Contemplating the beauty within architecture

The pictures from this 8 part series on the beauty of architecture and the philosophy provided for meditation was gifted to us by Erik Bootsma.

Part One: The Church

A church is a sacred place, and a symbolic place by its very nature. The Catholic Church defines the church building as being a “sign and symbol of heavenly realities.” Knowing this, we begin to understand the very deep and important relationship with beauty and art in the Catholic faith.

People come to know the Lord through symbols and art. While language is the most common way, we also come to know God through what Pope Benedict XVI calls “way of beauty.” We come to see the beautiful in the art of the Catholic Church and desire to know more about what this beauty represents, and moreover the ultimate source of beauty who is Beauty itself.

Part Two: The Sanctuary

The church sanctuary is a place set aside as holy and special even within a church which itself is dedicated to God. The sanctuary is a theological descendent of that first sacred place that the Israelites built in the desert, the Tabernacle. In the Tabernacle, a large space was set aside and in the midst a tent was set up, composed of the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies.

The Holy of Holies was lined with precious wood, decorated with precious stones and coated in gold. In its its center the Ark of the Covenant was placed, adorned in gold and decorated with angels. And it was here in this place that God himself made himself present in the cloud. When we make the sanctuary of our churches beautiful, filling them with art and decorating them with gold, we symbolically connect our faith in the presence of the same God, truly present in the Eucharist.

Part Three: The Altar

The altar is the heart of a church, it is here that we offer the source and summit of our faith, the Holy sacrifice of the Mass. The altar is then the center of the church, not physically center, but the center of our attention. Catholics for centuries have dedicated the highest and best of what they could offer to adorn this beautiful symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.

The altar is a deep and abiding symbol of the offering of his Body and Blood at the Last Supper, but also symbolizes Christ himself. For centuries in the right of dedication of an altar, the Five Wounds were inscribed in the altar stone, and it was anointed with oil and water, and incensed just as his body would have been before lying it in the tomb. The tomb itself is also symbolized, as the shape and size of the altar recalls the tombs of the saints which served as altars to Christians in the ancient catacombs. But unlike the tombs of the saints, the altar is empty because Christ is Risen!

Part Four: Images of the Saints

The communion of saints is a key teaching of the theology of the Catholic Church. We as Catholics believe that the saints in heaven are there to intercede and pray for us. So too we believe that when we are united in prayer, we also are united with the prayers of the saints, especially in the Mass. So when we decorate our churches with the images of the saints, we do so not only to remind us of their virtues, but also to remind us that the saints are united in the celebration of the Mass as well.

The saints have been called “the pillars of faith” and so we look to them to hold up the church symbolically, and especially the Four Evangelists. We can often find in churches the crossing or the dome being held up by the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or by icons that symbolize them, the Eagle, the Lion, the Bull, and the Angel, respectively. We see in the beauty of these saints and their images the Truth of the Gospel holding the Church aloft.

Part Five: The Baptistry

Since the beginning of Christ’s ministry, baptism has been an essential rite of the Catholic Church. It is no wonder then that from the earliest days, the Church has dedicated beautiful art and architecture to emphasize this sacred rite.

In the early Church, the rite of baptism honored by having only the bishop perform this sacred ceremony. Thus, all throughout the Christian world, cathedrals were home to large baptistries erected to allow for the bishop to baptize new believers in an important public ceremony.

Today, the parish church is the preferred place for children and adults to be baptized, but still a special place within the church is set aside for baptisms. When a beautiful font is the heart of a baptistry and is placed near the entrance fo the church, it becomes a powerful reminder to Catholics of their own baptism and entrance into the Church.

Part Six: The Cloister

Professed religious brothers and sisters are often called “cloistered” when they confine themselves to life within the monastic community. While it may seem extreme, the cloistered life is not a prison sentence. The cloister itself is an enclosed courtyard in a monastery around which the life of the community lives with the chapel, the dormitory, and the refectory where the community gathers, all traditionally built surrounding the cloister.

The beauty of the cloister derives from its graceful architecture, the ranks of columns or arches, surrounding a garden courtyard. Often the cloister garden is a place where herbs and flowers are grown, making it not only peaceful, but the scent of aromatic herbs and the beauty of their flowers make it a place of prayer as well.

Part Seven: The Tower

Bell towers have always been a part of the public face of the Church. Throughout the history of the Christian world, the bells announced throughout the day calls to prayer, such as the Angelus, or calls to Mass or to mourn the passing of a member of the community.

But bell towers not only announce the presence of the church to the world by their music, but by their appearance as well. For much of history the tallest building in any town would have been a church tower, not only guiding the traveler to church, but also proclaiming by their height, their grace and their beauty that the Church was the most important part of the life of a city.

Part Eight: Side Chapels

The church is a holy place dedicated to the public expression of our faith in the Mass, but is also is a place for private prayer and devotions. Catholic Churches have a long and beautiful history of devotional practices that takes place in them and around them, from Stations of the Cross to Eucharistic processions in public.

Side shrines dedicated to local devotions and saints and to Mary can be found in virtually any church, and no church is complete without the Stations of the Cross. Moments of beauty in sacred art can serve to both deepen the connection to the Faith that Catholics have already and serve to evangelize with beauty.

Erik Bootsma

Erik Bootsma has had a passion for building nearly his whole life. Growing up the child of a contractor and a painter, architecture was an especially apt vocation. Working for his father’s construction firm for his teenage and college years, he built up valuable experience in the field of architecture, learning intimately how a building really works. Later, being trained in the classical liberal arts at Thomas Aquinas College’s great books program, he became interested in the philosophy of architecture and aesthetics. This philosophy was the foundation upon which he completed his architectural education with a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Notre Dame.