Seeing The Gospel in Gothic Architecture

(This post is a vast revision of a previous article, recently rewritten for Sojourn Midtown’s move into our new St. Vincent de Paul 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.

Divinity

You don’t have to journey inside our building to begin to experience the theological intentionality of its architecture. We instantly see the three doorways of the facade representing the divine Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), 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 when we step into the sanctuary: the stained glass window. Meanwhile, the two towers of the building were often used to represent the dual nature of Jesus Christ as both God and Man. Meanwhile, inside the sanctuary, the transept (the horizontal wings) crossing the center nave (the middle aisle) creates a Roman cross out of the whole building.

Light

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 approach was in high contrast to the usually small windows of older Roman basilicas than often seemed dark, even in midday. No, there must be light; therefore, tall stained-glass windows stretched down the sides of the old cathedrals, filling them with abundant light. A highlight of these was the circular rose windows, usually on the facade of the building, although occasionally above the altar as well. Those visiting Sojourn Midtown will note that our rose windows are in a strikingly different place: at the ends of the short transepts (the aisle wings that cross the central aisle horizontally) instead of their usual place at the vertical ends of the church. Notable also is that only a few small windows in St. Vincent’s have significant representational images (most Gothic churches have this in abundance), however, those that do still are theologically rich with symbolism. When one first enters the original entranceway to St. Vincent’s, you are in the narthex, mostly absent of light, and then taken into the sanctuary filled with it. You re-enact the journey out from the darkness and into the light of truth. The old abbot had it right again, recalling from John’s Gospel that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Transcendence

Along with the pervading light, the high vaulted ceilings of the sanctuary were created to give a feeling of awe and transcendence. The sanctuary’s lofty design conveys the sense of singing to the heavens, and it creates the ambient echo for which Gothic cathedrals are especially known.

Salvation

The enormous gothic arches that cross the ceiling of the sanctuary (which come to a point, dissimilar from the rounded Roman-style arches typical of older basilicas) call to mind an overturned ship’s hull. This symbolism is particularly present as you stare up at the vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary. One is supposed to remember Noah when seeing this, whose family alone was chosen and preserved in an ark in the first destruction of the world. We also recall 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 is fitting for Sojourn Midtown to move into a facility that itself is such a theologically informed work of art. As you take in our new worship space, let its deliberate art and architecture point you toward the truth that Sojourn is about.

Sources used:

Gardner’s Art through the Ages (Harcourt College Publishers) and class notes from Profs. Curtis Chapman and Steve Halla.