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CATHOLIC CHURCH
ARCHITECTURE



Compliments of

Maginnis, Walsh & Sullivan, Architects

Boston, Massachusetts o
Los Angeles, California



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CATHOLIC CHURCH
ARCHITECTURE



CHARLES D. MAGINNIS

Fellow of the American Institute of Architects




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Certain clergymen and architects were recently invited to discuss the
subject of "American Catholic Architecture" in the columns of The Brick-
builJer, a magazine devoted to the advancement of brick architecture.
Though naturally developing a wide variety of views and sentiments, the
contributors were found to be notably in agreement in their dissatisfaction
with prevailing standards of ecclesiastical art. The more lengthy of the
two professional papers is now republished, in the belief that there are
many outside the restricted constituency of the publication in which it ap-
peared for whom such an essay may be of interest.

The clerical contributors were Monsignor Lavalle, Rev. Dr. John Talbot
Smith and Rev. James |. Flood, of New York, and Rev. Father Heuser, of
Overbrook, Penn., editor of The Ecclesiastical Review, the architects beine
Mr. C. Grant LaFarge, New York, and Mr. Charles D. Maginnis, Boston.



The Everett Prei
Boston




SAN PIETRO, TOSCANELLA.

A ninth century fa9ade of great beauty and refinement, which might well have influ-
enced American church design. Admirably adapted to brick and terra cotta.



Catljolic C|)urci) 9lrcJ)itrcture

IT ma\- be conceded at once that, in view of the splendor ot opportunity
presented by its great building activity, the Catholic Church has so far
contributed insignificantly to the art of the United States. Just why this
opportunity has availed so little, however, is a consideration always passed
over by the critic, who invariably writes on this subject in a mood either of
testy impatience or of profound discouragement. To my mind, no present
estimate of the artistic asset of the church in this country can possibly indi-
cate the measure of its ultimate influence upon the national art. The hope
may indeed seem visionary that, with modern methods of art production, the
church will again inspire an artistic manifestation approaching the Gothic tra-

[5]



dition in beauty of thought or in sublimity of power. So indissoluble is the art
element from Catholic life and thought, however, that the promise of big ar-
tistic possibilities must amply appear in the very vitality of the church itself.
The history of our own times presents no more interesting phenomenon than
the rejuvenation of the Catholic Church under democratic government.
Sharply isolated from political institutions which were supposed to be neces-
sary to its spiritual control, it has grown in the free play of its energies, not
merely in numbers and power, but in sheer moral prestige, so as to be ad-
mittedly the most potent spiritual influence in American life. Indeed, signs
are not wanting that it is to the splendid conservatism of this great moral au-
thority that we must look to maintain the Christian ideal of society against the
growing forces of materialism. It is not to be wondered at if, in the develop-
ment of this real potentiality, involving as it did the solution of many great
problems incident to the organization of a new and strangely constituted so-
ciety, the energies of the church became too engrossed for the responsibilities
of a discriminating art patronage.

In the meantime art was asserting itself as an important element in the
national life quite independently of religious stimulus. So amazing indeed
has been the development of this secular art within the last twenty years that
the historic supremacy of Europe has finally been called into question in more
than one department. The high standards now prevailing in our civic and
domestic architecture, however, afford the most pertinent evidence of the re-
markable elevation in national taste. That the Catholic Church will come in-
to more sympathetic touch with this beautiful development is inevitable, as
the conditions which have made for its detachment become gradually relaxed.
As it is, I feel sure that many of the clergy do not realize the degree of this
detachment, nor how far the old artistic prestige of the church has been com-
promised by a system of art production which its preoccupation and the hasty
development of its boundaries were well calculated to foster. I refer to a sys-
tem which owes its origin to Munich, a name which fo-reat as it is in artistic
association), in my judgment, symbolizes, therefore, most of the unfavorable
influences which have retarded the healthy growth of Catholic art in America.
Munich is the pernicious principle of Art in the control of Commerce. It is the
multitude of foreign and domestic plaster-shops for turning out stereotyped
saints by the thousands; it is the "combination" of western factory interests
which is flooding the country with hideous altars and pews and confessional-
boxes; it is the so-called architect who makes merchandise of his plans, scat-

[6]



tering them over the land in defiance of all the determining principles of site,
tradition, climates, local resource, and natural environment. Munich is the
smart man with the catalogue.

That the high artistic reputation of the German city should be thus prej-
udiced by the localization of so unhealthy a system is unfortunate. Munich
has many eminent artists and admirable schools of art. But to suppose




CHURCH OF S. MARIA DELLE GR.AZIE, MILAN.

Illustrating the possibilities ot brick in application to monumental design. The church
is attributed to Bramante, but only the great dome justifies the attribution.



that its best sentiment is in s\mpathv with mimeographic art production, or
that the powers of its best artists are enlisted in it, is absurd. This is suffi-
cientlv apparent in the circumstance that, in order to remove the odium of it
from the church, the Catholic Archbishop of Munich himself was forced a
few years ago to issue a pastoral letter protesting vehemently against this
spurious and mechanical Christian art, and warning his clergy to give it no
countenance or support whatever.

