The Austin “Church” by Ellsworth Kelly

by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

There has always been an interplay between secular and religious art. Throughout history the Catholic Church has been curator of some of the most significant works of art and architecture. Catholic art has influenced secular art and vice-versa, indeed it might be possible to ask if there can be a strict demarcation between the two forms of art.

Recently an important “church” has been built at the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of at The University of Texas at Austin. This church designed by the artist Ellsworth Kelly. For ease of discussion I will call it church throughout this post, which is how it is being commonly described in the media.

Kelly’s particular artistic style involved simplifying sculpture and painting down to the bare minimum so that the basic elements of form and color would be the heart of the art. As a young man, he had served in Europe during World War II. He was part of the so-called ghost army which built fake military targets to confuse the German army. After the War he returned to France for a few years where he came into contact with medieval Christian art, that helped form his ideas and contributed towards the foundation upon which to build his particular style. While he appreciated Catholicism’s contribution to the field of art, Kelly was an atheist and not particularly enamored by other aspects of the Catholic religion.

Kelly originally designed the church in 1986, at the request of the TV producer Douglas S. Cramer (who had produced shows such as The Love Boat and Dynasty). Cramer wanted to Kelly to design a building that would be built in his vineyard in California. But it was never built, particularly because Kelly realized that it was an important work, and he wanted it built on land where it would be always open to the public and would never be sold. Over the years, multiple attempts to build it did not come to fruition (including a proposal by Washington D.C.’s Catholic University to build it on their campus, but, as they wanted to consecrate the finished church, Kelly turned their offer down).

Finally Simone Wich, the Director of the Blanton Museum of Art, heard about the unbuilt project and contacted Kelly about the possibility of building it on their campus. Kelly enthusiastically accepted the idea and put a lot of energy into the project in the last phase of his life. In January 2015 he gifted the design concept to the Blanton and gave it the name “Austin,” in honor of its location. Not only is this is the only building Kelly ever designed, it was also his last project as he died in December 2015 at the age of 92. The finished church was recently opened, the Blanton had spent $23-million building it.

He designed a church that has been influenced by Romanesque and Cistercian architecture. His stripped down version appears to be a double-barrel-vaulted church. The completed building has an area of 2,715-square-feet. It’s exterior walls are cladded in limestone panels, the floor (ad outside plaza) is of black granite. The door is from repurposed oak.

In keeping with Kelly’s style the church is starkly simple. Perhaps the most striking feature of the church’s design are the stained glass windows. There are 33 individual windows, each of a single bold colour (without any representational figures), handmade by the famous German stained glass studio of Franz Mayer They are arranged into three groups: as a color grid on one wall, a ring of tumbling square windows on another and as a starburst on a third wall. The tumbling squares are inspired by the north transept rose window at Chartres Cathedral, while the starburst is probably influenced by the form of the Catholic medieval monstrances that is a motif that figures in other parts of Kelly’s corpus. The effect of the light is the main characteristic of the interior of the building.

The inside of the building is decorated by an abstract non-religious and non-figurative set of “Stations of the Cross.” These are fourteen black and white marble panels, designed by Kelly. Another of his sculptures, an 18 foot tall redwood totem figure is in the place that is normally occupied by an altar in a church.

In presenting this project to the readers of Pray Tell, I think that we should ask ourselves what we can learn from this. Over the last week there has been a multitude of articles on the Catholic blogosphere on the New York Metropolitan Museum’s gala on the theme of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Some of these have been positive, some negative. However the nexus between Catholic tradition and liturgy with modern culture and art is an important area. Kelly’s Austin is another similar example and I think we should ask ourselves what we can learn from this non-Christian church building for our own church buildings. How can we take both old and new treasures from our storehouse of Catholic tradition in our contemporary churches?

I am afraid that I have not personally had a chance to visit the chapel. The photographs included with this post are publicly available for reuse on Twitter. There are many articles in various newspapers that can be consulted for more details and better pictures. For those who can access content behind the New York Times paywall, I particularly recommend their photographs and video of the church. For those who want more details on the physical construction of the church, a full fact sheet on the church is available here.

Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. He currently ministers in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland, where he serves as vice rector at Redemptoris Mater Seminary. He has studied at Seton Hall University, the University of Notre Dame, and St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctorate in Theology from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.




  1. My sense of it is more as an interactive art object, and in that light it might help others to understand where it is situated in a satellite map view (street-level views from nearby are too old to include the completed building):

    The limestone was a good choice, and for any work depending on natural sunlight as its principal copartners, viewers should consider that the solar path/angle over the course of the year is determined by latitude that will act as an inevitable limiting factor (for example, while avoiding the dimness of far northern temperate latitudes in the darkest 3 months of the year, by the same token a gentler sun angle is not in play in the brightest time of year) – a detail that may seem not worth noticing but was necessarily a co-factor in how architecture and art like stained glass windows* evolved across medieval western Christendom and is worth noting in a building as elemental as this one. It would be a different building as an art object in, say, Saskatoon (though sunlight reflected from snow on the ground would be welcome on short sunny days) or (foggier) St John’s, Newfoundland.

    The acoustical properties of the space would of course be interesting to assess. Bach’s Goldberg Variations might be a suitable opener on that score, though the building might not be best-matched in that comparison.

    * The painting of medieval stained glass to figure and shade it could also, secondarily, function to manage what could otherwise be glare. (For modern slab glass aka dalle de verre that is not painted, some modulation of glare is achieved by the chipping and faceting of the glass.)

  2. We hear just before we join in singing the Sanctus that we join with all the choirs of heaven. We acknowledge the communion of saints when we pray the Apostles’ Creed. And yet all too often we hear, sing and say these things in a building which looks like the iconoclasts won at Nicaea II. In its way, this building is best as a museum. While it may recall forms, it is otherwise deracinated from Christianity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *