It’s probably happened to you before. You’ve visited Rome, or Spain, or perhaps even an older East Coast city in the United States, and you’ve been blown away by the absolute beauty of the local church there. The sprawling arches of the building itself. The depictions of various biblical scenes across each and every nook and cranny. The beautifully crafted statues of the saints, and of course, our Lord himself are found in various side altars and behind the rows of votive candles.
Then, when the holy Sacrifice of the Mass begins, you find yourself drawn towards heavenly things. You feel as if you’re getting a taste of heaven. And that’s exactly what the Mass is supposed to feel like! That’s exactly what a church building should make us feel! The symbolism contained in both the architecture and the art of the church building is rich and profound. But then we leave the place we visited, and go back to our own parish that was built within the last 50 years and see that we are no longer saturated in Christian symbolism. As Fr. D. Vincent Twomey SVD put it in the introduction to a book he edited on sacred art and architecture:
“To treat beauty as something peripheral – mere decoration – reflects the utilitarianism of our age, which, as we know, has profoundly influenced both modern church architecture and the remodeling of older churches… Despite some impressive modern churches…, the result has not infrequently been church buildings with all the charm of a fridge.”
Beauty is important, especially when it leads us to a greater contemplation of God. People who grow up in stark, modern churches often wonder why churches built yesteryear (even those built in the last 60-70 years) are so much more ornate. Let’s dive into the symbolism and significance behind the beautiful architecture found within the Church’s tradition, the architecture itself being a work of art, so as to understand things about our Catholic faith in the same way that our venerable ancestors did. What earlier generations of Catholics revered and understood should likewise be revered and understood by us today.
In a meeting with clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI observed the following:
“[A]rt and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith… If I look at this beautiful cathedral – it is a living proclamation! It speaks to us itself, and on the basis of the cathedral’s beauty, we succeed in visibly proclaiming God, Christ and all his mysteries: here they have acquired a form and look at us. All the great works of art, cathedrals – the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches – they are all a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God. And in Christianity it is precisely a matter of this epiphany: that God became a veiled Epiphany – he appears and is resplendent.”
Symbols and Imagery
We see here that art and architecture are able to proclaim God in a very visible and tangible way. The mysteries of Christ can be more concretely understood through symbols and imagery than through mere words either spoken or written on a page. Music, too, can elicit beauty, but that’s a discussion for another time. The placement of all the different things in gorgeous churches, both old and new buildings, has a purpose. Primarily, to give glory to God, but also to allow us to enter into a deeper understanding of the truths and mysteries of our Catholic faith.
Take for example the baldachin or canopy above many altars in classical churches. Probably the best and most famous example of one such baldachin is the one located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But why is the altar canopy there in the first place? Keep in mind that Christ is the Divine Bridegroom. So if Christ is the Bridegroom, then it’s clear that the Church is the bride. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), with multiple references from Scripture, affirms this understanding of the personal relationship between Christ and the Church:
“The Lord referred to himself as the ‘bridegroom’ (Mk. 2:19). The Apostle speaks of the whole Church and of each of the faithful, members of his Body, as a bride ‘betrothed’ to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him (cf. Mt 22:1-14; 25:1-13; 1 Cor. 6:15-17; 2 Cor. 11:2). The Church is the spotless bride of the spotless Lamb (cf. Rev 22:17; Eph. 1:4; 5:27). ‘Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her’ (Eph. 5:25-26). He has joined her with himself in an everlasting covenant and never stops caring for her as for his own body” (CCC 796).
The Nuptial Altar
As Jesus died on the Cross, He cried out “It is finished” (John 19:30). But really, the word that is often translated as finished (tetelestai), means so much more than that. In Latin, these last words of Christ are translated as “Consummatum est”, or “It is consummated.” The Douay-Rheims edition of the Bible renders John 19:30 this way, and it paints a more perfect picture of what Jesus is actually doing on the Cross: He is consummating his marriage with his bride, the Church.
Across all the altars of the world, during each Holy Mass, that same sacrifice at Calvary is re-presented. The altar is like a mystical, nuptial bed which bears witness to the consummation of the marriage between Christ and his bride, realized in the Eucharist. And what would often be above the bed in the royal chambers? A canopy. Thus, the canopy, or baldachin, above the altar represents the nuptial aspect of that great Sacrifice. In her essay “The Nuptial Meaning of Classic Church Architecture”, Dr. Helen Ratner Dietz puts it this way:
“Keeping in mind that the altar canopy of the Christian church, like the Jewish Holy of Holies, was understood to be a wedding canopy, we might well ask ourselves what role the fourth-century Christian priest played when he disappeared behind the altar-canopy curtains during the Eucharistic canon…
“Let us recall that Saint Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century spoke of the totus Christus, the ‘whole Christ’, who, being both head and body, includes the Church. Therefore when offering Mass the priest acts not only in persona Christi, but also in persona Ecclesiae, that is to say, the priest acts both in the person of Christ the bridegroom and in the person of the Church who is the bride.”
