Friday, October 09, 2015

Denis McNamara on the Theology of Sacred Architecture

Here is the first of a series of 10 short videos (about six minutes each) presented by the architectural historian Denis McNamara of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein. I had the pleasure of meeting him recently and sitting in on one or two of his excellent classes.

These talks introduce succinctly and well, I feel, some of the themes that I heard him talk about in his classes. He is a good and entertaining teacher and speaker, and this comes across in the videos. You can find more detail of the subject matter in his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.
What was of great interest to me was to see how he tackled issues for which there are parallel problems in sacred art. For example, how do you reconnect with tradition without falling in the error of historicism? Historicism is an undiscerning respect for the past that says, in simple terms: “Old is always good; new is always bad.”
The corrollary of this has to be considered too: to what degree should we use aspects of contemporary architecture? How can we ensure that the form we are using connects with people today, while ensuring that we don’t compromise the timeless principles that are essential to make it appropriate for its sacred purpose? You might say that what we want is to be able to innovate if necessary while avoiding the errors of modernism (“new always good; old always bad”) or post- modernism (“anything is good if I think it is.”)
When I was considering these very questions in art, the only way I could respond was to try to look for a theology of form that connected the material form to the truths that the artist was trying to convey. If we understood this, I thought, then it would give us the freedom to innovate without stepping outside the authentic traditions of liturgical art. (A large part of my book, the Way of Beauty is devoted to consideration of this.)
It seems to me that this is just the conclusion that Denis has drawn too. In this video he introduces the idea of the theology of form for architecture by which the church building becomes a symbol of the mystical body of Christ. You might say the church manifests the Church in material form and in microcosm, He refers to this as a “sacramental theology” of architecture.
In the nine videos that follow (which I will be posting weekly, each with a short introduction,) he unpacks some important parts of this theology for us. If you are impatient to see them, you’ll find them on YouTube!

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