If art in the control of the counting-room is degenerate at Munich, what
hope is there for the principle in a land where the commercial struggle is so
keen that the fairest and most sequestered landscape is not sacred from the

[7]



impudent insistence on the excellence of Sapolio or the efficacy of Little Liver
Pills ? Every-day experience proves that it makes not merely for low artistic
standards, but for degrading methods. And yet, under perfunctory patro-
nage, this principle has grown to be a serious menace to the cause of Catholic
art in this country. We must not hope for higher standards until a greater de-
liberation is exercised in the determination ot the sources of true art produc-
tion, for under present conditions art is not to be had merely by paying for
it. There is surely no lack to-day in this country of accomplished architects
and sculptors and decorative artists, men who are eager to give their best
service to the cause of ecclesiastical art. If it be not easy, except for those of
keen artistic perceptions, to dissociate these from the mass, a little investiga-
tion will easily reveal them; and no personal or parochial consideration ought




THE CATHEDRAL, PRATO.

A building of extremely graceful lines. The tower, which is admirably proportioned,
is also splendidly placed to give the right accent to the composition. It is amazing that
such a building as this, so well adapted to the materials with which we usually deal,
should have proved so uninspiring to Catholic architecture in America.

[8]




CHURCH OF SAINTS ANDREA AND BERNARDINO, PERUGIA.

A classical composition of much dignity and beauty, though now somewhat overloaded
with ornament of varying scale and feeling. The design is full of admirable suggestion.

to be permitted to weigh in fa\or of him whose capacity does not survive a
reasonable test. It often happens that the incapable architect is a very decent
sort of a fellow, who causes considerable flow^ of the milk of human kindness,
but the folly of employing him to design a church can be demonstrated by
arithmetic. Suppose $50,000 to have been appropriated for the erection of a

[9]




CHURCH OF SAN PIETRO SOMALDI, LUCCA.

This is one ot many stately Italian types which, while not literally adaptable, is full or
beautiful suggestion for American churches. The position of the tower was determined
by immediate conditions; otherwise it were better placed, as at Frato.



parish church capable of seating one thousand people. A fifth of that sum
will suffice to build a comfortable weather-proof structure of the requisite ca-
pacity and equip it with all physical essentials for congregational worship.
Four-fifths, therefore, of the appropriation is intended to secure an expression
of architectural dignity in keeping with the solemn destination of the build-

[ 10]



ing. Even an ignorant architect or an ordmary mechanic may inteUigently
guide the expenditure of one-fifth of the appropriation, but, since he cannot
reach an artistic issue, $40,000 must be wasted under his hands, — a big sum
of money to ga for nothing. It was spent for art, and art is not the result, but
something which is not to be argued into a resemblance to it by any degree of
parochial approval. Architecture has its standards quite as well marked as
those of literature even if they be equally obscure to the general public. It
may be only five men in fift\- have artistic discrimination, but is there a much
bigger proportion who have literary judgment I Of the rest there are many
who would yield no superiority to Ruskin over the local reporter. Yet liter-
ature is still worth while.

So vital a point, indeed, is the selection of the architect that upon it turns
really the whole question. Since the services of the good architect usually
cost no more than those of the bad one, it seems clear that only two consider-
ations should be brought to bear on a particular candidacy: first, the profes-
sional capacity of the man; second, his personal integritv. The best test of
his capacity is the judgment of his own profession. How is he regarded by
those who are eminent in it ^ Are his accomplishments acknowledged .^ If
not, no weight whatever should be given to the circumstance that he has al-
ready designed man}" churches, — they are presumably bad. Any man who
has designed ten churches without receiving the commendation of so liberal
a profession must be presumed to have done his share in discrediting Catholic
architecture, and should be passed over. The personal honor of the candi-
date may be considered reasonably established if, like the respectable lawyer,
he can claim membership in the professional society which regulates the ethics
of practice. In the face of Monsignor Lavelle's testimon\', however, it ought
to be still further attested by the experience of his previous clients. The archi-
tect once selected, his service ought to be permitted to extend, in the interest
of artistic congruity, to the selection of every detail, including not mereh' the
altars and the furniture, but the mural and window decoration. These mat-
ters are as much the legitimate concern of the arcitect as the structure itself.
A bad decorator may easily ruin the effect of a fine interior, and even a very
good one, if he happen to have no particular sympathy with the architecture,
may contrive to give it an entirely wrong expression.

