A Church of Color

Case Romane. c.180 AD. Rome, Italy. Wall frescoes with the depiction of Pietas.
Detail of Abbot Suger. Saint-Denis chevettte. c.1140. Paris, France.

From what we can tell color entered the liturgical life of Christians via situations such as the Catacombs of Saint Callixstus and the house church of Dura-Europas. Before the advent of this specifically Christian art, there are no clear sources identifying if and how Christians used color in worship, outside of some signet rings and the remnants of ancient textiles, which don’t tell us much. What we do see, at least through the lens of early Christian material culture, is that Christians seemed not to have been chromophobic. Indeed, early Christian texts abound with references to visual worlds and the symbolic role that color played in them; one thinks of the jeweled foundations of the New Jerusalem from John’s Apocalypse, the blinding light of Paul’s conversion experience, or the ‘glory’ of the Lord, typically imaged as azure expanses and flashes of golden lightening. This polychromatic glory is hinted at in Eusebius’ panegyric for the dedication of the cathedral-basilica at Tyre during which he extols the nature of the light and the inlaid marbles adorning the building.  His description is good evidence that when Christians began building their use of color was very Roman – a population that had imitated luxurious color-saturated stone and tapestry in stucco during the Republic and then began importing colored stone from North Africa during the Empire.

The Christian interest in color and its use in worship was not simply decorative, it was also highly speculative and scientific. Saint Isidore of Seville (Etymologiarum sive originum, libri XX ) and the Venerable Bede (De natura rerum) carried forward the ancient notion that color is the human apprehension of light, which itself is divine, and therefore the most real element of the created order. They suggested, as well, symbolic functions of color based upon a color’s correlating material substance: For example, white is the color of life and nourishment as the blood left over in the womb is transformed into breast milk and nourishes the suckling child. This riot of color and meaning was the norm of the Church’s liturgical life and in the Medieval era found its greatest proponent in Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, whose fascination with color and light brought him to expend great wealth on sacred vessels and vestments, popularize stained glass, and change his bedspreads according to the feast day. There are of course the subsequent Cistercian and Reformation trends toward monochromaticism, but they are historic outliers.

Renovation. Chiesa di San Paolo. 2018. Campli (AB), Italy.
Interior pages. Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978).

Christianity, and its worship, has by and large been about color. Yet, I state this, only now to suggest that since the 1900’s our worship has progressively betrayed its workmate color. Multiple factors have contributed to the diminished role of color in the liturgical environment, but none probably more so than changes in architectural materials and theory of the 20th century. The Bauhaus, International, and Brutalist architectural preference for “pure materiality” quickly led to the scuttling of color (Mark C. Taylor. Disfiguring: Art, Achitecture, Religions. 1992). In the mind of many 20th century architects, the addition of color signified the “false” application of decoration. This is to say, the new mass produced materials of cement, glass, steal, and laminated wood which were coming to define buildings had no color so to speak. Should one want to be “honest” in the use of materials, color was out. Color per se, was art, yet art, too, was something other than architecture, with its restrictive vocabulary of volume and mass. If one traces the effects of these ideas even in a cursory manner through journals such as L’arte sacré or Liturgical Arts the trend is clear and decisive: architectural reduction and chromatic diminishment. At least in American context, by the last issue of Liturgical Arts (1972) all of the buildings shown already evidenced a palate of stained wood, beige plaster, and brown brick. Following on, for whatever good they brought, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978) (primarily written by Bob Hovda), and Richard Giles’ Repitching the Tent (1996), were particularly destructive in this regard, repeating architectural catch phrases as “truth”, “materials”, “appropriate”, “simple”, and setting decades long agendas in favor of neutral color palettes. Indeed, Environment and Art’s black and white photographs depicting the work of Frank Kacmarcik OblSB held incredible aesthetic sway in both renovations and new builds throughout North America. 

Manipulated “photograph” of Santa Maria della Salute. 2018. Venice, Italy.

It seems to me that the Church in both Europe and North America now finds itself in and overarching context of chromatic schizophrenia. Our media saturated culture is driven by color and effect. For the first time in Western cinematography, Tom Ford used color saturation in his film adaptation of A Single Man (2009) to describe the emotional state of the characters (“Falling In Color: Chromophilia and Tom Ford’s A Single Man”, The Moving Image 15.1 (2015):62-84). Our cell phones come pre-loaded with ‘filters’ – rich tone, vignette, grey-scale, sepia, vintage, polaroid, flare, faded, tint, spring, summer, winter – all of which we judiciously employ to portray our idealized chromatic world before foisting the pretense on Facebook.

Funerary chapel. Ettore Spalletti and Patrizia Leonelli. 2017. Città Sant’Angelo, Pescara, Italy.

We regularly visually graze upon hopped-up images whose coloration corresponds to no natural stimuli our eyes have ever taken in – but we take comfort in the images nonetheless because we want to believe in a world that can push the bounds of believability in just such a way towards beauty – A world of pungent pinks, and seditious blues. And then there is the Church, regularly draping itself in black and white and beige, exhibiting the worst characteristics of chromophobia, antithetical to its very heritage.

Glenstal Abbey Church. Renovation 1982/2015. Co. Limerick, Ireland.

We need to begin to dream of a Church in color once again. We have too long ignored fundamental aspects of our churches: The interior color of the building, flattened towards minimal white or cement grey, once novelties, now appear as bad attempts at fashion. 

Gethsemane Lutheran Church. MacKenzie Cotters, Olson Kundig Architects. 2012. Seattle, Washington.

Buildings often lack the essential elements of color, light, and material that can communicate the faith to modernity. 

 

We know today that light is a material, a body, and its colored presence has the potential to filter the volumes of space and act as a clear and vibrant skin that envelops the building. 

Chiesa Rossa. Light installation by Dan Flavin, 1996. Milan, Italy.

The goal then is not to decorate, but to invest sacred places with the significance of color that points to both what it means to be inspired by the evocation of the numinous, and that of human creativity; When Sacrosanctum Concillium Chapter 7 speaks of the arts as invoking something of the infinite beauty of God, it seems to me that this is precisely that something and some way.

A judicious pastoral eye should be telling us our chromophobic churches are prophets gone mute in a hyper-colorized world.

Church of the Transfiguration. The Community of Jesus. 2000-2018. Orleans, MA.
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2 comments

  1. Thank you for including the image of the basilican church of the Community of Jesus on Cape Cod. Here’s an image of the floor design that unites font, nave and sanctuary:

    https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/12/bf/5f/1d/church-of-the-transfiguration.jpg

    In my years of listening and reading of discussions in favor of design simplicity, the Cistercians are often invoked. Sloppily. The forms were distilled, but not merely simple and plain. They were aurally rich, too. If folks want to invoke the example of the medieval Cistercians as a living authority on design for our time they should first consider examples like, say, the abbey church of the Alcobaça Monastery in Portugal (just to choose an example outside France/England/Germany that readers may be less familiar with), with a fully sung conventual liturgy.

    https://nelsoncarvalheiro.com//wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Emanuele-Siracusa-Centro-de-Portugal-Alcoba%C3%A7a-15.jpg

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