The Spiritual Imagination: Why what we do with our buildings matters. And what to do about it.

Chartres Cathedral, France. Interior view of apse after restoration. 2017.

If you have ever visited Chartres cathedral just outside of Paris you are not likely to recognize it any longer. The interior of the cathedral has undergone a contentious 18.5 million euro project the past decade that the Monuments Historiques division of the Ministère de la Culture called a “restoration”.  The architectural historian Martin Filler has denounced it as a scandalous  “unfolding cultural disaster”. The first phase of the project was officially completed this past September. The cavernous gloom in which the medieval Chartres-blue windows gave off their cosmic glow has now been replaced by a searing bright cream colored interior. Over a decade ago the scientific team of the Monuments Historiques discovered fragments of two 14th century paint schemes. Frédéric Didier, the lead restorationist, then proceeded to create an artistic pastiche to serve as the basis of the campaign bringing together the two medieval colour schemes and Baroque additions made in the apse.

Chartres Cathedral, France. View of crossing after restoration. 2017.

What has occurred is by definition not a restoration but a redecorating of the cathedral. In violation of the 1969 conservation protocols of the Charter of Venice the project is not simply a cleaning, nor is it reversible; Monuments Historiques scraped down to the original layer of medieval plaster, obliterating all layers of history and newly plastered and painted over the stone. The side aisles and transepts have been left encrusted in the familiar aged darkness, by some accounts the result of the outcry of visitors who began calling Didier’s interventions “arrogant” and “kitsch” (though the restoration is to begin again in 2019). Didier’s most heavy-handed work, including Chartres and the Abbey of Paray-le-Monial, which too was repainted, is quite in keeping with the history of French preservation theory. Like Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century who would simply demolish and modify medieval buildings as he saw fit, the approach of Monuments Historique to is not to preserve any particular architectural element, but to reveal the monument’s true ‘spirit’.

Chartres Cathedral, France. Detailed view of nave after restoration. 2017.

Indeed, the strongest debates surrounding Chartres have not been regarding the methods employed, but what historical characteristics define Gothic and cultural artifacts themselves. What layers of time are valuable, what layers are to be saved? In this debate innumerable reactions, both scholarly and popular, have defined medieval architecture by dim voluminous interiors of stone which the light of jewel-like stained glass relieves. And even if one objectively recognizes the whole of medieval cathedrals were once polychrome monsters, Chartres’ specific character in the popular imagination has been a Sugerian spectacle of bright-darkness.



Owen Barfield (1898-1997)

To this end perhaps the contemporary Chartres debate is more profound and in it something quite dangerous is being revealed and played with. The unease, I think, the project has elicited is not simply about restoration technique. Rather it reveals the meddling about with what is left of the spiritual imagination in the West. Chartres of all places in Western culture has been thought of as ‘spiritual’ by scholar, tourist, believer, seeker, and non-believer alike. No New Ageyness is meant here. Rather Chartres, and buildings like it, lay bare the fact that there is a precise correlation between place and the felt-experience of the divine as an anthropological reality. Explaining this the British philosopher Owen Barfield (1898-1997) argued for the unity of the material realm and that of mental activity. He suggested, unlike Kant, that what we think of the world is indeed expressive of what the world is, and not simply subjective abstractions of sense experience. For Barfield, human consciousness is the stage upon which thought concept and sensual observation meet and become linked to one another. In saying this he provides a fundamental anthropology of the senses and human thinking. What we feel is the real object of knowing. Importantly, Barfield explored the spiritual ramifications of human consciousness. The self-reflective act of thinking at one and the same time unifies experience and thought but points to reality beyond mere thought. His idea is something akin to Rahner’s Vorgriff – the idea that the spiritual nature of the human is defined by our thinking towards a horizon of possibility that passes to the infinite (Hearer of the Word, 1967). By this measure seeds of the divine in the world are matched to and recognized by our inner experience of the conceptual and volitional boundary of the real-known and the anticipated-unknown. It makes a lot of sense, therefore, to speak of spiritual imagination, as our spirit’s work according to Barfield is to think beyond – to imagine the encounter with the divine as based in real experience but always insufficiently fulfilled. It is precisely the role of the spirit to imagine, to abstract from experience and thought, what communication with the divine is like.

George MacDonald (1824-1905)

Because of the connection between the human spirit and imagination – that part of us most attune to the Vorgriff – other writers have noted the inherently artistic nature of believing. The 19th century Christian aesthetic movement, based in great part upon the thought of the Scottish Congregationalist presbyter George MacDonald (1824-1905), held that the most effective modes of believing are aesthetic. Hymns, poetry, and especially fantasy writing are inherently spiritual realities since they reach towards the unknown. Aesthetic inclinations, MacDonald taught, render the “deepest convictions” as they unite both sense-experience and the imaginative action of the human spirit in which God is presented as believable before human consciousness. Similar ideas were reflected in the architectural theory of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852). In short, the work of these scholars and artists suggest that the religious experience of God is a concrete manifestation made present through the spiritual imagination.

Saint Patrick’s Church. Decatur, Illinois. Christmas, c. 1965.

The problem with the Chartres intervention, therefore, is not one simply of historical debate but of the religious imagination. If our sensorial experience is truly spiritual experience then the former is the most dangerous of places to intervene. What in fact ensues when familiar surroundings are modified or destroyed is a type of spiritual violence. As at Chartres, the stimuli that give rise to and embody religious experience are tampered with the faith-identity of the space is rendered unintelligible as the human spirit is cut loose from the recognition of what it once held as observably divinity-provoking. Numerous studies of this dynamic exist in Reformation histories—the ritualized violence of iconoclasm. But I have come to accept the fact that the dynamic has also taken place in our churches more recently. Notorious stories exist from my own family church passionately recounted to me by my grandmother as a youth;

Saint Patrick’s Church. Decatur, Illinois. C. 1970.

In the early 60’s the larger-than-life Msgr. Powell whitewashed the altars and painted the interior of the Victorian English Gothic church yellow and beige—wholesale. Shortly after the Second Vatican Council a comment by my grandmother regarding this ‘unfortunate’ incident to the new Fr. O’Shea was met with the retort “you haven’t seen noth’n yet.” Everything in the church except the stained glass was removed and auctioned off. The altars were literally cut down. The communion railing became someone’s porch railing which my grandmother passed every Sunday in the car. Statues of the Sacred Heart and Little Flower were placed in the rectory yard where the elements slowly decapitated and dismembered the plaster bodies for all to see. There was a palpable sorrow and offense in her voice when she told these stories—I am convinced her spiritual imagination had suffered untold indignities.

Gethsemane Abbey church. Trappist, KY. Schickel Design, Peacock Garn & Partners. 1965.

None of this is to be laid at the feet of the Council. One only need read Chapter 8 of Sacrosanctum Concillium to see it proffered no such destructive program. Rather, the trend in church ‘decoration’ followed the greater arc of art and architectural theory. Looking through the journal Liturgical Arts the evidence is clear; A decisive reductive move in church art and architecture runs throughout the 20th century. The same trend that came to eviscerate churches, first eviscerated public buildings and neighborhoods. The City Beautiful movement was replaced with asphalt progress. These places were deeply imprinted in our spiritual imaginations and served the irreplaceable measurement of all other places. Yet the radical change in these environments undermined the very structures that nurtured community

Gethsemani Abbey church. Trappist, KY. Pre-1962.

and encouraged informal relationships that sustained us. The car destroyed the walkable town just as much as carpeting aided in domesticating the sacred in churches.  But I am no anti-modernist. In fact I love the best of Modernist and contemporary church architecture. But I am for protecting the ever-too-frail religious imagination at all costs. Too many churches were, and are, stripped to their brick cores in search of a feigned architectural ‘truth’. The abbey church of Gethsemani was denounced as a Gothic ‘fake’ and its vernacular brick-work extolled, all the while the authentic brick-work was modified into fake Brutalism!

Understanding religious imagination and how it operates warns us that random tampering with our physical surrounds is a fraught endeavor.

City Methodist Church. Gary, Indiana. Abandoned 1980.

Too often today we are left to discern in both our natural and built environment the partially decayed remains of what was in our memory luminous and alive. Only the shadowy outlines of our memory are confirmed in a church building, a neighborhood—and our believing is left in doubt. Often times the spiritual imagination has lost its moorings in the physical environment. Our memories of divine encounter still exist but their confirmation is obscured by the destruction of physical referents of modified and destroyed places of worship. Belief is sundered from what anchored, confirmed, and symbolized it. Change certainly occurred in the past but at a slower pace that made adaption possible. Hence it was less bewildering, confusing, and disorienting. Today our spiritual imagination is in peril, the price of our speed, our hunger for unreflective change, and the belief that everything is disposable. The loss of the physical referents that once gave rise to religious experience, as at Chartres, leads to a process that the historian Robert Archibald has called an ‘un-remembering’. In this process the places and the belief that such places once sustained are obscured, as if immersed in impenetrable and unhealthy fog (A Place to Remember, 1999).

Third Church of Christ Scientist. Washington, D.C. I. M. Pei & Partners. Demolished 2014.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not necessarily concerned about the style of a building, or the year it was built. I am deeply interested in how we understand a building’s impact upon, and our role in sustaining, the spiritual imagination. The churches we build can never be static, but change must not overwhelm their identity. If we allow that, we imperil the bonds of our faith life, impoverish relationships with people and places, and endanger the religious institutions and the very foundations of this civilization. Yes, we can and should adapt to renewed liturgies, but we are short-sighted to destroy, abandon, or unadvisedly modify historic buildings: Common faith, civic life, neighborhood, and familial life all depend upon shared places that are repositories of common memories and shared experiences—and every change makes this all the less likely.

Today we know that the built environment is a symbolic memory device and stimulates our spiritual imagination. The communities of faith we strive to create and sustain are founded upon shared remembrance and grounded in place, especially churches that are conducive to the spiritual imagination. Hence, we must not only be attentive to the aesthetic impact of our art and architecture, but attentive to our care of places of believing, preserving the historic and imagining the new. We are called to be active conservators of the places, artifacts, and stories of our faith, as real markers of encounters with the divine that both depend upon and propel our spiritual imagination. What can we do to engage the religious imagination better?

