Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On the New Italian churches

Sandro Magister has this article on Modern Church Architecture in Italy http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1346722?eng=y

ROME, February 14, 2011 – The three images juxtaposed above depict a detail of the wooden door of the Roman basilica of Saint Sabina, from the 5th century; the interior of the church of Saint Stephen in the Round in Rome, also from the 5th century; and the design of a church inaugurated in Milan in 1981, the parish of God the Father.

The question must be asked: are modern buildings like the third one depicted above in continuity or in rupture with the architectural, liturgical, and theological tradition of the Church?

Various modern churches are constructed in the form of a circle. Just as it is the circle that characterizes the two ancient examples of sacred art reproduced above. But is this enough to guarantee continuity with tradition?

Or are aesthetic criteria sufficient to judge the quality of a new church?

At this start of the new year, a controversy over this has exploded in Rome and Italy. And not only among the specialists. The newspaper of the Holy See, "L'Osservatore Romano," has entered the fray, and on several occasions has severely criticized some of the most famous examples of new sacred architecture sponsored by the Italian episcopate.


It was started by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the pontifical council for culture, with a "lectio magistralis" at the architecture faculty of the University of Rome "La Sapienza," reproduced in its entirety in the January 17-18 issue of the Vatican newspaper.

Ravasi came out swinging against those modern churches "in which we find ourselves lost as in a conference hall, distracted as in a sports arena, packed in as at a tennis court, degraded as in a pretentious and vulgar house."

No names. But on January 20, again in "L'Osservatore Romano," the architect Paolo Portoghesi took direct aim at the three churches that had won the national contest announced by the Italian episcopal conference in 2000, built in Foligno by Massimiliano Fuksas, in Catanzaro by Alessandro Pizzolato, and in Modena by Mauro Galantino.

Portoghesi is himself a world-famous "superstar": the Grand Mosque of Rome is one of his designs. For some time he has criticized some of the new churches built by trendy architects and praised by the hierarchy. The most famous and talked about of these include the church built by Renzo Piano in San Giovanni Rotondo, over the tomb of Padre Pio, and the one built by Richard Meier in the Roman neighborhood of Tor Tre Teste.

This time, in "L'Osservatore Romano," Portoghesi mainly goes after the church of Jesus the Redeemer in Modena, designed by Galantino. He acknowledges its aesthetic virtues, its harmony of form, its conceptual cleanness. He also acknowledges the architect's intention to "give more dynamism to the liturgical event."

But then he asks: "Where are the sacred signs that make a church recognizable?" On the outside – he observes – there are none, except for the bells, "which, however, could also be found in a city hall." While on the inside, "the iconological role is assigned to a 'garden of olives' set up in a little enclosure behind the altar, and to the 'waters of the Jordan' reduced to a little trough of standing water hemmed in between two walls and ending at the baptistry."

But the worst, in Portoghesi's view, appears during the celebration of the Mass:

"The community of the faithful is divided into two sections facing each other, and in the middle a big empty space with the altar and the ambo at opposite ends. The two sections facing each other and the wandering of the celebrants between the two ends threaten not only the traditional unity of the praying community, but also what was the great achievement of Vatican Council II, the image of the assembly as the people of God on its journey. Why look at each other? Why not look together toward the fundamental places of the liturgy and the image of Christ? Why are the places of the liturgy, the altar and the ambo, on opposite ends instead of being together? Trapped in the pews, divided into sectors like the cohorts of an army, the faithful are forced, while remaining immobile, to turn their heads to the right, then to the left. The figure of the Crucifix is placed on the side of the altar, in correspondence with the section on the left, with the inevitable result that many of the faithful cannot see it without craning their necks."

Portoghesi quotes Benedict XVI, and then continues:

"It is to be hoped that these timely statements from the chair of Saint Peter will make liturgists and architects understand that re-evangelization also passes through the churches with a small 'c', and indeed requires the creative effort of innovation, but also an attentive consideration of tradition, which has always been not mere conservation, but the handing down of a heritage to be brought to fruition."

