One basic tenet that architects have accepted for millennia is that the built environment has the capacity to affect the human person deeply -- the way he acts, the way he feels, and the way he is. Church architects of past and present understood that the atmosphere created by the church building affects not only how we worship, but also what we believe. Ultimately, what we believe affects how we live our lives. It's difficult to separate theology and ecclesiology from the environment for worship, whether it's a traditional church or a modern church. If a Catholic church building doesn't reflect Catholic theology and ecclesiology, if the building undermines or dismisses the natural laws of church architecture, the worshiper risks accepting a faith that is foreign to Catholicism.
Architecture isn't inconsequential.
That's why the Code of Canon Law explicitly defines the church building as "a sacred building destined for divine worship" (canon 214). The Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates this point and goes further by stating that "visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ" (#1180).
This is a tall order, to be sure, and the architect today naturally wonders how a mere building can accomplish so much. Fortunately, he doesn't stand alone in a perilous vacuum but has at his command more than fifteen hundred years of his craft on which to reflect.
When he turns to the Church's great architectural heritage, he discovers that from the early Christian basilicas in Rome to the Gothic Revival churches of early 20th-century America, the natural laws of church architecture are adhered to faithfully in the design of successful Catholic churches, buildings that serve both God and man as transcendental structures, transmitting eternal truths for generations to come.
Consider, for example, Notre Dame de Paris, the crowning jewel of Paris, arguably the most famous of Christendom's great cathedral churches. Countless chronicles, poems, novels, and artistic treatments have been devoted to this architectural masterpiece. Yet, considering it's neither the tallest, the biggest, nor even the most beautiful of cathedrals, Notre Dame's universal appeal isn't easily explicable on the natural order.
There's something more.
Even the familiarity acquired from a distance through travel guides, textbooks, magazine articles, movies, and even cartoons doesn't detract from the overwhelming sense of goodness, beauty, and truth that the pilgrim feels on first experiencing the church in person. Its flying buttresses, its stained glass, its great rose window with its delicate bar traceries that resemble the petals of the flower, its richly carved portals, the soaring heights of its columns that flower into barrel vaults, its many shrines and reliquaries, its altars, and the presence of Jesus in the great tabernacle all work together to raise the pilgrim's mind to heavenly things.
In this cathedral, faith is incarnational, just as Catholicism is an incarnational faith -- "the Word became flesh." The kingdom of God is manifest to us, century after century, through the medium of this church building, stone laid upon stone, sculpture after sculpture hewn from rock, built and carved of human hands -- a gospel in stone brought to life.
Notre Dame is easily recognized as art in the noblest sense, architecture of the highest order, a building established as a "sacred place" -- a sacred place that is first of all, a house of God, a place of His earthly habitation, wrought in the fashion of heavenly things.
But what makes it so?
First, Notre Dame is massive and durable, meant to withstand the violence of man and the brutality of nature. It has served as a silent witness to the tumultuous history of France over the past eight hundred years in the heart of its grand capital. It has stood as a survivor of many epochs, witnessing to the permanence of the Gospel and Christian society, despite the secularization of almost everything around the great cathedral. The edifice has transcended both time and culture -- not an easy feat. It is a permanent structure.
Second, the heavenly and eternal are evoked through the soaring heights of the cathedral's interior spaces, made possible by the many elements of the Gothic structural system (pointed arches, flying buttresses, and vaulted ceilings, for instance). Thus, it is a vertical structure.
Third, the grand cathedral is "brought to life" as a gospel in stone through its many works of sacred art, those beautifully crafted representations, both figural and symbolic, that point well beyond themselves to religious truths. In other words, Notre Dame presents an iconographic architecture. The pilgrim can almost hear the patriarch Jacob, after his dream of angels ascending to and descending from Heaven, announcing, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven" (Gen. 28:17).
The Three Natural Laws of Church Architecture
Churches of every century -- grand and small, in large cities, small towns, and rural settings -- have achieved what Notre Dame has achieved through faithful adherence to these natural laws.
Yes, the results are manifested in individual styles, products of a particular time and place, each of which the Church has gladly admitted into her treasury of sacred architecture. Yet each also serves as a house of God that looks to the past, serves the present, and informs the future.
How do they achieve this?
In every case, these successful church buildings firmly establish a sacred place to be used for worship of the triune God, both in private devotion and in public liturgy, and they make Christ's presence firmly known in their surroundings.
In every case, they conform to the three natural laws of verticality, permanence, and iconography, as exemplified in Notre Dame Cathedral. These natural laws are perhaps taken for granted by many, yet, for those who seek to understand how Catholic churches ought -- and ought not -- to be built, they're the most obvious starting points, primarily because these qualities create the proper atmosphere for worshiping God.
