by Alan Reed, OSB
The history of how human-kind visually imagines the holy is pretty much the history of art in all cultures. Believers have chosen images and symbols from their experience to “put a face on” a higher being, to express their relationships to what is not available to the five senses. The need to express the holy has resulted in images ranging from rough, scratched symbols in the Roman catacombs to Michelangelo’s monumental attempt to depict all of salvation history on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Likewise, the spaces that human-kind deemed special or holy have been re-formed or rearranged to mark them as sacred. In the Old Testament, for example, an altar is constructed by piling rocks (see Genesis 12:6-8; 28:10- 22; 33:18-20). As engineering and creativity progressed, those piles of rocks became ever more organized and sophisticated. With its magnificent sculpture, stained glass, and buttressing, Chartres Cathedral is a remarkable pile of rocks!
The attempt to portray the ineffable visually continues throughout human development, from periods employing abstracted symbols to periods of human-like representation. This pendulum swings back and forth constantly, from the abstract image of the holy to the depiction of the divine in our own image (see Genesis 1:26- 27). (Alas, throughout history humans have created gods in our image and likeness!) In every instance of humankind’s expression of the holy, our God-given imagination is the tool for discovery. The construction of Saint John’s Abbey and University Church was an attempt to find another visual language to describe our relationship to the holy.
One of the most remarkable things about our church is that it happened at all. How did a monastery in the mid-twentieth century end up hiring Mr. Marcel Breuer, a young architect whose education had been at the short-lived Bauhaus school of art, an experimental school based on modernist theories of art and on a communal model for education? Why did a Roman Catholic institution choose a religiously unidentified architect to build the most important spiritual space for a monastic community?
With the help of several advisors, a letter penned by Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, O.S.B., explained to the invited architects: “The Benedictine tradition at its best challenges us to think boldly and to cast our ideas in forms which will be valid for centuries to come, shaping them with all the genius of present-day materials and techniques.” The relationship between 1500-year-old Benedictine monasticism and a thirty-year-old conception of architecture seems, at first, to be at opposite ends of some scale. Monasticism is about tradition, stability, lessening our attachment to things here in favor of things to come. The Bauhaus was about abandoning tradition in favor of an experimental approach to the study of visual elements. Yet, both institutions were linked by an understanding of the necessity of community for the benefit of the members and those they served. Both institutions appreciated a simple honest approach to their objectives; in one, about the relationship between the members (humility), and in the other, about the relationship of materials to needs. Both appreciated the use of material things.
In Saint Benedict’s Rule the monk is advised to treat everything with the reverence that is shown to sacred vessels (RB 31.10). The Bauhaus attempted to take the desire for excellent and beautiful design and find ways to make it available to more than the wealthy. Benedict calls the monastery “a school for the service of the Lord” (RB Prol.45). The Bauhaus demanded an almost “monastic” discipline of cooperation in achieving the artistic integration that it sought.
Planning of the abbey and university church began in 1953; after three years of construction, it was dedicated and consecrated in 1961. For fifty-four years our church has exerted its spirit and influence on hundreds of monks and thousands of visitors. In seeking new ways to express the holy, the architect and monastic community chose neither abstract symbols nor human representation to aid in our imagining. The church challenged and changed our consciousness of what kinds of images and sensations enhance our perception of the presence of God.
Instead of overt images of sentimental expression (in favor at the time), the abbey church helps us to see that light, shadow, volume and space, and the relationship of honest materials to each other are often a more intense expression of a God and of a mystery we cannot define in human terms and images. Yet, light, space, shadow, reflection are the elements in the church that hint of the divine. The architectural feat of resting a mammoth, folded, concrete structure that combines walls and ceiling on a ribbon of glass reminds us of Christ’s explanation that even a little faith can move a mountain (see Matthew 17:20; Mark 11:23). It may also remind us of the tents in Scripture that indicate the presence of the holy (see Genesis 18:1; John 1:14). When the divinity of Jesus is revealed to Peter, James, and John, the awestruck Peter exclaims: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings [tents]” (Matthew 17:4).
The light from the lantern above the altar is another attempt to express the holy in the abbey church. Filtered through stained-glass windows by Mr. Josef Albers, light moves through the space reminding us of time and time’s passage through the seasons of the year. Along its paths through the space, it highlights patterns, reflects off surfaces, and changes the colors of our expectations; a deep red brick surface glows with natural orange light.
Yes, our arrangement of rocks in Collegeville is none other than the house of God (Genesis 28:17)! It too is an imperfect, incomplete image of the God who is beyond all telling and understanding.
Brother Alan Reed, O.S.B., is curator of art for Saint John’s Abbey and for the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.
Photos by the author.
Reprinted with permission from Abbey Banner, Winter 2015-16 (volume 15, number 3). © Copyright 2015 by Order of Saint Benedict.