The Importance of Church Art & Symbolism

Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Crosse, WI

The answers to questions of the modern age are found exclusively in science labs rather than utilizing history, philosophy, and theology. The superfluous traditions of the past are cleared away and slowly fade in memory, as if afraid to admit mistake. And faith, what faith? The religion of the new age is self-advancement. Nothing about this new world, this new generation is clear other than to know and improve oneself. We don't just fear the past, we hate the past. Our society goes to all ends to alienate ourselves from our ancestors: dismantling morality, justice, tradition, faith and so on. The myth of God is suppressed by science, and love and pride drive pure emotion.

The primary focus of modern belief, is to know and to believe in yourself; which is important but not singularly sustainable. The human condition has always influenced societal norms and tendencies throughout history; this is then reflected in art, architecture, music, fashion, etc. This dangerous reality that individuals act on feeling rather than fact, has an impact on all facets of society including church architecture and design. The singular, dare say selfish, idea that the individual’s notions are primary, poses difficult design problems when evaluating the hierarchy of a church interior. In a vacuum where tradition and history are cast aside, how do you define truth, beauty and goodness when designing a church?

Churches are an excellent example of buildings constructed with a primary purpose, to communicate spiritual beliefs through tangible forms. In a church, it is not enough to simply know oneself to fully understand the purpose and the message the building communicates. There must be a deep understanding of the ecclesiastical meaning supporting church architecture. Sacred architecture and decoration are a kind of language that visually communicate mysteries, stories, prayers, etc. The structure of a religious building has historical and liturgical significance that sets precedent for those beliefs.

A relativist mentality as well as a denial of history, blinds our culture to the forms necessary for church architecture and design. If you took a group of relativists, religious in the belief that beauty belongs to the eye of the beholder, placed them in front of a Crucifix and asked if what they saw was beautiful, the responses would be varied opinions of visual realities. An artist may compare the Crucifix to other works of art, determining its beauty based on craftsmanship, originality, likeness, etc. An atheist may scoff at the existence of such delusions, insisting that even if the Crucifix is fine craftsmanship it cannot be beautiful fore it represents primitive human tendencies towards religion as opposed to human progress. An unknowing child may look at the Crucifix and question why we would even ask if such a terrible image of death could be beautiful.

Culinary Institute of America
Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY

There are thousands of possible responses, none of which would be entirely wrong, just missing the main point. A relativist, answering in truth, will never understand the beauty that extends beyond the visual realities. The image of Christ on the Cross exists in a tangible form but represents and communicates the love of a sacrifice made 2000 years ago. The true beauty of the Crucifix is love. The love of the Savior, God became man, born to died in order to save mankind. It is the duty of the craftsman or artist to illustrate the beauty of this belief utilizing the best of their trade. There is a strength to art and symbolism in the communication of spiritual beliefs which support the design of a religion.

Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland

Many argue that art and symbolism flourished in an illiterate culture in order to communicate the stories and mysteries of faith. And now that our culture is literate, there is no need for such opulence. Although the opening statement is not untrue, it is unsustainable. Today we have a culture that can read but cannot see, that is literate but spiritually ignorant and this cultural blindness has effected all faiths.

It is said that, “a picture is worth 1000 words.” This is true. Each symbol sparks curiosity to understand its meaning. Each painting provokes knowledge of its history, contents, and purpose. Each incredible church commands spectators to look up in wonder. The physicality of sacred art and symbolism aim to awe in order to inspire the heart and mind to the spiritual beauty the object represents. If we separate beauty from truth: art and symbolism from faith, faith is reduced to words. Though faith can technically exist without objects of beauty, it flourishes with the support of beautiful art, architecture, music, etc. 

So the question is, why just exist when there is a possibility to thrive?

Archdiocese of the Military Chapel, Washington, DC