I have developed a certain tendency to use the phrases “changing the world” or “taking over the world” when speaking with creative friends. I usually leave this without any particular explanation, a seeming little absurdity thrown into a comment or conversation, but I actually mean what I say. I fully intend a lifelong conspiracy with these friends. You see, these friends understand and create beauty, and beauty changes the world. Continue reading
(This post is a vast revision of a previous article, recently rewritten for Sojourn Midtown’s move into our new St. Vincent’s Cathedral facility.)
Gothic architecture (and its revivals by default) was created for the specific purpose of corporate worship space. Originating in the rebuilding of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis by Abbot Suger in the 12th Century, the style was meant to instill a sense of awe, of inward and outward meditation, and to convey spiritual truth in simultaneous experience. Here are a few key highlights of the Gothic-style church building that we can see in Sojourn Midtown’s new worship space, the former St. Vincent de Paul Church. Continue reading
I realized earlier today, during an extremely rare stop at a Starbucks, one basic source of my current writer’s block (which I am writing about, ironically, on a blog). I miss the sometimes exciting structure and environment of being in school. I lamented it often while I was there, but the truth is that it fed my creativity. I mean this both for my undergraduate and graduate studies, in different ways. There is something absolutely amazing, for whatever anxiety-inducing effects are attached, about an academic environment and furthering one’s study in a chosen discipline. Much better still is the integration of one discipline with others. I have, over the years, become a staunch proponent of the liberal arts. I have a firm belief that you cannot study history, philosophy, religion, literature, the fine arts, or the sciences by themselves, but you must – absolutely must – learn how each one in involved with the others. It is only through the true connection of these that we will understand the everyday struggles of the societies in which we live. Continue reading
“Today, as yesterday, musicians, composers, liturgical chapel cantors, church organists and instrumentalists must feel the necessity of serious and rigorous professional training. They should be especially conscious of the fact that each of their creations or interpretations cannot escape the requirement of being a work that is inspired, appropriate and attentive to aesthetic dignity, transformed into a prayer of worship when, in the course of the liturgy, it expresses the mystery of faith in sound.” Continue reading
Recently I have had a couple of opportunities to wander through the Louisville structure built in the late 19th Century as St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. This great old Gothic Revival structure, out of regular use since the early 1990s, was recently purchased by my church, Sojourn, in hopes of renovating it and using it for our four midtown Sunday services and other functions. While being much battered and neglected by almost twenty years of disuse, there is a sense of awe that is inescapable when one enters the old sanctuary. Even though the paint is peeling and lacks it’s old leaden luster, though the altar is barren of its former somewhat Marian magnificence, one cannot help but feel like one is in the presence of something transcending our current world. And this was fully intentional.
Gothic architecture (and its revivals by default) was created for the specific purpose of corporate worship space. Originating in the rebuilding of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis by Abbot Suger in the 12th Century, the style was meant to instill a sense of awe, of inward and outward meditation, and to convey spiritual truths… all in simultaneous experience. Let us journey together through a few key highlights of the Gothic church as I reflect, in turn, on how these are still represented in the broken battlements of the old St. Vincent’s Church.
One does not have to journey inside St. Vincent’s to begin to experience the theological intentionality of the architecture. We instantly see the three doorways of the facade representing the divine Trinity, with this being made more explicit in the St. Vincent’s structure by the glass depiction of the a stylized Trinity symbol over the doorway. We also first see an element, though small now, that we will be overwhelmed with in the sanctuary, the stained glass window.
More explicit in medieval Gothic structures with their flying buttresses completing the shape of the entire building, the enormous Gothic arches (which come to a point, dissimilar from the rounded Roman-style arches typical of older basilicas) call to mind an overturned boat. One is to remember, when seeing this, three elements of spiritual history. We remember Noah, whose family alone was called out and preserved in an ark in the first destruction of the world. We remember that several of Christ’s original apostles were fishermen, and that he told Simon Peter he would make them “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). It has also been said that many a church meeting house in a new setting was begun by overturning the hull of a ship onto the land.
Abbot Suger was adamant that with grand, glorious windows “the whole [church] would shine with the wonderful and uninterrupted light of most sacred windows, pervading the interior beauty.” This was in high contrast to the often small ceiling windows of older Roman basilicas than often seemed dark, even in midday. No, there must be light, and so tall, great stained-glass windows stretched down the sides of the old cathedrals, filling them with enormous light. A highlight of these were the circular rose windows, normally on the facade of the building, though occasionally above the altar as well. Those visiting St. Vincent’s will note that the rose windows there are, in a strikingly dissimilar place, in the ends of the short transepts, crossing the building horizontally instead of their usual place at the vertical ends of the church. Notable is that only a few small windows in St. Vincent’s have significant representational images, a fitting contrast to the often vivid depictions of saints and Bible scenes, now that it is being taken over by a Reformed Protestant church. When one first enters st. Vincent’s, one is in the narthex largely absent of light, then taken into the sanctuary filled with it. Ex tenebris lux… out from darkness, light… the old abbot had it right again.
