Most Catholics are unaware of how our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God himself. Designs that stretch all the way back to Mount Sinai when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our church layouts still follow that plan and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Our traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and heaven itself.

There is not time to develop these roots at length in this post today, though I hope to do so in a series of future posts.

Sadly in recent decades there was a casting off of these biblical roots in favor of a “meeting house” approach to church design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith, and follow biblical plans. Rather the thinking was that the Church simply provided a space for the people to meet and conduct various liturgies.

In some cases the liturgical space came to be considered “fungible” in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner on Wednesday. This thinking began to be set forth as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs which could be moved to suit various functions. And even in parishes which did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave, (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of a church as essentially a meeting space prevailed.

Thus churches looked less and less like churches and more like meeting halls. Bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit and very minimal statuary were used, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure was to reflect heaven or even remind us of it.

That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the meaning of church art as something beyond what is merely “pretty,” and coming to understand the rich symbolism or art and architecture as revealing the faith and expressing heavenly realities.

Take stained glass for instance. Stained glass is more than just pretty colors, pictures and symbols. Stained glass was used for centuries to teach the faith through picture and symbol. Until the past 200 years most people, even among the upper classes, could not read well, or at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.

Stained glass depicted biblical stories, saints, sacraments, and glimpses into heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, shell = baptism, and so forth. And so the church taught the faith through the exquisite art of stained glass.

But stained glass also served another purpose, that of imaging the foundational walls of heaven. For, recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of heaven. Hence it’s design was based on the descriptions of heaven found in the Scriptures. Now among other things, heaven is described in the Book of Revelation as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in the foundations of those walls:

One of the seven angels…showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates….The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.... (Revelation 21:varia)

Thus, because heaven had great high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory, and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rise even higher. And in the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalls the precious jeweled gemstones described in the lower walls of heaven, according to Revelation 21.

The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in heaven now. In my own parish church, the floors are a green jasper color, and the clerestory walls, red jasper. On the clerestory are painted the saints gathered before the throne-like altar in heaven (Heb 12:1; Rev. 7:9) . In the apse is the throne like altar, with Jesus at the center (Rev 5:6), the seven lamp stands are surrounding him in seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are 12 apostles, joined with the 12 patriarchs symbolized by 12 wooden pillars. Together they form the 24 elders who surround the throne in heaven (Rev 4:4). Above the high altar in the clerestory windows are the four living creatures also said to surround the throne (Rev 4:6-7).

Yes, amazing. I stand in my church and realize its message: you are in heaven when you enter here and celebrate the sacred mysteries: sursum corda! (hearts aloft)!

Photo above: San Chapelle, Paris France

Here’s a video I put together on stained glass. Enjoy these jewels of light that recall the lower walls of heaven as the choir sings Christe Lux mundi (O Christ you are the Light of the world).

The Sources of many of the photos in this video are:

http://www.romeofthewest.com
http://viewfrombackpew.blogspot.com/



Also if you are interested, here is a video I did some time back featuring some of the architectural details of my own parish.

15 Responses

  1. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for posting these videos, Monsignor. I love stained glass as an art form! When I was a teenager, I used to go for hours at a time to the local art museum and look at their collection of stained glass. Most of what they had was German and Swiss. It was all very symbolic. Some of the earlier designs were a bit primitive, but beautiful nonetheless.

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  3. Mark O'Neil says:

    I read a book by Scott Hahn, “The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth” which talks some about this issue. I enjoyed the book and thought it was well written. Out of all the differences between Catholics and Protestants the Lamb’s Supper is the one issue where Catholics have clearly have kept faithful in testimony to pointing to the Lord’s return. I born and raised as a Protestant in the Church of Christ denomination, which kept the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and provided it for you at a later time if you missed it Sunday morning. However as I grew up and I began to question my faith and why I believed what I believed I became Southern Baptist, which is where I reside now. As a Southern Baptist I strongly lament the infrequency at which the Lamb’s Supper is provided. Although I align with the theology with a strong view on God’s sovereignty, the Southern Baptist’s sorely lack the theology in the Lord’s Supper, which is the central and critical point in the Christian faith. God’s sovereignty without the Lamb’s sacrifice leaves the theology of God as terrifying, distant, and irreconcilable. It is the Lamb’s Supper that makes Christianity what it is and my hat is off to the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church for more faithfully keeping the Mass.

    • Faustina says:

      I hope you are able to watch Marcus Grodi’s program on EWTN, The Journey Home, which is about individuals of many faiths coming into the Catholic church.

  4. Pilar says:

    I am going to share your blog post with some parisioners at my home parish. Our “worship center” was built in the mid 70’s. Our current pastor has made worthy efforts to make it look and feel like a house worship & not simply a meeting place. He added kneelers, brought in the crucified Lord above the altar, and best of all, brought in the Tabernacle, which had been somewhat hidden in the chapel. Yes, with the space that is our sanctuary, there is a simplistic beauty now.