  1. Open your church beyond Sunday. The obvious beginning point is that people cannot engage our buildings if they are forever closed. If insurance concerns require that buildings are locked an open invitation to entry and the means of easily doing so should be clearly posted.
  2. Treat your church like a museum. Like museums, churches are often full of old and new interesting things—play them up. Don’t present the building and its objects as a distraction or something to be ignored. People go to museums to see the past preserved, to learn, to contemplate and relax. A church can do the same.
  3. Regularly commission art. Our churches are histories in progress and their aesthetic character matters. They are not one-off creations. A visit to many of the churches of Europe highlight this fact. Churches that engage spiritual imagining are a must so commission a qualified composer, a talented artist and do something beautiful for God and the community. Create murals and mosaics and vestments. Work with the art departments of your local colleges and universities inviting young artists to provide temporary installations that reflect upon the spiritual.
  4. Don’t cast off tradition. Church buildings come in all types but an essential element of their character is accumulated age. A church interior violently updated to look like every other space we come across in daily life will do little to engage the imagination. Tradition is that character of memory that marks a place as meaningful. Our buildings are not things to be adjusted in as much as they are the artifacts of our fore-bearers religious experience. Buildings are witnesses to us.
  5. Learn the stories. The religious imagination sores when we know the stories that our churches can tell. When we concentrate on our buildings the very act of that attention leads into understanding the people and faith behind the building. Only when we know the stories of faith that are represented in the building do we actually come to know a history of faith in which we participate. We should know the stories of our buildings and readily share them. How many people have been baptized in this font? Who are these Christians? Do we even know?
  6. Develop spirituality programs that use your building. The truth is some buildings have more to say than others, hence point 3 and 5. Develop catechesis and prayer events that use the art and stories of your building. Look for qualities of the building to exploit visually and emotionally. Who is the saint in the window, what is the mood of the building? Help others discover how to connect to God through the spiritual imagination.
  7. Renovate, update, and build with compassion and understanding. No work should ever be started without a professional study of community identity or a building’s history. This is less of a problem in Europe where Ministries of Culture often control church buildings and natural sites and have bodies of law meant to protect cultural heritage. It is a major problem in the United States where churches are regularly gutted, abandoned, and bulldozed. Our buildings are artifacts of faith and shape us into the persons we are. Knowing our buildings specifically will preserve our heritage and help enlighten our interventions.
  8. If your building does not inspire – build a spire. Not every building is Chartres, but every church should strive to be. If a church is not aesthetically engaging or does not immediately provoke stories it probably has little capacity to engage the spiritual imagination. A big problem. Working towards a building that embodies a sense of transcendence is a good goal.

The house is not for me – it is for Him,
His royal thoughts require many a stair,
Many a tower, many an outlook fair
Of which I have no thought.
– George MacDonald


  1. For the assistance of readers: here’s a link to a 360-degree panorama (which you can scroll around via cursor/mouse) of the interior of Chartres Cathedral taken in the summer of 2016 (there are remarkably few posted to Google Maps for Chartres Cathedral):

  2. I recall once having a conversation with the wife of the deacon at my old church (I should note that the two were very anti-traditional liturgically). When the conversation turned towards pretty churches, she remembered with great sadness when the side altars were ripped out in the 1970s. The priest did it “in secret” during the week without consulting the congregation, so they came to church the next Sunday to find them gone. When the shocked laity questioned where the altars were, the priest refused to tell them. When asked why they were taken out, he said he was simply following the decrees of Vatican II. It’s a weirdly common experience.

    From an architectural preservation standpoint, the liturgical renewal couldn’t have come at a worse time. The architectural establishment of the 60s and 70s still regarded most 19th Century buildings as being garbage: inauthetic, gaudy, dark, etc. This meant that a lot of American churches were extensively remodeled at a time when designers would be least sympathetic.

    1. Thanks for your observations Jack. The rather non-consensual ‘stripping of the American altars’ does seem to have been a common experience in many parishes. I wonder what the outcome would have been if more lay ‘power’ would have been in place? In my own research many interventions were happening in parishes already in the 50s as both re-decorating schemes and liturgical updates.

      What I am very intrigued about is the common belief that such modifications were later construed as “simply following the decrees of Vatican II.” Somehow the regulation of number of images and instruction for one altar in ‘newly built’ churches was circumspectly applied by American (anglophone?) clergy. No such gutting occurred in Europe, more or less. My suspicion is that this was seen as a possible problem at the time of SC that came true. The instruction to train clergy in art history in SC8 was specifically so clergy would know what they were doing artistically. Shortly after SC another instruction was sent out by the Congregation for Clergy calling for caution about the dispossesion of church patrimony. Eventually this and subsequent instructions fell under the competence of the Congregation for Culture, but mostly only the Italians have interest in them. They are relatively unkown and unfollowed in the US.

