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)