Topiary, Aviary, Bestiary, Breviary: An Organic Reading of Church Architecture

What do our great church buildings tell us about our relationship to creation?

Our Mechanized Environment

The Swiss-born Modernist architect LeCorbusier (1887-1965) is credited with having inspired several generations of architects throughout the world to regard their art as one aligned with the mechanization of human life, something akin to the business of boilermakers or automobile designers but on a larger scale. Indeed, it was “Corbu,” as he was widely known, who proposed as early as 1923 that the very homes in which people dwell should serve as “machines for living in,”1 a conceit that has come to be embodied everywhere in the human-made corners of the “Common Home” Pope Francis chose recently to assess in his encyclical, Laudato Si’. The global scene laid out in the pope’s instruction is one filled with techno-mechanical wonders of all kinds that together form the “framework” through which modern men and women now judge their physical surroundings and, by extension, virtually every other aspect of their culture and themselves (LS 107). “Steam engines, railways . . . airplanes,” the pope notes in chapter three of his encyclical, along with more recent, “chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology . . . robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies” (LS 102) contribute to the environment we have succeeded in assembling for ourselves in the space of decades, only to find our psyches exhausted for having to run at a constant 2,500 RPMs. Far from serving as a sacrament of our communion either with nature or with nature’s creator (LS 9), our Brave New World has turned out to be a vast and complex techno-commercial mechanism that affects our daily lives at every turn.

A trip to the local outpost of any large supermarket chain in this country nicely illustrates the point. Upon situating our cars in the expanse of asphalt that surrounds such a place, we encounter a carefully planned sequence of approach experiences that includes banks of automated doors and a welcoming blast of warmed or refrigerated air whose daily quotient of electrical energy must be immense. Making our way to the store’s produce section, we find ourselves surrounded by fresh and pre-packaged foods from every corner of the globe, all attractively displayed in cases self-monitored for optimum temperature control and furnished with hidden LED devices that emit a glow as alluring as the sun’s but more constant. At regular intervals throughout the day, the mist-making arteries strung through those cases containing leafy plant-foods add to the magic by releasing a dose of controlled precipitation with no hint of human intervention. Machines of one kind or another likewise fill out the bakery, the meat and seafood departments. At the checkout counter we place our purchases on a mechanical conveyor belt and entrust the mathematical part of our transaction to a network of barcodes, laser scanners and touchscreen calculators. Not surprising is the frequency with which such a scene leaves us feeling a little like the hapless Everyman portrayed by Charlie Chaplain in the classic movie, Modern Times (1936), caught between the jaws of a giant, soul-devouring machine over which we have little control.

The Catholic Place of Worship as an Antidote to Global Mechanization

While some Christian groups in recent decades have been eager to transform their places of worship into temples of high technology indistinguishable from their commercial surroundings, the Catholic Church persists in maintaining an approach to sacred architecture more reliant on the lessons of nature and intimately related to the organic quality of the Body of Christ. To Catholics, of course, the Church itself is a kind of organism, a perpetually flourishing sign of the presence of Christ in the world. It is no coincidence that the look and feel even of its most contemporary places of worship reflect a preference for the “florid”— a quality not related solely to the employment of flower-based embellishments but measurable in the frequency with which decorative references to nature and natural materials themselves hold a place of importance in their design.

In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) prescribes materials derived from natural sources such as, “wood, stone and metal (GIRM 301, 326),” as opposed to the synthetic imitations of these that have become so commonplace. Such products of the earth endure, notes the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States in its guidelines for liturgical art and architecture (Built of Living Stones, 2000) and possess an aura of the same mystery and transcendence (BLS 161) we recognize in ourselves. There is something elemental and archetypal that attracts us even implicitly to the feel of clay in our hands, to the fretting of wood grain, or the sheer age and density of stone. Catholic artists are encouraged to explore all of these as means of differentiating the place of divine encounter from the workaday environments filled with simulacra we have come to accept as “the real thing.” The setting for Catholic worship fails as “a machine for praying in,” as someone like LeCorbusier might have defined it, for the simple reason that there is nothing mechanical about the personal or corporate journeys of those who inhabit it, even less about the ways in which God behaves in their lives. The Catholic church building is not a “grace factory” in which salvation is dispensed in some assembly-line fashion but a garden tended by Christ himself, Eden-like in its splendor, where souls are cultivated within the fertile ground of word and sacrament. It is no coincidence that the great monastic churches of the world are so often constructed with a cloister garden in their shadows, a symbolic remnant of Eden, from whose center often rises a great evergreen, a stand-in for the Tree of Life described in Genesis (2:9).