      My hunch is that the architectural critique that Neo-gothic was ‘fake’ was coupled with the new liturgical norms. And since no American was throwing out a Michelangelo but just purging the ‘fake’ little was thought about it.

      1. I recall quite clearly in 1974 serving the first Mass of a newly ordained priest who was born and grew in our parish. He “did up” the new portable altar and spoke glowingly of the day when the church would be renovated as VII decreed and the old high altar and altar rail would be gone. Well in 1975 we got a new pastor who raved on his first week at Mass about the beauty of the church and how he wouldn’t change a thing. Fast forward a couple of months and we came to church on a Sunday and lo, the rail was gone and the statues started their mournful procession from inside the sanctuary and into the nave, eventually to back of the church and finally out the door. All, we were told, because that’s what Vatican II said. Pray, pay, and obey. No more. When the Archdiocese slated to close the church last year in the Stewards for Tomorrow pastoral planning initiative, the People rose up. The church is still open, but as part of a new parish. Of the three churches combined in the new parish, it was the only one in the black, the only one that had more baptisms than funerals, and the only one that had an increase in the school of religious education and in weekly giving. And, it was the only one that is ethnic.

  3. Is Chartres still a “working church” today, or is it no longer used for daily/weekly worship by a living faith community?

  4. James Hadley – many thanks for this post, in particular your exploration of the link between imagination and spirituality, and its grounding in the sensory. It seems to me that this leads you to conclusions that are, quite literally, conservative: that we should have a bias toward conserving those things that have served our spiritual imaginations well.

    Andrew Greeley reached similar conclusions, coming at it from a somewhat similar angle: he wrote of the “sacramental imagination”. He rued the removal of statues, artwork, altar rails, etc. because these fed the Catholic imagination. And he extended it beyond questions of architecture and decor. I recall he thought it an imaginative impoverishment when two Chicago-area Catholic colleges founded by religious orders changed their names from St. Procopius College and Rosary College to Benedictine University and Dominican University respectively, because whereas saints and rosaries were artifacts of the Catholic galaxy that fed our Catholic imagination, he considered the terms “Benedictine” and “Dominican” to be merely descriptive without being imaginative channels to the divine.

    Perhaps this link between the sensory and the spiritual imagination is extensible to the aural, and helps explain the consternation that is felt when, for example, the English text of the mass is retranslated in such a way that it impedes one’s ability to enter into the worship. Or, as a variation on that same theme, when familiar Latin locutions are replaced wholesale by the vernacular.

    1. Thanks for your helpful comments Jim. I met Andrew some years ago when living in Chicago. I do think our ideas are similar. It can be a contentious proposal because it may give rise to the idea of a fixed ‘catholic culture’ rather than the church existing through a culture. I guess I am trying to point to the sub-structure of believing, spirituality and the arts. I do think in general religion is a conserving phenomenon. I am not ‘conservative’ however in the everyday sense of what ‘look’ or ‘objects’ enable the spiritual imagination. I would probably say that there is an aesthetic spectrum that can serve the spiritual imagination. For example, I’m always trying to get my students to see the commonality between Medieval Cistercian architecture and Brutalism or the International Style. Then compare this with Baroque! With nuances I would say that all this can serve the spiritual imagination.

    1. There are similarities. In an early draft I used the word ‘continuity’ but then removed it lest the conversation go elsewhere (Pace BXVI)! In this respect, in a parallel manner, I would say the creation of the IGRM was the manner of saying the roof timers are in good shape and original, though we’ve re-roofed.

  5. Great article James, though to expand on your observation that the iconoclastic wave was particularly dire in the U.S., probably the greatest unsung culprit of iconoclasm in the US is the 1974 draft instruction “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship,” that at least implied preference to the tacky minimalism you critique earlier. USCCB never voted on it, but far too many bishops, priests, and lay activists asserted it as law, using it as a justification to deface beautiful churches in the name of creating something edgy and “new,” that ironically was completely removed from the Vatican II docs as written. If you’re wondering why your old church now looks more like an assembly hall rather than a place of worship, it’s probably because of ECAW. USCCB finally voted on a more moderate instruction almost a quarter century later (Built of Living Stones), but as you note James, the damage has already been done, and countless laity suffered from this aesthetic confusion as a result.

    1. Thanks for the comments Patrick. Believe it or not, the E&A document was a major inspiration to me to become catholic. It was going to be my PhD dissertation before the USCCB basically made it impossible by not allowing research in the internal archives. But because the document had a long pre-history the origins are knowable through the FDLC archives, and Hovda’s reworking of the majority of the document for the NCCB.

      I have always thought the theology of the document is quite good. It also held back trying to overly define art and architecture leaving much to community, artist and architects – this I think was to be applauded. BLS is much less successful in that respect. Comparing E&A to other documents produced by other national Conferences one sees great similarities. As you, I have been intrigued therefore as to the practical differences in application to art and architecture – why in other countries different results for similar theology?

