God instructed the Jewish people how to construct sacred spaces and their temple and synagogues reflected those instructions, as do traditional Catholic Churches, as this very nice article about Church buildings from the Archdiocese of Washington writes.
Most Catholics are unaware of the fact that our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God Himself. Their designs stretch all the way back to Mount Sinai, when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our church layouts still follow that plan and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Our traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and Heaven itself.
There is not time to develop these roots at length in this post today, though I hope to do so in a series of future posts.
Sadly, in recent decades there has been a casting aside of these biblical roots in favor of a “meeting house” approach to church design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith, and follow biblical plans. Rather, the idea was that the church simply provided a space for people to meet and conduct various liturgies.
In some cases the liturgical space came to be considered “fungible” in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner next Wednesday. This thinking began to be set forth as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs, which could easily be moved to suit various functions. And even in parishes that did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of the church as essentially a meeting space still prevailed.
Thus churches began to look less and less like churches and more and more like meeting halls. The bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit, and very minimal statuary were still there, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure itself was to reflect Heaven or even remind us of it.
That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the meaning of church art as something more than merely that it is “pretty.” They are coming to understand the rich symbolism of the art and architecture as revealing the faith and expressing heavenly realities.
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