_web_name

Saint Joseph’s Church, Downtown Rochester

April 20th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Saint JOseph's Rochester“St. Joseph’s was Rochester’s oldest Catholic church and a longtime landmark when it went up in flames nearly 40 years ago.

“Known as “the mother church” for all local German Catholics, St. Joseph’s was built on Franklin Street in the 1840s, just a few years after Rochester was established as a city. Downtown Rochester grew up around St. Joseph’s, which became a so-called ‘oasis of grace’ amid the hustle-bustle of… “ READ MORE (Alan Morrell 7:16 a.m. EDT June 14, 2014, Democrat and Chronicle)

Saint Joseph’s, in downtown Rochester (NY), was an architectural gem of the Rochester Roman Catholic Diocese. Only the facade and some walls remain, the whole campus turned into a park.

If you have been following my series on “Church Architecture Styles” you will recognize Saint Joseph’s as an example of the ‘baroque’ style. It’s called “Greek Revival” on several internet sites but I suppose they mean, “Neoclassical”. Either way I think those sites are wrong. There is no emphasis on Greek columns or on a Greek temple porch. Both are major aspects of Neoclassicism.

The building does have certain classical features: the Roman triumphal arch theme of the portals in the front facade, the division of the facade into roughly square units by horizontal and vertical lines, and  a concern for classical proportion. But, the downward sweeping roof lines to the right and left of the bell tower suggest the baroque style. In addition, the upper tower is obviously more sculptural and elaborate than the lower facade. The cupola at the very top is in the Renaissance style, also commonly employed in the baroque style.


If there is any doubt about the architectural style, however, we merely need to examine the interior to confirm my judgement. An old photo of what the interior looked like removes any doubt. The reredos is sculptural, an elliptical space is part of the plan, and the space is elaborately decorated. A prominent cornice tops off the walls but a curved surface transitions to the center of the ceiling. The emphasis is on an overall impression of unity with all elements working together to create a dramatic, emotional atmosphere.

I think I worshiped in Saint Joseph’s once –my wife tells me I did. I have a vague memory of sitting on the right side of the nave. We lost an architectural gem when it was consumed by fire. We now can see only a shell of  Saint Joseph’s former glory. Thankfully some civic leaders and preservationists made sure that we could have at least that!


Church Architecture Styles: Neoclassicism

April 13th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series:

1. “House” Churches  2. Early Christian  3. Byzantine

4. Romanesque  5. “Pilgrimage Churches”  6. Gothic

7.  Italian Renaissance  8. Baroque

Neoclassicism was a widespread and influential movement in the visual arts that began in the 1760s, reached its height in the 1780s and ’90s, and lasted until the 1840s and ’50s.

baltimore cathedral inside and out

The neoclassical style Baltimore Cathedral (completed 1821), by Benjamin Latrobe. Left: By Smallbones (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.   Right: photo source

The Protestant Reformation had challenged the authority of the Catholic Church (and all human authority, for that matter). To Protestants, the Bible alone was authoritative and only one’s subjective reading and interpretation of the Bible was required to leading a good life. Biblical literalism and subjectivism aside, the Protestant challenge certainly had a positive effect on history in that it stimulated individual and personal commitment to faith and it led, much more generally, to a healthy challenging of authority and assumed truths of any kind, stimulating an inquisitive and adventurist view of life among the growing middle class.

Religious beliefs or moral reasoning based on faith increasingly relinquished control over economics and politics as a questioning attitude spread. The secular realm gradually separated itself from religious faith and the Church, both Catholic and Protestant.1 Spiritual goals in life gradually became restricted to personal life, replaced in the wider world by secular and material goals.

In the 18th century the Churches were almost completely pushed aside. It was the century of the philosophes and encyclopedists: Montesquieu (1689-1755); Voltaire (1694-1778); Rousseau (1712-78) and many others. It was the Age of the Enlightenment (1700-1789), a time of forward looking thinkers, kings, emperors and empresses, and enlightened despots who believed –they thought, for the first time– in the possibility of material and intellectual progress. Earthly life, they held, could progress and get better.


“The greatest single accomplishment in the effort to disseminate the ideas of the Enlightenment came with the publication of the Encyclopedia edited in France by Denis Diderot (1713-1784). The skeptical, rationalist Diderot used the Encyclopédie as a powerful propaganda weapon against Ecclesiastical authority and the superstition, conservatism, and semi-feudal social forms of the time.” quote source

“Far-reaching also was the faith of the age in natural faculties of the human mind. Pure skepticism, the negation of reason, was overcome. Modern people not only ceased to fear the devil; they ceased also to fear God. They thought of God less as a Father than as a first cause of the physical universe. There was less a sense of a personal God or of man’s need for saving grace. God was less the God of love; he was the inconceivably intelligent being.”2

God had become a kind of watchmaker.

The Christian view of things was replaced with scientific theories of good and evil and secular theories of society. Christian love became secularized humanitarian goodwill 3 and the good life was measured not in spiritual terms but by the progress toward a more comfortable and decent existence on earth. (The assumption was that the past had not been interested in such things. It turns out that modern scholarship has proven that it was a false assumption.)


The churchmen of the established Churches during the Age of Enlightenment were of a similar mind-set as the modernists: educated and sophisticated gentlemen, suspicious of religious zeal. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church had always been enthusiastic followers of scientific developments and discoveries, even through the so called “dark ages”. The hierarchy of the Church had a history of separating biblical truth from scientific truth and so had no qualms about scientific investigative thinking. Galileo’s writings, for example, did not incur the wrath of the Church –which followed his scientific discoveries enthusiastically– until he mixed scientific truth with religious truth.


Of the Catholic religious orders, the Jesuits especially, produced, during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries numerous important scientists and were responsible for many important scientific advances.