      My study suggests that in part it had to do with the inclusion in the early versions of E&A with basically only images of Frank Kacmarcik churches-which was at Hovda’s insistence (?). Hence, there was one aesthetic interpretation put on display nationally. Couple that with architectural and design trends of the time and the die is cast. Much is to be commended of Kacmarcik’s life work. I don’t think however that such a terse architectural vocabulary was well-suited to retrofit historical buildings. Later additions of E&A dealt with the photos differently. To help ‘correct’ the situation, I believe, a companion book and filmstrip were then produced as well (involving Jamie Lara) which included other photographic interpretations of E&A. This expansion seemed not to make the same impact as E&A.

      Other angles that I won’t go into here include a pretty overwhelming architectural-ecumenical consensus involving various architects, consultants, and groups (Richard Giles, Ed Slovik, NAAL, Liturgical Conference), as well as the monasticization of parish…

      1. One of the problems may be monastics trying to universalize a modern version of a monastic sensibility in a parochial setting. Glorious medieval Cistercian architecture gets ritually invoked for this purpose, but comparisons if anything create a higher standard than what one typically finds executed in practice (and it’s not just architectural – the monastic context comes with an entire communal mystical ethos and, in the case of the Cistercians in particular, a practical mission to improve marginal lands – and there’s the chanted conventual office and Mass…..)

        As I’ve commented before: because of the compromises of expense on materials and what appears to be strong preferential option displayed in designs for utility/HVAC conduits that distort so many things about an interior*, it’s difficult to pull off the kind of austere integrity and mystical focus of monastic models. But let me know when, say, something modern with the quality of a Fossanova or Maulbronn Abbey is coming to a parish near me.

        Also, it should not be forgotten that typical parishioners have not volunteered for monastic life.

      2. James, I’ve given E&A another read and I admit my views have softened a bit with regards to how it addresses aesthetics. There is clearly a vision of nobility in church architecture that when given a second look seems neither incredibly modernist nor traditionalist, which I can get behind. I wonder your thoughts as to whether those who used E&A as justification for stripping old churches had an accurate understanding of the document (one could say the same thing about Vatican II as a whole). Admittedly the bad taste I have in my mouth towards E&A has more to do with the way it treats liturgical form; how it humanistically glorifies the congregation relative to the sacraments, the wholesale literal sidelining of the tabernacle/Reserved Sacrament, and how it discourages permanent liturgical appointments (altars, pews, crucifix, etc.) among others. The problem that I see is that this was almost completely different from the way churches were built up until the 60s, and applying this form to pre-VII churches often required the almost complete rebuilding of church interiors, and often to less than ideal effect. I don’t mean to get off topic, but my reading of E&A left me with a lot of confusion, especially at it relates to SC and GIRM, and I imagine many pastors were too. Then again I’m not a liturgical scholar.

  6. Count me a skeptic on some of the worst criticisms here. Bishops and pastors after WWII set schools as first priorities, and when you’re paying off a debt with a parish full of working families with children, there’s not a lot of energy to commission art when a gymnasium will do while the athletic fields are being built and maintained.

    The roots of rootless buildings go back a century to plaster reproductions and fake finery. In one of my parishes, the founding pastor’s “imported Italian marble” altar was found to be 1/8″ veneer glued to cinder blocks. Um, that was 1945. The best stone in the place was reserved for the steps to the altar rail, which was itself more veneer.

    We likely each have our share of horror stories and inspiring projects from subjective experience. My preference is to look for the best of the best. And consider that as Americans we have not a few obstacles to overcome in creating inspiration that surrounds and supports our celebration of liturgy. I’ve had the privilege of working with many fine artists over the past few decades. I tend to trust people of faith, vision, and artistry.

    1. I’m not sure who’s criticism you mean? Gymnasium priorities would precisely be the wrong priorities in my mind. So a good example as to why attention to the religious imagination is important. I also agree that we should look for the best of the best. I set no stylistic agenda.

      Marble veneer is the way most Italian stone work is done. Hardly anything is solid. Indeed the apse of St. Peter’s is filled with mostly painted faux marble but most don’t notice. To an extent this is related to the “plaster reproductions and fake finery”. In my mind the Sulpician art ala Courtier, O.P. has been overplayed in the American context. Put a plaster statue next to a Pinturicchio (as Italians do) and you have kitsch. Have European immigrants create churches that sought to repeat home and as they grow old they are eventually labeled ‘fake’. Perhaps the ‘fake’ label was used too easily in the US. In many cases American churches utilized the best craftsmanship of their time, for example, German wooden-pegged joists – the sin of these churches was just that they ‘looked’ wrong in modernity.

      1. The criticism I mean is mainly what I found in the commentariat here, that of Vatican II bad, pre-conciliar good. Thanks for the point about veneer. That makes some sense, though the directive to save and reuse as much of it as possible was nearly impossible.

        “A church interior violently updated to look like every other space we come across in daily life will do little to engage the imagination.” And yet, I’m not so sure most churches aspire to imitate the mall or even the evangelical spread down the street. The building for the church I currently serve was intended to be a gymnasium for a school that was built, but never opened. If there is violence to be done, it may be to the “feel” of the space as an oblong box that might seem friendlier to bleachers and hoops than the inspirational. And yet, it has housed a faith community for a half-century now, and danged if it doesn’t seem to possess something that has inspired the spiritual imagination.

