Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Famous Churches’

Ascent to the Heavenly Jerusalem in Eastern “Temple” Architecture

April 1st, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

In my last post on the theme of the church building as a metaphor for the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Temple, I described the role of the Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Iconostasis Screen in enabling the ascent from the earthy to the heavenly, from the visible to the invisible. In this post I will attempt to describe and explain how traditional Byzantine/Orthodox church architecture and the program of imagery/icons contained therein also aid us in the ascent.

(Click on pictures to view sharper images)

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), 532-37

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), 532-37. (Picture Source)

Cross section, Hagia Sophia.

Cross section, Hagia Sophia.

Generally speaking, the traditional architecture employed in the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox churches had its origins in the 6th century and is associated with the building of the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople (now, Istanbul) by the emperor Justinian I. That’s fair enough given that Hagia Sophia was a mammoth architectural expression of an architectural concept first employed by some earlier and much smaller churches, the most important being The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Still standing (now a mosque), and about a 15 minute walk from Hagia Sophia. The much smaller building is thought to have been the model for Hagia Sophia.

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. (Picture Source)

Ground Plan of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus

Ground Plan of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. (Picture Source)

The notable feature of Saints Sergius and Bacchus is the combination of the architectural forms of 1) the Roman basilica ground plan, and 2) the dome of a martyrium. The result is an impressive feeling of height over the center of the church. The domes in such churches quickly became associated with the “dome” of heaven –and the floor below, with earth. These early domed churches were probably not decorated with figurative imagery. However, a church built between 876-80 is thought by at least one art historian1 to be the prototype for the program of figurative images that became the norm in the Eastern churches.

Sixth century Manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The world conceived as a box with the Almighty at the top and the earth as a mountain and the 'waters under the earth'.

Sixth century Manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes. The world conceived as a box with the Almighty at the top and the earth as a mountain and the ‘waters under the earth’.

The Nea (New) Church sponsored by the Byzantine Emperor Basil I in Constantinople was the first monumental church built in the Byzantine capital after Hagia Sophia. It was destroyed in 1490 but we know something of its decorative imagery from contemporary accounts and a few surviving fragments. The decorative program apparently conveyed the concept of the church as a microcosm of the world with heaven above and the earth, below.2  It included a sense of the church building as the New Jerusalem with Christ’s life depicted as if eternally renewed or relived, thus complementing the liturgy of the Mass in which the sacrifice of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is made always present.


Monastery at Daphni, Greece.

In the Nea Church the image of Christ Pantocrator was placed in the apex of the dome, thus dominating the entire interior space of the church. The walls rising from the floor were covered in veined marble revetment symbolizing the earth and “the waters under the earth”.  Just above the marble covered walls was the zone of the saints, our brothers and sisters who have gone before us in the faith, ready to intercede between heaven and earth. In the register above the saints are scenes from the life of Christ, ever present in time: the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism of the Lord, Raising of Lazarus, miracles, Miraculous Catch of Fish, Washing of the Feet, etc. Then, in the dome –between the windows– appeared the apostles and the Holy Virgin. Old Testament scenes may have been depicted in side chapels. The Fathers of the Church who formulated the liturgy and were the first to enact it were represented in the apse, on the other side of the Iconostasis Screen, behind the altar.

Fathers of the Church as well as the Virgin of the Sign depicted in the apse behind the altar.

Fathers of the Church as well as the Virgin of the Sign depicted in the 6th century apse behind the altar in the 6th century chapel of Mar Musa Monastery in Syria. (Picture Source)

This program of representation received, through tradition, the sanction of the Church.3  Those responsible for the interior decoration of churches were not permitted to deviate from it in any significant way. The program was eventually formulated into a set of written rules or guidelines. The earliest copy known is from the 16th century and is called the Painters’ Guide, a handbook of sorts outlining how a church should be adorned with images and how each saint and scene should be depicted.4 The guidelines have the force of tradition but are not canonical, as far as I know.

Byzantine and Orthodox churches are not all of the same design, of course (some don’t have domes for example), but the general concept of hierarchical ascent generally governs the decorative program of imagery in the Eastern tradition.


1  Talbot, David, Art of the Byzantin Era, (Singapore, Thames and Hudson, 1963), p 88

2 Talbot p 88

3 Talbot p 88

4 Talbot p 89

Patriarch Germanos on the Church as Temple

February 26th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series Temple, Garden, OLV/SJ

The Church of the Holy Wisdom1 in Istanbul (Constantinople) remains one of the great achievements of world architecture. In it we can see the perfect church. Germanos, patriarch of Constantinople from 715 to 730, wrote from the perspective of the Church of the Holy Wisdom an interpretation of the symbolism of the Byzantine church:

The church is the Temple of God, a holy place, a house of prayer, the assembly of the people, the body of Christ. It is called the bride of Christ. It is cleansed by the water of his baptism, sprinkled by his blood, clothed in bridal garments, and sealed with the ointment of the Holy Spirit, according to the prophetic saying: ‘Your name is oil poured out’ and ‘We run after the fragrance of your myrrh’, which is ‘Like the precious oil, running down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron’.