From Jewish Roots
The altar canopy is not the only place where we see classic church architecture following Jewish temple designs. Many churches also possess several steps leading up to the sanctuary, and to the actual altar as well. Even this, too, is saturated in symbolism. Again, from Dietz’s essay:
“[C]lassic church architecture retained the tripartite and ascending divisions of the Judaic Temple. For some two thousand years classic church architecture typically has had three sets of stairs: the first set leading up to the narthex or vestibule, a second set leading up to the chancel or sanctuary, and a third set leading up to the altar itself. The third set of stairs corresponds to the set of stairs leading up to the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. In both the Jerusalem Temple and the classic Christian church the visual effect was of a majestic sweep upwards like the Temple Mount itself, which is the highest geographic point of the Holy Land.”
We as Catholic Christians are all aware that our religion has Jewish roots, but few are familiar with just how much influence Judaism had on everything from our worship to how we constructed those houses in which we worship. But now, with the inauguration of the New Covenant, we find ourselves bringing all to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. As one begins their life in Christ through baptism, it’d be good at this point to take a look at the baptismal font, which at times can be found either inside the sanctuary or outside it, perhaps in the center aisle at the rear of the church. Sometimes it is even found outside the church building. So what’s the significance behind the baptismal font’s construction and placement?
The Baptismal Font
According to Dr. Denis McNamara, few specific details are given on baptisteries and fonts, but there is some basic symbolism present in both. He first points out that:
“Properly speaking, the term ‘baptistery’ belongs to the building, chapel, or place where baptisms occur. The ‘font’ is the actual vessel where the water of baptism is poured or contained. Many baptisteries in older cities are buildings separate from a church or cathedral, within which the font is located and the rites are celebrated.”
But as mentioned above, sometimes the font can be found in the sanctuary off to the side, or in another highly symbolic place: the northwest corner of the church. Perhaps an older church in your area has the baptistery to your left, in a separate room, as you enter the church building. Dr. McNamara explains why this is so:
“The Church makes no prescription on the location of the baptismal font. In 1955, scholar J.B. O’Connell wrote that the traditional location for the baptistery was at the northwest corner of an oriented (literally, eastward facing) church, noting that the north side was associated with the darkness of paganism, and the west side with the church entrance.”
So this prompts the question: Why is church (and altar) facing east? Throughout the two thousand year history of Christianity, Catholics have continually directed their prayer towards the east, where the Lord will come in his return (cf. Matthew 24:27). This is why the priest has always faced the altar, the same direction the people are facing, during the Divine Liturgy. We in the Latin Rite now have the option of the priest facing the people or altar, while in the Byzantine Rite the priest may only offer the Holy Sacrifice ad orientem. But it’s this ancient and apostolic tradition of the Church which led to another tradition of keeping the baptismal font in the northwest corner.
As for the font itself, you may observe that those within a classically constructed church are in the shape of an octagon, as can be the baptistery itself. Dr. McNamara elucidates further:
“[T]he octagon has taken precedence from the list of possible shapes, likely because of the symbolism of the number eight and its association with the theological ‘eighth day.’ Genesis speaks of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, and so the ‘eighth day’ is the metaphorical day of eternity as the day ‘after’ the earthly sabbath, a day of re-creation into eschatological completion. Relatedly, there were eight souls in Noah’s ark who became the source of new life after the deadly flood. Since baptism is the door to this new life, the eight-sided baptistery takes on a symbolic significance particularly appropriate to the sacrament’s effect.”
Making the Invisible Perceptible
As we can see, architecture, and its corresponding art, is extremely important to the life and mission of the Church. We have ornate structures and beautiful art throughout our churches because it is a way for us to proclaim the gospel to all. In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope St. John Paul II made it clear:
“The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation… In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”
Sacred art and architecture then becomes a gospel proclamation in itself. Explaining the images and symbolism to others makes those ineffable mysteries of our faith that much closer to us. We have a rich tradition of art in the Church, and it’s a proven vehicle to bring people closer to our Lord.
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