And he concludes:

"The new church of Modena is a glaring demonstration of the fact that the aesthetic quality of the architecture is not enough to make a space a true church, a place in which the faithful may be helped to feel like living stones of a temple of which Christ is the cornerstone."


These criticisms were answered, in "Corriere della Sera" on February 8, by the architect Galantino and Bishop Ernesto Mandara, responsible for new churches in the diocese of Rome.

Galantino defended his architectural decisions, maintaining that he wanted to arrange the faithful "as around a table, conceptually reconstructing the last supper." And he recalled that he had developed his reflections in the 1980's in Milan, with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.

(An aside. The Milanese church in the illustration at the top of this page is one of the products of that climate. Planned by the architects Giancarlo Ragazzi and Giuseppe Marvelli, it was expressly conceived as "a place of encounter and prayer for the believers of all religions," devoid of specific signs both on the outside and on the inside. Movable walls can divide the interior into three compartments: the middle one for Catholic rites, and the two sides intended for Jews and Muslims. The current pastor is laboriously restoring the church to entirely Catholic use, with two crosses on the outside, with stained glass and Christian images on the inside, and with a large Christ on the cross above the altar.)

Bishop Mandara also defended his actions and those of the Italian episcopal conference:

"Probably if we look at the past we find examples of unsuccessful buildings that lend support to Cardinal Ravasi, but I am deeply satisfied with the results of recent years. The churches that have been built express very well both the sense of the sacred and that of hospitality."

On February 9, "L'Osservatore Romano" reported both of the statements of Galantino and Mandara. But it also gave another opportunity to Portoghesi, who said:

"After the Council, there were many attempts to leap forward, in various directions. The church has lost its specificity, it has become a building like the others. But recognizability is a fundamental reality, a stage of that re-Christianization of the West of which the pope speaks. As for the orientation of liturgical prayer, the people of God on its journey toward salvation cannot be static, it moves in a direction; the ideal would be to orient the church to the east, where the sun rises. We must not be afraid of that modernity which the Church itself has contributed to creating, every generation has the duty of reinterpreting the content of the past, but considering tradition as an element of strength to draw upon."

Not only that. On February 9 and the following day, "L'Osservatore Romano" returned to the issue with two erudite contributions from two experts, both intended to demonstrate the distinctive characteristics of the traditional architecture of Christian churches.


The first of the two statements is by Maria Antonietta Crippa, a professor of architecture at the Policlinico di Milano.

It shows how the preeminence given by Christian architecture to churches in the form of a Latin cross is inspired both by the classical period (Vitruvius, with the analogy between the proportions of the body and of the temple) and above all by the vision of the Church as the body of Christ, and of Christ crucified.

But together with the square, the circle also has a place in this architectural tradition. According to the medieval authors, the Christian churches "have the form of a cross to show that the Christian people are crucified to the world; or of a circle to symbolize eternity."

Or even of a cross and a circle at the same time. As happened in the 16th century with the prolongation of the nave of the new basilica of Saint Peter, originally with central symmetry in Michelangelo's design.


The second and even more important contribution, in "L'Osservatore Romano" on February 10, is from Timothy Verdon, an American art historian and priest, a professor at Princeton and director of the office for sacred art of the archdiocese of Florence.

His article is reproduced in its entirety below. And it shows how the first great churches in Rome were built, in the 4th century, precisely by adapting for Christian use two models of classical architecture: the longitudinal one of the basilica and the circular one, with central symmetry.

In Jerusalem, the church of the Holy Sepulcher built by the emperor Constantine combines both models. But also in Rome, the first great church with central symmetry, that of Saint Stephen in the Round from the 5th century – the interior of which can be seen in the illustration at the top of this page – rises from a huge rectangular courtyard.

In any case, the churches with central symmetry are not devoid of decoration, much less do they make the assembly of the faithful fold back on itself. The faithful enter them as on a path of initiation, up to the column of light that is at the center of the building and is Christ "lux mundi."

That Christ who in the contemporaneous door of Saint Sabina – see the illustration – appears at the center of the celestial circle and receives the "oriented" prayer of the woman below him, the Church crowned as his bride.

This is the great architectural, liturgical, and theological tradition of the Christian churches. Of yesterday, today, and forever.

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