The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

The Bishop's Page: On Sacred Architecture

Authored by Cardinal Justin Rigali in Issue #32.4 of The Sower

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The Holy Altar

The topic of sacred architecture is both timely and timeless. Timely because of the contemporary crisis that surrounds the sacred. Timeless because God never ceases to call man to himself.1

In the revelation of the divine economy of salvation, God never neglects time and space. As the eternal, invisible, and infinite God, whose dwelling place is in Heaven, he reveals himself, and encourages mortal, visible, and finite human beings to call upon his name.2 As he makes known the hidden purpose of his will, he summons us to a sacred space in an acceptable time.3

There are three practical and grounded guiding principles I would like to reflect upon concerning the vocation and mission of the architect and artist in the life of the Church.

First Principle 

Sacred Scripture testifies that the role and mission of architects and artists arise from the very nature of the plan of God.

From the very beginning, the talents of artists and architects have been formed and forged by a unique relation to the plan of God. As we know from Sacred Scripture, God is the divine architect. God’s first act after creating man was to establish a suitable place for man to dwell. Genesis tells us, “Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed.”5 God creates the sacred place where the inner state of man, his original innocence, is signified by his external surroundings, the garden of Eden. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the east is the right hand of heaven.5

When man disobeyed and sinned against God, man lost original innocence and was driven from this beautiful place, this sacred location. God banishes man from the garden, and settles him in a different place, “east of the garden of Eden.”6 God places man in a penitential space outside of the garden.

The call of God always reflects his loving design. Under the effects of sin, in the penitential place outside of paradise, the impulse for shelter arises from the human being’s basic instinctive need for safety and refuge from the elements. More wonderfully still, however, the human person moves beyond the mere impulse of instinct to the light of intuition. And here we detect the tremendous value of the work of the artists and architects for the Church: they open themselves to the light of sacred intuition and direct its beam upward to construct and refine the instincts of man, so as to prepare a dwelling place that may become a fitting sanctuary.

Classical theology has always emphasized that reason makes the continuous and ongoing effort to grasp what is held by faith so that we might be led to intellectual admiration of the mystery of God and thus be more prepared to offer adoration to God.7 The light of faith inspires the intuition of affection for a sacred place. Thus, while the work of architects and artists is both a science and an art, it is first and foremost an exalted mission. In the mystery of God’s presence, man’s intuition is always to claim a sacred space, a sanctuary from which he worships God for the glory which God has revealed.8

“Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God—the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who ‘reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,’ in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.’”9 The learning, dedication, skill, and work of the architect and the artist serve to direct us deeper still to the One in whom we find shelter.

Throughout the Old Testament, God makes use of natural locations and events to signify his presence: God appears on the mountain top, in the cloud, and in the storm.10 He also sanctifies those places made by human hands, the hands of architects: the tent, the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, the temple, and the Holy of Holies.11 At these sacred locations, on the occasion of specific feasts, time and place enter a holy alliance to dispose the people of God to offer fitting worship and sacrifice.

Noah plans and constructs the ark in faithful obedience to the design and measure given by God himself.12 Immediately on stepping forth from the ark, Noah sets forth on another building project: he constructs an altar.13 In fact, throughout salvation history, the people of God mark the central places of their relationship with God by the building of an altar.14

All that is foretold and foreshadowed in the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, whose first dwelling among us was the womb of the Virgin Mary.15 He who has no place to lay his head purified the temple, declared that he would rebuild the temple, and suffered, died, and rose again for our salvation. 

The Acts of the Apostles says of the early Christians in Jerusalem: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.”16 The early Christians gathered frequently in house-churches to break bread, receive instruction, and offer prayers.17

When God created man he placed him in a sacred location. When God saves man, he again places man in a sacred location and provides the design by which salvation is accomplished and celebrated.

As we consider this first principle, we come upon a clear truth: the people whom God called, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and disciples, were also architects and artists. Not in addition to their call, but on account of their call. They established the places and built the early altars from which God received worship.

Second Principle

The Second Vatican Council and the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI affirm that the work of architecture and art takes place in and through dialogue with the Church.

“After speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, ‘now at last in these days God has spoken to us in his Son’”18 And his Son speaks to us through his Church. The Church has long engaged in dialogue and sought specialized and strategic collaboration with artists and architects.

“Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art.”19 The Council continues, “the Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful signs and symbols of the supernatural world, and for this purpose she has trained artists.”20

The Holy Father points out that this dialogue has taken place throughout the ages, and is found in the luminous beauty of the great works of art. He emphasizes that the Christian faith gave a beginning to masterpieces of theological literature, thought, and faith, but also to inspired artistic creations, the most elevated of a whole civilization: the cathedrals which were a renewal of religious architecture, an upward surge and an invitation to prayer. The Christian faith “inspired one of the loftiest expressions of universal civilization: the cathedral, the true glory of the Christian Middle Ages.”21 He explains that, “All the great works of art, cathedrals — the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches — they are all a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God.”22 Blessed Pope John Paul II also spoke of this when he said, “The cathedrals, the humble country churches, the religious music, architecture, sculpture, and painting all radiate the mystery of the verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine, towards which everything converges in a moment of wonder.”23

The architect develops, coordinates, and contours the natural elements of the visible physical world so that man may be directed to a fundamental awareness of the grace-filled action of God. The ultimate meaning and purpose of sacred architecture is to convey an experience of the mystery of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ.

The revelation of God’s mysterious and awe-inspiring presence always evokes a response from man. This response takes place in and through the Church.24 The Council teaches, “the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine Majesty.”25 It makes clear that in considering anything to do with the sacred liturgy, we must always return to this foundation: that within the sacred liturgy we offer worship to the divine Majesty. This is both the premise and the objective of the rich dialogue, which continues to take place between the Church and artists.

Pope Benedict emphasizes the two central characteristics of the Gothic architecture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: “a soaring upward movement and luminosity.”26 He refers to this as “a synthesis of faith and art harmoniously expressed in the fascinating universal language of beauty which still elicits wonder today.”27 He continues, “By the introduction of vaults with pointed arches supported by robust pillars, it was possible to increase their height considerably. The upward thrust was intended as an invitation to prayer and at the same time was itself a prayer. Thus the Gothic cathedral intended to express in its architectural lines the soul’s longing for God.”28 The Holy Father is equally attentive to the furnishings of the sanctuary: “Certainly an important element of sacred art is church architecture, which should highlight the unity of the furnishings of the sanctuary, such as the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the ambo, and the celebrant’s chair. Here it is important to remember that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist.”29

Therefore, the mission of the architect and the vocation of the artist bear a direct relationship to authentic liturgical theology founded upon the classical Trinitarian, Christological, pneumatological, ecclesial, and sacramental themes. Formation, education, and study for service in the architectural or artistic disciplines arise from and coalesce around a robust encounter with the authentic teaching of the Church.

“Bishops should have a special concern for artists, so as to imbue them with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy.”30 The Council called for every diocese, as far as possible, to have a commission for sacred art, and to have dialogue and appeal to others who share this expertise.31 Priests, as principal collaborators with the bishop, likewise have a special responsibility to have a vibrant awareness of the gifts, which artists and architects bring to the Church. Pope Benedict XVI affirms that, “it is essential that the education of seminarians and priests include the study of art history, with special reference to sacred buildings and the corresponding liturgical norms.”32

Beauty, in its inextricable connection to the true and the good, is the center of gravity of all the liturgical sciences. And this is because the liturgy is foremost the work of the Holy Trinity, in which we participate.33 Beauty changes us. It disposes us to the transforming action of God and thus is one of the principal protagonists of advancing the universal call to holiness.34 Fascination with the sacred frees us from fixation on the secular. Expressions founded upon purely secularist influence do not refresh us. They exhaust us and fragment our perception. Architectural form is never incidental or expendable. Utilitarian styles fail to inspire and so often leave a space barren and bland. We simply cannot tolerate indifference to the healthy traditions. The separation of artists and architects from dialogue with the Church leads to a fragmentation and subsequent breakdown of authentic liturgical renewal.

Third Principle

The mission of the architect and artist, which is based in Sacred Scripture and conducted in dialogue with the Church, authentically develops only along the path of true beauty.

Beauty is not simply one path among others. “Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty.”35

The Holy Father spoke of a “via pulchritudinis, a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry.”36 During the celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Vatican Museums, Pope Benedict pointed out that the artistic treasures of the Church “stand as a perennial witness to the Church’s unchanging faith in the triune God who, in the memorable phrase of St. Augustine, is himself ‘Beauty ever ancient, ever new.’” 37

Pope Benedict emphasized that “the profound connection between beauty and the liturgy should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration.”38 Those whose senses are trained for the via pulchritudinis can discern a stirring within the continuous sacred stream of history, an unceasing movement of sublime splendor arising from ancient foundations and inherited in the detail of noble themes down through the ages.

As stated in his Address to Artists, “Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy ‘shock’, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum–it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.”39

Furthermore, “Authentic beauty … unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day.”40

Contemporary society believes at times that beauty can come from a product one buys, or can be won in a contest. Authentic beauty is immune to age, it is always young, and it can never be contained by a mere title. Beauty attracts us as it charismatically aligns itself in symmetry and proportion, congruent with its primary characteristics of authentic truth and goodness. The durability and permanence of the structures, which mark our solemn celebrations, draw the eye to hope and lead the heart to reflection.