        Maybe some people want it, but they don’t know how to get it.

      2. A lot of post Vatican II remodels fail at authenticity. There is something disconcerting about entering a building where all the proportions and sight lines lead your eye to either a blank wall, pipe organ, or presiders chair where an altar or tabernacle used to be. Many fail because they actively work against the building, and try to make it something it was never meant to be. I actually think this what truly causes people to call a renovation a “wreckovation,” and it isn’t limited to church architecture.

        I should note that I have no problem with new churches being modern or experimental to a point. I’m talking about older buildings being remodeled. However, I do think a lot of modern ideas about church architecture need to be criticized and re-evaluated since they have only led people to more and more want “churchy looking” churches in revival styles.

      3. Another point missing in some of this discussion is the demands of the reformed liturgy. The initiation rites didn’t call for architectural changes to old buildings, but RCIA implies a deeper involvement of the local community. The tan book came out 45 years ago–that’s a long time for old buildings not to have solved the problem of a baptismal font hidden away somewhere, or disguised as a bird bath. Among other things.

        Certainly: subjective experience or even hearsay gives us examples of parishes that did it wrong. But to think that a building can just sashay untouched from the 1950’s into the 21st century may well reveal a poor theology.

        I wouldn’t say “fake” is the main descriptor in my vocabulary on this topic. Much better: inadequate.

      4. No one is suggesting that buildings “sashay untouched from the 1950’s into the 21st century.” Buildings can be sympathetically updated and remain adequate for the needs of the reformed liturgy. I don’t think anyone here is talking about relocating a baptismal font as an example of a poor renovation.

        However, one should not confuse one’s subjective opinion of what is most adequate for the needs of the reformed liturgy with what actually is necessary. Some changes are necessary, others are not. One does not need to remove all the previous artwork, statues, altars, paintings, decorative stencil work, and communion railings to make a church adequate today, nor does one need to totally rearrange the space into a semi-circle. Those extreme sorts of renovations may be some people’s opinion of what the reformed liturgy demands – and if they can convince others to go along freely with their opinions then more power to them – but they have no business misleading people into believing Vatican II or any other objective force demands such changes when they clearly do not. In fact, it seriously damages the credibility of the whole liturgical reform when people do such things.

      5. Second, third, etc. altars, perhaps unneeded. We don’t celebrate multiple Masses simultaneously anymore. And we could certainly use more prayerful and intimate niches. Give me a choice between a church with five altars and one statue and one with one altar and five statues, and I’ll take the latter.

        If something inside a church isn’t a prime element, it can and probably should be judged on the basis of whether or not it focuses on Christ and the prime elements of a building. Perhaps some things like communion rails obscure the open invitation of Christ to enter into a deeper worship of the Father.

      6. But again, those are opinions rather than mandates or demands – and people are allowed to disagree.

        In my neck of the woods, most all additional altars are dedicated to particular saints and have statues/images attached to them. Though disused, they become devotional areas. One should also take into account the symbolism of removing them, as well as what goes in their place – is it removed and replaced by a bare wall? Does removing it make the space awkward? There’s a church near my work that removed the side altars and they awkwardly mounted the reredos to the wall – with a blank area underneath. That’s bad design and bad aesthetics. My opinion of communion rails is the total opposite of what you propose – they invite people closer to the altar and symbolize our communal sharing of the Eucharist. My opinion is that the reformed Mass needs elaborate traditional spaces more than the pre-conciliar Mass does. Opinions should never be presented as mandates so as to make a renovation easier.

      7. So again … why does a devotional space need an altar? Isn’t that just one more barrier? Can a person with a walker or wheelchair or a toddler get close? Agree with you on the bare unthoughtful spaces, but maybe the platforms with saints should be jack-hammered to the level of the main floor. None of these aspects are essential to a traditional understanding of Catholicism or of devotion to saints.

      8. I suppose at some point we’ll have to agree to disagree. But to answer your questions: “why does a devotional space need an altar? Isn’t that just one more barrier?”

        The answer is that it doesn’t need an altar, but we are talking about an old church where an altar already exists, so the real question is “Why should we get rid of the altar?” The answer could be that the altar is beautiful – even if not artistically or historically special – and the faithful like it and consider it to lead them to greater prayer and devotion, or the answer could be that the church has an overall historic interior where the elements work together and getting rid of it creates awkward spaces. It could be that the faithful are poor and wouldn’t be able to remove it anyway, but are proud of the beautiful old church they inherited. Or maybe there’s nothing wrong with having reminders of the past and our ancestors around, even if those things have lost their original function – the objects in old churches often make me think about the hundreds of ordinary people who made or prayed with them. Or, more cynically, it could be that we don’t have to totally destroy the pre-conciliar church and everything we inherited from it as if to somehow prove something about the superiority of our own time or need to leave our own mark.