The church is an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about. It represents the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ: it is glorified more than the tabernacle of the witness of Moses, in which are the mercy-seat and the Holy of Holies. It is prefigured in the patriarchs, foretold by the prophets, founded in the apostles, adorned by the clergy, and fulfilled in the martyrs.2


The Church of the Holy Wisdom, Istanbul (Constantinople), consecrated in 537. The Arabic medallions, furnishings and script were added when it was converted into a mosque, after the Turkish conquest. (Picture Source)

The patriarch’s reflection lays out the general understanding of the Church concerning church symbolism. Even accounting for local variations this basic understanding has traditionally been reflected in the sacred art and liturgy of both the Eastern and Western Church.

1 Hagia Sophia or Sancta Sophia

2 P. Meyendorff, St. Germanus of Constantinople on the Holy Liturgy (New York, 1984) 56-7

Debunking the myth of the ‘domus ecclesiae’

July 25th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

There was a photo accompanying this post which I have removed as I became convinced by a link sent in by y2kscotty (see comments) that the church is most likely Byzantine and not early 3rd century.

I became uncomfortable with leaving it knowing that it is most likely an inaccurate example of an early 3rd century church.

There is an excellent piece in the August edition of the Adoremus Bulletin titled “The Myth of the Domus Ecclesiae – and how this has influenced modern Church architecture.” The article is based on a lecture delivered at Catholic University of America and was first published in Sacred Architecture, Issue 21, 2012 (here). It should be required reading for all bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians (especially!), members of liturgy committees, church building committees, church architects, and -of course- us. I guess that’s just about everybody!

Author Stephen J. Schloeder exposes the falsehood upon which modern Catholic Church architecture has developed for over the last 60 to 70 years in Europe and certainly the last 40 to 50 years in the United States. We have all heard the yammering from the pulpit, liturgy committees, and building planning committees about how Vatican II insisted that we return to the simpler worship forms and spaces of the earliest Christians, the Christians who worshiped in private houses (the Domus Ecclesiae).

We were told that we had to give up our ways of worship developed over the past 17 centuries and return to a dining room meal. Also, we were told that we needed to build ‘non-churches’; worship spaces that didn’t look like churches but more like domestic dwellings or suburban spaces devoid of religious imagery and symbolism. We were informed that Christians for the first 300 years did not worship in separate churches; that the whole experience was domestic. It wasn’t until Constantine grabbed hold of the church and turned it into an arm of the Imperial government that Christians began to worship in large, gloriously decorated public buildings more like pagan temples.

But textural and archaeological evidence from the period contradicts that myth. I became aware of this, myself, while doing research on early Christian art and architecture. It became evident to me that Christians must have been building large urban churches well before the legalization of Christianity. For example, the emperors of the last Great Persecution, Diocletian and Galerius, could see from the imperial palace in Nicomedia, a Christian church described by Lactantius (d. 320 AD) as a “lofty edifice… situated on rising ground within the view of the Imperial Palace.” They debated whether to burn it down or pull it down. This was before the legalization of Christianity. The early Christians moved out of the more private domestic settings and into more public buildings as their groups grew larger and as they felt more secure during long periods of peaceful coexistence. That was apparently how it was that a church could have been built right under the nose of the emperor. The Great Persecution ended the longest running period of peace for Christians; the persecution came quite unexpectedly and was a shock to Christians who were nearly 50% of the population in the Eastern provinces. These were the Christians most likely to build the first large scale urban churches.

One of the textural pieces of evidence Schloeder mentions in his article I also mention in my book. The Christians in Trastevere (across the Tiber River, in Rome), ca. 225 AD, acquired property to build a church through a lawsuit that was settled by Emperor Severus Alexander –the emperor settled the dispute in favor of the building of a Christian church rather than handing the property over to “the keepers of an eating house (an inn).”

What fed the myth of a an early Christian theology and preference for domestic worship and settings was the discovery, in 1932, of a domestic church in Dura Europos. The late date of the church, 232 AD, seemed to reinforce the conviction that the early Christians worshiped in a domestic setting right up until 313 AD when Christianity was legalized. What went unrecognized -incredibly- was that Dura Europos sat on the edge of the Roman Empire and was a garrison town; it was a fortified frontier town and probably would not have had need, yet, of a large separate Christian church. Historians and liturgists took it to be confirmation of a continuing tradition of domestic worship.

Stephen J.Schloeder lists several more examples that debunk the myth of the pre-Constantine domestic church. Do give his article a read, here.

Savannah Georgia’s Cathedral Church

March 12th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Can you stand a peek at another cathedral?

(See a video that I made of the Cathedral, here.)

I was fortunate to visit the cathedral church of Savannah, Georgia (St. John the Baptist) a couple of weeks ago and was delighted with what I saw.

(click on photos to see larger images) 


The Cathedral has published a book that displays the art of the Cathedral and provides interesting historical background as well as religious definitions and explanations.2 I’ve reproduced several of the book’s photographs for this post.

Savannah Cathedral (3)

The first thing that struck me about the decorative program of this church appears high up in the clerestory, above the nave. The murals there led me to ask if there was a book available that would explain not only the personages in those murals but also the subjects and symbols that were in abundance throughout the rest of building. A beautiful book it is.

Those murals in the clerestory, along each side of the nave and on each side of the transept(s), depict a celestial procession of saints realistically portrayed against a regally patterned, flat, pinkish, wall paper-like, background. I immediately thought of the tapestry procession of saints in the controversial Los Angeles Cathedral.

