Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Liturgical Environment’

A Fundamental Misunderstanding of the Nature of Catholic Liturgy

February 2nd, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie


From the New Liturgical Movement

“Catholics today might sometimes be struck by the passionate conviction of the younger generation of Catholics who are fighting for the cause of the Sacred Liturgy. It is as if we are fighting for dear life, in a struggle to the bitter end, against our mortal enemies. The reason is simple: we are doing exactly that. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a fundamentally false view out there, very popular nowadays, as captured in this paragraph from Whispers from the Loggia of November 24:

‘The office’s [i.e., Congregation for Divine Worship’s] new mission is likely to hew closer to Francis’ own… ‘ ” READ MORE

Read the interesting follow-up post Is the Liturgy an End or a Means? Further Considerations

Church Architecture Styles: Baroque

January 28th, 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

(Click on pictures to enlarge.)

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Fig. 1 Architecture, painting, sculpture, and decoration all work together in the Baroque style to create a unified emotional expression meant to impress.

Two events stimulated the rise of the Baroque style of church architecture, the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) and the Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563). There were other influences as well but we will limit our discussion to these two in this post. 1

The Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) involved an attack on the pope and the papacy that threatened the people’s faith in the authority of the Church. It began, more or less in earnest, when Martin Luther protested the sale of indulgences. The money collected from the sale was helping to fund, in part, the building of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. The issue of indulgences grew into a much wider conflict over several doctrines including a debate over the legitimacy of the papacy, itself.

Other Protestant reformers generally supported Luther’s ideas but some staked out theological positions more radical than Luther’s. Many of the outward signs of the Catholic Church (liturgical art and rituals) were rejected by several Protestant sects. Catholic liturgical traditions were jettisoned not only for theological reasons but also in reaction to the morally questionable and lavish lifestyle of the Catholic hierarchy. Art, imagery, and rich decoration were, in varying degrees, rejected by Protestants as looking “too Catholic”.

A minimalist attitude toward worship was adopted by some Protestants, centering church services almost entirely on preaching. Some mostly Protestant regions saw outbreaks of destructive iconoclasm: Catholic images defaced, pulled down or otherwise destroyed. Even Martin Luther was appalled and expressed strong disapproval.

ig 2 and 3

Fig. 2 (L) Many Protestants built churches which emphasized the pulpit and played down traditional Catholic imagery and decoration. This is a Protestant Calvinist “Temple” in Lyon, France called the “Paradise”. Fig. 3 (R) Protestant iconoclasts destroying Catholic imagery.

The response of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation came through the Council of Trent. Its strategy is known as the Catholic Counter Reformation. Two aspects of the strategy concern us here: (1) enlisting art to bolster the authoritative image of the Catholic Church and, (2) deploying the Jesuits to reaffirm the traditional teachings of the Church. Both were highly successful.


Fig. 4 Often the Baroque church building seems open to the heavens.

In the Counter Reformation popes commissioned splendid churches meant to wow the faithful and communicate a sense of legitimacy, power and authority. Stunning architectural and decorative affects presented the doctrines and teachings of the Catholic Church in emotionally engaging ways which aroused a positive internal response in the faithful, much like a dramatic play does.

Baroque churches, then, represent the “architecture of rhetorical expression and persuasion.” Rhetorical devices such as “emotionalism, provocation, and alienation were designed to provide the viewer with a sense of immediate experience.”3  Rhetorical rules or principles were followed in Baroque art “to delight and move” people as much as in a sermon.

In the case of the art of the new Baroque churches it was/is hard to tell where earth leaves off and heaven begins. Architects, sculptors, stucco artists, and painters join heaven to earth in amazing feats of visual illusion. The interiors of the Baroque churches often seem to be open to the heavens. Saints, angels and clouds swirl ever upward escaping painting frames and crossing over the building’s architectural divisions. There seems to be no ceiling in many Baroque churches; no division, no gulf exists between earth and heaven. In terms of design, swirling curved lines and forms predominate creating a sense of dramatic movement.

Everything the Church had always held theologically got a restatement in the emotionally persuasive Baroque style.

Along with the emotional strategy of the Counter Reformation was an intellectual one. The Jesuits –the popes’ highly intelligent and trained corps of preachers—were sent out to teach, attacking Protestant theological positions and advancing Catholic ones. Church architecture adapted to the needs of the preachers. The typical basilica church ground plan of a nave with two side aisles gave way to a plan more like a hall or theater that enhanced the ability of the preacher to be seen and heard. Often, elliptical plans were used in the construction of new churches perhaps influenced by the 17th century discovery of an apparent divine ordering in the elliptical orbiting of planets.

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Fig. 5 (L) Churches often had elliptical or rounded plans more like halls or theaters, to better facilitate preaching. Fig. 6 (R) Choir areas between the altar and congregation were eliminated in new plans with only a communion rail separating the congregation from the chancel.

In addition, liturgical reforms, in response to Protestant criticism, addressed the need for an increased participation of the faithful in the Mass. Choir screens that obstructed the congregation’s view of the altar were ordered removed. The choirs themselves in new churches were removed to the rear of the church and situated in a balcony so that the altar could be adjacent to the nave without any separation other than a communion rail. 5

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All aspects of a Baroque style church work together to create a  unified expression of grandeur. Fig. 7 (L) Churches in Germany and Bavaria often have a more frilly, fanciful look. Fig 8 (R) Classical orders often play a more obvious role in Italian and French Baroque.

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The facades of Baroque churches are treated like sculpture and appear more three dimensional than the flatter Renaissance style. Fig. 9 (L) Contrasting curved lines and forms often animate a facade. Niches with sculptures are common and cornices can be large, casting a dark shadow underneath. The curves and shadows create drama. Fig. 10 (R) 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. Once again the intention is drama and excitement.


Fig. 11 Here we can see Corinthian columns used not so much to fulfill some important structural purpose, which they do, but rather to dramatically frame the chancel and altar –looking something like a stage set. The heavy overhanging cornices and use of multiple columns are typical of Baroque. Italian Baroque employs more classical architectural forms (columns, arches, domes, coffered vaults, etc.) than those in other countries.

There were a few Protestant and other non-Catholic churches built in the Baroque style. Mostly, however, it was/is considered a Catholic style.6   The Baroque reveals a sensual delight in the physical world and is a uniquely Catholic attitude in that Catholicism understands the created world as essentially good and capable of acting sacramentally –predisposing the faithful to receive divine grace.


1 One of the great cultural developments of the Baroque period was Opera. There are obvious comparisons between Opera and Baroque church art in such things as staging and rich vestments. Masters such as Mozart and Beethoven composed elaborate Masses for orchestra and choirs. The congregation would usually be seated to listen to, for example, the Gloria and Credo or the liturgical action would pause to wait for the singing of a Kyrie, or Sanctus.

2 McNamara, Dennis R., How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture, (New York, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2011) p 42

3 Toman, Rolf ed., Baroque Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, (China, Ullmann & Konemann, 2004) p. 10

Toman 10

5   Chancel railings or screens  had always been a part of most churches but it was during the Baroque period that they were apparently transformed into long communion tables (railings). The faithful approached the altar and knelt along the railing to receive communion. There is evidence that (Bishop) Saint Charles Borromeo may have been the first to order, in Milan, that churches be equipped with a table style chancel railing at which the faithful may kneel.

6  The Baroque style was not limited to use by the Church but was also adopted by monarchical and absolutist governments to enhance the appearance of secular power and authority.



Fig. 1 Bernard Dick  Fig. 2 edited: Calvin.html # Document=8727. “Le Paradis” a Calvinist Temple, 1564  Fig. 3 edited: Dirk van Delen (circa 1604/1605–1671) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The organised destruction of Catholic images, or Beeldenstorm, swept through Netherlands churches in 1566.  Fig. 4 edited: By Tango7174 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 ( licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Triump of the Name of Jesus . Curch of the Gesus in Rome  Fig. 5 edited: Francesco Borromini [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons: Floor plan the Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane  Fig. 6 “Southern Orders” blog: receiving-holy-communion-at-dining.html Fig. 7  Bernard Dick Fig.8 baroko%20italie/slides/045b%20Bra, %20S% 20Chiara, %20Bernardo%20Vittone,%201742.jpg.  Fig. 9 Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Facciata di Francesco Borromini, Roma, 1638-67, 9/3/2007 by Council.  Fig. 10 By user:Lalupa (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Santa Maria in Campitelli, Rome  Fig. 11 By SteO153 (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 ( licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Santa Maria in Campitelli.


