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Creative Minority Reader

Part 2: Architectural Theology at the New Saint Michael Church

What follows is the second installment of an architectural theology series using the new church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Leawood, Kansas as an example. For the introductory information, click here.

St. Michaels’ new church partakes of a “high” theology of ecclesiastical architecture, meaning that the building is understood as a "sacrament."

In the broad sense of the word, a sacrament is a sign which makes an otherwise unknowable spiritual reality knowable, active and present, to the senses. The Eucharist, of course, is our supreme sacrament, but a church building is a sacramental image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the biblical term for heaven itself. So the church building is more than simply a luxurious meeting hall, but in its very art and architecture, allows worshippers to participate in the “signs and symbols of heavenly realities” as the Second Vatican Council requested in its document on the sacred liturgy called Sacrosanctum Concilium.

While the world still shows evidence of the Fall, when humanity and the rest of creation fell into disorder and chaos, the church building shows us what our heavenly future might “look like”: radiant, ordered, centered on the worship of God in Christ, restored, renewed, and populated with the harmonious interaction of angels and saints.

In theological terminology, this looking forward to the realities of heaven is called “anticipated eschatology,” the participation now in the things of the eschaton, or end times, when God has fully restored his creation through the sharing His own Divine Life. The church building is therefore oriented toward the east, the direction from which Christ will return at the end of time (Acts 1:10). As the congregation assembles, it takes an eschatological orientation; in its very arrangement, it looks to the return of Christ, signaling the completion of his mission of restoration.

In the world outside, people interact with discord and slander; in the church they speak in one voice, praising God in liturgical texts and songs. Outside, the world is filled with the smell of stench and decay; the church gives us the scent of a renewed creation in its flowers and the sweetness of rising prayer in its fragrant incense.

The dullness of concrete and asphalt gives way in the church to marble, bronze, silk and gold. The chaotic tone and secular content of movies and television are replaced in church by images of Christ, the saints, angels—with whom we all worship as a sacramental image of the Mystical Body of Christ. For this reason, the small, high windows of the new church design allow light to flood in, but prevent looking out to the fallen world. Instead, they allow the faithful to enter a sacramental image of the new heaven and earth, participating now by way of foretaste in the realities of heaven.

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Anonymous said...

The revival of the Serliana Altar-piece is to be welcomed. However, I believe the composition would be better were it scaled back somewhat - especially by the omission of oculi in the flanking planes and by the omission of the overbaring fresco/mosaic in the central plane. In the classical tradition, the central plane should be occupied (usually) by a picture of the Crucifixion, to which are added a picture of Our Lady and of the church Patron in the flanking planes. As the composition stands, the central plane overwhealms the High Altar which should be the uncontested centre of the entire building. Also, the High Altar should be accompanied by two flanking votive altars and railed off from the body of the church.

D Mac said...

An interesting response... esp. that the mural should be seen as overbearing. It is the vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, which is the primary visual context of the liturgy. The notion that the crucifixion should be the central image of a church, as I read history, is really a somewhat recent (late 19th/20th century) innovation. Liturgically, a crucifix was an image for the priest, which is why little altar crucifixes were often placed there. This mural here is based on that at the cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, WV (a detail of which is shown at the upper left of this blog). Here the heavenly and the earthly come together, as the rays of the painting reveal the glory of the shekinah at the level of the taberncale, as it did in the Ark in the Temple's Holy of Holies. Our Lday will be represented in the mural, and St. Micahel (the church's patron) is central below the throne. It isn't shown here, but the two roundrels will each have an image of the other 2 archangels.

David said...

I believe that the murals will be splendid. So far they seem to be the missing element in much of the classical revival of church buildings.

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