Los Angeles Tapestries (4)



A celestial procession of saints as part of the decorative program of a church goes way back to the earliest Christian churches. The only surviving ‘house-church’ (ca. 243), at Dura Europos in Syria, shows a procession, in the baptistery, of the three women to the tomb of Christ.

Three women at the tomb. Dura Europos, Syria (243) (6)

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (7)

Probably the best known example is in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (561) in Ravenna, Italy where processions of saints line the clerestory walls of the nave (see a clip here). Processions of 22 virgins appear below the saints on one side of the nave and 26 martyrs, on the opposite side.

I don't think churches "in the round" work because they focus inward on the community too much and not enough on the Lord. But, I give this parish credit for including the saints above and around them. (Photo has been edited to emphasize the 'clerestory.') (8)

A program of saints hovering above the nave of a church is an excellent way to reinforce a congregation’s sense of the communion of saints (a ‘Catholic’ concept). The saints, as well as the congregation, are participating in the liturgy from heaven, represented by church imagery high up on the walls of the nave. In my opinion, the suggestion of timelessness (‘God’s time’) is an important goal for church architecture. It is impressively achieved in a traditionally arranged long nave which leads to -and ends at- the altar where a strong eschatological image is displayed behind/above the altar.
Psalm 84, the first in today’s morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours,  suggests that  processional imagery in the nave of a church is most approriate:
“My soul is longing and yearning,
is yearning for the courts of the Lord.”
“They walk with ever growing strength,
they will see the God of gods in Zion”
And, from Revelation 15:4 of today’s morning prayer:
“All peoples shall come and worship in your presence”
Liberals, progressives (or whatever the term should be) often invoke the image of journeying but it is interpreted in their ‘creative’ liturgies and church environments as ‘wandering.’ It never seems clear to me as to where they are journeying to, except inward toward the earthly confined community. In an environment like the Savannah Cathedral the journey is clearly to Zion and to the celestial celebration. The saints have successfully gone ahead of us -that’s why they are depicted in a higher register, above our heads. They encourage and help us by accompanying us; journeying, not wandering aimlessly.
Let’s also remember that Biblical history -salvation history- has an absolute beginning and an absolute end. Like an arrow it flies straight to the target from a definite starting point.

John points to the Lamb of God. Apse window. (9)

The Savannah Cathedral’s decorative program follows one type of Catholic tradition that emphasizes eschatological treatment of a scriptural scene; in this case, the Baptism of Christ and the story surrounding St. John the Baptist. It is in the nature of stained glass to transfigure even realistically rendered imagery into a vision of sanctification.  And so it is in the situation here: the saints of the murals in this Cathedral process toward the chancel (toward the altar of sacrifice and the table of the celestial banquet) in which are three luminous windows each proclaiming around the head of St. John “Behold, the Lamb of God”. (You recall, I hope, the image of the Agnus Dei -the Lamb of God– we saw in the chancel of the Washington Cathedral.)


Overlooking the altar, on each side, are the four evangelists participating from their box seats in the clerestory.

Transept window. (11)

The windows of the transept in St. John the Baptist are also quite beautiful and symmetrically programmed opposite each in the transept. In the north is depicted The Ascension of Our Lord and in the south, The Assumption of Mary. Both hopeful images for the successful completion of our journey. Below the transept windows are lancet windows of saints, the Christ Child, and the Holy Virgin.


There are Stations of the Cross, of course. These were made in Munich, Germany and installed in 1900. You can’t get to enjoy Easter without enduring Good Friday. Appropriately, these are located just slightly above eye level.


1 -by Bernie

2, 3, 9, 11 -Aviles, Suzanne, Art and Symbols of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, (2007) Diocese of Savannah, 222 Harris Street, Savannah, Georgia 31410. The book is available for $20 and includes photographs of nearly all the works in the church as well as a wealth of information both historical and religious.

7 Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Tango7174

4 Los Angeles Cathedral

Tapestry Saints

8 Anne Spenny (original photo has been altered) Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, Ohio

10, 11 -Bernie

Saint Matthew the Apostle Cathedral, Washington D.C.

March 6th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

I visited the cathedral church of Washington D.C. this past weekend –the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. Most my age probably remember this church from the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. The church was cleaned and restored in 2003 and the results are stunning. What was a fairly dark and somber interior is now restored to its original brilliance. The cleaned mosaics shimmer under the newly installed lighting.

(Click on images to see a larger size.)

One of America’s foremost muralists, Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848-1936), designed and executed the mosaics in the chancel, on the pendentives and in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. His assistant, Vincent Aderente (1880-1941), executed the painted murals which where designed by Blashfield.

View a short video clip I made.

The Cathedral beautifully expresses the environment of a Temple of Christian sacrifice. The eschatological nature of the Christian liturgy is clear: heaven and earth are united in timeless liturgy.  The imagery is magnificently rendered to express transfiguration –sanctification in Western terminology, deification in Eastern terms. This is how, I believe, a church interior should be decorated; with a clear expression of what the liturgy is all about and a suggestion of the beauty that awaits us. Many of our new churches -heretically in my opinion- express an aimless journey focused inward on ‘community’ instead of turning toward the Lord.

