Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Liturgical Environment’

This is one thing that keeps me Catholic.

September 4th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

web LMC FinalOne of the things that keeps me Catholic is the Church’s understanding and living out of the doctrine of the Incarnation: that God condescended to become man so that man might become God. This refers to the transforming effect of divine grace, the indwelling spirit of God, and the transforming affect of the atonement of Christ. It literally means that God becoming flesh transformed flesh to become more divine, more like God, or to take on a divine nature. At the moment of the Incarnation all flesh –indeed, the entire physical universe– was objectively made holy and capable of transmitting God’s grace and life.

By the Incarnation, humankind was really changed and not left as a pile of sin, as Luther, in his extreme teaching, taught.

People and their actions –as well as things like bread and wine, water, oil and other material things– became capable of communicating God’s graces, became capable of completing in one aspect what was “lacking” in the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ.

Catholic art expresses well the doctrine of the Incarnation. It often depicts transcendence by rich colors and details and patterns, serene expressions, or, the opposite– explosive exuberance. In worship, Catholicism employs smells like incense, sounds like the ringing of bells, heavenly chanting, kissing, bowing, processing, standing, kneeling –all aspects of being physically alive. It’s the material universe celebrating its redeemed status.

This is considerably different from some core Protestant teachings and practices which are suspicious of anything human or physical that could be seen as even having the potential for competing with God. In such teaching humankind is not changed by the Incarnation in any objective way. Some Protestant Churches that hold the “extrinsic justification” teaching dearly are often devoid of visual art and ritual, smells and bells. (Music and preaching, however, are sometimes exalted in such Churches.) Most mainstream Protestant Churches can be found somewhere in between the Catholic and more puritan versions of Christianity. The Orthodox, of course, are more with the Catholics concerning the impact of the Incarnation and we can see that in their emphasis on art and sensual liturgies.

In the end it is the Catholic understanding of the impact of the doctrine of the Incarnation that keeps me Catholic. Indeed, as local Catholic parishes divorce themselves from sacred art, chanting, incense and ritual, the more they push me into Orthodoxy.

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

Heaven Is In The Rafters At The Cathedral

June 3rd, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

This is a republishing of a previous post from July 18, 2011.

Also, a reminder that the rite of priestly ordination will take place tomorrow morning 10:30 A.M. May 4, 2016 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester.



Like many people of the diocese I was disheartened by the results of the renovation of our cathedral. I believe several serious mistakes were made in the renovation. Nevertheless, besides utilitarian improvements, there are several good things in which we can rejoice that came out of that renovation.  One good thing certainly has to be the beautifully restored patterns on the rafters, and the angels from which the arches spring.


(Click on photos for larger views)



I have written before of my hope that we return to emphasizing in our churches, through imagery, the presence of the heavenly personages at Mass. Every Mass is a celebration both here and in heaven. The angels and saints are as much in attendance as our fellows in the pews. Images make us conscious of their presence.


Heaven and earth meet in the liturgy that is held in the church building and so the building matters, it is not just incidental. The physical building and its decoration predisposes us to receive the graces of the sacraments.


Heaven comes down to us (or, we are lifted up to heaven) and hovers over us in the restored angels and brightened patterns of the rafters of our cathedral. Rich bright patterns as well as garden plants -vines and flowers- have always been associated with our idea of the splendor of heaven. Stars on a blue field, too. They are some of the few ways we humans can attempt to depict a sense of heaven. The heavenly angels high up on the walls of the cathedral, pleasingly appearing in peaceful pastel colors, support the rafters of heaven.



It is a glorious ceiling and most fitting for a Catholic church. Take heart in the rafters of heaven next time you participate in Mass at the Cathedral.


Restoring A Sense of the Sacred in Sacred Heart Cathedral

May 29th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

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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.)

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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

Should Sacred Space Ever Be Used for a Secular Purpose?

March 16th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Have you seen the post (link to a National Catholic Register article) on the custodian who was arrested for the way in which he protested a movie themed flower show in the Omaha Cathedral? Do take a minute and peruse the post HERE.

The Church has rules concerning acceptable use of the sacred space of a church. I don’t know, specifically, what those are so I hope some readers who know can inform us of the rules in the comment box.

Regardless of the official rules, however, I pose the question as to whether you think it is ever proper to use a church for secular events or displays? (Let’s keep in mind that, unlike the middle ages, there are plenty of secular venues available for large gatherings.)

A few years ago I ran into a very beautiful art installation in the Abbey Church of Melk, Austria. From an aesthetic point of view it was a stunning play on the colors of the interior of the church and the rounded architectural forms of the dome and arches. Curtains of (what appeared to be) flowers added an ethereal or transcendental feeling. Certainly we could not object to this use of a church as much as we might to the Omaha installation that featured costumed manikins depicting movie scenes. But, should even the Melk Abbey church installation have been allowed?

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Custodian Arrested

March 15th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

From The National Catholic Register

…when Kenney walked into the Cathedral on Jan. 29, he couldn’t believe his eyes. There, hanging in the nave of the cathedral, was a life-sized and fully detailed…

Read more HERE.

Be sure to take a look at some pictures of the displays HERE.

Interesting Critique: “A Tale of Two Churches”

January 18th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

From The Catholic World Report

by Aurora C. Griffin

The final scene of Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia shows a group of monks processing through the forest at dawn, with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” playing softly in the background. As they walk and pray with their candles, the trees before them begin to join together at the tops, forming what are unmistakably… 

More here.

See a video of the interior of La Sagrada Familia HERE. Don’t let the introductory music turn you off. Stay with it.

See a short video of the interior of the Seville Cathedral HERE.

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.

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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…

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.

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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.

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.

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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)

Churches That Look Like Churches

February 18th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Link to Duncan G. Stroik Gallery of Church Architecture Projects

15869201408_d79e97218c_oClick on the above link to view the several church projects designed by architect Duncan G. Stroik. He is, in my humble opinion, one of the very best architects of Catholic churches today. If you have been following my series on “Church Architecture Styles” you will have no trouble identifying Stroik’s interest in certain styles from our Catholic tradition.

Duncan Stroik is also the author of  –again, in my humble opinion– the excellent  “The Church Building as a Sacred Place – Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal”

71S00sMbJDL“This retrospective and forward-looking collection of 23 essays by Duncan Stroik shows the development and consistency of his architectural vision over the last eighteen years. The essays cover church modernism and modernity, renaissance and renewal, principles of church design, and a critique of modern iconoclasm. The appendices feature: a list of canonical documents pertaining to church architecture, a useful chart showing the comparative size of well known churches and comparative sizes of baldacchinos in Rome. Packed with informative essays and over 170 photographs, this collection will help priests, bishops, liturgical consultants, lay commissions and parishioners understand the Church s architectural tradition. Duncan Stroik’s architectural practice and career have helped lead the evolution of the international classical movement, and over the past decade his work has been instrumental in the new renaissance of sacred architecture. He is an internationally noted classical designer and heavily involved in promoting the new renaissance in Catholic architecture. He combines a passion for an architecture of durability, beauty, and function, with an intimate knowledge of Catholic liturgy.” –From the book jacket.