Building Real Churches Again

January 21st, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

We may have left the period of building churches that look like “non-churches”. The craziness may be over. Le’s hope so.

Here is a link to a post about the dedication of a new Catholic Church in South Carolina. Those who have been following my series on Church Architecture Styles will recognize the Early Christian basilica style of the interior and the atrium outside. The facade is Italian Renaissance. The advancing three dimensional nature of the facade and concave scroll buttresses joining the top level of the facade to the wider lower level suggest the Baroque style (which I have not yet covered in the series on styles).

There are several photos and artist renderings you can see by following the link.

From the New Liturgical Movement website:

01 Aerial Perspective - Final smallest

See more photos here.

Another Side Chapel in France

January 21st, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie


French Side Chapels

January 15th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie


(Click on pictures to enlarge.)

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Maximize the Beauty of the Liturgy

January 8th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Epiphany 2015

Post by Gregory Dipippo

From the New Liturgical Movement

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, chapter 1

Very short but spot on:

Jesus was born in a humble stable and placed in a manger, true. But the Wise Men did not bring Him straw, dirt, and dung; they brought Him costly royal gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The way in which Our Lord was born revealed His humility, which disdains earthly pomp; the way in which the three kings adored him revealed…

Read More

Church Architecture Styles: Italian Renaissance

December 22nd, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series:

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

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

 (Click on pictures to see larger images)


Fig. 1

By the 14th century the city of Rome had been littered with ancient Roman ruins for at least nine centuries. The knowledge of Roman architectural principles and engineering know-how had begun fading from memory with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

It would not be until the 14th century that interest in studying and relearning classical architecture was once again stimulated.

Francesco Petrarca  (“Petrarch” in English), d. 1374, was an Italian intellectual and poet and one of the

first ‘humanists.’ 2

He rediscovered some letters of the ancient philosopher Cicero and it was that discovery that is generally considered the start of the rebirth (renaissance) of classical learning.


Fig. 2 Petrarch

Petrarch was also drawn to ancient Roman civilization by the classical ruins that were everywhere in Rome.  The antique buildings, even in their ruined state, inspired him. His contemplation of Cicero’s philosophy and his contemplation of the ancient ruins led him to judge Roman civilization as enlightened. Petrarch considered “dark” the time between the period of ancient Rome and the 14th century, as the light of classical learning had been lost during those centuries

Inspired by Petrarch, many Renaissance artists/architects from the 14th through the 16th century went to Rome and traipsed among the classical ruins, sketching, measuring, and trying to rediscover the architectural theories and skills of the ancient Romans. One of these was Leone Baptista Alberti who, in addition to studying the ruins, studied and promoted the theories of Vitruvius (ca. 80-15 BC), an ancient Roman theorist and architect.

Vitruvius & column

Fig. 3 ( L) A 1684 depiction of Vitruvius presenting his architectural theories to the Roman Emperor Augustus ca. 20 BC.  (R) The human proportions of a column and capital.

Vitruvius3 had taught that architecture should imitate nature by employing the proportions of the human body in determining designs. As a bird builds a nest in proportions based on its use by a bird, so human architecture should be constructed according to human proportions.

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Fig. 4 The proportions of the parts of a classical order determined by the proportions of the face, head, and upper torso of a person.

Vitruvius, in Book III of his treatise De Architectura, described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the Greek classical orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) of architecture. His thoughts of basing architecture on human proportions was later  graphically and famously represented by Leonardo da Vinci in his Vitruvian Man: the human body inscribed in a circle and a square which were understood as THE fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmic order.

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Fig. 5 Leonard’s illustration of Vitruvian Man.

With this rediscovered ‘truth’ in mind, Alberti uttered the condescending term ‘Gothic’ as a synonym for ‘crude’ in describing the (then) modern French Gothic style, currently popular across Europe. Georgio Vasari, a few years later after Alberti’s quip, referred to the Gothic style as forms to be avoided in architecture, calling them “monstrous and barbarous”. Gothic architecture, to both Alberti and Vasari, was a debased style, one that departed from classical truth and beauty. Both advocated for the use of classical Greek and Roman forms.

How is it that a Roman arch, for example, could be considered more true or beautiful than a Gothic pointed arch?


Fig. 6

The round arch is half a circle and the circle is one the fundamental geometric forms of Vitruvian Man. In addition, the ratio of half a circle to a whole circle is constant and stable, unchanging, no matter the size of the circle. The height of a round arch is always one half the span or diameter of a circle. Implicit in the round arch, the reasoning goes, is an underlying sense of cosmic order; a sense of calm, peacefulness, correctness, regularity, perfection –beauty.

The Gothic pointed arch on the other has no inherent, essential order. The proportion of the height of the arch to the width of the span is variable. The peak of the arch could be raised to any height over a span. The result is unpredictable, unsettling, irregular, and suggestive of imperfection, of not being based on any essential, unchanging, stabilizing truth.

Also, the pointed arch, rising in two opposing movements that collide, seems to create a sense of tension whereas the round arch seems to communicate a sense of calm by its smooth continuous curve. Tension is the antithesis of calming truth.

Consider the differences in the possible Christian interpretations of the two kinds of arches. One style of arch, the round arch, suggests the perfection and peacefulness of the redeemed status of man FOLLOWING the Incarnation while the other, the Gothic pointed arch, suggests the unstable, fallen or un-redeemed status of man BEFORE the Incarnation. The Roman round arch would therefore seem to be more appropriate for the Christian church building which, after all, represents the “new Jerusalem”, where sin and death are no more, where stability and peacefulness has been restored.

But, Greek and Roman architecture had been created for a pagan society and used in constructing pagan temples. Was celebrating ancient Greek and Roman architectural expressions a celebration of pagan beliefs? No, it was not. To the Renaissance thinkers, writers, artists and theologians the ancients might have been pagan but in their own way, through rational thinking, had been searching for God, for truth. The truth they discovered on the way –granted to them, after all, by God– should, finally, be Christianized (or ‘baptized’,  if you will) and used to glorify God.

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Fig. 7 Circular and square plans –centralized plans, in general– were very popular with Renaissance architects as the circle and square were believed to be the fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmic order. (L) The Tempietto, Rome,1502 by Bramante; (R) Michelangelo’s plan for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Renaissance style of church architecture therefore employs classical Greek and Roman architectural forms and motifs as they were believed to be the most appropriate for Christian churches (as well as all buildings). They were reflective of God’s original cosmic order before the fall of man and were appropriately derived, by human reason, from the proportions of the human body –man being God’s most important creation.

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Fig. 8 The Italian Renaissance style makes use of antique columns, entablatures, cornices, niches, niches with statues,  domes, round arches, temple-like fronts with pediments and tall attached columns or flat pilasters. The decoration in the interior is often restricted to a few contained shapes. A subtle limited palette of colors normally predominates. Pictured here is the interior and exterior of Il Redentore, in Venice; Andrea Palladio, begun ca. 1566

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Fig. 9 Pazzi Chapel, in Florence, 1429 – ca. 1461; Filippo Brunelleschi

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Fig. 10 Saint Peter’s Basilica, begun 1506 and completed 1626, was the result of the work of a succession of famous Renaissance artists: Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Maderno. It was Maderno who designed the facade toward the end of the Italian Renaissance. The Baroque artist Bernini would eventually complete the complex with his key shaped piazza and colonnaded walk ways (not shown here).

The Renaissance style that developed from this philosophy was used by a variety of patrons for a variety of purposes. Institutions, including the Church, used the association with ancient Rome to enhance their claim to authority. Wealthy individuals and families used the style in designing their palaces and villas — even churches they sponsored– so as to present themselves as educated. Merchants and cities wore the style as a badge of success.

One of Leone Baptista Alberti’s first architectural works was the rebuilding of an old church belonging to the tyrant of Rimini, Sigismondo Malatesta . Sigismondo intended the rebuilding of the church more as a memorial to himself and his family than as any symbol of rendering glory to God. In solving the usual problem of designing a facade for a basilica, Alberti seized upon the triumphal arch design used by ancient Rome to honor victorious generals. It seemed appropriate in a church bent on honoring a secular ruler more than God. The lower level of new facade of the church therefore resembles a three portal triumphal arch. (What we see today of the rebuilt church is actually only a fragment of Alberti’s design.)

