Spring 2005

Liturgical Architecture and the Classical Tradition: A Balthasarian Approach

Denis R. McNamara

“Active participation requires a perception of the reality in which one participates, the glory of the Heavenly Banquet. To understand the banquet as heavenly, signs and symbols of heavenly realities are required, which in turn requires noble beauty, a beauty that reveals the ontological reality.”


1. Introduction

Although Hans Urs von Balthasar’s writings on theological aesthetics address theology as their main object, certain applications of his ideas can be made outside the field of theology narrowly defined. The methodologies used in theological studies that earned Balthasar’s ire also affect the study and design of architecture in similar ways, and application of his method to architecture is a fruitful exercise. Since the Enlightenment, architecture has been analyzed primarily in regard to its formal characteristics, particularly in regard to period, style, psychology, and evidence of a Zeitgeist. A Christian model of analysis is decidedly absent in the dominant art historical methodol- ogy, even when addressing church architecture. In current practice, the architectural profession is still grappling with the Romantic revivals of the nineteenth century, which bred the desire of twentieth-century Modernism to be “true to its age.” In reaction to Modernism, a Neo-Romantic movement is well underway as more and more congregations demand buildings that “look like” churches.

Balthasar’s theological aesthetics can be used to evaluate church architecture and rescue it from the restrictions of Romanti- cism and architectural Modernism. Fundamental here is the Balthasarian question of the theological reality of architecture: what is the church building from the Christ-centered view of the liturgy and theology? From this, and only this, is drawn a proper theology of liturgical architecture, rooted in scripture and tradition, one that protects and preserves the revealed form of Christ. Liturgical architectural norms should not be founded on the fact-based system of art historical criticism, the latest proposal of an experiential- expressive second-career liturgiological prodigy, or the imposition of a supposed Zeitgeist drawn from secular architects’ desire to attract the attention of critics by making the built equivalent of a claim that “there is no Truth.” Rather, the dominant model of liturgical art and architecture should begin with the form of Christ found in the Church. Only by beginning with an incarnational, christocentric liturgical theology, understood in relation to analogy of form, can a proper development of liturgical architecture take place, one which is truly based in architectural theological aesthetics.1 Doing the opposite—beginning with architecture rather than theology—leads to an architectural aesthetic theology. To use Balthasar’s language, “we must return to the primary contemplation of what is really said, really presented to us, really meant.”2 In the case of liturgical architecture, what is really presented under sacramental form is an image of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Here Christ is the Bridegroom of the Banquet of the Lamb meeting the living stones of his bride the Church, and this starting point will make particular demands upon the liturgical architect.


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1. This topic is approached with two presuppositions in mind: first, discussion of liturgical architecture is necessarily theological in scope. Second, liturgical art and architecture are part of the symbol system of the rite, and therefore not a merely neutral or purely devotional element in worship.

2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord (=GL), vol. 1: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press/Crossroads, 1983), 32, italics original. Subsequent citations will be given within the text.