Like today, much of the criticism of the Church by the philosophes was based on a popular idea of what the Church taught and what its history had been rather than on the actual history and doctrines of the Church. The criticism leveled by many of the philosophes was really a reaction to the social position and influence traditionally held by the Church. Many churchmen came to grudgingly accept the Church’s new position on the sidelines regarding economic and political matters.

baroque neoclassical

Left: Baroque.  Right: Neoclassical. photo: By Camille Gévaudan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Not surprisingly, the emotional and dramatic late Baroque style of architecture –associated mostly with the authoritative Catholic Church and with kings who claimed to rule by divine right— fell out of favor with Enlightenment thinkers. A more restrained architectural style emerged that reflected the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment. Ironically, it was the ancient style of classical Greece and Rome that became the face of modern thinking. The historical period of ancient Greece is often called the Age of Reason for it was the age of the first philosophers and the birth of reasonable thinking.  And, just as the philosophes believed Reason should guide human individuals and societies at large, it was thought by the neoclassicists that Reason should also direct artistic creation.

And, so, neoclassical architects retired the dramatic, unique, and emotional of the Baroque in favor of a style that expressed logical, rational organization. It did not seem to celebrate the established institutions like the Church or the monarchy, as the Baroque had done, but rather seemed to celebrate a way of thinking that promoted usefulness and reasoned progress.


Saint Isaac Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, Russia. photo: By Alex Florstein [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Neoclassical churches (and secular buildings), therefore, often look exactly like ancient Greek temples, faithful in general appearance as well as details. The Greek porch –consisting of steps, columns, classical entablatures and triangular pediments– predominates. While ancient models were certainly very much involved, the style could also be regarded as a revival of the Renaissance style and so Renaissance style domes were also popular. The ancients’ concern for proportion is expressed in the neoclassical style. The sculptural curves and dramatic lighting of Baroque architecture was rejected in favor of a return to a basic geometric style. The neoclassical style emphasizes the flat wall as opposed to the sculptural Baroque style of undulating surfaces. Curves gave way to verticals and horizontals. Neoclassical is minimalist in contrast to the late Baroque style.


St. Anna church (1786), Warsaw, Poland. photo: By Alina Zienowicz Ala z (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

But the neoclassical style also appealed to the more traditional thinkers who prized order, and social control; those who prized an orderly, stable society –the traditional ordering of social classes and governance.

“Neoclassical thinkers (of a more established order bent) could use the past as a guide for the present because they assumed that human nature was constant–essentially the same regardless of time and place. Art, they believed, should express this essential nature…   If human nature has remained constant over the centuries, it is unlikely that any startling new discoveries will be made. Hence neoclassical artists did not strive to be original so much as to express old truths in a newly effective way… “7


Clearly the popularity of the neoclassical style among both progressives and traditionalists is an indication of the divergent and inconsistent thinking prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries.


1 Most Protestant Churches actually became far more authoritarian than the Catholic Church had ever been.

2 Palmer, R. R., A History of the Modern World, second edition, (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), p 290

3 Palmer 299

4 From wikipedia ” The Jesuits have made numerous significant contributions to the development of science. For example, the Jesuits have dedicated significant study to earthquakes, and seismology has been described as “the Jesuit science”.[75] The Jesuits have been described as “the single most important contributor to experimental physics in the seventeenth century”.[76] According to Jonathan Wright in his book God’s Soldiers, by the eighteenth century the Jesuits had “contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity. They observed, in some cases before anyone else, the colored bands on Jupiter‘s surface, the Andromeda nebula and Saturn’s rings. They theorized about the circulation of the blood (independently of Harvey), the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon affected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light.”[77] The Jesuit China missions of the 16th and 17th centuries introduced Western science and astronomy, then undergoing its own revolution, to China. One modern historian writes that in late Ming courts, the Jesuits were “regarded as impressive especially for their knowledge of astronomy, calendar-making, mathematics, hydraulics, and geography”.[78] The Society of Jesus introduced, according to Thomas Woods, “a substantial body of scientific knowledge and a vast array of mental tools for understanding the physical universe, including the Euclidean geometry that made planetary motion comprehensible”.[79] Another expert quoted by Woods said the scientific revolution brought by the Jesuits coincided with a time when science was at a very low level in China.

5 Late Baroque was called Rococo; a more jocular, florid, and graceful approach to the Baroque. The style was ornate consisting of asymmetrical designs, curves, and gold. The Rococo was considered by neoclassicists as melodramatic and flamboyant and frivolously decorative –not serious. Unlike the political Baroque, the Rococo often had playful and witty themes.

web e IMG_7568 edited

photo: Bernie

6 Renaissance: “rebirth” of classical learning


Baroque Lenten Station Church

March 16th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Here is one of the Seven Station Churches of Rome, “Holy Cross in Jerusalem” (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme), originated in 320. (More info here)

Rome was the center of the Baroque style of church architecture and this is a good example. “Holy Cross”  assumed its current Baroque appearance under Benedict XIV (1740-1758)

This church was recently featured on the New Liturgical Movement website. (Here)

web 26 Santa Croce in Gerusalemme 1_edited-1

The facades of Baroque churches are treated like sculpture and appear more three-dimensional than the flatter previous Renaissance style. Contrasting curved lines and forms often animate a facade creating an undulating surface. Sculptures are common and cornices can be large, casting a dark shadow underneath. The curves and dark recesses create drama. Pediments are often broken by advancing and receding sections. Sometimes the center of a pediment is missing as is the one over the doorway, above. Columns or, in this case, pilasters rise to the height of two stories. The intention is drama and excitement. Most of all it is meant to communicate an impression of power and authority.

The Baroque Style was described as part of the Church Architecture Style series. (Here)