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Fig. 11 Alberti’s design for the rebuilding of Sigismondo’s church in Rimini. Tempio Malatestiano, ca. 1450

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Fig. 12 Alberti’s design for the facade of San Andrea (15th c.) in Mantua. Note the play on the classical triumphal arch theme (what amounts to three triumphal arches!) in the bottom zone and a classical temple pediment above. The barrel vaults, multi-story classical order pilasters, heavy cornices and niches  are all characteristics of Italian Renaissance church architecture.

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Fig. 13 Ancient Roman structures like these inspired Alberti’s work.

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Fig. 14 The interior of Alberti’s San Andrea with  classical barrel vaults, dome and giant pilasters.

The Italian Renaissance style, like the French Gothic style, underwent numerous adaptations when it encountered local traditions in building. It even meshed with aspects of the Gothic in some places.


1 Romanesque style builders had returned to the idea of masonry Roman vaulting but little else that we would consider Roman. Even in that their efforts had been tentative, not really understanding Roman engineering techniques.

2 Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).  []

3 His book De architectura was rediscovered in 1414 by the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini. To Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) falls the honor of making this work widely known in his seminal treatise on architecture De re aedificatoria (c. 1450)  []

Photo Credits: Fig. 3 (L) By Sebastian Le Clerc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, (R) Public domain. Fig. 4 Scanned from Trattato di architettura di Francesco di Giorgio Martini by Francesco di Giorgio, Fig. 5 Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Fig. 6 Bernard Dick. Fig. 7 (L)By Space Odissey (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, (R) Michelangelo’s plan, Léon Palustre [Public domain], via Wikimedia. Fig. 8 (L) Interior of Il Redentore, Venice.<br>From English Wikipedia. Photo taken by Necrothesp, 13 May 2004 {{GFDL}} (R) By Il_Redentore.jpg: Wknight94 derivative work: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez (Il_Redentore.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 9 By Gryffindor [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Interior of the Pazzi Chapel. Fig. 10 Maderno’s façade, with the statues of Sts Peter (left) & Paul (right) flanking the entrance stairs By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 11 By Michele1978rimini (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Fig. 12 By Sebi1 (Wikipedia Commons) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,,_Mantua. Fig. 13 (L) By User:Alexander Z. (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, (R) By Danichou (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Fig. 14 By Tango7174 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Something Important Happens Here!

November 28th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

Do you remember when Catholic churches used to scream “SOMETHING IMPORTANT HAPPENS HERE!”? Do you remember travelling and stopping into a the local Catholic church to see what it looked like and expecting to be wowed or satisfied?

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The Loss of the Unifying

November 20th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

The deterioration, degradation, dumb-ing down, localizing and secularizing of Catholic liturgy over the last 45 years, in the Rochester diocese, in the United States, and indeed throughout much of the world, has removed the major unifying factor of the church. Some would say that the pope is the unifying factor of the Church, but that isn’t the case. The unifying factor is –or should be– the Eucharistic liturgy. This essential fact to appreciate came to mind this morning as I read the following paragraph in “Byzantine Theology: historical trends and doctrinal themes” by John Meyendorff.

In Eastern Christendom, the Eucharistic liturgy, more than anything else, is identified with the reality of the Church itself, for it manifests both the humiliation of God in assuming mortal flesh, and the mysterious presence among men of the eschatological kingdom. It points at the central realities of the faith not through concepts but through symbols and signs intelligible to the entire worshiping congregation. This centrality of the Eucharist is actually the real key to the Byzantine understanding of the church, both hierarchical and corporate; the Church is universal, but truly realized only in the local Eucharistic assembly, at which a group of sinful men and women becomes fully the people of God.

This Eucharistic-centered concept of the Church led the Byzantines to embellish and adorn the sacrament with an elaborate and sometimes cumbersome ceremonial, and with an extremely rich hymnography, in daily, weekly, paschal, and yearly cycle besides the sacramental ecclesiology implied by the Eucharist itself, these hymnographical cycles constitute a real source of theology. For centuries the Byzantines not only heard theological lesson and wrote and read theological treatises; they also sang and contemplated daily the Christian mystery in a liturgy, whose wealth of expression cannot be found elsewhere in the Christian world. Even after the fall of Byzantium, when Eastern Christians were deprived of schools, books, and all intellectual leadership, the liturgy remained the chief teacher and guide of Orthodoxy. Translated into the various vernacular languages of the Byzantine world–Slavic, Georgian, Arabic, and dozens of others–the liturgy was also a powerful expression of unity in faith and sacramental life.

The arrival and proliferation of ‘liturgy committees’ with their silliness of the week programs has done much damage to the unifying nature of the liturgy. I remember a visiting priest in a parish I belonged to being asked by the reader and announcer “What is the theme today?” The priest asked “What theme?” The person explained “The theme of your sermon and Mass”. The priest answered “What it always is, The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ”.

The typical Catholic Mass in the United States always seems to be about something else.

Church Architecture Styles: Gothic

November 18th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series:

1. “House” Churches

2. Early Christian

3. Byzantine

4. Romanesque

5. “Pilgrimage Churches”

The style we call ‘Gothic’originated toward the middle of the 12th century in the northern part of France, surrounding Paris, called the “Île-de-France”.

(Click on pictures to see larger images)


Fig. 1

The architectural characteristics of the Gothic style resulted from the pursuit of three perceived needs. First, there was a desire to increase the amount of light flowing into churches.  Because of their thick heavy walls and supports and small windows the Romanesque churches had been rather dark. Second, a more open plan was desired to better accommodate the needs of the liturgy and larger crowds. Third, there was the somewhat vain and dubious desire to attain spectacular heights. In was in arriving at solutions that the Gothic style emerged.

As the masons accomplished their tasks and increasingly attained the three goals, aesthetic and spiritual interpretations came to mind that were inspired by the results 2. The increased light flowing into the new churches through large stained glass windows began to be understood as a metaphor for divine luminosity.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

The more open spacious plan began to be understood as a metaphor for divine unity and harmony.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Increased height suggested soaring spirituality.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

These metaphysical interpretations inspired patrons and masons to even greater achievements along the same lines.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

The exteriors of the great Gothic cathedrals appear as huge skeletons to viewers: spiky piers and pinnacles, and soaring buttresses –but no walls, no meat. Where walls would normally be, there are windows. To reach the first two goals of Gothic builders –to admit more light into the church and to open up the interior space—the number and sizes of windows needed to be increased and solid walls and thick bulky supports, decreased.


Fig. 6

The builders did that by concentrating and directing the weight of the vaults and overall structure down more vertical support lines to relatively small points on the ground. By doing that they were able to reduce or even eliminate walls.

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

The resulting view from the inside of many of these magnificent structures can often remind people of a birdcage, from the bird’s point of view.

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Not only was more light allowed to flow into the building, and the floor space opened-up, but the structural supports, thinned and lengthened, appeared as vertical lines leading the eyes upward. Furthermore, the increased effectiveness and efficiency in the support or thrust system allowed the construction of ever taller buildings. With this, all three goals were met and resulted in a style of church architecture that has become an icon of Christianity in the West.

The basic architectural form of the Gothic style is the pointed arch. It directs the weight above downward in a more vertical direction than the round Romanesque arch. This allowed for thinner piers and walls 3. The more outward thrust of the round arch required thick piers and walls to keep the arches from caving in.

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

The same general principle applies to the pointed Gothic vaults compared to the round Romanesque vaults. The ribs used in Gothic vaults, however, may have had a more functional use in directing stress downward than the more decorative ribs of the round Romanesque groin vaults. The ribs of the Gothic vaults were apparently used to support the placement of the webbing material until the vaults were completed. They directed the stress thrust of the web material down to the vertical piers between the windows. Ribbed vaults are also a major architectural form characteristic of the Gothic style.

Fig. 9

Fig. 10

Finally, the so called flying buttress is a prominent architectural characteristic of Gothic. It transferred the stress, weight, or thrust from the interior vaults and piers to ‘flying’ buttresses that flew over the roofs of the side aisles of the building to tower buttresses outside the structure. Some would argue that the buttresses actually work by pushing against the clerestory piers, counteracting the thrust from the vaults and locking the elements into a rigid structure. Whatever the case may be these buttresses  lightened the work of the piers inside the building so that they could be less massive.