There are various other elements of the church I could point out. The high vaulted ceilings were created both to induce the feeling of singing to the heavens and to create the ambient echo gothic cathedrals are known for. The altarpiece situated in the middle of the apse (the semi-circular “stage” area at the front of the sanctuary) was to put Christ very literally at the center of all things. The transept horizontal wings crossing the center nave creates a Roman cross out of the whole building. These and more could all be exposited, but this is a blog post. There are others who have handled this much better in a host of art history books. For me, it is simple to say that I am glad of the rich spiritual history that gothic architecture has imparted in its structures, and that my Christian family is now the beneficiaries of a facility in that great tradition.
Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (Harcourt College Publishers) and class notes from Prof. Curtis Chapman (Reinhardt College) and Dr. Steve Halla (SBTS).
(Illustration: a detail of one of the old St. Vincent de Paul’s smaller stained glass windows)
IVP’s Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, edited by literary scholar Leland Ryken, Christian education expert James Wilhoit, and biblical theologian Tremper Longman III, is one of my top resources in my own personal study of the Scriptures. The lengthy, almost three-page article on beauty is fantastic and is a credit to this volume, which I would recommend for every serious Christian’s bookshelf. Here is a concluding excerpt:
The imagery of beauty is extensive in the Bible, ranging from the paradise in which God planted every tree that is pleasant, to the sight of the resplendent heavenly Jerusalem that dazzles our sight in the closing passage of the Bible. We can infer from the biblical images of beauty that the longing for beauty, along with an ability to recognize and experience it, exists within every human being. Although the Bible does not state it explicitly, it is a fair inference that experiences of earthly beauty awaken a longing for a beauty that is more permanent and transcendent than anything this life can give – a longing for the beauty of God. Certainly the beauty of the holy city (and its forerunner, the Zion of the temple) is from the glory of God, who is himself its source, its temple and its light. In heaven all God’s servants will see his face as David inseperable longed to do: “There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:3-4 RSV). And in seeing God they will se beauty in its pure form fo the first time.
“We so often talk of ‘worldview thinking’ and ‘applying the Bible to every area of life,’ but that is all too often just a skeleton of a theory. The medievals actually lived it; imperfectly, yes, but still much better than anything in modernity. We have no sense of a life carefully crafted by beauty. A devotion to beauty will sculpt everything we do, and the medievals knew that very well. Beauty trains one’s mind to think differently about family, leisure, labor, theology, and the future. Yet we thin-souled moderns are so proud of our rejection of poems and stories and paintings. We lead half-lives and die with less. God has given us so much more, and we slight Him in our meager living. Christendom has lost so much.”
– Douglas Jones, Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth
(Illustration: anonymous medieval artist, Monk Tasting Wine from a Barrel)
“For a Christian rhetoric, perspicuity is the foundation of all the canons of style. Clarity of thought must always be the preacher’s aim. Clarity is the basic beauty of eloquent oratory and the driving power that persuades one’s listeners. The beauty of teaching is making clear the truth, for it is in the truth itself, rather than in the words about truth, in which beauty is found. The truth itself, Augustine tells us, when presented in simplicity, gives pleasure because it is the truth. This is one of Augustine’s best insights. Here, a thousand years before the Protestant Reformation, one easily detects the guiding principle of Protestant plain style. Here is the foundation of the Protestant understanding of beauty.”
– Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 2
HT: Douglas Wilson
“This is the position we are in when confronted by beauty. The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there for is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole. Beauty, in other words, is another echo of a voice – a voice which (from the evidence before us) might be saying one of several different things, but which, were we to hear it in all its fullness, would make sense of what we presently see and hear and know and love and call ‘beautiful.’”
- N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
(This posts was originally written for my personal blog, The Sojourner’s Journal, in November, 2008. It served as one of my first expressions of my discontent with the church’s modern relationship with art and the desire to engage that relationship and motivate greater art from the Christian community. Thus, it is the forerunner of this site and, as this site prepares for a soon-to-come redevelopment in its existence, I thought it would be fitting to post a personal moment of catalyst from which it was eventually formed.)
An Artistic Challenge to the Church (or, Why Does Christian Art Usually Suck?) [part 1 of many]
The modern day Evangelical Church has largely (almost completely) failed in creative endeavors such as visual art (drawing, painting, etc.), music, literature, and film. Failed might be an understatement. The church has produced very little that exceeds above a pile refuse (in the Pauline sense of that word) in any of these categories, and this is most troubling indeed. Continue reading