The Catholic church building is not a “grace factory” in which salvation is dispensed in some assembly-line fashion but a garden tended by Christ himself, Eden-like in its splendor, where souls are cultivated within the fertile ground of word and sacrament.

On a metaphorical level, in fact, the Catholic place of worship has long functioned as a surrogate for a natural enclosure of one kind or another that offers the soul a combination of protection, rest and nourishment. To enter even the lowliest of Catholic churches has been to pass into a “second womb,” the belly of the great fish described in the Book of Jonah (1:17), or the hollow of some mysterious cave. Often, one’s approach to it is slowed by an elevated grade and an apron of stairs that together succeed in changing one’s step, making one pause, and causing one to consider the profundity of what lies within its walls. To cross its threshold — as concrete a gesture of “liminality” as one can imagine — is a deliberate act of the will. Except in those cases when provision is being made for the elderly and disabled, the doors at its ceremonial façade are not automated. Instead they are oversized to announce the significance of the building they serve and hang too heavily on their hinges to be breezed through in the way one slips into a convenience store. One must struggle a little to open them and, while doing so, is made to recall that it is really Christ through whom believers must pass, the one portal and gateway of salvation (John 10:9), in whose name the Church opens its places of worship to the world. In many parish settings today, a baptismal font or pool on axis with the altar awaits visitors close to the doors through which they enter.

Basílica de la Sagrada Família (Barcelona, Spain) interior columns

References to nature are impossible to miss at a place like the famous Mariendom (1963-68) pilgrimage church in Neviges, Germany, designed by Pritzker Award-winner Gottfried Böhm (b. 1920), a spikey mountain range-of-a-building with multiple exterior faces made of reinforced concrete. The same is true of Antonio Gaudi’s breathtaking Basílica de la Sagrada Família (construction begun 1882) or any of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals, “enchanted forests” built of stone, whose ceiling ribs resemble the boughs of trees, their columns great trunks. The play of light and shadow within such places also mirrors what one encounters by journeying into a wooded area, where a canopy of leaves high overhead affects how sunlight is received below (see front cover). Light is “dappled” in darkened buildings whose walls are pierced by windows and becomes prismatic should their glazing be colored in any way. To be sure, recent advances in artificial lighting technology have resulted in an “evening out” of the light one finds within the place of Catholic worship, a phenomenon that parallels what has occurred in the area of acoustical design for public spaces, which seeks to disperse sound evenly throughout a setting. Nevertheless, natural light, especially when admitted into a church building in some dramatic and “directed” way, remains a popular method for church architects to engage the religious imaginations of their clients — a fact affirmed by the number of churches constructed in the United States in the decades since Vatican II (1962-65) with roof spans broken by skylights or with walls made almost entirely of tempered glass, both of which have the effect of bringing nature into a place made by human hands.

The Catholic Church Building as Microcosm of a Divinely-Created World

It might be argued that a Catholic church building is really a “topiary,” an “aviary,” a “bestiary” and a “breviary” all in one. It stands apart from the natural world only inasmuch as it protects its users from the threatening effects of climate and weather but succeeds through allusions of form or applied decoration in serving as a catalogue of earthly materiality as intriguing as any science textbook.

As a topiary (Gr. topos = “place”; L. toparius = “decorative garden”), the Catholic setting of sacred worship offers references to any number of plant forms, a common one being the grapevine, whose serpentine body and branches give visual expression to Jesus’ claim of being the “true vine” (John 15:1) and his followers the “branches” (John 15:5) of his Church. The decorative flourishes applied to both the exterior and interior surfaces of many older churches include painted or sculpted versions of fruit and flowering plant-forms, often worked into swags, garlands, and wreathes (see inside back cover). Though the average Catholic might not appreciate it as such, the cross (or corpus-laden crucifix) itself, is the great “tree of life.” It is the rod or “rood” made of wood the Eastern Church traces back to the garden in Genesis to which believers cleave, along with Christ himself, on the wood of the cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth.

