architecture

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" -- to both.

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

When Andrew Gould began designing a sanctuary for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Charleston, S.C., he started by creating an imaginary backstory for the parish.

Instead of beginning with a circle of Orthodox families and converts in 1996, the art historian and architect imagined that a community of Russian immigrants had moved to Charleston in the mid-19th century. They looked at the city's famous mix of Southern warmth, Colonial style and coastal, Mediterranean influences and then built a church that was thoroughly Orthodox -- but fit into Charleston.

Working with local materials as much as possible, Gould designed a Byzantine church, but with a copper roof, plenty of exposed Heart Pine wood and stucco masonry painted in a gold-yellow tint common in historic Charleston. Then he included a unique saw-tooth cornice design, using local brownish-red brick, a pattern that had the added advantage of resembling traditions in Russia.

"I kept asking myself, 'What parts of Charleston's architecture could be baptized into Orthodoxy? What if this church had been built by Russians long ago and it's been here ever since and it looks totally at home in Charleston?", he said, describing the 2004 project that opened a new stage of his career.

"I have a kind of romanticized fantasy about the history of these churches and I have used this technique in other places. Keeping this kind of story in mind keeps me focused on what I'm trying to accomplish."

This goal shapes the work that Gould and other artisans do with his New World Byzantine Studios in Charleston, whether it's designing an entire church, one of his massive, circular ironwork chandeliers or other forms of liturgical art and church supplies. The goal is to maintain ancient forms and traditions, while blending in cultural, historical influences seen in life in a specific region.

For example, what would a Pueblo-style monastery in New Mexico look like if it were Orthodox, instead of Catholic, and featured altar cloths, carvings and icon-stand decorations influenced by Native American culture?

A golden age for Catholic architecture -- in the Bible belt?

Architect Michael Tamara's original goal was to study new Catholic churches built using classic designs and symbolism, as opposed to all of those modernist sanctuaries offering what some critics call the "Our Lady of Pizza Hut" style.

The first church that caught his eye, 15 years ago, was the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., an ornate sanctuary rich in majestic marble and gold details that was becoming familiar to viewers of Eternal Word Television Network. This church, he thought, was built decades after the Second Vatican Council?

Tamara began gathering materials about other new churches in neo-Gothic, Romanesque or other classic styles. Eventually he spotted a surprising pattern.

That first church was in Alabama, and then he found others in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma, several in South Carolina and quite a few in Virginia. Oh, and there was a stunning new monastery -- in Alabama.

Transfiguring the Crystal Cathedral

It doesn't take a doctorate in church architecture to know why every pew in every Catholic cathedral allows worshippers to gaze toward the altar. What happens on the altar during Mass is the heart of Catholic faith.

Meanwhile, architects that design Protestant churches make sure preachers have everyone's attention when they rise to preach. What happens in those pulpits is what matters for most Protestants.

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, on the other hand, asked the legendary architect Philip Johnson to design the world's first great church specifically built for use as a studio for televised worship.

Leaders of the Diocese of Orange will have to meditate on that fact as they work to turn the Crystal Cathedral into a spiritual home for Orange County's nearly 1.3 million Catholics, according to an architect who has published an sketch of possible changes in that structure. The diocese recently completed its $57.5 million purchase of the property.

"It would be hard to imagine a more symbolic project that this one," said Mathew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical design program and an architect at Cram and Ferguson Architects in Concord, Mass. The firm specializes in traditional church designs.

"What we are going to see at the Crystal Cathedral is sort of like a collision between the therapeutic American Protestantism of the television age with all of the symbolism, art and ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and its worship."

At this point, the Diocese of Orange has not taken formal steps to hire an architect and the Crystal Cathedral congregation has three years to find a new home. Acting on his own, Alderman sketched some possible changes to illustrate a piece for an Anglican periodical called The Living Church.

It would be impossible, he noted, to retroactively convert this modernist classic -- a structure so open that it seems to have no true walls or interior space -- into what most people would consider a normal, conventional cathedral.

"While traditional styles can often be mixed within historic interiors," wrote Alderman, "the modernist movement was such a destructive act of self-exile that great care must be used when adding traditional elements to a dated modernist interior. Plopping down a Gothic altarpiece into a 1968 ecclesiastical wigwam usually just makes the wigwam look worse."

The crucial decision, according to Alderman, is whether to turn the direction of the seating so the faithful will face down the 415-foot length of the sanctuary toward a newly created altar platform built inside the existing glass building. This would create a traditional nave with a center aisle for processions toward the altar and the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament. Currently, the church resembles a long amphitheater in which worshippers face a stage and giant video screen in the middle of the cruciform building, which is 207 feet wide.

