From History to Modernity


The overwrought ornamentation and pompous theatricality of the Rococo churches encouraged the Neo-Classical movement of the late-18th and 19th centuries.

The overwrought ornamentation and pompous theatricality of the Rococo churches encouraged the Neo-Classical movement of the late-18th and 19th centuries. As early as 1753, architectural theorists such as Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier were promoting a simplified, rational architecture founded on the "first principles" of Greek architecture. In the mid-18th century many European architects and artists were being influenced by the rediscovery of Greek temples in Greece and Sicily. The Rococo designs of the Late Baroque period were antithetical to the simplicity of the ancient Greeks. Thus, a renewed interest in antiquity flowered into Neo-Classicism, which was applied to both religious and secular buildings of the period.

In terms of churches, the exteriors often bore a strong resemblance to the Greek temples (with grand Doric porticos, for instance), but sometimes with the addition of plain steeple towers. This Greek Revival movement was popularized in England, where Sir John Soane was its most prolific exponent. In North America, this Neo-Classicism took many forms. Some imitated the Anglican churches of the British Isles while others were adapted in much smaller scale as the Protestant meeting house prototype — still common in the landscape of places like New England.

Architectural Smorgasbord

At the same time other "revivalist" movements were taking root, most notably that of the Gothic. Yet these Gothic Revival churches were criticized for not being properly Gothic but merely Renaissance-like structures dressed up with Gothic features, such as pointed arches, rib vaults, and buttresses. Since these traditionally structural elements were used merely for ornamentation, this faux Gothic was easily criticized as "inauthentic" and, according to some, influenced the 20th-century reactionary movement of architectural Modernism.

The willingness to look to "styles" of the past, while commendable in itself, had its drawbacks. An indiscriminate eclecticism (borrowing architectural elements from various styles) resulted in churches that were easily criticized for their lack of beauty and harmony. The "inauthentic" use of materials, inappropriately placed statuary and ornamentation, and disproportioned architectural elements betrayed a lack of artistic skill and historical understanding. Ultimately, the architects of this period often failed to look to the past in order to inform their own work. Rather, they looked to the past and duplicated a certain "look" or "feel," but lacked both the technical skill and artistic flair to properly recreate the masterworks of past ages (not generally an acceptable or desired practice anyway). Consequently, few churches of this era can be considered works that will generously inform the work of future architects. There are, however, some notable exceptions, such as St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and Sacred Heart Basilica in Newark, New Jersey.

Descendents of the Baroque

Although many churches built or reconstructed in the late-18th and 19th centuries reflected a "reaction" to Late Baroque flamboyancy and its lack of "self-restraint," the earlier strain of Baroque — the churches that grew out of the Counter-Reformation — continued to influence church architecture in the New World well into the 20th century.

The Spanish mission churches of the Western United States and the richly styled Mexican churches of the late 19th century, for instance, were direct descendents of the Baroque model in façade, the arrangement of spaces, and ornamentation. The greatest influence of the Baroque architecture of Rome, however, was its integration of sculpture, painting, architectural detailing, and form. This masterful integration produced the high altars and reredos — the sculptural piece behind the altar that usually contains paintings and statues — so common to American churches built in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Further, the Counter-Reformation era solidified the universal use of church furnishings such as pews, kneelers, communion rails, ornate pulpits, side aisle shrines, stained glass windows, and candles. It is worth adding, for the sake of clarification, that none of these individual elements were products of the Baroque Age, having been introduced centuries earlier. Also, the basilica plan, confirmed by universal adaptation throughout all centuries of Catholic church architecture, continued to be used in the design of almost all Catholic churches during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The atmosphere created by this model was one of religious mystery wherein one could experience a little of the unearthly joy of the New Jerusalem, where one's soul could encounter Christ in a unique way. Every detail, however small, held meaning for both artist and layman, either consciously or unconsciously. These churches told the story of Christ and His Church. They taught, catechized, and illustrated the lives of the Church's saintly souls. In the same way that the earthly liturgy is a foretaste of the "heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, and in which Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle," (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 8) the church building is a foretaste of the "place" where such a heavenly liturgy is offered.

Protestant churches, however, designed for a variety of worship rites that departed dramatically from that of the Roman liturgy, took many different forms. This was true as early as the mid-19th century, especially in northern Germany and North America. Sadly, many new theories of architecture, theology, and liturgy (inspired by both Protestantism and agnosticism) increasingly influenced the Catholic Church throughout the 20th century and contributed to what many perceive as a crisis in church architecture. Swift-changing fashions and a break with the history and tradition of church design produced the banal and uninspiring religious buildings of the past several decades.

The Wisdom of Hindsight

Instead of continuing to lament the degeneration of Catholic church design that characterized the late 20th century, architects, priests, bishops, and patrons — all armed with the wisdom of hindsight — are well placed to learn from the mistakes of recent decades. The consequences of discarding the successful contributions of the past, both near and distant, are all too clear. The overwhelming evidence of the day points to the failure of an architecture that is based on the errors of Modernism. Yet those involved with producing the sacred churches of the 21st century can learn from the failure of contemporary church design as well as from the noble and successful "houses of God" of past epochs.

Church architects and artists especially can draw from the scriptural precedents of establishing a "house of God," the adaptation of the basilica form by the early Christians, the strength and durability of the Romanesque, the transcendent philosophy of the Gothic, the order and harmony characterized by the Classicism of the Renaissance, the expressive integration of architecture, painting, and sculpture from the Baroque, and from the general willingness to look to the past. If those charged with creating new sacred places have an openness to learn from past mistakes and study and appreciate the works of past masters, they will do much to avert the present crisis of church architecture.


Michael S. Rose. "From History to Modernity." Lay Witness (March/April 2003).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

Michael S. Rose is the author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again, published by Sophia Institute Press. It may be ordered by calling Benedictus Books toll-free at (888) 316-2640.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness

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