The revelation of the splendor of God is never ambiguous. It changes hearts and renews lives. The many styles and forms from specific periods and regions are all part of the rich heritage of sacred art and architecture. As Duncan Stroik has noted, “art from the past is a window onto the faith and practice of a specific time, but it can also speak to all ages. To reject periods, other than our favorites, as either primitive or decadent is to miss out on the rich tapestry of art and architecture that the Church has fostered.”41 Beauty has an immediate and direct relation to culture. “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved.”42

The creative intelligence of artists continually seeks to draw forth vibrant forms from the material structures which surround us. Prayerful reflection, study of classical motifs, knowledge of the various schools of design, meditative architectural planning, extensive and specific development of a systematic understanding of the importance and role of architecture nourishes faith. The thoughtful design and strategic placement of sculpture, painting, decoration along structural elements of the body of the interior facade and exterior face are meant to evoke prayerfulness, foster meditation, and aid reflection. The use of natural light, historic styles, and noble design are meant to point us deeper into the mystery of Jesus so that we contemplate with renewed awareness: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”43


Artists and architects are composers who play a unique and irreplaceable role as the narrative of salvation history unfolds. Through maximizing extraordinary gifts of their God-given genius, they are called to construct and restore an avenue into the luminous depth of God’s revelation and convey the continuing presence of the sacred in buildings meant for worship.

As we await and prepare for that eternal moment in which the divine Architect will invite us to meet Him, may we become “like living stones…[and] be built into a spiritual house to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”44


1 Cf. Heb 6:19-20; Ex 33:12-23; 34:5-8, 33-35; Ps 29:1-2; 1 Chron 16:23-25, 28-30.
2 Cf. Ps 11:4; Gen 13:4, 8.
3 Cf. Eph 1:9; 2 Cor 6:2; Is. 49:8.
4 Gen 2:8.
5 Summa Theologica Ia, 93, q. 6, a. 3.
6 Gen 3:23a.
7 Jean-Peirre Torrell, O.P. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 2:27, esp., n.6.
8 Cf. CCC, 846: “Sacred places are those which have been designated for divine worship or for the burial of the faithful through a dedication or blessing which the liturgical books prescribe for this purpose.”
9 CCC, no. 2502.
10 Cf. Ex 19:3; Ex 13:21; Ps 81:7.
11 Cf. Ex 33:7; Ex 25:10-16.; Ex 36:8-40:38; Ex 26:33; 1 Kings 6:1-38; 7-8; 1 Kings 8:6.
12 Cf. Gen 6:14-16.
13 Cf. Gen 8:20.
14 Cf. Gen 12:6-7; See also, 13:4; 28: 13, 16-17, 20; 32:25-31; 33:19-20.
15 Cf. Jn 1:14; Col 2:9.
16 Acts 2:46.
17 Acts 12:12; 16:40; 20:8; 7; 1 Cor 16:19.
18 Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, 4; Heb 1:1-2.
19 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 122.
20 Ibid.
21 Pope Benedict XVI, “The Cathedral from the Romanesque to the Gothic Architecture: The Theological Background”, General Audience, November 18, 2009.
22 Pope Benedict XVI, “All Great Works of Art are an Epiphany of God,” Sacred Architecture: Journal of the Institute for Sacred Architecture 15 (2009): 41-42., originally presented in Pope Benedict’s Dialogue in Bressanone, August 6, 2008.
23 Pope John Paul II, Discourse to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, March 18, 1994, 8.
24 Cf. Col 1:18, 2:19, Eph 1:23, 4:12.
25 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 33.
26 Pope Benedict XVI, “The Cathedral from the Romanesque to the Gothic Architecture: The Theological Background,” General Audience, November 18, 2009.
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid.
29 Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 41.
30 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 127.
31 Ibid, 46, 126. See also reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 2503.
32 Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 41.
33 CCC no. 1069, 1077 ff.
34 Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 42.
35 Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 41.
36 Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Artists, November 21, 2009.
37 Pope Benedict XVI, 500th Anniversary of Vatican Museums, June 2006.
38 Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 41.
39 Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Artists, November 21, 2009.
40 Ibid.
41 D. Stroik, “Pulchritudo Tam Antiqua et Tam Nova,” Sacred Architecture: Journal of the Institute for Sacred Architecture, Issue 16 (2009), 16.
42 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 123.
43 Jn 1:14.

44 1 Pt 2:5.

This article is an abridged version of Cardinal Rigali’s address to The Institute for Sacred Architecture. See Sacred Architecture Journal, Volume 18 for unabridged version:

This article is originally on pages 10-13 of the printed edition.

This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact [email protected]

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