Without the qualities of verticality, permanence, and iconography, Notre Dame wouldn't have established itself as a sacred place; we wouldn't know it today. If it didn't adhere to the natural laws of church architecture, Notre Dame wouldn't exist today in any meaningful way. Lacking verticality, the cathedral wouldn't have inspired us toward the otherworldly; it wouldn't have effectively served as the soul of medieval Paris, let alone the present metropolis; nor would it have effectively made Christ and His Church present and active in the French capital. Without permanence, the building would have been destroyed by barbarians or revolutionaries centuries ago. Devoid of iconography, Notre Dame would never have attracted pilgrims to this gospel in stone.
Therefore, let's consider more closely each of these three natural laws, which are indispensable to successful Catholic church architecture.
A Catholic Church Must Have Permanence
The church building, representing Christ's presence in a particular place, is also necessarily a permanent structure -- "Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8) -- conceived in theory and practice "with a firm foundation." So, too, is the Catholic Church enduring and permanent, transcending space and time.
The medieval canonist Bishop Gulielmus Durandus (A.D. 1220-1296) reminds us that the Church is built with all strength, "upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. Her foundations are in the holy mountains" (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, #27). The permanence of our church structures reflects these qualities of the universal Church. And just as verticality points to the heavenly and the eternal, so too does the requisite principle of permanence. It's another way in which architects create an atmosphere of transcendence.
Nineteenth-century architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc writes of Notre Dame that "everyone who understands construction will be amazed when he sees what numberless precautions are resorted to in the execution -- how the prudence of the practical builder is combined with the daring of the artist full of power and inventive imagination" (Dictionary of French Architecture, 1854). Viollet-le-Duc refers to the permanence of what has become known to us as the Gothic structural system, an ingenious method of building that lends itself both to verticality -- soaring heights enabled by the unique system of buttressing -- and permanence.
The Gothic churches constructed in Europe throughout the medieval centuries can't be accused of being cheap, tawdry structures doomed to decay. Structures such as Notre Dame were conceived as solid and enduring temples, perpetual reminders of Christ's presence active in the world. The same can be said of most churches built in the early Christian, Romanesque, Byzantine, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical styles.
There are several ways a church can assert its permanence. First, and most obvious, is by its durability. The church, a building that will serve generation after generation, transcending time and culture, must be constructed of durable materials. Typically, one or another type of masonry construction is used, employing the finest materials available.
Related to durability is massing: The church must be of significant mass, built with solid foundations, thick walls, and allowing for generous interior spaces. This massing is another aspect of the architectural language of churches. It's integral to both verticality (the massing of volumes upward creates verticality) and iconography (the massing of the church helps it convey its iconic meaning).
Third is continuity. Churches whose design grows organically out of the past two millennia of churches identify themselves with the life of the Church throughout those two millennia and, by their continuity with the history and tradition of Catholic church architecture, manifest in another way the permanence of the faith.
In other words, to convey that aspect of permanence rooted in continuity, the architectural language of churches must develop organically throughout time, such as when the language of the Renaissance churches permutated into the Baroque language, or when the Gothic forms emerged from the language of the Romanesque. In both cases, the growth of the language was organic. The style may have changed, as when the semicircular arch gave way to the pointed arch. But there was no sudden break with tradition, no disregard for the churches of past centuries (arches were as much a part of the Gothic language as the Romanesque). Architects built on what they knew from the past, refining certain aspects of the language and developing others.
Architects of future generations need to comprehend the language of church architecture in order to build permanent sacred edifices for their own times and future centuries. No successful church architect must be -- or even pretend to be -- ignorant of the Church's historical patrimony. Continuity demands that a successful church design can't spring from the whims of man or the fashion of the day. An authentic Catholic church building is a work of art that acknowledges the previous greatness of the Church's architectural patrimony: It refers to the past, serves the present, and informs the future.
A Catholic Church Must Have Verticality
In contrast to most other buildings, the successful church is so constructed that the vertical element dominates the horizontal. The soaring heights of its spaces speak to us of reaching toward Heaven, of transcendence -- bringing the heavenly Jerusalem down to us through the medium of the church building. It's no coincidence that the liturgical text for the dedication of a church is taken from John's vision of the celestial Jerusalem: "And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the dwelling of God with men'" (Rev. 21:2-3).
According to John's words, the interior spaces of the church ought to be characterized by a dramatic sense of height -- in a word, verticality. It's a fact of human experience that verticality, the massing of volumes upward, most readily creates an atmosphere of transcendence and in turn enables man to create a building that expresses a sense of the spiritual and the heavenly. It's this transcendence that makes sacred architecture possible.
The building's architectural elements -- such as windows, columns, buttresses, and sacred art -- should reinforce this heavenward aspiration. Likewise, the articulation of the ceiling should further create a sense of reaching toward the heavenly Jerusalem through the use of mosaics, murals, and coffering, as well as by incorporating the mysterious play of natural light into the body of the church.
