Friday, October 23, 2015

Denis McNamara on the Jewish Roots of Church Architecture

In this, the third of a series of ten videos, Denis McNamara discusses how church architecture reflects the roots of a church’s function in those of the Temple and the synagogue.

Prof. McNamara is on the faculty of the Liturgical Institute, Mundelein; and his book is Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.

Drawing on St Gregory the Great and Pope Benedict, he refers to three eras in time: the pre-Christian time of the Jewish faith, the “time of shadow”; the heavenly period to which we all look and which is called the “time of reality”; and the time in-between, which we occupy, the “time of image”. The liturgy of the time of image both recalls the sacrificial aspects of the previous age, and anticipates and gives us a foretaste of our heavenly end. Having described time in this way, Denis then goes on to explain how good church architecture reflects this.

As I was listening to this, I was reminded of how in art, again according to Pope Benedict, there are three authentic liturgical traditions. The baroque “at its best” reveals historical man, that is man after the Fall, but with a potential for sanctity as yet unrealized. It occurred to me that this might seen also as the art of the time of shadow; it is after all characterized visually by deep shadows contrasted with the light of hope.

The art of eschatological man - man fully redeemed in heaven - is the icon. This is the art of the “time of reality,” and visually there are never any deep cast shadows in this form. Every figure is a source of light.

The art of the in-between time is the Gothic, which I always called the art of our earthly pilgrimage. Like the spire of the Gothic church, it spans the divide between heaven and earth. Its form reflects the partial divinization of man which characterizes the Christian who participates in the liturgy. This might then be called the art of the “time of image”. As before, anyone who is curious to know more about this analysis can find a deeper explanation in the book the Way of Beauty.

In contrast to the artistic forms, in which the form of each tradition focuses on one age, the form of the church building, regardless of style, must reveal all three ages simultaneously.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: