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Christian Sacred Architecture  

David Bains

Beginning with the Renaissance, the architecture of churches in the West was shaped by new cultural and liturgical demands that reshaped the spaces of Christian worship. Renaissance Christians found models of urban monumentality and geometric harmony in the architecture of classical Rome that they deemed lacking in their existing Gothic forms. At the same time, both Catholics and Protestants placed new emphasis on preaching and on the ability of worshipers to see the liturgy. These factors decisively reshaped church architecture. The rational austerity of the Renaissance, however, soon gave way to the more exuberant decoration of the baroque and, in time, to a revival of the Gothic. Beginning in the late 18th century, it became valued for its association with mystery, organic development, and the endurance of faith amid the rise of scientific rationalism. By the mid-19th century, an eclecticism in architecture had developed where many church builders used varied styles to actualize buildings of many plans in order to bring the desired historical and emotional associations to the structure, or simply to distinguish it from its neighbors. Yet, architectural principles—often associated with the Gothic—that emphasized the integral relation of form, structure, and function led many church builders to embrace architectural modernism. They rejected applied ornament, especially that which hid the structure of the building. Concrete, steel, and glued laminated wood beams made possible new designs often with a minimalist aesthetic and innovative ground plans. As in the 16th, so in the 20th century this architectural shift was associated with new values and liturgical demands. For many there was a fundamental concern with the architectural expression of the immanence of God. Historical styles and dim light seemed wrongly to suggest that God was not part of the contemporary world. Along with this, liturgical ressourcement fostered throughout the 20th century by the Liturgical Movement and endorsed by the Second Vatican Council championed the idea that liturgy was “the work of the people,” a corporate activity in which all participated. This led to the development of the “modern communal church” as a liturgical form. Many historic buildings were significantly altered. Within thirty years, a sizable revolution was insisting on more traditional, often classical, architectural forms ensuring that future church building would be shaped by a dialogue between tradition and the modern.

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Secularization and Sacred Space  

David Bains

Secularization, or the decline in the authority of religious institutions, became a pronounced feature of Western culture in the 20th century, especially in its latter half. Secularization has affected the history of Western sacred space in four ways: (a) It has helped to shape the concept of “sacred space” so that it designates a space that helps generate a personal religious experience independent of religious rituals and teachings. (b) It has caused many houses of worship to use architectural forms not previously associated with religion in order to link their religious communities to the respected realms of business, science, and entertainment. And it has motivated religious communities to craft spaces that encourage worshipers to recognize God at work in the secular world and to demonstrate to others the continued relevance of religion. (c) Many former houses of worship have been destroyed or converted to other uses. Sometimes this occurred not because of declining membership but in order to relocate to a more favorable building or location. Nonetheless, these changes have created a more secular cityscape. Other times destruction and conversion have been the product of state-sponsored regimes of secularization or a decline in the number of clergy or church supporters. The reuse of these former houses of worship often results in the association of religious symbols with commercial or personal endeavors. It also raises challenges for maintaining public space in dense urban environments and for preserving artistic and cultural heritage. Given the increasing closure of churches, in 2018 the Pontifical Council of Culture issued guidelines to guide Roman Catholics in determining best uses for buildings no longer needed for worship. (d) Spaces which are not linked to religious communities, especially museums and monuments, came to be frequently designed in ways similar to historic sacred spaces. For this reason and others, they are esteemed by many people as places to encounter the sacred in a secularized world.