        Another question is “how does removing it truly benefit the faithful?” The idea that an old altar is “just one more barrier” is a notion that never would have entered my mind were I to never read liturgical blogs. It seems like a solution looking for a problem. I don’t feel distance from devotional images just because I can’t get physically close – and indeed most of the statues and such on old altars are designed to be seen from far away. Stained glass windows are also typically not easy to touch or get close to in a lot of older churches, yet stained glass windows are often among the most beloved features in old churches, and among the most wanted features for newer ones. Some things are meant to be seen from a distance, and that’s okay.

        I would say, rather than rip out an old altar, to instead create more intimate devotional spaces that are accessible. Many well-preserved older churches have lots of images and statues at floor level.

      9. I just realized I made a mistake in my second paragraph above. It should read:

        “The answer is that it doesn’t need an altar, but we are talking about an old church where an altar already exists, so the real question is “Why should/shouldn’t we get rid of the altar?” The answer for why we shouldn’t could be that the altar is beautiful…”

        I’d meant to insert “shouldn’t” but forgot before submitting the comment.

        But I think our big disagreement lies in our not seeing pre-conciliar churches in the same light. You repeatedly bring up the idea that many aspects of old church design create barriers to worship/prayer/participation, but I don’t accept that premise. When I argue that an old altar or communion rail should be retained, I’m not arguing that we should retain them in spite of them creating barriers since I don’t consider those things to be barriers in the first place.

      10. “Why should we get rid of the altar?”

        Because side altars suggest polytheism, distracting from the significance of the one altar to the one God we worship.

        Any argument from beauty or convenience has to at least face that problem. Religious imagination is not just about beauty and art, but also about God.

        The Church has shown great creativity in redisigning pagan buildings, so I am sure they can find ways to repurpose side altars. I don’t really understand how multiple altars in one Church developed, so I can’t guess at what would justify abandoning the one God, one altar principle. It seems pretty important to me.

      11. Jim, the reason why pre-VII churches have side altars is because the idea of multiple priests concelebrating at the same mass had been largely forbidden from the 600s until VII (with limited exceptions). Because of this, churches were arranged with multiple altars so priests could say their private masses at their convenience, and they were even allowed to do so if a mass with congression was being said on the high altar (the form of the mass is very subdued). Believe it or not, this is still permitted under the post-VII GIRM, even though it’s much rarer now because of the renewal of concelebration and the numerical decline in priestly vocations. They are no more polytheistic than their church being named for a saint.

      12. Re secondary altars…I would just add that I know of no side altars in a European context which were removed in updating churches. Certainly none in churches built before the 1900s. The Pontifical Council for Culture considers most to be historic monuments-and therefore to be preserved- even if not by the most famous of artists.

      13. The two I mentioned – Troyes cathedral and the ancient priory church at Leoncel have both removed altars to create flexible silent prayer spaces.

    2. “Because side altars suggest polytheism”

      That’s a novel one, considering the First Temple itself had multiple altars….

      1. It may have been novel at the time of Christ, but even that seems unlikely. Livy cited it as if it were a long standing principle.

        As to the first Temple, I hesitate to speculate. Certainly the additional altars were not like side altars; they differed from each other in a coordinated way. But I guess I shouldn’t say things like that when I don’t understand either lol.

      2. “The answer could be that the altar is beautiful – even if not artistically or historically special – and the faithful like it and consider it to lead them to greater prayer and devotion …”

        An interesting justification. I don’t buy the polytheism notion, but I am more concerned about the materialism and distraction of having duplication that doesn’t seem to add anything to the liturgy. An altar is something less than an actual object of devotion–we attribute much more to the cross, for example. And beautiful, well many popular songs are beautiful, but I would take a pass on singing “All The Things You Are” at devotions, let along liturgy.

        “… the church has an overall historic interior where the elements work together and getting rid of it creates awkward spaces.”

        It’s a matter of balance. When does the historicity trump the liturgy? The liturgy is pretty tolerant of a lot of stuff, and can handle a lot of things that make many of us cringe. I’m also in favor of somewhat less hamfistedness when it comes to clergy rolling into town and remaking a parish in their own image. Alas, we know it happens, and it knows all ideologies.

      3. And again, I don’t buy the premise that an additional altar is a distraction, so your justification for removing duplicate altars isn’t compelling to me. As far as being an object of devotion, I meant in the sense of the overall altar one would find in a typical old church (which probably is dedicated to a saint or Our Lady and has a statue or image). The whole composition created by the altar/image/reredos might make for a better devotional object than just a statue in a niche, on the floor, or mounted on a wall might. Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

        Nor do I believe in the sort of liturgical minimalism you seem to propose, where it seems almost everything is a barrier and a distraction if it isn’t specifically used in the reformed liturgy. To answer your question “When does the historicity trump the liturgy?” – I would say that liturgy should always win out, but that I’ve never personally seen a generally well preserved old church where the design trumped the liturgy or made it difficult to participate in (usually it enhances it!). The only distractingly cringe-worthy architecture and art I have personally experienced has been in old churches that were unsympathetically remodeled, usually after Vatican II (and I realize that is a subjective – but still a well informed – opinion).