As an aviary, a Catholic church building offers its visitors references to every kind of bird imaginable. It is commonplace, for example, to find an image of an eagle incorporated into the design of its ambo, an ancient allusion to John the Evangelist and to the method by which one disperses the Word — like a great bird carrying its prey between its talons. Likewise, peacocks appear in the decorative treatment of many buildings, the eye-like tips of their feathered fan related to the all-seeing “Eye of God.” Most Catholics will recognize the image of the dove as a longstanding reference to the Holy Spirit, an image that appears in baptisteries or hovering over sanctuaries. The breast-piercing pelican can also frequently be seen. Its likeness often adorns the fronts of tabernacles. Moreover, the forms of robins, blackbirds, finches, sparrows, and falcons, among other types of foul can be found woven into the decorative schemes of churches, reminders of some of the loveliest of nature’s sights and sounds and of the magnitude of God’s love for everything included in nature (Matthew 6:26-27).

As a bestiary (L. bestia = “beast,” “animal”) a Catholic place of worship is as much a menagerie of animal life as any museum of nature. There are, of course, numerous scriptural references to animals — creatures that walk or crawl or slither their way through the world — all of which lend themselves to artistic representation in one form or another. To some believers, the nave of a church building remains not only the great “ship” designed to transport its users safely to some celestial realm but a second ark on the order of Noah’s famous vessel, vast enough to encompass all the members of a community as diversified as the Church. The very cruciform plan that underlies many churches has long been regarded as anthropomorphic, its chancel, transepts, nave and narthex spatial equivalents to the human head, arms, abdomen and feet respectively.

As a breviary of sorts, the Catholic church building serves not only as a place where the liturgical readings, psalms, and hymns of the day can be shared aloud but as a text itself capable of being “read” by its users. Its walls, floor, and ceiling planes may be said to be as impregnated with the words spoken within them over time as with the scented beeswax that arises from candles and the sweet or pungent fragrance of incense. It is not surprising that architects themselves often speak of the “grammar” of their art form or that various guidebooks continue to be written by authors eager to help the average lover of church buildings decipher the subtler meanings of architectural form. The great, American architect, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) once confessed that the buildings of his native Boston “spoke to him” as a boy — a statement that, given the range of sounds structures can make as they settle, rack or otherwise fight the forces working against them, should not be taken entirely metaphorically. If, as Goethe asserted in the 19th century, “architecture is frozen music,” then at least some of what the art form embodies is the Church’s great hymnody and the hardened echoes of sermons and pastoral exhortations spoken from countless pulpits. To these are added the actual letter-forms and sacred texts applied by artisans in some circumstances to both the exterior and interior faces of churches and their windows. The scriptural reference to St. Peter’s investiture spelled out in eight feet-high letters at the interior base of the great dome of the basilica in Rome that bears his name (“Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam mean et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum;” Mt 16:18) is a good example of this, as is the catalogue of titles rendered in stained glass incorporated into the famous window at Chartres Cathedral depicting the signs of the zodiac and labors of the month.

Conclusions: Places of Divine Encounter and Their Sustainability

The particularity of place figures prominently in Pope Francis’ Ladauto Si’, which argues that believers’ “history of . . . friendship with God” plays out in settings where they can “recover something of their true selves” (LS 84). The Church does not allow its most solemn rites to unfold in surroundings that are mediocre or lacking in beauty but consigns them to buildings capable of helping it recover, from age to age, what might be called its corporate “true self.” God alone “creates” and sanctifies places, of course, actions that, in the logic of Laudato Si’, have less to do with God inserting sites of special quality into the neutral realm of nature as with calling such sites into being from their natural surroundings—as a shipbuilder might command the timbers of a ship to assemble themselves into a vessel (LS 80). The permanence of such places remains an important consideration for the Church, which cooperates with God’s creative-sanctifying action each time it vests its rites in a protective fabric of steel and brick and stone. Challenged by Pope Francis to be a more attentive steward of the planet’s limited resources, however, the Church of the third millennium will likewise need to give proper import to the so-called “sustainability” of the sacred structures it erects (BLS 216), to wed them with sensitivity to their natural surroundings, and to uphold their role as places marked more by the enduring power of mystery than by the passing allure of any machine.



1 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (London, John Rodker Publisher, 1931).


About Michael E. DeSanctis

Michael E. DeSanctis is Professor of Fine Arts and Theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its honors program. He serves as a design consultant to Catholic parishes involved in the construction or renovation of places of worship and has written for a number of publications, including Emmanuel.