How to ‘read’ a church through its art, architecture

There are churches, and then there are churches – and that’s when the theological and architectural boxing matches break out, usually without the benefit of gloves.

What is sacred, beautiful and heaven-sent in the eyes of some Catholics can be viewed as anachronistic by others. Then there are observers of some examples of modern church architecture who yearn for the days when “a church was a church.”

“Church architecture is one of those funny things that people will pretty easily come to blows over,” said Dr. Denis McNamara, director of The Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. “You would think, ‘Well, who really cares about the placement of a rail or the placement of a tabernacle? It’s just some X-Y coordinate on the graph paper plan of a church.

“But what you learn quite quickly is the X-Y coordinate on the graph paper plan of a church says a lot about what you think about the reserved Blessed Sacrament. If you place it in the center of the sanctuary, you’re making a theological statement about the place of the Blessed Sacrament. If you put it in the back, hidden behind a column, you’re saying something else as well.”

Will discuss cathedral
McNamara, who holds a master’s degree and doctorate in architectural history from the University of Virginia, spoke recently to the New Evangelization Society and offered advice on how to “read” a church through its architecture and artwork. He will return to New Orleans in the near future to present his examination of St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously active cathedral in the United States.

Working with Todd Amick, director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Eucharistic Renewal, McNamara hopes the second session will train Catholics who would be willing to serve as tour guides and evangelizers – called the New Evangelization Witness Teams – for the thousands of tourists who flock to the cathedral each year.

“This is a great opportunity for evangelization,” Amick said.

This was McNamara’s first visit to New Orleans, and what struck him immediately is “the immense age of the cathedral, by American standards.”

Old by American standards
“Even though it has been rebuilt several times, the number ‘17’ is the beginning of the date instead of ‘18,’ as in most American churches,” McNamara said. “This is an old place, and it’s beautiful. One of the things New Orleans shows you is that it was a city designed by Christians. The cathedral is the front door to the city, as seen from the river and in its central location and from the fact that it’s bigger than all the buildings around it.”

As for what a church is “supposed to be,” McNamara said it should provide “an image of the world restored, and heaven and earth reunited in the person of Christ.”

That is a daunting task, McNamara said, both for Catholics who are building new churches and for architects who are trying to design them.

“How on Earth can architecture show you the end times – when the Book of Revelation talks about the new heaven and the new Earth, the bride, who is the Church, coming together in union with the groom?” McNamara said. “What does the banquet hall of the eternal wedding feast look like? That’s a lot to ask, because if you ask an architect if he ever read the Book of Revelation, he would say, ‘What’s that?’”

McNamara said there is “absolutely” a place for modern church architecture “as long as it is theological, scriptural and sacramental first.”

Asked about the argument that too much money is being spent and has been spent in the past on building exquisite churches – at the expense of the church’s mission to the poor – McNamara said a beautiful church also serves to feed a poor person’s soul.

“There are very few places where a billionaire can sit next to a homeless person and say, ‘Peace be with you,’” McNamara said. “The church is one of those places. Beauty is the antidote to despair.”

Garden imagery abounds
Many churches are adorned with images of flowers, palm trees, vines and birds, art that symbolizes the Garden of Eden, the fall and then paradise, the new Jerusalem, McNamara said.

“We’re talking about the restoration of the world,” McNamara said. “So when we talk about a church building, it is reaching into the heavenly future, pulling it backward, and reaching into the past, the Old Testament, and pulling it forward.”

In St. Louis Cathedral in St. Louis, Christ is depicted on a wall of gold with heavenly beings.

“Why have a gold background? Why not just have him sitting in your local park?” McNamara asked. “Because he’s in heaven, and there’s no place on earth that has a gold background. It is outside of space and time.”

Brandon Briscoe, who regularly offers St. Louis Cathedral tours to school groups and others, said he was excited to meet McNamara because of his eye for detail and his ability to “decipher meaning out of subtle changes.”

When Briscoe meets out-of-towners, they often remark how beautiful the cathedral is.

“The architecture and the layout of the city speak a lot about the city’s culture,” Briscoe said. “It’s important that the Catholic cathedral was put smack in the center of old New Orleans and to this days remains symbolic of our city and culture.”

Tours will help evangelize
Briscoe believes the evangelization teams will put their advanced knowledge of the cathedral to good use, especially during times when there are a lot of tourists in town.

“We want to use the fact that the cathedral is a tourist stop to help evangelize people,” Briscoe said. “That’s consistent with what the priests who have heard confessions in the cathedral have said. They hear the most beautiful confessions from people who stop in, unprepared for a spiritual encounter, and end up seeing a line for confession and think of something they’ve done on their trip to New Orleans.

“Then they say, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 25 years since my last confession.’ It may not be that everyone has a deep conversion like that, but the fact that people are stopping in to see the cathedral creates an opportunity for evangelization.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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