"Strong processional movements from the back of the church to the altar are practical, but also theological," said Alderman, reached by phone. "We are the people of God and we are traveling somewhere -- together. We are moving toward Christ and the altar. That's the focus."

The local Catholic leadership has already concluded that the Crystal Cathedral is "not a highly liturgical space in the traditional sense. Yet, the Diocese of Orange considers it a 'clean palatte,' " wrote Msgr. Arthur Holquin, in a paper entitled "Domus Ecclesiae (House of the Church)."

"While renovations are called for, not much deconstruction would be required and the iconic personality of the original architecture and design would, for the most part, be retained." In particular, he added, the "quality of light and its allegory is consistent with the enlightenment of Christ."

Bishop Tod Brown recently challenged Catholics nationwide to help name the new cathedral -- proposing "Christological" names linked to the person and work of Jesus. As of Tuesday morning, more than 3,500 entries had been submitted. The deadline is Feb. 20.

Alderman has already turned in his vote, proposing what he believes is a logical name for a cathedral containing 10,000 windows of silver-tinted glass -- The Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

"The Crystal Cathedral is all about light and the blue sky being everywhere you look," he said. "It's the perfect place for dramatic images of Christ being transfigured and illuminated in divine light. ... You could also say this sanctuary is about to be transfigured, becoming a real cathedral."

Fix your ugly Catholic church?

The sanctuary walls are, as a rule, made of flat wood, concrete and glass wrapped in metals with an industrial look -- often matching the furnishings on the stark altar. The windows are frosted or tinted in muted tones of sky blue, lavender, amber or pink. If there are stained-glass images, they are ultramodern in style, to match any art objects that make sense in this kind of space. The floors are covered with carpet, which explains why there are speakers hanging in the rafters.

The final product resembles a sunny gymnasium that just happens to contain an abstract crucifix, the Stations of the Cross and one or two images of the Virgin Mary.

"The whole look was both modern and very bland," said Matthew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's classical design program who works as a consultant on sacred art and architecture.

"It was a kind of beige Catholicism that was ugly, but not aggressively ugly ... and these churches looked like they were in a chain that had franchises everywhere. It was that whole Our Lady of Pizza Hut look that started in the1950s and then took over in the '60s and '70s."

The problem is that many Catholics believe that this look that represented an urgent response to contemporary culture -- especially after Vatican II -- has now gone painfully out of date.

Few things age less gracefully than modernity. However, few parishes can afford to "take a wrecking ball" to their sanctuaries. This is also highly emotional territory, since any attempt to change how people worship, whether they are modernists or traditionalists, will collide with their most cherished beliefs.

Thus, after years of studying intense debates on these issues, Alderman recently drafted a manifesto offering easy, affordable ways for make these sanctuaries "less ugly and more Catholic." He posted it at "The Shrine of the Holy Whapping," an online forum created by several Notre Dame graduates to host lighthearted discussions of serious Catholic subjects.

While some of his proposals are specific -- such as removing carpeting to improve church acoustics -- the designer said the key is for parish leaders to find a way to "bring a sense of tradition and beauty to their chancels and naves without having to break the bank." His basic principles included these:

* Do everything possible to return the visual focus to the main altar and the tabernacle that contains the reserved sacraments, the bread and wine that has been consecrated during the Mass. This can be accomplished with a few contrasting coats of paint, stencil designs in strategic places, the rearranging of altar furniture, a touch of new stonework or even the hanging of colored drapes. In many cases a platform can be added under the altar to make it more visible or a designer can darken the lights and colors around the pews, while increasing the light focused on the altar and tabernacle.

* Reject any strategy that tries to hide decades of modernity behind a blitz of statues and flowers in an attempt to create "a traditional Catholic theme park," he said. Too often, the result is "strip-mall classicism" that assumes that anything that looks old is automatically good.

"You don't want something that looks like its fake and plastic," said Alderman. "The worst case scenario is that you have bad taste stacked on top of bad taste, with some of the worst excesses of the old layered on top of all those mistakes that were driven by modernity. ... This kind of schizophrenia is not a good thing in a church."

* It's important to "work with what you have, and don't work against it" while focusing on a few logical changes that actually promote worship and prayer, he said. A chapel dedicated to Mary can appeal to those who are devoted to saying the Rosary. Candles and flower arrangements can focus attention on a statue of the parish's patron saint.

In the end, argued Alderman, "You may not be able to turn your 1950s A-frame church into Chartres, but if you try to find art that harmonizes with its perhaps now rather quaint attempts at futurism, while at the same time seeking to reconnect it with tradition, the result may have a pleasing consistency. ...

"While it may lack the grandeur of Rome or Florence, it can still become a beautiful, unified expression of the faith."