Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Denis R. McNamara is disguised as a coffee table book, but it is so much more than that. Sure this large book contains lots of pictures involving church architecture through the ages and examples of sacred art and can be nicely browsed like a coffee table book. But it deserved to be read from front to back and reflected on and not discarded to a coffee table to collect dust.
The issue of church architecture in modern times has been quite contentious as pundits and people from the pews wonder why their church is ugly or that it is inseparable from a large Pizza Hut or meeting hall. But this book is not a rant on the influences of modern architecture in any way. The pictures used are almost all positive examples with a minimum of negative ones such as the Cathedral in Los Angeles. Instead this is really a textbook on architecture, beauty, and the liturgy.
What I loved about this book is how instructive it was in explaining what makes a church, it’s church-ness, and why so many people are uneasy with so much of modern architecture. This book gives you the vocabulary to understand what beauty is in the first place and its relation to truth. I found it very interesting that the statement “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a bad translation of what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote which had no such subjective connotation. We hear this phrase a lot when it comes to sacred music and architecture, yet people go on vacations to beautiful parks and waterfalls and no one vacations outside of a garbage dump. Mr. MacNamara explains this very well in talking about the components of beauty. The first chapters concentrates on the theology of architecture and he presents St. Thomas Aquinas description of beauty requiring Integritas, Claritas, and Consonantia and explains and uses these terms throughout the book. This presentation of architectural theology and its teleology made so much sense to me to be able to more fully understand both the purpose of sacred architecture and why I am more drawn to its classical usages. Relativism has infected so much within society and the church and it is so nice to such a well done explanation concerning sacred architecture.
As the book continues on it addresses the scriptural foundations of sacred architecture, the Classical Tradition, Iconic imagery, and then an introduction to the 20th Century. Throughout the book provides both a solid introduction to the subject and at the same times goes much deeper. Discovering the differences between decoration and ornamentation was eye-opening and I look at churches now with a new eye in this regard. But that is pretty much true with so much I learned from this book as it draws from Church documents and the history of church architecture.
The chapter on the 20th Century discusses the liturgical movement, the documents of Vatican II, and so-called “Modern” churches. Like I said earlier this book is no rant, but by addressing the theology and the basic things you have a much better understanding of why so much modern architecture fails in it basic purpose and ontology of a church building. The author of the book certainly does not fall in the camp of “copyism” where we must just repeat the architectural forms of the past and that certainly modern elements can be grafted on in a true development that does not divorce itself from the past. I have seen more modern structures that successfully build on the past while at the same time introducing modern elements consistent with church-ness and beauty. Though in my own diocese I can only think of one example of this and that for the most part churches built in the last 40 years are sadly lacking in fully portraying their purpose. They are usually mundane, striking, interesting, just not being actually beautiful. With the Church it is almost always the case of both/and and that you make a mistake in restricting to any specific time of church architecture whether modern or classic, but ontologically it must fulfill its purpose or it is not sacred architecture.
The book unfortunately is a bit pricey, but I would say it would be money well spent. It is certainly a book I will keep on hand for further reference and reflection.