Fig. 11

Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Fig. 12

Stained glass windows are also, of course, a characteristic of the Gothic style 4. In the quest for more abundant light came the increase in the space devoted to stained glass windows Stained glass was already in use in the Romanesque style. One aspect of the Gothic windows in particular is uniquely Gothic: tracery. Tracery is the stonework elements that support the glass in a Gothic window. The term probably derives from the ‘tracing floors’ on which the complex patterns of late Gothic windows were laid out. There are different types of tracery worthy of study but we will keep it simple here by just illustrating a couple of  examples.

Fig. 13

Fig. 13

Fig. 14

Fig. 14

The Gothic style lasted into the 16th century after passing through different phases or developments. The one country that resisted the Gothic was Italy. The cathedral in Milan was the only really true Gothic church constructed in Italy. Some others make use of pointed arches but do not stress height or utilize flying buttress. They are labelled “Italian Gothic” but are clearly in a class of their own that has little resemblance to the “French Gothic style”. England produced a version of Gothic more closely allied with the French style 5.

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Fig. 15  Milan Cathedral, Italy

Fig. 16

Fig. 16  Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. ‘Italian’ Gothic

The Italians actually developed a style in conscious opposition to the Gothic. Called the “Renaissance” style, we will explore that next in this series. I hope some folks out there are finding this series helpful even though it is rather academic.



1 The term ‘Gothic’ originally was used as a term of derision, meaning ‘barbaric’. It was used by Italians of the Renaissance Period who saw the new ‘French” style as a rejection of classical forms. The root word of ‘Gothic’ is Goth which is the name of a variety of barbarian tribes that had immigrated or otherwise overrun the Roman Empire but settled mostly in the north and in Spain.

2 This a debatable point as there are differences of opinion as to whether theological thinking inspired the Gothic style or whether the style developed as simple architectural development. I have tried to represent these two views by offering a possible interplay but granting the initiative to architectural developments.

3 This is somewhat relative. Gothic piers may have in some cases remained as thick as their Romanesque precursors but the space covered by the arches or vaults was greater in the Gothic structures.

4 Stained glass was actually an Arabic innovation and import into Europe from the near East. It had been used in Romanesque churches but the Gothic windows were so much larger.

5 English Gothic Cathedral naves and choirs are generally longer than the French Gothic structures. They also tend to end in squared off apses or East ends rather than the rounded style of the continent. While transepts in the French Gothic style seldom extended very far, if at all, beyond the limits of the exterior walls of the side aisles, they obviously do so in the English style. Two or even three transept arms were often used in English Gothic cathedrals in contrast to one in the French style. Elaborate tracery and ribbing was also more common in England. In all though the English cathedrals are recognizably ‘Gothic’.


Picture Credits/Sources: Fig. 1 Il-de-France By TUBS [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 2 AmirwikiThis file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Fig. 3 Fig. 4 Bernie Dick. Fig. 5. Taxiarchos228 at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 6 Saint-Denis’ Basilica in Paris – sought approval to use but no response. “Jeff Titelius |”. Fig. 7 This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Hill. author: w:it:utente:Hill {{PD}}. Fig. 8 By Bordeled (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 9 edited by Bernie Dick, artist unknown. Fig. 10 By Magnus Manske (Made by Magnus Manske.) [CC-BY-SA-1.0 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Labelled by Bernie Dick. Fig. 11 labelled by Bernie Dick, artist’s name has been lost. Fig. 12. labelled by Bernie Dick, (Passport To Design website); approval to use sought but no response. Fig. 13 By User:Magadan, modified TTaylor (wikimedia commons) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Common. Fig. 14 By Dmitry Tonkonog and Ksenia Fedosova (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 15 By Jiuguang Wang (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons. Fig. 16 photo by [[User:Radomil|Radomil}}<br>{{GFDL}} The interior of Santa Croce, Florence

Church Architecture Styles: “Pilgrimage Churches”

October 27th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

“House Churches”

Early Christian Style

Byzantine Style

Romanesque Style

The cult of relics has been around since the very beginning of Christianity. Christians worshiped at the graves of saints and martyrs located in cemeteries outside the walls of cities. Altars (stone mensa) were erected over the graves so that during the celebration of Mass the sacrifice of the martyrs could be associated with Christ’s sacrifice.

(Click on pictures to see larger images)


Fig. 1 The mensa (altar) over the grave of Saint Lawrence. The small chapel and mensa are below the high altar of the church that was constructed above the site. The tiny chapel is called a ‘confessio’.

It is often said that many martyrs’ relics were later transferred into city churches as a precaution against sacrilege committed by marauding barbarians. That may have been true in some cases but, more likely, Christian leaders simply needed the relics transferred to more convenient locations within the cities. Initially, the pope forbade the removal of corpses from their original tombs but the ban did not stick. Finally, a complete reversal of policy occurred at the Council of Carthage (401) which declared that all altars should contain relics (it didn’t really matter how large the relic was).


Fig. 2 The crypt in the cathedral church of Speyer, Germany.

The transferred relics were normally housed in the crypts of churches, in a small chamber (or ‘confessio’) under the altar where the faithful could often get a glimpse of the relics through a window. Crypts varied in size depending upon the popularity of the relic. To accommodate large crowds some crypts were enlarged with a passageway around the inside of the exterior wall of the crypt with additional passage ways leading directly to the relics and on to the other side. This created a more orderly flow to the crush of pilgrims.

Further increase in pilgrimage activity presented major headaches for those who had to manage the crush of huge crowds packing churches, especially on holy days and feast days. One abbot claimed that his monks were forced to jump through windows with the relics in hand in order to escape rioting crowds!

By 1130 or so crypt storage and display of relics was becoming obsolete. Increasing crowds and changes in liturgical practices led to the display of relics in elaborate shrines or reliquaries. These were usually placed directly behind and above the most important altar (high altar) of the church. The change stimulated the religious fervor of the pilgrim even more as the sumptuous caskets containing the relics and the new elevated location heightened the experience of the sanctity of the relics.


Fig. 3 The reliquary of the Three Kings over the high altar of Cologne Cathedral, Germany.

There were many pilgrimage churches. The medieval travel guide “Pilgrim’s Guide” (1130) mentioned 26 shrines that could be visited on the routes leading from France to Santiago de Compostela, alone. (Not to mention Rome and Jerusalem.) Few have much in common in how they architecturally dealt with crowd control. Five, however, solved the problem in a similar way that has become known as the “pilgrimage church” style. These five are not, however, representative of pilgrimage churches as a whole but did have considerable influence on subsequent church buildings.

The five churches vary among themselves in many aspects but generally share in dealing with crowd control by including in their plans an ambulatory and radiating chapels. Pilgrims could walk up the side aisles of the nave and then continue on around the high altar and then down the opposite side of the church. This system caused a minimum of distraction and interference  with the daily liturgical offices being celebrated in the Choir and Chancel.

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Fig. 4

Pilgrimage churches usually possessed many relics worthy of veneration in addition to the main one at the high altar. The small chapels radiating out to the outside of the ambulatory provided ideal places to display those. In addition, visiting priests could offer private or small group Masses in the radiating chapels. The arrangement resulted in a beautiful semi-circular east end of the church.

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Fig. 5

The exterior is impressive as the clearly defined geometric forms stacked up starting with the low chapels and stepping up to the slightly higher roof over the ambulatory, and then to the higher apse roof and chancel roof, and finally culminating in the tower over the crossing; all creating the ‘stepped massing’ characteristic of Romanesque.

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Fig. 6

The ‘pilgrimage church’ design combined functional problem solving with beautiful proportion, harmony and rhythm. It became one of the most impressive of medieval architectural expressions.


Text sources: Early Medieval Architecture, Roger Stalley, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999)

Picture Sources: Fig. 1 By Sibeaster (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Fig. 2 Bernard Dick (Own Work); Fig. 3 website <>; Fig 4 By José-Manuel Benito (uploaded from wikimedia commons) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, labeled by Bernard Dick; Fig. 5 website <>; Fig. 6 This image is taken from Georg Dehio/Gustav von Bezold: Kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art, labeled and highlighted by Bernard Dick.