Consider also that the early Christians, prior to the Constantinian era, solemnized the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in inconspicuous places -- most likely in homes and sometimes in the catacombs -- that had no recourse to an emphasized verticality. Yet once Constantine legalized public Christian worship, the Christians quickly adopted the basilica form, in which spaces were emphatically vertical and conspicuous. Not only did the soaring spaces of such structures lend themselves to symbolizing the reaching toward God and toward things heavenly, it also represented a kingly nobility, for the basilica was the Roman "House of the King," fittingly adapted as the House of the King of Kings.
It is difficult to visualize the kind of spaces that would be created if the ceilings in such grand churches as Notre Dame, St. Peter's Basilica, or Constantinople's Hagia Sophia were lowered to, say, twelve feet -- or even thirty feet. Despite the exemplary iconography and permanence of these structures, they would fall drastically short -- literally -- as sacred places, as houses of God, if their building's proportions were reduced to reflect an emphasis on the horizontal rather than on the vertical.
This need to emphasize the reaching toward the heavens was primarily what inspired Gothic builders to develop a structural system that allowed for even greater soaring spaces. The Gothic architect knew that without an emphasized verticality, the church is emasculated, its raison d'être subverted.
A Catholic Church Must Have Iconography
The third requisite principle is that of iconography, which speaks specifically to the "sign" value of the building.
First, the structure itself ought to be an icon. This is accomplished primarily through its form and its relation to the surrounding environment, whether urban or rural. For example, the church building shouldn't be hidden but integrated into the neighborhood and landscape so that its location reminds us of the building's importance and purpose.
Second, the worthy church building presents an iconography that points beyond itself. Thomas Aquinas realized that man's mind is raised to contemplation through material objects. St. Ignatius Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises (1548), likewise stressed the importance of visualizing the subjects of meditation: Painting, sculpture, and architecture are meant to work together to produce a unified effect.
Thus, it is here that these works of art, the material objects that are effective to this end, with their reliance on the breadth of religious symbolism, come into play. Architectural beauty should reflect God's creation -- particularly man, who is created in the image and likeness of God. It should beget an environment that lifts man's soul from secular things and brings it into harmony with the heavenly.
Architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote over one hundred years ago in his book Church Building, "Art has been, is, and will be forever, the greatest agency for spiritual impression that the Church may claim." It is for this reason, he adds, that art is in its highest manifestation the expression of religious truths. It is through art that Christians have developed the ingenious symbolism that raises our faculties of soul to God.
The tradition of iconography and symbolism in Catholic culture is broad and rich. Meaning is conveyed through formal elements, from basic geometric shapes to figural imagery to literal representation of people or scenes, as in sculpture or paintings. The meanings conveyed through a church's iconographic programs are most typically that of religious truths or historical events of religious significance. They are always expressions of the Catholic faith.
For instance, the masters of the Catholic counter-reformation -- inspired by churchmen such as St. Ignatius and St. Charles Borromeo -- expressed the Catholic faith in the very birth of their art by means of elaborate high altars and tabernacles, special niche and aisle shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to the saints, prominent pulpits for preaching, and an abundance of art in glass, sculpture, mosaic, and painting devised to teach the truths necessary for salvation. The atmosphere created on this model is one of religious mystery wherein we can experience a little of the unearthly joy of the New Jerusalem, where we can encounter Christ in a unique way.
These iconographic churches, these icons, tell the story of Christ and His Church. They teach, catechize, and illustrate the lives of the Church's saintly souls. They manifest eternal and transcendental truths.
Again, if we look to Notre Dame, we understand easily how a pilgrim can spend days -- even weeks -- meditating on the mysteries that are "enfleshed" in the architecture of the cathedral's sculptural programs. A student of the Church may spend months and years reflecting on the ingenuity and beauty of the Catholic truths revealed in the art and architecture of this gospel in stone. Ordinary laymen too are drawn into the church, into the house of God, attracted by the iconography of this medieval edifice, which still speaks clearly to us today, more than eight hundred years after its construction.
This is possible only because architecture has the capacity to carry meaning. A church building is a "vessel of meaning" with the greatest of symbolic responsibilities: It must bear the significance of eternal truths that are transmitted through its material form, its adorning architectural elements, and its sacred works of art. These elements -- indeed the whole of the church edifice -- must create an otherworldly feel that inspires man to worship God, to humble himself before his Creator, to partake in the sacred mysteries, and to focus himself on the eternal. Iconography is yet another way -- perhaps the most direct and efficacious way -- to achieve a transcendent architecture.
These three natural laws of church architecture -- verticality, permanence, and iconography -- transcend the different epochs of Christianity; they are qualities present in all the truly great churches of Christendom. They are the foundation, as it were, on which good church architects build churches that succeed in becoming for their own time and for all generations gates of Heaven and worthy houses of God.
Michael S. Rose, Associate Editor of the NOR, is the author of six books, including Ugly as Sin,which was recently released in paperback by Sophia Institute Press (1-800-888-9344; www.sophiainstitute.com), and from which this article is excerpted.
The foregoing article by Michael S. Rose, "The Three Natural Laws of Catholic Church Architecture," was originally published in New Oxford Review (September 2009), pp. 28-34, and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.