    However, only so much can be done to it and a capital building campaign will soon begin. There has been much grumbling amongst the parishioners about the necessity of a new church building, with arguments being: “We, the people, are the church. The building doesn’t matter”; “Our numbers are declining, we don’t need it”; and “Look at the people around the world living in poverty! Our money should go towards them, not this!” and so on.

    Last year I was in diaglogue with a fellow parishioner about the need for a new church and I made the argument that in the Bible, God was specific about the temple to be built. She asked me to show her where in the Bible she could find such references to it. I told her that I couldn’t give her exact scripture references at that moment, but that I would research it and get back to her. Well, I eventually did and I gave her a copy of my findings, plus an excellent article about the importance of church architure. I never did follow up with her. However, your blogpost Monsignor gives me the perfect opportunity to do so. God’s timing is always perfect!

  5. Donna L. says:

    Lovely!

    I recognized Ste. Chapelle immediately! I lived in Paris for a year and this 13th-century church was my favorite. When I stepped inside for the first time, these windows took my breath away (meaning, I gasped)!

    I hear so many people complain about lavish Catholic churches, but when I sit in church and I look around, I think to myself, “I belong to God’s Kingdom, and this lovely building is indeed fit for a king!” If you travel to any country in Europe, the most beautiful buildings are always the cathedrals. They’re like palaces.

    Monsignor, I’d like to make a recommendation. For anyone whose interested in learning more on this subject, Scott Hahn does a great job showing the relationship between the Liturgy, the Church and the Book of Revelation in his book The Lamb’s Supper. He shows us (as the Church has always taught) that the Mass is a little taste of Heaven!

  6. Cathy R. says:

    Beautiful! I think stained glass is pretty much a Catholic thing (yes other churches do it, but we do it best). Whenever I’ve had my non-Catholic friends come to my church (didn’t matter which church it was) they always commented on the beauty of the stained glass. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the video of your own beautiful church building. I cannot imagine EVER having a spaghetti dinner in it’s nave!!!!!!!

  7. RichardGTC says:

    I would describe it as a foretaste of heaven. Thanks for making the beautiful videos. I can’t remember when I learned who is holding the keys and who is holding the sword, but I still get a kick out of it when ever I see stained glass pictures of Peter and Paul and remembering how to tell who is who.

  8. Martin says:

    Do Catholic seminaries teach about the significance of sacramental art? I have the impression they don’t.

    • Gitanjali says:

      a. An excellent piece by Msgr Pope.
      b.Yes, Brother Martin; they do! They do much more than sacramental art!!
      Especially in these parts of the world where art, musical traditions, literary genres, parables, story tellings,
      great poetry, mesmerizing silence etc abound as the Magi’s “gold, incence and myrrh”., while at
      the same time teaching us to appreciate the significant and undeniable contribution of the Church-World osmosis
      that developed during its 2 millennia of Emmanus Journey…
      Gita – Chennai – India

  9. Gerry says:

    Great videos! I had the opportunity in my youth to visit many of the beautiful cathedrals in Europe, such as Notre Dame in Paris and Cologne Cathedral in Germany. I sat for what seemed like hours just looking at the stained glass windows. The beauty, the intricate detail. I remember it all…

  10. TimD says:

    Msgr: Thanks for the video of your beautiful church. In the past couple of years, I have been blessed to visit many beautiful churches throughout Europe–about seventy in Rome alone. The two which have remained most vivid in my memory are the Cathedral in Milan, and that in Chartres, France. The latter is probably the greatest collection of artistic majesty in architecture, stained glass, and sculpture to be found anywhere on Earth. A large series of photos of the Chartres Cathedral can be found at http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=chartres+cathedral&qpvt=chartres+cathedral&FORM=IGRE

    Habemus ad Dominum!

  11. I Like The Church Fathers says:

    Beautiful post, Monsignor.

    There are few things more beautiful than a stained glass window. All Catholic churches should have stained glass windows with images from the Bible and the lives of the Saints. A church without them is the poorer for it. Bring back stained glass!

  12. Zen says:

    I love stained glass windows in churches as they really help me in my meditation. I go to two churches and one of them has these beautiful stained glass windows that depicts episodes in the life and ministry of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. They were done in very simple lines like those in beautiful children’s books, not the ornate and classical stained glass of most European churches. Nevertheless, they are beautiful and somehow almost always captures my attention. On the other hand, the other church I go to has these abstract and huge panels of stained glass that I could not make anything of. Maybe one day I could muster the courage to ask the pastor to explain the meaning of these. I am not a registered parishioner of this second church, but it is there where I go for Bible studies. Msgr Pope, any suggestions on how I could approach the priest without sounding arrogant or obssessive about these abstract stained glass?

  13. John Thomas says:

    St. John the Apostle in the Leesburg, Va, finished and dedicated just one year ago this month, in August 2012, is a stunningly beautiful, traditional and yet timeless design centered around sacramental worship at the altar, which all the angels and saints in attendance — especially 20th century and North American saints — and the word of God –Latin verses from the Gospels– written in giant golden letters above the upper wall. It is perfectly possible to do this if you want! Cheers to Fr. John Mosimann for leading this effort.

    http://www.saintjohnleesburg.org/base.cgim?template=photos_completed

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