        As I said before, we’ll have to eventually agree to disagree.

      4. I wasn’t going to pursue this anymore, but just to inforrm the discussion I have to say something.

        “”An altar is something less than an actual object of devotion”
        From the GIRM:
        “49. When they have arrived at the sanctuary, the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers reverence the altar with a profound bow.
        Moreover, as an expression of veneration, the Priest and Deacon then kiss the altar itself; the Priest, if appropriate, also incenses the cross and the altar.”
        “303. In building new churches, it is preferable for a single altar to be erected, one that in the gathering of the faithful will signify the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.”

        Perhaps we need to make the altar more of an object of devotion than it is. Then we might be able to discuss redesigning churches in a more constructive way.

  7. “But to think that a building can just sashay untouched from the 1950’s into the 21st century may well reveal a poor theology.”

    And to the average church-goer in the pew, do they really “get-it?” The theology you’re talking about is way over their heads and something they certainly didn’t learn in religious education. Frankly most would probably see it as Father spending money again.

    1. Yes. I’m not suggesting pietrificazione of buildings. I’m proposing informed sympathy with historic buildings. And to your point John – I have had projects where it was ‘Father spending money.’ It is a pastoral reality that aesthetic assertions are often times lost in conversation.

    2. You might be surprised what average churchgoers get. They are touched by the Holy Spirit in significant ways. The main thing is … again … forming people to recognize moments of imagination. I think some liturgical architecture, old and some new, is more about getting in the way rather than being that doorway to the sacred.

      1. If we really “got it” the churches would be full, and new ones opening and not being closed by their dozens.

    3. Mr. Kohanski says: ” to the average church-goer in the pew, do they really “get-it?” The theology you’re talking about is way over their heads”

      I am an average church-goer in the pew who came to this site via a link on another site. I am none of the people this site is meant for (pastor, musician, liturgist or scholar), so perhaps my thoughts are irrelevant. I think much of what people make issues of in the church are a matter of personal taste, and not theology (everyday or academic). Some people like Latin, some like English, some like St Louis Jesuits and some like Gregorian chant. Some like traditional churches and some like modern churches. I like simplicity – not something I expect every other Catholic to share. I like simplicity in buildings, and so like small, simple chapels much better than grand cathedrals. I like silence, and prefer weekday masses to weekend masses, because there is usually no music. I’m not big on statues, especially because those found in so many churches are often somewhat garish. But many do like them. I prefer minimal decoration. Etc. Personally, I much prefer the lighter, cleaned of centuries of dirt and grime, version of Chartres Cathedral to the uncleaned version. I don’t like dark and gloomy churches, whether big cathedrals or small chapels. I am not qualified to make a profound theological argument for permitting the cathedral to be returned to its former glory. It just looks very much nicer to me, and probably much more like it looked centuries ago. I read this in the New York Times after seeing this article – “The restoration aims not only to clean and maintain the structure, but also to offer an insight into what the cathedral would have looked like in the 13th century. Its interior was designed to be a radiant vision,…” To me, it does look radiant. But some don’t like it . But it’s a matter of personal preference, I think, not of “right” or “wrong.”

  8. In response to Patrick’s 10.43 comment – I think it is important not to construe our ideas of the arrangement of the interior of churches with only Tridentine models (basically 1600 and after). The tabernacle on the altar, for example, was more or less the result of the writings of Charles Borromeo in the period of the Reformation. I’m not sure churches still need to be arranged according to an anti-Reformation polemic. And to be fair to E&A, it was only following instructions issued by the Holy See.

    A helpful introduction to the various historical developments of church art and architecture as they relate from to the liturgy is Edward Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians have celebrated the Eucharist, 2009.

  9. Talking of removing altars …… that dreadful Napoleonic construct in the first photo just has to be the architectural equivalent of daubing a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
    I thought so when I visited a few years back and felt my eyes being dragged back to it. I still think so now.
    In contrast I have been to several churches and Cathedrals in France where a side chapel has had the altar and all other furniture removed, with the space being turned into a prayer area, with a selection of kneelers, chairs and big floor cushions and a selection of prayer cards, bibles and prayer books for people to use. The one in Troyes is particularly beautiful, centred on the tabernacle. Though I have seen it done with icons and statues as well.

    1. That high altar predates Napoleon’s rule; it’s from the last decade of the reign of Louis XV, when the jubé was demolished and entire choir was redecorated and the walls whitewashed (which of course got grimy in due course), and was sculpted by Charles-Antoine Bridan. The 18th century saw a lot of redecoration of major French cathedrals…..

      1. Thanks for that. I saw the gold “laurel wreaths” and assumed.
        Still totally out of place, though.

  10. Thank you for your thoughtful article, which I discovered while searching online recently for old pictures of St. Patrick’s Church in Decatur, IL (my home parish). Not sure if you’ve kept up with St. Patrick’s in Decatur or still have family around there, but we completed a massive restoration project in 2000-2001. Would be happy to share some pictures with you…I think your grandmother would be quite pleased. Just drop me an email if interested. God bless!

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