Things to Consider

The Fundamental Virtues of Liturgical Architecture

March 07, 2007


In order for church buildings to be able to bear the weight of the Mystery which is celebrated in them, they ought to be, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, "places of consecration where people feel able to contemplate the holy in the midst of their secular life." ("Religious Art and Architecture. Honesty and Consecration," American Institute of Architect's Journal 45 (March 1966) 44.)  As such, they ought to be places where people "should not feel separated from their ordinary life and thought," but rather, places that open up into the secular life and radiate "the symbols of the ultimate into the infinite expressions of our daily existence." (Ibid.)  Still, the question remains, what kind of building can fulfill these theological requirements?  How does an architectual work express the presence of the holy, while at the same time open up into the world that which is experienced in it?

There are no specific guidelines that need to be followed in terms of shapes, styles, colors and materials; yet, there are some basic virtues that a Christian church building should have if it is to live up to its name.

Integrity and Honesty

The virtue of integrity and honesty is fundamental to good church architecture.  "[If] there is truth in every work of art, and if this art is dedicated to expressing our ultimate concern, then it should be no less but more honest than any other art." (Donald Canty, "Strength or Banality? A New Reformation Challenges Church Design," Architectural Forum 119 (December 1963) 71, quoting Paul Tillich (emphasis added).)  Liturgical architecture must deal with things in "a real way without artificialities and affectations" and at the same time, it must shun "illusions, deceits and dissimulations." (Edward Sovik, "What is Religious Architecture?" Faith and Forum 1 (1968) 24.)  Hence, architecture for worship needs to be truthful, honest and genuine in terms of material and form, as well as in design.


The virtue of integrity and honesty also requires a great deal of authenticity.  This precludes imitation, adorning or trimming in order to beautify.  Beauty must lie in the adequacy and expressive power of the architecture and the art itself, not in contingent additions.  

The virtue of integrity and honesty implies that it is never enough just to renovate, fabricate and innovate.  Such efforts must always be "thorough and honest."  (Pietro Belluschi, "Architects and Artists - Interpreting Man's Spiritual Dreams," Fiath and Forum 113:1-2 (1979) 9.)  The work of architects and artists must be "a reflection of a deep understanding and inner longings, the result of having found what is central and lasting." (Ibid.)  Otherwise, liturgical art and architecture will be governed by "tastemakers, who continually demand new fashions soon to be bored by them." (Ibid.)

Humility and Simplicity

According to Reinier Senn, a Swiss architect, "material limitations can be the result either of outward necessity or of inner intention.  When a building is the product of this inner intention, it need not appear povery stricken, but on the contrary can radiate the spirit of freedom, a power that transcends the material.  The plainest materials and simplest forms are sufficient for a church."  (Canty, 72, quoting, Reinier Senn.)  Contrary to common belief, sheer size and material splendor are not necessarily Christianity's best advertisement.  Religious architecture is not intended to "assert power and mastery over people, but rather, acts as a servant to them; it is charismatic rather than demanding; it fulfills, illiuminates, instructs, honors and dignifies people." (Sovik, 9.)  The virtue of simplicity is tied in with the ethical aspect, both of liturgy and the arts.  (E. Lynn, "Shaker Spaces: The Psychology of Simplicity in Religious Architecture," Faith and Forum 7 (1974) 16-17, 28.)

The type of simplicity that is sought needs to cherish emptiness.  (Belluschi, 9.)  An emptiness that is eloquent and wrought with deeper implications.  An emptiness "filled with the presence of that which cannot be expressed in any finite way." (Canty, 45, quoting, Paul Tillich.)  An emptiness which suggests a "holiness, precious enough to remind the worshipper of the infinity from which it was wrested."  (Belluschi, 9.)  Thus, the space becomes more than a shelter, since it gives a "hint of other more satisfying purposes."  (Ibid.)

Quality and Appropriateness

The virtue of quality and appropriateness presumes "love and care in the making." (Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, 20 (NCCB, 1978).)  Second, it presumes the artist's special gift in producing a harmonious whole, a well-crafted work.  Third, quality refers to a kind of "transparency which allows for the simultaneous experience both of the art work itself and of that which lies beyond it," namely, the sacred that it intends to evoke.  (Ibid., 22.)  In sum, "without the faith, the joy, the risk, the caring, the time that was made holy by the struggle to produce that work of art, one may wind up with a slick and polished beauty, but there is no sacrament."  (Cynthia Bourgeault, "The Church and the Arts. A New Beginning," Liturgy 23:5 (1978) 9.)

Though appropriateness depends also upon the capability of bearing the weight of the mystery, awe, wonder and reverence that the liturgical action expresses, it most fundamentally presumes that liturgical architecture serves and aids the action of liturgy. This virtue is foremost achieved through its quality of hospitality and the humility of its needing the assembly to complete it.


This virtue refers to the strength that all liturgical art and architecture ought to possess in order to express the uncompromising message of Christianity, that is, the truth about what happened to humanity in Jesus Christ, which is, after all, the message celebrated by the assembly in the building.  The building, depending on its fortitude, will either support this weighty celebration or contradict it. 

It is the task of the artist and the architect to ensure that church buildings and environments communicate with faithfulness, clarity and vigor, the view of humanity, the world, the church, and God that the Christian assembly celebrates.

Therefore, everything that is used for worship needs to have a profundity, a gravitas, an inner content that is ready to burst out.  There can be nothing frivolous about liturgical architecture.  There is room for nothing but things natural, basic, and fully tactile.

If a building is true to these virtues of integrity and honesty, humility and simplicity, quality and appropriateness, and fortitude; and if the building functions as a "shelter," a "skin," and a "symbol"; and if there is a healthy dynamic between faith, function and form; then this is a building worthy of worship of the one, true God.

Johan van Parys is Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, MN.


Advent: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I and Part II)
Christmas: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I and Part II)
Epiphany: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Solemnity (Part I and Part II)
Lectio Divina - Visio Divina
On Becoming the Paschal Mystery (Part I, Part II and Part III)
Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus...Stations of the Cross
We Are the Body of Christ

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