The chancel imagery is, appropriately, the most powerful in the Cathedral. Saint Matthew the Apostle is depicted seated in a 35 feet high mosaic behind the altar. An angel stands behind him enveloping Matthew with a scroll inscribed with the Saint’s name. The Evangelist holds a book with a passage from his gospel: “Jesus saw a man sitting in the custom house named Matthew and He said to him ‘Follow Me.’ And he arose and followed Him.” In the pediment below, two peacocks –symbols of immortality—drink from a cup from which rises the Chi Rho, the symbol for Christ.


Above Saint Matthew, a 49 feet wide and 25 feet high lunette mosaic includes eight angels and the Agnus Dei of the Book of Revelation –Jesus, the Lamb of God, resting on an altar. The circle in the middle of the altar represents eternity. On the right, the bottom angel holds the pillar of Christ’s flagellation; the second angel up holds the crown of thorns; and the third holds the legend IHS, the first three letters of ‘Jesus’ in Greek. On the left, the lowest angel holds the spear that pierced the side of Christ; the next angel holds the hammer and nails; and the third up from the bottom holds the wood of the cross. The angels closest to the Lamb hold trumpets and herald the Gospel. The imagery is strongly evocative of the Book of Revelation and the Catholic understanding of the sacrifice of Christ as ritually ‘made present’ on the altar below.

The Chapel of Saint Anthony of Padua provides an interesting contrast. Off the east side of the nave, the slightly more realistic mosaic is architecturally framed to create the illusion of a landscape outside that side of the building. An historical painted mural of saintly and eminent Americans is located above the entrance, at the back, and is designed in imitation of Raphael’s famous painting in the Vatican Palace of the School of Athens. On the opposite side from the Saint Anthony Chapel is the Chapel of Our Lady which contains three mosaics by Thomas S. La Farge which represent biblical passages referring to Our Lady and the genealogy of Jesus. Mary looks like she’s doing a tap dance the way she is posed in a sculpture by Gordon S. Kray. (It is beautifully sculpted but… it looks like a tap dancer at the end of her routine.)

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is outstanding. The Tabernacle is framed by a background illustrating the two disciples from the story of The Road to Emmaus at the moment when they recognized the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

Unfortunately, beautiful enriched imagery is usually considered superfluous or downright ‘politically’ incorrect in today’s Church. We have pretty much jettisoned thinking of Beauty as an attribute of God and an important ingredient in our ‘worship spaces.’ Minimalistic, simplistic, mundane and even ugly are in; uplifting, inspirational and hopeful are out.

Here is the parish website

Feast Your Eyes

October 18th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption

Covington, Kentucky

A very beautiful Basilica, containing one of the largest church stained glass windows in the world. In fact this Basilica is a profusion of beautiful stained glass. A beautifully illustrated book is available to explain the symbolism of many of the windows.

View panoramic picture here

Cathedral Website Homepage here


The “Righteousness of the Plain”

October 3rd, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

1. Monastery of Kloster Eberbach, 1145-1160 and 1170-1186, Frankfurt

The phrase –“the righteousness of the plain”– is used by Robin M. Jensen in her 2004 book The Substance of Things Seen [1] to describe the view of many that art in worship marks the “beginning of a slide down into vanity, materialism, and –ultimately—idolatry.” God should be worshipped in simplicity and free of distracting “trappings.” Art is viewed by such folks as self-indulgent and, at the very least, an unnecessary expense. Better that the money be spent on meeting the basic needs of people, especially the poor. The Church should concentrate on good works rather than beautiful works.

Jensen points out that a text from Isaiah is often cited by holders of this view.

“When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bring offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:12-13. 16-17)

The “righteousness of the plain” view understands feelings and sensory experiences to be improper to religion. Religion should be a dispassionate activity. Art “awakens appetites” and “arouses passions” and can tempt people to sin.

We recognize this viewpoint as representative of puritanical Protestantism. There are exceptions, to be sure, but we identify the view, in general, with Protestants. Catholics often describe a plain church as looking “protestant.”

But this passion for the plain has a tradition in Catholicism as well. For pretty much the same reasons, “Cistercian monastic architecture –under the influence especially of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)– was characterized by its simplicity and austerity. In contrast to the richly carved capitals and portals at other monasteries, Cistercian art was minimal, with almost no figurative carvings to distract the monks.” [2]

2. The "architecture of light" of Acey Abbey represents the pure style of Cistercian architecture, intended for the utilitarian purposes of liturgical celebration

Saint Bernard, in a letter to William of St. Thierry, writes:

“…the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the costly polishing, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper’s gaze and hinder his attention… The church is resplendent in her walls, beggarly in her poor; she clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked; the rich man’s eye is fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find their delight here, yet the needy find no relief.” [3]

3. 12th-century Cistercian

Bernard’s austere aesthetics and numerous rules eventually outlawed the use of paintings and other images in his monastic churches. His rules it must be remembered, were for monks who had withdrawn from the people, “we who left all the precious and beautiful things of the world for Christ’s sake.” Bernard, however, notes that bishops and their parishes have an excuse for expensive worship in “being debtors to the wise and the unwise, and unable to excite the devotion of carnal folk by spiritual things, do so by bodily adornments.” [4] Clearly, even in the case of non-monastic churches, Bernard disparaged use of liturgical art.

4. "Quietly Beautiful" Novy Dvur contemporary monastery in the Bohemia area of the Czech Republic. Photo by Ståle Eriksen

Although St. Bernard sees the use of images and decoration in worship as having the potential for descending into idolatry, he seems to object most to what he understands as the distracting aspect of decoration, and the contradiction between expensive worship and care for the poor.

