Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Where Christ is the True and Golden Door"

Study for the Main Doors, Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, Maricopa Arizona

Church architecture is 'built theology' -- church buildings (at least in the mind of the Church and the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, if not readily seen in too many modern churches) are intended to be  'signs and symbols of the heavenly realities', as Vatican Two instructs us.

Each part is intended to work both in organic relationship with the whole, and as discrete parts that work within an overarching sacred language of form, function, meaning, location, detail, and materiality. Many of the parts of the church participate in a much deeper symbol structure that predates Christianity, and is woven into the fabric of human consciousness: in many ways, the more primal and primitive the symbols structure is, the more powerful and important it is. The converse of this is that it is more easy to take these things for granted, to treat them as commonplace, and thereby to overlook the message and meaning that they have for us.

Much of my life's work is to recover the deep symbol structure that unpins the Catholic faith, both in the sacraments proper (and especially the liturgy) and in sacred art and architecture. This happens both in theory and in practice: in coming to understand the anthropological, theological, and scriptural foundations of the sacramental symbol system, and in applying these ideas to the church buildings I design for my clients. As part of the creative process it is important to me that every aspect of the church building be worked out, from the overall master plan to the forms of the building itself to the myriad of details down to the doors, such that as we experience the church building is becomes for us an opportunity for a sacramental participation in what the Church calls us to.

I tend to be very fussy about the details -- for me, designing a church is sort of like 'watch making': all the parts have to work precisely in relationship with each other so that there is some sense of organic unity to the whole project. Below is an example of a study for the door that I recently designed for the new church of Our Lady of Grace in Maricopa Arizona. It is intended to communicate the vision to the contractor and the door builder, as a basis of design and to work collaboratively with the artisans to bring forth the vision.  Today, with the great technical advantages that 3D modeling and presentation programs bring -- especially Sketchup for modeling and Layout for communication -- the process allows an instantaneous artistic judgment since things are being modeled and communicated in virtual reality, where proportion, material, color, detail, and technical applications can be considered simultaneously and efficiently.

Working Drawing for Main Doors, Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, Maricopa Arizona
Since I've been working on these doors, trying to get the feeling and details and sense of proportion just right, I thought I'd share some of my reflections on the doors of a church: what it means to enter into a sacred place, recalling the words of Jacob: "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Gen 28:19).

The following is a selection from my forthcoming book, Understanding Church Architecture (London: Catholic Truth Society).

Entering a Church

By the time we reach the main doors of a traditional church we might be anticipating something special. Perhaps we have had to climb a set of stairs that give a sense of ascension: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob” (Is 2:3). There might be a large forecourt that we cross around which the other buildings (rectory, administration, social hall, classrooms) are grouped. This sort of intermediate space that we cross from the parking lot or the hustle-bustle of the city street is not only psychologically beneficial to leave behind the secular cares and enter into a sacred reality, but it can be seen as a sort of “town plaza” in the heavenly city. Perhaps we are called to enter through a triumphal arch, an architecture device inherited from the Roman emperors, through which we are entering into the triumph of Christ’s victory. Perhaps above the doors is a large and glorious tympanum, an arched artistic work in sculpted stone or mosaic, with a depiction of Christ in Glory announcing that this is truly the domus Dei, the House of God, where Christ reigns supreme.

The Main Doors at St. Denis, by Abbot Suger, c. 1140 AD

The doors themselves might well be true works of art, like the famous bronze doors of St. Denis that bid the pilgrim not to merely to be dazzled by the beauty of the doors but rather focus on the beauty of Christ who is the true door, and to pass through these doors to the source of light itself. Christ called himself “the sheep gate” and “the door” through which we enter into salvation (Jn 10:9), and from time immemorial Christians have understood the symbolic importance of the door as a portal between not only places, but realities: “Then a vision came to me; I saw a door in heaven, standing open” (Rev 4:1).

The inscription on the doors tell us to not marvel at these 'shiny' doors, but rather to enter into Christ who is the True and Golden Door: pass through these lights into the True Light, where Christ will illuminate your soul.

