The most important notion is that a church building signifies the Mystical Body of Christ.
By Carrie Gress
Much of my adult life was spent thinking architecture was impenetrable. There were just too many terms, too many elements, too many epochs of style; the thought of trying to figure them out was overwhelming. I did a lot of head-nodding during tours from Seville to Stockholm, as guides tossed out words like romanesque, polychrome, piers, and pediments, though the thought bubble over my head generally read, "I have no idea what you are talking about."
When I met my husband, because of his great love for architecture, I finally started sorting out what all these things meant. It would all have been a lot easier, however, if I had had this book in my hands decades ago: How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in in Ecclesiastical Architecture. This would be on my list of things I would tell my 20-year-old-secular-self to read if I could go back in time. Well, except the book didn't exist then, but you know what I mean.
Published by Rizzoli in 2011 and re-released in 2017, it is just 5.5 x 6.5 inches in size. This little titan of a book packs in a ton of information, graphics, and topics - but in bite size chunks so it is easy to absorb, even if one is taking in a new church, on a tour bus, or even just reading casually before bed. But it is the pictures that are just so helpful, clearly illustrating the technical language that can generally be so off-putting.
I spoke with author, Dr. Denis McNamara, assistant director of the Liturgical Institute, University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois, about the book.
Gress: What prompted you to write this book?
McNamara: I was approached by the publisher to write it. They have a series called “How to Read…” and they add the last word to the title, buildings, bridges, castles, etc. Because I had written on church architecture before, they gave me a call.
Gress: Who is the intended audience?
McNamara: This little book came relatively soon after a book I wrote called Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, which is an in-depth book meant for Catholics who were inclined to believe and who wanted to learn the theology of architecture. How to Read Churches provided a great opportunity to reach a wider audience, including non-Christians who wanted a guidebook to take on vacation or just have for leisure reading.
It was put out by a secular publisher, but it seemed necessary and important to include the deeper theology of Catholic architecture as something more than art history, but as a theological endeavor of those whom built it. Since the beauty of architecture was causing even postmodern seculars to step into churches, I thought it important that they be given some foundational sacramental theology.
One of the reviews in a high-end travel magazine said something like, “This little book will give you great snippets for sparkling cocktail party conversation this summer.” It wasn’t meant to be a work of Catholic apologetics, but I hoped it might have that effect for some people who might not be talking about the Christian faith in any other way. The book has also been translated into Russian, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Romanian, Polish, and even Japanese.
Gress: Are there some key pieces you think all Catholics should know about architecture? What are they and why?
McNamara: The most important notion is that a church building signifies the Mystical Body of Christ, that is, Christ joined to the many members of the Church, which includes all of creation: saints in heaven, souls in purgatory, people on earth, the stars in the heavens and the flowers of the field.
The Rite of Dedication of a Church and Altar, which contains the prayers used to dedicate a new church, says this very clearly. And it’s so common that we often overlook it: we call the people assembled for worship “the Church” and we call the building they worship in “the church.”
All through scripture, people are called “living stones” in God’s building, and Christ’s body is compared to the Temple. A temple is a place where God dwells, and God dwells in us because we are Christ’s body. The church building indicates that reality. In Galatians, for instance, Peter, James and John are called “pillars,” meaning they “hold up” the mission of the Church just as columns hold up the roof of a church.
With this deep level of understanding, people can begin to understand the theology behind the churches they love: one which is glorified, carefully designed, rich in splendor and filled with images because this is the nature of Christ’s glorified Mystical Body. That is far more important than art history and it’s not just nostalgia. It is the sacramental revelation of God’s mysteries through art and architecture.
Dr. McNamara also has this fantastic 10-part-series on the liturgy and architecture for those interesting in going deeper theologically.