I suppose someone should have asked Bernard if he found Jesus –the image of the invisible Father- “distracting?” The sacramental nature of liturgical images, based upon the theology of the Incarnation (affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea 787) [5], would seem to place St. Bernard’s thinking on the subject of the use of holy images in churches at odds with the teaching of the wider Church. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformers several centuries later echoed Bernard’s thoughts. [6]

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council we witnessed an onslaught of minimalism in the construction and renovation of churches that only recently, after forty years of iconoclastic thinking, seems to be running out of steam. The minimalist tendency had already been evident in the liturgical reform movement leading up to the Council. It gained momentum quickly after the Council mostly as a result of the interaction of the thinking of the Council with regards to active participation in the liturgy and the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s: rejection of authority and tradition, and the intensity of emotions over racial and social justice concerns.

Austere simplicity of church buildings is generally outside the mainstream of Catholic architectural tradition being relegated, for the most part, to monastic environments andl church architecture that became popular with liturgists of the second part of the 20th century. I do not mean to imply, of course, that austere simplicity cannot be beautiful or, even, Catholic. We have a strong tradition of monasticism in the Catholic Church and we formulated, after all, Western thought on social justice and effective care for the poor and marginalized. Rejection or at least abstension from sensual stimulation is within our tradition and as much a pathway to spiritual union with God as reflecting on beautiful art and music. I can’t go into the details of such spirituality here, only to point out that it is a ligitimate pathway that yeilds great fruit not only to monks but to a large segment, if not a majority, of Catholic faithful. I think that it would be difficult to find a page in “My Imitation of Christ” (by Thomas à Kempis) without word about letting go of this world and its sensual allures. Then, there is the example of the covering of statues and paintings during the last two weeks of Lent.  The Cistercian approach is a strong one in our tradition, if not a dominate one.

We each have our preferences, of course, but the vast majority of the Catholic faithful are not monks or nuns under a rule of austere simplicity and chastity. Diocesan churches, it seems to me should adhere to the thinking of the Second Council of Nicaea and employ images and decoration in churches –and not be cheap or stingy about it. The Second Vatican Council did not change the policy of images in churches; indeed, it stressed their importance.

It does not help that often art or “decoration” is viewed as not essential, as actually have a role to play in the liturgy. Since it is thought of as “frivolous”, it is usually one of the last things considered in a budget and only if money is left over.



[1] The Substance of Things Seen; Art, Faith, and the Christian Community, Robin M. Jensen, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004)  pp 79-80

[2]  Sacred Destinations

[3] Early Medieval Art 300-1150, Carcilia Davis-Weyer, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1986)  pp 168-69

[4] Early Medieval Art… 169

[5] “…the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.  … we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.”

[6] St. Bernard did hold some doctrines that the Protestant Reformers would later resurrect. His theology contains a mix of Protestant and Catholic doctrines. Calvin, for example, quotes Bernard several times to show the historical validity of “faith alone”, and his concept of justification was important to the Protestants. I don’t mean to imply by this that Bernard is not worthy to be a Doctor of the Church; that would be ridiculous. Only that his thinking could at times, on certain topics, seem to not obviously exemplify traditional Catholic teaching.

Picture Sources





5. and 6. Cistercian Abbeys, History and Architecture, Photos by Henri Gaud and Text by Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, (China, Könemann, 2006)


The Church of the Transfiguration in Israel

August 7th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

On Saturday we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration by examining the icon of the Transfiguration as part of our series on the icons of the Great Feasts of the Church year. I thought, perhaps, you might enjoy a look at the church that sits on top of Mt. Tabor where the actual transfiguration is thought to have taken place.

EWTN had a nice program on the church Saturday night which made think a post might be appreciated.

The Church of the Transfiguration is a Franciscan church located on Mount Tabor in Israel. It is traditionally believed to be the site where the Transfiguration of Christ took place, an event in the Gospels in which Jesus is transfigured upon an unnamed mountain and speaks with Moses and Elijah.

The current church, part of a Franciscan monastery complex, was completed in 1924. The architect was Antonio Barluzzi. It was built on the ruins of an ancient (4th–6th century) Byzantine church and a 12th century church of the Crusader Kingdom period. There is a Greek Orthodox church located on Mount Tabor as well, dedicated to the same purpose.[1]

Read more

Barluzzi designed the front of the church to symbolize in architecture the scene of Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus and Peter’s suggestion that the apostles erect three tents (dwellings), one for Jesus and one each for the two prophets. The two towers flanking the central nave are shorter than the nave and represent Elijah and Moses. The higher nave represents Jesus. All three are topped with pitched roofs representing tents. At the ground floor of each tower is a chapel dedicated to its prophet: Moses on the right and Elijah on the left. The three arched windows in the façade of the nave symbolize the Holy Godhead, the Holy Trinity.

(Click on Photos to view larger images.)








The Moses Chapel


The Elijah Chapel







Picture Sources

–Photos by Bernie

Aerial Photo

Memorial of the Dedication of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

August 5th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Today, August 5, is the optional Memorial of the Dedication of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major), in Rome.

