Friday, June 17, 2016

Ugly Churches Win Awards

The website of the Italian Episcopal Conference’s newspaper Avvenire reported Wednesday on the winners of the 6th edition of the International “Frate Sole” prize for sacred architecture. I would normally ignore an item like this when it pops up, as it did, on my Facebook feed, but for the grossly inappropriate headline, “Here Are The New Most Beautiful Churches in the World.” Tourism accounts for around 10% of Italy’s economy, which is the 8th largest in the world; the nation received over 57 million foreign visitors in 2013, while every holiday season, millions of Italians travel within their own country to visit what they call the “Città d’arte – Art cities.” (This classically Italian expression means both cities that are full of art, but also cities that are in and of themselves works of art.) One cannot help but ask, What kinds of churches, and what kind of beauty, do the editors of Avvenire imagine these people are coming to their country to see?

This photograph of the 3rd prize winner highlights the problem perfectly; at first glance, most people would probably assume that the building in the background was the church, and the one in the foreground a train station, or perhaps a library dedicated to the works of really depressing philosophers.

(photograph from Wikimedia Commons by RobKohl)
Unfortunately, the one in the foreground is the Propsteikirche (Provost’s Church) of the Holy Trinity in Leipzig, Germany; the only thing to indicate this architecturally is the cross on the bell tower, which looks a great deal like the clock tower of the train station in my home town of Providence, R.I. The building in the background is the early 20th century city hall.

Things don’t get any better inside.

(photograph from Wikimedia Commons by Martin Geisler)
And then there’s the first prize-winner, the Iglesia de Iesu (it is apparently officially spelled that way, according to the Greek, for no discernible reason) in San Sebastián in northern Spain. Here we will start with the sanctuary, featuring a retable that is completely blank. (closer view - photos from Wikipedia by Simoncio)

‘Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?’ ‘Great bosh.’

The tabernacle
Just over three years ago, I noted a critique of this style of church design from no less a personage than Dr Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museum, which applies here just as much as it does to the modern churches in the periphery of Rome about which they were originally said: ”They look like warehouses. ... Spaces that do not invite (us) to meditation, devoid of the sense of the sacred, without a breath of mystery or religion.”

The problem here is that the title of this article is not just true in the immediate sense, a way of saying in the classic style of newspaper headlines that specific ugly churches have just won awards. It is also true aphoristically; ugly churches win architectural awards all the time, because they are designed to win awards, not to serve as the House of God and the home of His people.

To cleanse the palate, here’s a photo of the Greek Orthodox church in Venice, San Giorgio dei Greci, recently taken by our Ambrosian correspondent Nicola de’ Grandi. Not designed to win awards.

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