Church Architecture Styles: Byzantine

September 11th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

The architectural form of the dome and centrally oriented ground plan became major characteristics of the Byzantine style. Constantine had moved his capital from Rome to the fairly small city of Byzantium1 in the eastern half of the empire in 324 where he had churches built according to the traditional Roman basilica style. But, one, the Church of the Holy Apostles, was constructed with two basilicas or halls (without side aisles) crossing each other forming a Greek cross layout. In addition, domes are thought to have covered the crossing space and the four arms of the cross. Constantine actually intended the structure to be his mausoleum and had his tomb positioned under the center dome. The altar was, presumably,  in the apse. The Church of the Holy Apostles was much celebrated and copied throughout the Roman Empire but most especially in the eastern provinces.

Greek Cross Plan possibly used in Constantine's "Church of the Holy Apostles" in Constantinople, 4th century

Fig. 1 – Greek Cross Plan with domes possibly used in Constantine’s “Church of the Holy Apostles” in Constantinople, 4th century. The horizontal arms are called ‘transepts’.

High domes over the center of the naves of churches interrupt the horizontal movement to the altar in the traditional basilica and introduce a vertical element. The dome began to symbolize heaven and the ground level, earth. Imagery in the dome and on the walls reflected this hierarchical order.

"Church of the Holy Wisdom" ("Hagia Sophia"), built by the Emperor Justinian I, 6th century.

Fig. 2 -“Church of the Holy Wisdom” (“Hagia Sophia”), built by the Emperor Justinian I, 6th century. Justinian’s ambitious building campaign of dome covered cross planned churches signaled the start of the ‘Byzantine” style.


Fig. 3 -The high placed domes over the center of the nave in Byzantine style churches introduces a strong vertical element. At the top of the dome is an image of God the Almighty Ruler of the Universe looking down from heaven. Saints occupy the intermediate zones between the highest heavens and earth, the floor level of the building, because they intercede between heaven and earth.

Basic ground plan of a Byzantine style church. This building employs only one dome. Altars continued to be placed at the chord of the apse. Clergy continued to sit along the curved wall of the apse.

Fig. 4 -Basic ground plan of a Byzantine style church. This building employs only one dome. Altars continued to be placed at the chord of the apse. Clergy continued to sit along the curved wall of the apse.

There are several variations of the centrally planned Byzantine style, the most common being the ‘cross in square’ plan.

Cross in square plane. The arms of the cross are raised higher that the corners of the square and the dome, higher yet. The dome would be sitting on a cylindrical 'drum' to raised it higher. The drum served as a clerestory, punctured with windows.

Fig. 5 -Cross in square plan. The arms of the cross are raised higher than the corners of the square, and the dome was raised even higher. The dome would be sitting on a cylindrical ‘drum’ to raise it. The drum served as a clerestory wall and so was punctured with windows. The red line in this diagram indicates a chancel railing or windowed screen (“Templon’) that reserved the altar end of the building for clergy. The ‘Prothesis’ apse was where the bread and wine were prepared for the Eucharistic liturgy.  The ‘Diaconicon’ was for the storage of liturgical books, vestments, vessels, etc.


Fig. 6 -This Byzantine style church in Athens, Greece, has only one dome and is laid out in a Greek Cross plan. The transepts also end in apses. Notice the vertical nature of the windows and the ‘banded brick’ pattern of the exterior of the drum. Both are characteristics of the Byzantine style.


Fig. 7 -Looking toward the apse. An Iconostasis screen shields the chancel/altar area. Iconostasis screens did not appear until ca. 1000 or even later. Notice the abundance of imagery common in Byzantine and Orthodox churches. The program of imagery (in mosaic and/or fresco) in Byzantine churches is thought to have been introduced in a palace chapel in Constantinople during the reign of Justinian I.

Overall, embellishments and decorative elements in Byzantine churches betray eastern or oriental (think Persian and Arabic) influences as Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul) was/is on the border between Europe and Asia. Such designs emphasized splendor, complexity, both organic and geometric pattern and color. The classical Greek and Roman forms of arch, dome, and columns merged in the Byzantine style with eastern design elements.


Fig. 8 -Here the classical Greek and Roman Ionic capital has been altered by a pattern of intricately carved leaf forms, betraying eastern influences.


Fig. 9 -It is hard to detect any classical Greek and Roman elements in this Byzantine capital except for perhaps the scroll like forms at the bottom. This is thoroughly eastern in appearance. These flat intricately carved capitals are sometimes called ‘basket capitals’.

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Fig 10 San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, 526-47. Mosaics above and veined marble columns and walls below are characteristics of the Byzantine style.


Fig 11 A chancel railing or ‘templon’ screen (as in this illustration) marked the border between the holiest part of the church and the nave in the Byzantine style. The ‘chancel’ area included the altar and apse and was reserved for the clergy. The church represented in this illustration also has a type of ‘solea’ or walled walkway for the clergy to process to the ‘ambo’ for the scripture readings. The ‘ambo’ is the raised platform. There were no seats. The congregation stood the whole time.

Many regional variations in the Byzantine style developed as Christianity spread into Russia and other regions.


Fig 12 Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. A totally unique expression within the Byzantine tradition.

"National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception", Washington D.C., 20th century

Fig. 13 “National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception”, Washington D.C., 20th century. Byzantine Revival Style

Fig. 14 "National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception", Washington D.C., 20th century. Byzantine Revival Style. In addition, the dome is meant to echo the dome of the U.S. Capitol building and the tower mimics the Washington Monument.

Fig. 14 “National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception”, Washington D.C., 20th century. Byzantine Revival Style. In addition, the dome is meant to echo the dome of the U.S. Capitol building and the tower mimics the Washington Monument.

Do you know of any Byzantine style churches in your area? There are several in the Rochester area. What characteristics would you look for?


1 The term ‘Byzantine’ is derived from the name of the city of Byzantium. Constantine renamed his new capital ‘New Rome’.  After his death it was named ‘Constantinople’.  The Ottomans changed the name to ‘Istanbul” after their conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.


Photo Sources:

Fig.1 By Apostoleion.jpg: Agur derivative work: Arnaugir (Apostoleion.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 3 Bernie Dick

Fig. 4 Bernie Dick

Fig. 5 Bernie Dick

Fig. 8 Bernie Dick

Fig. 9 Bernie Dick

Fig. 7

Fig. 12 “Moscow July 2011-4a” by Alvesgaspar – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Fig 13 “Basilica National Shrine Immaculate Conception DC 34” by Gryffindor – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – Fig.

Fig. 14

Church Architecture Styles: The Early Christian Period

August 28th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: The Period of Persecution

The construction of church buildings began in the third century well before the legalization of Christianity in 313. Legalization of Christianity saw an increase in the construction of churches due to the sudden patronage of Constantine and subsequent emperors.

The Roman ‘basilica’ became the architectural form of the Christian church as it was the standard structural type used by Roman architects for housing large group meetings. Very little modification of the secular basilica was necessary to convert it into a church.

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Fig.1 – Church basilica from the 4th century in Syria. A pitched wooden roof covered the center, and sloping roofs covered the side aisles. Basilicas were the typical building type used by the Romans in structures constructed for large groups of people. Construction materials varied from region to region.

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Fig. 2 – Cross section of a 4th century church basilica. The center aisle –the ‘Nave’– was raised higher than the side aisles so that windows could puncture the higher walls to illuminate the center.  Larger churches might have four side aisles.

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Fig. 3 – This is a very basic ground plan of a simple basilica church in which we can see that altars were usually placed just at the border of the apse (the ‘chord’). Clergy sat along the curved back wall of the apse. During the Eucharistic Prayer, however, the clergy moved to the front of the altar, facing East along with the congregation. Churches were usually oriented to the East as Christ’s second coming would be from out of the Eastern sky.

roman basilic

Fig. 4 – Sant Apollinare in Classe,  near Ravenna, Italy, is an excellent example of an early Christian basilica. Here we can see the raised roof supported by the walls of the clerestory which are punctured by windows. We can also see clearly the side aisle and the apse on the far right. The exterior is unfinished brick as was the norm in Italy.

Christianity developed and expanded within the Roman Empire and so the architectural forms the faith employed were Roman. Most especially this meant incorporation of the classical Greek ‘orders’ (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) that had been adopted by the Romans and Roman structural forms derived from the Round Arch.

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Fig. 5 –  These are the three basic classical ‘Orders’ developed by the ancient Greeks. The Romans admired the Greeks and copied their architectural style of classical Orders, especially the Ionic and Corinthian. Christian basilicas used columns in these three styles to form arcades that separated the Nave from side aisles. The columns were joined by arches or by flat Entablatures.

Fig. 6 - Roman architecture is especially noted for its masterful engineering feats based upon the use of the round arch. Early Christian basilicas used the round arch mostly in the construction of arcades which separated the aisles from the nave. Sometimes, but rarely, stone vaults or concrete vaults based on extensions of the round arch covered the side aisles. The round arch was also prominent at the front of the apse where it usually formed the front edge of the curved wall and quarter domed space.

Fig. 6 – Roman architecture is especially noted for its masterful engineering feats based upon the use of the round arch. Early Christian basilicas used the round arch mostly in the construction of arcades which separated the aisles from the nave. Sometimes, but rarely, stone vaults or concrete vaults based on extensions of the round arch covered the side aisles. The round arch was also prominent at the front of the apse where it usually formed the front edge of the curved wall and quarter sphere vault.


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Fig. 7 – Here we can see the arcade that separates the Nave from the left side aisle consists of a row of round arches supported by a line of classical columns. Arcades form a perspective which direct the eyes of congregants toward the altar at the apse end of the space.

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Fig. 8 – The Nave and first side aisles in this basilica are separated by Corinthian columns supporting an Entablature. The second –from the Nave– side aisles are separated in this basilica from the first side aisles by an arched arcade. At the far end of the nave are two large round arches at the area in front of, and at the border of, the apse.

The exteriors of early Christian churches were plain brick or stone. The main entrance facades were sometimes decorated with paintings or mosaics.


Fig. 9 – Without exception, the exteriors of early Christian churches were left as unfinished brick or stone. Here we can easily identify the nave, side aisle and apse of this 4th century basilica.

SMT facade edited

Fig. 10 – On the facade of Santa Maria Trastevere, in Rome (4th century) both painting and mosaic imagery were added. Such exterior decoration was not usually part of the initial fabric of the building but were added some years later with sections perhaps completed in different periods.

After construction of the basic structure of the church building, decoration was added to the interior. Colorful mosaics of biblical scenes and theological concepts eventually dominated the interiors. The colorful interiors contrasted with the plain exteriors so much that Christian churches were sometimes called ‘houses of mystery’ for the exterior of the building did not suggest the splendor within.


Fig. 11 – The mosaics in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, are from the 5th century.

Doors were sometimes carved with biblical scenes.

Santa Sabina Doors

Fig. 12 – Doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, 430-32. These are original doors of the period but experts agree that they were made for a different doorway. Each panel depicts a New or Old Testament scene.


Fig. 13 – Crucifixion scene from the doors of Santa Sabina Basilica in Rome. This is the earliest known representation of the crucifixion (ca. 432)

Ceilings in the basilica churches were initially open timbered but in subsequent centuries were often finished with coffer paneling.


Fig. 14 – This is a cross section drawing of the original Saint Peter’s Basilica showing the open timber ceilings, the most common type of ceiling in the early churches. You can also see that the farthest aisles out from the nave are covered not by open timber but by masonry vaults. Being smaller they were easier to vault in stone or concrete.

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Fig. 15 – The coffer wood ceiling in this basilica was gilded in gold taken from the new world. In addition to the ceiling notice the classical ionic columns supporting an Entablature. A Round Arch (called a ‘Triumphal Arch’) is also clearly prominent at the altar end.

‘Ciboria’ (Bladachins, canopies) over altars were first introduced in Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome (begun ca. 320 completed ca. 336).  Saint Peter’s Basilica was built over Peter’s grave.  Similar basilicas were constructed over other martyr’s tombs in imitation of Saint Peter’s. Altars in each were positioned over the tombs and Ciboria, as  funerary memorial structures, were erected over the altars. The tradition of using Ciboria to mark the grave of a martyr continued when relics of martyrs and saints were divided up and distributed among churches not located in a cemetery. The relics were placed in or under altars and Ciboria erected over the altars.

St Peter's shrine larger copy copy

Fig. 16 – This shows the original ‘Ciborium’ (memorial structure) over the tomb of Saint Peter the Apostle, Rome, ca. 336. Later, this original Ciborium was removed and the floor of the chancel of the basilica was raised to cover the entire grave, including an existing arched memorial (shown in the drawing). An altar was then positioned directly above the grave. A new ‘Ciborium’ was then erected over that.

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Fig. 17 – Ciboria had to be repaired and even replaced over the centuries. In this basilica in Croatia, the columns are original and date from the 6th century. The rest of the Ciborium is renovation from later centuries.

The basilica of the early Christian period set the basic form of church architecture for centuries to come, right up to the present time. Everything following those first centuries was a variation, elaboration, or copy of the basilica form. Even so, it is a history of amazingly rich styles and expressions. Knowing the characteristics of each style greatly enhances a person’s ability to judge good from bad church architecture. It enhances our ability to appreciate various interpretations of the sacred liturgy through the centuries and guides us in our decisions regarding proposals for new churches.

Does your church have a basilica plan with arcades separating the center of the church from side aisles? Any Doric, Ionic or Corinthian columns? How about an apse? Ciborium? Clerestory?  Let us know. Maybe send me a picture:


There is quite a variety in the purposes and styles within the general category of Early Christian church architecture. More information can be found in my online book, “History of Christian Art”, here and here.


Picture Sources:

Fig. 5 –

Fig. 6 – edited:

Fig. 10 –

Fig. 13 – “SabinaCrucify”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Fig. 14 –

Fig. 15 –

Fig. 17 – edited: “EuphrasiusBasilika” by Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0-de via Wikimedia Commons –

Church Architecture Styles: Period of Persecution

August 18th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

During the Apostolic Age Christians continued to attend the synagogues and the Temple. The Eucharist, of course, had to be celebrated in members’ homes as that could not be done at the synagogues or Temple. Like any other group in a similar situation the homes chosen for the Eucharist may have been the largest available, the most convenient, or the ones of members who volunteered to host the group.

We can probably safely assume that the liturgy itself probably looked very much like Jewish domestic worship. In fact, the Book of Acts refers to the saying of “the prayers” as well as “praying” so, no doubt, set Jewish prayers were part of the ritual. The ‘liturgy’ was probably more liturgical than we are usually led to believe as Jewish domestic and public worship was very liturgical in the first century.

At least by the middle of the third century, domestic dwellings were being purchased or converted  for use as churches. This is the example we see in this post, at Dura Europos, a domestic building converted into a church around 245. Apparently, the entire house was used as a church center with one room used for the Eucharist and a separate one, across a courtyard, for baptism. Other rooms were used for meetings or instruction, storage, or other needs. The layout was basic and common for urban houses.

It is also known that shops or other commercial buildings were also converted into churches. A dye shop in Rome for example, in Trastevere, was transformed into a church. The ‘titular’ churches of Rome all started out as converted houses or partially converted houses..

The earliest known separate building constructed for use as a church was built in 280. But, in the case of this post, we are just looking at an example of a house church (“domus ecclesiae”).

The house church in Dura Europos was in a military town on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in what is today, Syria.

house church labelled

fig. 1

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fig. 2

baptistry reconstuction at Yale 222

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Room for Baptisms – reconstruction at Yale University showing some of the paintings on the walls. Over the font on the back wall is a scene of the “Good Shepherd”. On the right wall (bottom) we can see a scene of the “Three Mary’s at the Empty Tomb”. The candidate for baptism stood in the font, in water, and water was poured over him.

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Dura Europos. Just two blocks down the wall from the church was a Jewish synagogue. The walls of the synagogue were covered with scenes from the Hebrew scriptures.

In a series of posts we will take a look at the various historical styles of church architecture. This first in the series has little to do with style but does answer the question as to what came before Christians started building church buildings.


For a more detailed history of the development of the earliest churches see my online History of Christian Art here.

Also, an interesting website on the the transformation into a church of Peter’s House in Caparnaum here. That transformation, however, occurred in the 4th century and shows an actual change in the interior architecture of the house. Never-the-less you may find it interesting.


Picture Sources

fig. 1: “Dura Europos domus ecclesiae isometric view” by Marsyas – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

fig. 2: edited – “DuraEuropos-Church”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

fig. 3: edited – Yale University

fig. 4: edited – “Duraeuropusmap” by Map is in the public domain. – Simon James University of Leicester, School of Archeological Studies, after MFSED-H. David realisation. First published in french in 2005.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Poor men, why is there gold in your sanctuary?”

August 4th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

Toward the end of the 11th century the monastery of Cluny in France had grown to become the most powerful and influential of all monastic houses or monasteries in Europe. Numerous Cluniac monastic houses had spread in every direction across the continent. There were perhaps 815 by 1109.  However, originally dedicated to the ascetic life of poverty, prayer and work under the Rule of Saint Benedict, Cluny had gradually become entangled in secular affairs and had grown wealthy.1 Churches that the Cluniacs built for their newly established houses had become large with nave vaults reaching impressive heights. Tall towers graced the exterior of the churches while the interiors were elaborately decorated.  The Liturgy (the Office or Liturgy of the Hours2), too, had gradually developed into a rich ceremonial, lengthened to the point where the monks were in church hours on end with little time to do much of anything else.

(Click on pictures to view larger images)


Monastery Church of SS Peter & Paul (Cluny III). View of Abbey from East.
Detail from a 1773 drawing by J.B. Lallemand, 1089-1132, Cluny, France

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Monastery Church of SS Peter & Paul (Cluny III). Interior View of the Great Nave,
drawing by T.C. Bannister

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Nothing much remains of Cluny III but the priory church of Paray-le-Monial (Saone-et-Loire), first half of the 12th century is a good copy. We can see a painting in the vault of the apse and an abundance of architectural detailing.

Cluny III represented one type of monastic thinking, the idea that the worship of God required the most beautiful and magnificent building and liturgy that men could create.

In 1098 a group of about 20 monks left the Cluniac abbey of Molesme in order to found a monastery in which monastic life would be lived according to the original, stricter observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict.

The Cistercians3, as the successors of the original twenty monks came to be called, sought a life of real poverty, manual work, private prayer, reading and the study of scripture, simple communal worship, and the development of the personal virtues of humility and simplicity. They established their monasteries away from populated centers –“far from the commerce of men”.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is the best known of the Cistercians and while most of the reforming ideas did not originate with him, the power of his personality and his clear articulation and implementation of the reforms stimulated the phenomenal growth of the Cistercians in the 12th century.

Bernard preached an observance of the Rule that minimized worldly distractions and stressed poverty.  (“Men of poverty [monks], why is there gold in your sanctuary?”) All artistic imagery and decoration were strictly forbidden. Vestments were unadorned and made of simple material. The Liturgy of the Hours was pruned to its essentials. A simple wooden table served as the altar. Only simple chant was allowed.

Tall churches with towers were forbidden. Architectural expression was reduced to mere functionality and there were to be no colorful windows, only clear glass.4

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Fontenay Abbey Church, begun in 1139, is probably the most characteristic of Cistercian churches to survive. It incorporates all of Saint Bernard’s ideas.The building does not have great height and the only tower allowed is a small bell tower. Photo by Amy Lou:

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The interior of Fontenay Abbey Church looking toward the chancel. Unlike most Cluniac churches the vault of the chancel is lower than the rest of the church and there is no imagery or decoration. Photo by Becky Dave:

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While austerity is the first visual impression of a typical Cistercian church there is also a profound beauty conveyed in the rhythmic pattern established by transverse arches over the nave and pilasters on the walls and the pattern of arcades separating the nave from the side aisles. The groin vaults in this particular church introduces a decorative element that results from the use of a purely structural form. Light and shadow create a sense of purity and seriousness. Eberbach (Hesse) Abbey Church, ca. 1170-86 By Moguntiner Created: 2005:04:03 13:31:11

Worldly things such as beautiful or imaginary art and elaborate decoration were viewed as distractions, impediments to union with God

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Fantastic Animals, capital sculpture in the narthex. Loches Church of Saint Ours, 12th Century, Romanesque Period, (Indre et Loire), Touraine, France.
William J. Smither

However, it is important to note that Bernard made an important distinction between what monks should not have in a church and what the rest of Christians perhaps should have in their churches. The monastic restrictions on decoration and art were necessary, according to Bernard, for those who had chosen a life of letting go of worldly things. He noted that such deprivations were not for those whose vocations were lived out in the secular Church, in the world. Regular Christians needed art, decoration and rich ceremonies as an aid to getting closer to God. The monk must let go of the world entirely while other Christians must find their way engaged with the world. They are both valid ways but the monastic one, to Bernard, was ‘more perfect’. The more perfect way could not be for everyone, of course.

…what good are such things to poor men, to monks, to spiritual men? Perhaps the poet’s question could be answered with words from the prophet: “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). I agree. Let us allow this to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense? —“Apology”

Protestants, later, would build churches that seemed to have been influenced by Bernard. Indeed, John Calvin much quoted Bernard on the subject of justification and sola fide, the central tenet of Martin Luther’s theology. Like Bernard, Protestants would place a considerable amount of emphasis on the private study of scripture and a more personal faith, less dependent on ritual and other intermediate practices.

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Grant Mennonite Brethren Church, Paxton, Nebraska.

The Protestant Reformers’ views of the physical and material world as totally corrupt and without merit in helping man achieve union with God eventually led to sterile and bare churches in some branches of Protestantism. Bernard had viewed the material world –for monks, anyway—in somewhat a similar way, as a distraction and impediment to the spiritual life and so his churches had also been bare and sterile.

Many Catholic liturgical specialists since the Second Vatican Council have also exhibited, at least to some extent, Bernard’s and the Protestant Reformers’ approach to church architecture and decoration. Renovations and new churches since Vatican II have practically banned imagery and decoration, both iconic and non-iconic, reducing the visual effect to a reliance on light and functionality alone. Even the ever present Catholic crucifix was, for a time, absent from chancels. Imagery, if it was allowed, was disguised as nearly unrecognizable abstractions.  Many Catholic churches have come to look more like the stereotypical Protestant church than a traditional Catholic church

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Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd, Henrietta, NY

Bernard wrote that money spent on tall beautifully adorned churches should have been spent on the poor. That also became a theme of later Protestants who emphasized social justice. Initially, the debasement of churches was a reaction to the wealth displayed in Catholic churches brimming with large paintings and rich liturgical furnishings. The initial stripping of the churches, however, was more an indication of the disgust the Protestants had with the extravagant living style of the Church in Rome. We find a sense of similar disgust of traditional Catholic art and liturgy in the contemporary Catholic liturgists’ desire to impoverish the liturgy through the use of common earthly materials cheaply made, such as ceramic ‘chalices’ or cheap glass goblets. Homemade and non-professional art like felt banners have come to adorn Catholic churches in place of noble –and expensive– professional works of art.

Even Pope Francis seems on board with his expressed desire for a poor church.

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St. Paul Catholic Church, Webster, NY. From the parish’s website: “We chose the image of ‘a people of God on a journey,’ and constructed a church which in its simplicity, reflected our desire to spend our money on those with greater needs.”

So, there is some Catholic tradition behind the iconoclastic or impoverished approach to church architecture of the past 50 years. The tradition is mostly marginal, relegated to the monastic environment, but it is there.


1 Wealth accumulated at Cluny because of its entanglements with feudal rights and commerce in estates. Much of the entanglement was actually the result of the recruitment successes of houses like Cluny. Patrons donated money and land to successful houses, and wealth flowed-in with new recruits from the noble class.

2 The Liturgy of the Mass was controlled, in essentials, by the local bishop. The liturgy the Cistercians reformed was the Office (the Liturgy of the Hours) the seven times a day monastic ritual of praying the psalms and listening to scripture readings and excerpts from the writings of the Church Fathers and saints.

3 The name Citeaux comes from the name of the order’s first monastic house, Citeaux, and from the language spoken near the town where the monastery was located.

4 At the same time, just outside Paris, Abbot Suger was renovating the apse of his abbey church with a new style of architecture (Gothic) that stressed impressive heights and curtain walls of beautiful stained glass windows. Suger considered Bernard something of a threat to his vision of constructing churches in which the experience of beauty became an approach to God.