“The Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major reigns as an authentic jewel in the crown of Roman churches. Its beautiful treasures are of inestimable value, and represent the Church’s role as the cradle of Christian artistic civilization in Rome. For nearly sixteen centuries, St. Mary Major has held its position as a Marian shrine par excellence and has been a magnet for pilgrims from all over the world who have come to the Eternal City to experience the beauty, grandeur and holiness of the basilica…

“Among the Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome, St. Mary Major is the only one to have kept its original structure, though it has been enhanced over the course of years. Special details within the church render it unique including the fifth century mosaics of the central nave, the triumphal arch dating back to the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) and the apsidal mosaic executed by the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti at the order of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292). Other gems of the church include…

“Every August 5th, a solemn celebration recalls the Miracle of the Snows. Before the amazed eyes of the congregation, a cascade of white petals descends from the coffered ceiling, blanketing the hypogeum…”










Read more

More Information with photos

Excellent Panoramic View (Move your cursor to look all around, even at the beautiful floor)


Photos by Bernie

Santiago de Compostela

July 25th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie


Today is the feast day of St. James the Apsotle and so I thought maybe some of you might like to ‘visit’ his cathedral shrine, Santiago de Compostela in Spain.


(Click on potos for larger images)


West Façade


Iberian Peninsula



“The cathedral is the reputed burial-place of Saint James the Greater, apostle. It is the destination of the Way of St. James, a major historical pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages.According to legend, the apostle Saint James the Greater brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula. In 44 AD he was beheaded in Jerusalem. His remains were later brought back to Spain. Following Roman persecutions of Spanish Christians, his tomb was abandoned in the 3rd century. Still according to legend, this tomb was rediscovered in 814 AD by a hermit after witnessing strange lights in the night sky. The bishop recognized this as a miracle and informed king Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia (791-842). The king ordered the construction of a chapel on the site.”

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Narthex entrance to the nave (Pórtico de la Gloria). In the typanum is a "Majesta(s) Domini" (Christ in Glory). Below is image of St. James.


From the nave looking toward the high altar.


Ground Plan


"Himself" Sculpture of Saint James outside.


Pilgrims who have walked the "Way of Saint James" rest in front of the Cathedral. (I'm not sure if this is a poto I took!)


View from the East.


View from the Cloister

View from the south.


Mass for pilgrims/tourists is held each day.

There is always something going on in town.




Santiago de Compostela is well known for its huge Botafumeiro. You can see it in action at the following youtube sites: (at 3:10 you can see how it is stopped) (See how it is stopped at 3:00)





Picture Credits:


Photos by Bernie

Ground Plan here


Church of the Holy Sepulchre

April 30th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

1. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

In this Easter season it might be interesting to take a look at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was one of the earliest churches built following the legalization of Christianity in 313. Only the Basilica of the Nativity (which we looked at during Christmas time) was earlier. The church encloses two of the three most important sites to Christians: the site of the Crucifixion of Jesus and the Tomb from which He rose from the dead. (The other most important site is the cave of Christ’s birth enclosed in the Nativity basilica.)

2. Jerusalem at the time of Christ.

3. Golgotha, the Tomb and an outline of the location of Constantine's basilica. Also shown is the area of excavation and discovery of the cross.

Calvary (Golgotha), where Jesus was crucified, was just outsie the walls of Jerusalem, northwest of the Jerusalem Temple. The crosses of Christ and the two thieves executed with Him were erected on top of an outcrop of rock in an old quarry. The outcrop was unquarried because of its poor quality. Between the little ‘hill’ of Golgotha and the Gennath (Garden) Gate in the the city wall was a garden in which a few tombs had been newly hewn. One of the tombs belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and it was there that Jesus’s body was laid after His crucifixion. As this portion of the abandoned quarry was near a city gate it was landscaped into a garden in order to make the area more attractive. Golgotha, at the outer end of the garden sat astride a major roadway that entered through the gate. Given the location of the little hill it was used by the Romans to execute criminals, as passersby could hurl insults at the crucified. (An artist’s rendering of the site can be seen here.)

4. Excavation around the Tomb and Golgotha to construct Constantine's basilica.

In about 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great had a church complex built over the sites of both Golgotha and the Tomb. It was not difficult locating the sites even after 300 years. The site of the crucifixion and tomb were well known and turned out to be right where the Roman historian Josephus described them as being. Christians had started frequenting the site soon after the first Christian Pentecost and continued to do so for at least 125 years afterward. Eventually, the Emperor Hadrian had a pagan temple built on top of the site in order to discourage Christian pilgrimage. But the Temple of Aphrodite only served to mark the site for Constantine’s archeologists when they were sent to uncover Christ’s tomb. The emperor ordered the destruction of the temple and removal of the fill-soil that had been used as a platform for the temple.

5. Constantine's Church of the Holy Sepulchre complex.

The incline of land into which the Tomb had been hewn was mostly all cut-away in order to enclose the tomb within the space of a martyria or rotunda structure. The rock out-crop of Golgotha was trimmed and but left exposed in a corner of the courtyard that separated the Tomb from the basilica proper. Constantine supposedly had a large decorative cross erected atop the hill. The complex underwent some more changes through the centuries especially following the church’s destruction by the Muslims in 1009: “everything was razed ‘except those parts which were impossible to destroy or would have been too difficult to carry away’ “ (Yahya ibn Sa’id, a Christian writer).

6. The skyline of the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre in relation to the location of the Tomb and Golgotha.