This of course predates Christianity; both ancient pagans and Jews considered doors to be of sacred importance, and treated the doors to the house, the primitive family temple, ritually. In the Neolithic era, doors were consecrated with ritual burials, sometimes of sacrificial victims, other times with deceased family members (and particularly of neonates and children) as protectors of these sacred thresholds. In the founding rites of ancient cities, the foundation walls of the cities were marked with a trenched that was cut by a bronze ploughshare dragged by a bull and a cow (a symbol of both the fertility and strength the city would need to survive and flourish). As Plutarch tells us, the trench was continuous, except at the gates: “there they took the share out of the ground, lifted the plough over, and left a vacant space; for it they held the gates as sacred, it would not be possible without religious scruples to bring in and send out the city things which are necessary, yet unclean.”[1] Thus the city gates were properly called portals, either because the plough was carried over (portare) the opening, or because the gates were opening through which trash, dead bodies, and other unclean things could be carried (portarent). 

In order to guard the city, or the house, the doors were therefore assigned sacred guardians, notably Janus who was the keeper of the door (ianua). In fact, all the parts of the doors has special significance and various minor deities assigned to protecting the sacred passage: cardo (hinge), limen (threshold, or doorway), and foris (door) all recall the deities that protected the opening: Cardea, Limentinus and Limentina, and Forculus. St. Augustine mocks this understanding that the Roman gods were a bunch of petty bureaucrats only responsible for their own domain:
“Everyone sets a porter at the door of his house, and because he is a man, he is quite sufficient; but these people have set three of gods: Forculus to the doors, Cardea to the hinge, Limentinus to the threshold. Thus Forculus could not at the same time take care also of the hinge and the threshold.” [2]
Within this symbolic view of the door, we can better understand why it was that the Israelites were instructed to take the blood of the paschal lamb and mark their doors so that the Angel of Death might pass over their houses (Ez 12:7 & 12:22-23). Likewise, after Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise, “cherubim with swords of fire” were stationed at the entrance to the Garden that guarded the path to the tree of life (Gen 3:24). Life and death themselves are sacred passages which are also foundational to this symbol structure.

The Expulsion from Paradise, by Gustave Dore.

So for the Christian, the door to the church is a sacred passage into the body of Christ since Christ himself was the true door, as Augustine recalls, where we enter into the life of Christ (first, of course, into his death).[3] The church’s main door means more than just an entrance to a building; it is a symbol of a whole process of transition and conversion. This is culturally enshrined in the Church’s venerable practice of opening the “Holy Doors” at the Vatican basilica during the Jubilee years promulgated by the pope.
The Holy Doors at St. Peter in Vatican City, which are only opened during the Holy Years declared by the Pope.

Entering the church means leaving the world behind and entering the Kingdom of God; it allows us to cast off the workday cares and troubles to find solace, healing, and sanctuary. It is even a foretaste of entering the very gates of heaven, in thatthe earthly liturgy is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.”[4]

So when we enter the church the doors should speak to this, and it seems to me both an architectural and a theological error to use common, storefront plate glass doors on a church, as if one were entering a grocery store. This fashion is perhaps some nod to the notion of connection between the interior and the exterior, to the “unity of space” –an idea Frank Lloyd Wright made fashionable which was embraced by the Bauhaus modernists who sought to create a new architecture for the new age in the new materials of steel, reinforced concrete, plastics, and plate glass. In itself there is nothing wrong with the idea, and the church you are visiting might well have such aluminum framed clear tempered glass doors, but the whole modernist project of reductionism, economically driven production value aesthetics, immateriality, and rejecting distinctions between the sacred and profane (the pro-fanum: “outside the temple”) can be questionable choices if done to avoid the symbolic and sacramental language the door as a portal and threshold to the sacred. 

Rather, the sacramental message of the doors of a church are that these are the entrance into the House of the Lord, the domus Dei et porta coeli. At the dedication of a new church, the bishop invites the people of God to enter, saying, “Go within his gates giving thanks, enter his courts with songs of praise”, and the people enter singing, “Lift high the ancient portals. The King of glory enters.” This is what it means to enter a church, and this is what the doors should express.

[1] Plutarch, Romulus, XI.
[2] St. Augustine, City of God, IV.8.
[3] Ibid, VII.8.
[4] Vatican Council Two, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 8.

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