The Functions of a Catholic Church Building

July 9th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

by Father Dwight Longenecker

From “Catholic Exchange”

Architects will quibble about the “form follows function” dictum, but assuming that there is at least some truth to it, we can then ask, “What is a church for?” If we are being merely practical about it, a church is for people to gather for divine worship. Therefore the seating should be comfortable. Everyone should be able to see the altar and the pulpit. There should be a good sound system and adequate amenities like air conditioning, heating and toilets and cry rooms and bride rooms. However, is a church simply an auditorium? Many modern Protestant churches are built with this criteria. All that is required is a large, comfortable, efficient space for everyone to meet.

The Catholic tradition offers something greater. When we ask what a Catholic Church is for the answer is more than simply an auditorium. Within the Catholic tradition the Church building has more than a practical function. Therefore if “form follows function” we have to ask what these other functions might be for  a Catholic church… Read more here.


Loving Rococo and Late Baroque

June 17th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

Liturgical art in the Rococo or late Baroque style* was for me, for years, a turn-off. It has only been in the last few years that I have come to love Rococo/late Baroque church architecture/decoration.

(Click on pictures to view enlarged images.)

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“Wieskirche”, 1745-54, Weis, Bavaria. Perhaps Bavaria’s greatest Rococo church.

Rococo’s explosion of fanciful forms, intricate curves, counter curves, details, and predominant use of pale or pastel coloring with an abundance of white and gold creates a heavenly environment for the celebration of Mass. It is a vision of heaven on earth.  “It’s overwhelming” and “I don’t know where to look” are common reactions people volunteer upon entering a truly stunning Rococo or late Baroque style church. I imagine heaven to have that kind of impact. Disorienting and yet wonder filled.

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“Einsiedeln Monastery Church”, 1704-50, Switzerland. A late Baroque church.

Everything is happening at once in a Rococo or late Baroque style church. Biblical events and snippets from saints’ lives appear all over the place in sweeping panoramic views and in small framed localized ones.

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“Chapel of the Black Madonna”, Einsiedeln Monastery Church, Switzerland.

Everything is alive, moving, growing, spilling, slithering, and pulsing. The structure of the church building nearly melts away in many Rococo style churches as forms burst out of frames and spill over cornices, floating ever upwards right through the ceiling in a vision of infinity or tumbling from eternity down to now.

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“Andecks Monastery Church” 1712, Andechs, Bavaria. Technically, this is a Baroque style.

The cause of all this life comes from an altar that is almost visually lost in the exuberance; from the altar of sacrifice, from the cross, from the tree of life. What we see in the decoration is the cosmic importance of the Incarnation and the climax that is the sacrifice of the cross made eternally present in the Mass.  Heaven and earth, physical and spiritual are reunited, everything is a new creation. It is all timeless and infinite. We are left speechless except perhaps to utter a “wow” or “O, my!”

Most especially, we are filled with joy –youthful joy; the joy of our youth as the psalmist wrote.

The Rococo or late Baroque styles are not to everyone’s taste. Certainly the moralist will complain of the richness of it all. That was me for many years. A Cistercian might be very uncomfortable worshiping in such an environment, at least on any kind of a regular basis.  But the Catholic Church has no official style of art and architecture. It has, rather, a few liturgical art requirements that can be applied to any style. The work must: 1) be orthodox; present the truths of the faith without ambiguity, 2) exhibit noble beauty, 3) have the exclusive aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God, and 4) be of high quality in terms of material and artistic skill.

That liturgical art must be simple and/or impoverished is not a requirement.

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“Asamkirche” 1740, Munich, Germany. Built as a private chapel that doubled as a ‘show room’ for the Rococo architectural firm of the Asam brothers whose office and home were right next door.

The Church does caution against liturgical art that has the sole purpose of displaying wealth, privilege or skill. Admittedly, there is more room for debate considering that caution when it comes to Rococo art than other styles. But then, much contemporary or modern liturgical art fails when measured against the Church’s first four requirements for good liturgical art.

Could there ever be a Rococo revival; a Neo-Rococo or Baroque movement in church art? How about liturgical art that is at least inspired by the essence of the Rococo style? What might that look like?


* What is the difference between the Rococo and late Baroque styles in church architecture, decoration? Rococo artists and architects used a more jocular, florid, and graceful approach to the Baroque. It’s a difference not worth much dwelling on for our purposes as the difference in impact on the untrained viewer is hardly noticeable. It would take some explanation –and several examples– for most of us to appreciate the difference.

Breathing With Both Lungs

March 22nd, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

There are many differences between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches but usually it is a difference of emphasis rather than (in my view) serious substance. Most often the differences are complementary. We need both views to understand more completely.

The most common subject dominating the apse wall behind or over an Orthodox altar is the Holy Virgin of the Sign or a slight variation of it –the Madonna holding the Christ Child in her lap. In Western (Catholic) churches the single most used subject is the crucifixion. Protestant churches almost always employ the plain cross.

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Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, Rochester

Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church, Rochester

Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church, Rochester

The different imagery reveals the different emphasis each places on the same economy of redemption and salvation.

In the East it is the Incarnation as a whole that effects redemption. Man was redeemed when God took on human flesh, lived a human life in all respects except sin, suffered the worst death, and resurrected and ascended back to the Father. With the Incarnation, human flesh became capable of deification (sanctification). It became possible for man to enjoy eternal life with God in heaven.  The icon of the Incarnation in the East is the Virgin of the Sign or the Holy Virgin holding her Son in her lap. It is the Eastern iconic image of redemption.


“Mother Of God The Sign”

The Western Church does not believe something different but she most often chooses a specific moment, the moment of Christ’s horrible death, to symbolize the redemption. Catholics and Protestants emphasize an atonement theology as part of the Incarnation; that Christ paid for our sins through His sacrificial death. This is especially true in Protestant churches.


Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pierrefonds

Catholic churches, in addition to the crucifixion, have a very rich tradition of highlighting other images of redemption (including images of the “Virgin of the Sign”) behind or above the altar, such as scenes from the life of Christ and images of the sanctified –the saints.

"The Conversion of Saint Paul" Caravaggio, 1610, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Besides the Crucifixion Catholic chancel imagery often displays snapshots from the history of redemption or salvation.

“The Conversion of Saint Paul”, Caravaggio, 1610, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Besides the Crucifixion which is the most represented subject, Catholic chancel imagery often displays snapshots from the history of redemption or salvation. Here we see an analogy to that history; brilliant Divine light pierces the darkness of Paul’s pre-Christian life as Christ’s Incarnation deified fallen flesh.

The Eastern Church chooses to display as its most important icon in the church building an image that views redemption as a whole piece. In the Western tradition redemption appears as a crescendo climaxing in the sacrifice of the cross. Neither emphasis diminishes the importance of the other. We should see them as complementing each other  –“breathing with both lungs”.

We Westerners, especially Protestants, may be puzzled or even scandalized by the prominent emphasis of the Holy Virgin in Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic churches until we realize the meaning behind the icon.


Revisiting Some Personal Proposals

March 21st, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

While researching for a new post I came across a couple of old chancel proposals I had put up on Cleansing Fire. I think they are still pretty good so I thought I’d post ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos again to see if there are any new reactions to them. The “after” photos are edited photos of existing chancels. In each case I was trying to make the chancel “more obviously Catholic”.

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Existing Chancel




(Original Post Here)


(L) BEFORE                                   (R) AFTER

 (Original Post Here)



(L) BEFORE         (M) AFTER        (R) alt AFTER

(Original Post Here)



Top: Church of the Good Shepherd in Henrietta

Middle: Sacred Heart Cathedral

Bottom: Saint Paul’s in Webster (?)

What will we experience this week at Mass?

March 3rd, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

This from last week’s bulletin of one of our local Catholic churches. It is part of a front page article on how the liturgy for Lent will offer some new experiences:

What will we experience this week at Mass:

Art and Environment: our “Ordinary Time” green will give way to purple. Purple represents the penitential and preparatory nature of the season it signifies solemnity and has a connotation of not only penance but royalty. You will notice that there are no flowers or plants in our sanctuaries. This is to reflect the starkness of the season and anticipates the new life we will see at Easter. (So far, so good.)

(Then, this.) We will also see vessels in fragments in front of our altars. Like our growth takes place in pieces and fragments, amazing change happens when we begin to experience these fragments and pieces coming together in a new way. We will also see twisted kiwi branches acknowledging the twists and turns that occur while change is taking place.

I hope the liturgy committee will clean up it’s mess after playing.