Today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre encloses everything under one roof (actually, a series of joined roofs and domes.) All of the rock of Calvary is covered in metal panels except for several glass windows through which portions of the hill can be viewed. At the very top, pilgrims can stoop down and crawl under the altar and touch the rock through a hole in the floor. The sepulchre is essentially the same inside; the outside, however, has changed considerably over the centuries and today is stabilized with ugly iron girders.

7. The Aedicula or Tomb at the Easter vigil.

8. The front of the Aedicula or Tomb.

9. Entrance to the antechamber. The Tomb is just inside the second door.

10. The actual Sepulchre. Only two or three people can fit in here at any one time. Normally, people kneel down at the tomb and say a brief prayer. You are not expected to stay long as others in the antechamber are waiting to enter. If you arrive early in the morning, however, you can usually take as long as you like. But for security reasons you are not allowed there beyond what the guard is willing to allow.

11. An early morning Catholic Mass in front of the Tomb. If you arrive earlier you will have the Tomb to yourself. You cannot enter when there is a Mass. Unfortunately some tour groups arrive during a Mass and cannot get in the Tomb!

12. Golgotha. This chapel is maintained by the Orthodox. The altar is positioned over the center of the rock. Pilgrims can stoop down and crawl under the altar to touch the top of the rock through a hole in the floor. The Roman Catholic altar can be seen just to the right.

13. The Entrance to the Church complex. Just inside the doors, on the right, is a flight of stairs that take you to the top of Golgotha. You can see some stairs here that were constructed and used by the crusaders. The top of Golgotha is just beyond the window at the top of the stairs.

Various portions of the church complex are under the control of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Coptic churches but are shared according to complicated arrangements that sometimes result in bouts of pushing and punching. The best time to visit is in the very early morning just when the doors are opened. You will practically have the place to yourself for about forty-five minutes. Then the tour groups begin to arrive and long lines form to enter the Tomb and to visit the Chapel of Golgotha.

In 1883, an Englishman, General Charles Gordon was visiting Jerusalem when he spotted a rocky cliff in which some indentations appeared to him to look like the eye sockets of a human skull. Golgotha means “place of the skull” and so Gordon believed that this must be the actual site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and not the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The location –called the Garden Tomb- is much visited by Protestants as they don’t have any representation at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But, nearly all scholars agree that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not the Garden Tomb,  marks the actual location of Golgotha and the Tomb of Christ.


Picture sources:


2 (edited)

3, 4, 5  Richard Krautheimer

6 (edited) Yupi666 at en.wikipedia

8 Jerry Modzel

9, 11, 12, 13 Bernie Dick


Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

December 24th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

The Church of the Nativity  in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The structure is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is considered sacred by followers of both Christianity and Islam. The tradition that Jesus was born in a cave just outside of Bethlehem is attested to by Justin Martin (ca. 100-165). Origin of Alexandria (184-ca. 254) wrote that the cave was regularly pointed out by locals.1  (When I was there a few years ago, however –after getting off the local bus from Jerusalem– none of the locals I asked seemed to know what I was talking about when I asked for directions to the Church of the Nativity!).

The first church basilica on the site was begun by Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, in 327 and was completed in 333. That church burned down in 529. The basilica that stands today was erected in 565 by Emperor Justinian I. Crusaders made repairs and built additions during the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem with permission and help of the Byzantine Emperor. The compound has been expanded over the years.2

Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities administer and maintain the site. The basilica over the grotto of Christ’s birth is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The 565 church is a five aisled Roman style basilica with an apse at the eastern end over the grotto. The basilica is entered through a very low door called the “Door of Humilty” supposedly built such to prevent men on horse back –or even an umounted horse– from entering. The original mosaic floor of the 6th century church is covered with wooden flooring but a section can be viewed through a trap door. The rafters of the open timbered ceiling were donated by King Edward IV of England. Winding stairways on either side of the chancel lead down to the grotto.3

“The Grotto of the Nativity  enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The exact spot is marked beneath an altar by a 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps. This altar is denominationally neutral, although it features primarily Armenian Apostolic influences. Another altar in the Grotto, which is maintained by the Roman Catholics, marks the site where traditionally Mary laid the newborn Baby in the manger.

“The adjoining Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic Church, was built in a more modern Gothic revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical trends which followed Vatican II. This is the church where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Certain customs still observed in this Midnight Mass predate Vatican II, but must be maintained because the “status quo” (the customs, rights and duties of the various church authorities that have custody of the Holy Places) was legally fixed by a firman in 1852, under the Ottoman Empire, that is still in force to this day.”4

Original church basilica erected 327-333

(Above: Richard Krautheimer with Slobodan Curcic, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture [Revised], [New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1986] p59)

Ground Plan of the original first Church of the Nativity showing opening in floor over the the Grotto of Christ’s birth and stairs descending to the Grotto.

(Above, edited: original diagram at

Market street leading up to the church from the local bus (from Jerusalem) stop. Photo: Bernard Dick

“Manger Square” and current Church of the Nativity. Photo: Bernard Dick

Nave of the 565 Church of the Nativity looking toward the apse which is over the Grotto. Photo: Bernard Dick

Original mosaic floor of the 565 church. Photo: Bernard Dick

Looking back down the nave from the apse. Photo: Bernard Dick

Greek Orthodox apse and chancel over the Grotto. Photo: Bernard Dick


(Drawing source:

Altar in the Grotto over the spot of Christ’s birth. Photo: Bernard Dick

The spot of Christ’s birth. Photo: Bernard Dick

I apologize for taking up so much space with pictures so I hope it is an interesting post for Christmas!

