martes, 11 de agosto de 2015

How can we recover the sense of the sacred in our temples and shrines?

The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal

by Duncan Stroik

The fine arts are rightly classed among the noblest activities of man’s genius; this is especially true of religious art and of its highest manifestation, sacred art. Of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God’s praise and of his glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.-Sacrosanctum Concilium No. 122

How can we recover the sense of the sacred in our temples and shrines? We seem to have lost the ability to make new buildings which exude that ineffable sense of the “sacred” which can be rightly called the presence of the Almighty. Why is it that few of our churches built in recent decades intimate that the church building itself and the celebrations taking place within it are sacred?

Recent church structures often seem “of this world” rather than “otherworldly,” “down to earth” rather than “heavenly,” more secular than sacred. In this increasingly secular age our houses of worship, by blending in with contemporary architecture, are in danger of becoming mere theaters and assembly halls rather than sacred and prophetic places.

Yet why should we seek to promote and restore sacred architecture if it has been lost? We seek to restore the practice of a sacred architecture because it is part of our Catholic patrimony, in the same way that images of the Annunciation, Last Supper, and Crucifixion are. They are a catechism in paint, mosaic, and stone. Yet, to compare even the most critically-acclaimed modern churches with typical early Christian or Renaissance examples is to call into question any notion of progress in the arts. How will our ecclesiastical works be judged in relation to our forefathers, who were able to create great works of art in spite of their limited resources and rudimentary technology?

The great appreciation shown for classical and medieval churches by pilgrim and art historian alike strongly indicates that these buildings continue to be relevant to contemporary culture, and that modern man still has a sense of the sacred. As long as Medieval churches and ancient basilicas continue to be places for the liturgy and devotion, sacred architecture cannot be lost. In fact, today we are witnessing a growing number of enlightened patrons and talented architects who are bringing about a new renaissance in sacred architecture, promoting the sense of the holy in our houses of God.

A Place Set Apart

To create three-dimensional places of worship is fundamental to human nature. Sacred architecture is a means for us to articulate the meaning of life for ourselves, our communities, future generations . . . and to honor God, because, though He does not need our worship nor our temples of stone, He deserves them greatly. Our response to the cross is to return His love in our thoughts and deeds, by feeding the hungry and also by building churches. When we come in contact with the Almighty we stand on holy ground. Thanksgiving and worship cause us to set aside those places where God has made his presence known to his people: the holy mountain, the upper room, the tent in the wilderness, and the temple in the Holy City. While none of these places can contain the Deity, they offer witness to His benevolence and to His presence with us.

From the earliest days of Christianity, believers set aside places for corporate worship and private prayer. We see poignant examples of this at Dura-Europos and in the decoration of the catacombs. With the edict of Milan, Constantine’s architects were faced with the challenge of creating large sacred buildings in Rome, the Holy Land, and Byzantium. Their solution was to create holy places through a processional architecture of colonnaded naves and apsed sanctuaries, with rood screens and baldacchinos. All later innovations (up until the mid-20th century) can be seen as in continuity with these archetypal embodiments of the sacred.

But is not a church building by definition “sacred,” in spite of its architecture and iconography? Is it not the dedication of the church, the altar stone, the places for the sacraments, the holy icons, and the faithful who worship there that make a building sacred? Without these aspects, Chartres cathedral and St. Peter’s basilica are merely genius works of architecture and not sacred places. So, at one level, the meanest shelter can be a sacred building by virtue of the sacred liturgy and the holy Eucharist held within. But on another level, the architecture of beautiful churches, whether Sainte-Chapelle in Paris or St. Vincent Ferrer in New York, embodies the sense of the sacred so completely that it is possible to speak of it as a “sacred architecture.” And so we witness the great effect of Chartres and St. Peter’s on believers and unbelievers alike, due in part to their soaring spaces, durable construction, exquisite iconography, and representation as the house of God within the landscape.

The Church As a Sacramental Building

How can the architecture of a church reinforce or express the sacredness brought to it by the dedication, the liturgies, the sacraments, and the people of God who worship there? Through the architectural composition and individual motifs, a church building should highlight the place of the liturgical elements and the sacraments. By placing icons within aedicules, testers over the Blessed Sacrament, and baldacchinos over the altar, the architecture focuses our attention on the sacred elements. Employing fine materials, increased ornamentation, and archetypal forms at liturgical and sacramental places invites the visitor to draw near and receive God’s grace offered in the sacraments. Giving honor to the sacraments through the placement and design of the baptistry, confessional, ambry, tabernacle, altar, and altar rail further articulates the nature of the church as a sacramental house.

Though not a sacrament itself, the architecture of the temple refers to the sacraments, most especially to the Blessed Sacrament, and for this reason it can be considered a “sacramental architecture.” Just as a sacrament is a visible expression of an invisible reality, so a sacramental architecture portrays through bricks and mortar the mystery of salvation. Thus the architecture of the exterior of the church should remind us of Holy Communion, or baptism, or of marriage. But how?


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