Merry Christmas!






Church of Saint Nicholas

December 22nd, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

*”The Church of St. Nicholas in ancient Myra (modern Kale or Demre) is a ruined Byzantine church containing the tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra (a.k.a. Santa Claus), as well as many fine mosaics and murals.

fig. 1 View of the apse, altar and clergy 'bleachers'

fig. 2 View from the apse wall over the clergy seats, the altar and into the nave of the church. The columns once held up the ciborium that covered the altar.

fig. 3 Close-up view of altar and clergy bleachers from just in front of altar. Altars were still free-standing and square in the eight century.

“St. Nicholas was born in Patara around 300, became bishop of Myra, and died around 350. The saint was buried in Myra upon his death, and a church may have been built over his tomb soon after. If so, it would have been badly damaged in the earthquake of 529 and repaired along with Myra’s other buildings later in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian. Damaged in the Arab raids of the 7th century, the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra was rebuilt in the 8th century; it is this structure that largely survives today.

“The church suffered another Arab attack in 1034 and was restored in 1043 by Emperor Constantine IX, at which time a walled monastery was added nearby. In 1087, a group of Italian merchants pushed past the monks and broke open the saint’s sarcophagus. They stole the relics and took them to Bari, Italy, where they were placed in a shrine in the cathedral.” They were just recently returned.




Photo sources:




“La Sagrada Familia” Consecration Nov. 7

October 8th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

(Click on photos to see larger images.)

(left) Artist's rendering of completed church; (right) Completion as of 2006

On November 7 this year Pope Benedict XVI, during his journey to Spain, will consecrate and proclaim a basilica the highly unusual Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) more commonly referred to simply as La Sagrada Familia (Holy Family).

The structure, which has its critics, is considered to be the most masterful of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi’s (1852-1926) works. Begun in 1882 Gaudi devoted all his attention to it for the last 15 years of his life. He was killed when he fell under the wheels of one of Barcelona’s city buses. At the time he was a pauper. Work continued on the church, interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and by periods of slowdowns due to limited funds. Money has not gone to the project from any government or religious sources. In the beginning, private donations funded the work but now costs are met from the sale of tourist tickets. About 2.26 million people visited the unfinished church in 2004. Tickets now are about $16-17 per adult to enter and visit the site.

Interior vaults/ceilings

The most striking aspect of the church is probably the 18 spires. Symbolism imbues the entire project and so the 18 spires represent, in ascending height, the 12 apostles, the four evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and Christ. Recent research suggests that Gaudi intended Mary’s spire to be shorter than those of the evangelists. A huge cross will rise from the ‘Christ spire.’ The spires of the four evangelists will be surmounted by their traditional symbols: a bull (St. Luke), a winged man (St. Matthew), an eagle (St. John), and a lion (St. Mark). The lower spires are surmounted by symbols of the Eucharist: carvings of hosts with sheaves of wheat and chalices with bunches of grapes. A multi-pointed round star will sit atop the Mary spire. When complete (perhaps as early as 2017 –more likely 2026 or even later) La Sagrada Familia will be the tallest church in the world. The ‘Christ spire’ will be the tallest spire in the world.

"Nativity Façade"

The church has three elaborate façades (actually, portals or porches –entrances) the Nativity portal on the east side, the Passion portal to the west, and main portal, the Glory, on the south side. The Glory portal is unfinished at this time. The apse -or altar end- is to the north, opposite the main entrance.

In contrast to the highly decorated Nativity Façade, the Passion Façade is austere, plain and simple, with ample bare stone, and is carved with harsh straight lines to resemble a skeleton if it were reduced to only bone. Dedicated to the Passion of Christ, the suffering of Jesus during his crucifixion, the façade was intended to portray the sins of man.

The largest and most striking of the facades will be the Glory Façade, which began construction in 2002. It will be the principal façade and will offer access to the central nave. Dedicated to the Celestial Glory of Jesus, it represents the road to God: Death…1

(left) "Passion Façade", far view; (right) Arial view of towers

"Passion Façade" portal sculptures

Wikipedia has a fairly basic description of the church worth a glance if you are interested in more. Other online sources are listed below.


Photo sources:

Top photo (“Artist’s Rendering”) in top set: unknown source

“Passion Facade”, far view: unknown source

Aerial view of towers

All others: Bernard Dick

Some online sources:

Good selection of photos and drawings:

Some brief comments on the building and also a good assortment of photos:

Excellent information with photos:

Bayeux Cathedral, France

October 7th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Side Aisle of Bayeux Cathedral, France; photo by Bernard Dick

Virtual Tours of Rome’s Churches

September 6th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Want to visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and some of the other great Roman basilicas but haven’t the funds or time to do so? A team of faculty and students from Pennsylvania’s Villanova University spent hours shooting hundreds of photos of the basilica and months digitally stitching them together so the Vatican could put a virtual tour of the world’s largest Christian church as well as some other Roman churches. Just click on the name of a basilica to you want to explore and start looking around (I repeat: “around”)

Give each image a little time to completely load.

Then click and hold, and move your cursor around.

St. Peter’s

Santa Maria Maggiore

St. John Lateran

St. Paul Outside the Walls

The Sistine Chapel