Some of the clerical contributors have touched upon the economic condi-
tion of the architect's problem. It is, indeed, a very vital matter, since the
amount of money available in a given case may not only determine the degree

[ II ]




INTERIOR OF CATHEDRAL, AREZZO.



and character ot its elaboration, hut may control the entire organism and style
of the building. It is customary to speak of a limited building fund as a stul-
tifying condition, as if it must necessarily make for inferior architecture, as if
there existed some essential affinit\- between the artistic value of a work and
the intrinsic cost of the materials of which it is made. As a matter of fact,
the element of cost has no relation whatever to artistic beauty. Very often cut
granite and polished marbles serve only to emphasize the inherent ugliness of




PLEASING DECORATIVE SETTING TO AN ORDINARY
COMMERCIAL STATION.



bad design. Such is the alchemy of art that an unpretentious brick church,
with the mark of gifted hands upon it, may have more artistic value than the
cathedral. The economic condition, therefore, is not only not essentially prej-
udicial, but if it encouraged, as it ought to encourage, a simpler and more
thoughtful kind of building, its influence would be, on the contrary, decidedly
healthy. Let us not blame our poverty for our bad architecture, but the taste-
less men who made that poverty ridiculous. Are we not sick and tired of the
illiterate misrepresentation by which our sacrifice is made to strive by a sys-
tem of architectural shams after more merit than it really has ? Is it not a
monstrous libel upon the splendid spirit of Catholic giving to thus mistrans-
late it into an expression of smirking hypocrisy designed to impress the neigh-
bors ? Of the grosser violations of the ethical principle in architectural beauty

[ 13]



(such as the use of imitation marbles) it should be unnecessary to speak in an
article on the designing of churches. Such insincerities, even if thev may be
assumed to gratify an untutored popular taste, have a very pernicious signifi-
cance in association with the house of God. \\ ho is confident enough to say
that there is no insidious mischief done to the faith of the worshiper in that
shock of disillusionment with which he perceives on the walls of the church
the lie which is designed to deceive him : But the real nature of architecture
is violated most commonly in the unintelligent effort to achieve beautv that
has no structural authority. Architectural illusions may, of course, be created
out of cardboard with historic outlines and good proportion of parts, but archi-
tecture must have organism as well as form, and the form and the organism
must be so intimately wedded that one is the felicitous expression of ihe-
other. And yet, out of this scenic point of view, we constantly see flimsv ma-
terials used to simulate the rich externals of enduring masonr\\ Buildings pro-
fess to be of stone on the fiimsy title of a veneer on the aisle walls, leaving the
insincerity of the profession to be demonstrated by the wooden clearstory and
the copper pinnacles. Gothic churches are still constructed of wood with
meaningless pointed arches, their proud buttresses built of pine boards, — a
triumph of the tenpenny nail. In the interior, lath and plaster, besides ful-
filling their legitimate function of wall-covering, are persuaded into historic
forms for which their properties utterly unfit them. Rarely is there any ex-
pression of vitality. The beautiful open-timber roofs, which so frankly con-
fess their office and may be made so beautiful, are hardly ever employed. We
find the nobility of masonry exemplified in the New York Cathedral, where it
imparts such an effect of muscular energy, of living, sentient architecture;
but where else r St. Patrick's in lath and plaster would be ridiculous and un-
worthy to be classed as a great church. It is quite possible to bring something
of the spirit of St. Patrick's into our parish churches, and until we do there
can be no real health in our architecture. Above all, no Gothic should be
attempted without the means to create such an effect of structural energy.

The economic condition apart, it is clear we need more simplicity, more
sincerity, in our building. In these days especially, when the sumptuosities of
art are employed to promote the interest of the social and business advertise-
ment, the church, if it is to possess a distmctive expression, if it is to have
within its doors an atmosphere not of the street, must wear an aspect of reti-
cence, of dignity, even of severity.

[ 14]




OCE.SL or MONTEKLY AND I Oi ANGELE3
CHT tl.nV. THOMAS J.CONATY n.D. 6I5HOP

THE ORAL OF ST \a5IANA

SS5&-LOS ANGELES CALlFORNIA-^QSS^s*

:.|NNI5 WAISH AND 5ULLIVA,N ARCHITECTS BO5T0MANDL0S ANGE Ll\5







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EXAMPLE OF MONUMENTAL CHURCH BUILDING FOR WHOSE STYLE THERE WAS FOUND AUTHORITY IN THE IMMEDIATE

TRADITIONS AS WELL AS IN THE CLIMATE OF THE LOCALITY



To what extent should we permit the architectural traditions of
Europe to govern the development of church architecture in Amer-
ica r Do there exist anv peculiar conditions or tendencies here
which make a demand upon the architect for a less historic expression ?
Does the traditional organism of the church building logically meet all the
requirements of modern congregational needs r




PLAN, CATHEDRAL, LOS ANGELES, CAL.

The entire congregation is here brought within the points of support without detri-
ment to the architectural perspective ot the interior.

[ 15]




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MAIN ALTAR, BASEMENT CHURCH AT BROCKTON, MASS.

The design embraces the entire width of the nave and is executed in a white cement
composition, the statuary being after special designs.

These are questions which frequently obtrude upon the mind of the archi-
tect in the absence of any authoritative definition of his problem. It is re-
markable that the clerical contributors to this discussion offer little encour-
agement to what was assumed to be a real demand for a departure from the
traditional plan in respect of the use of side aisles for seating. Yet the inno-
vation of the fixed pew has undoubtedly introduced a new condition, if a purely
utilitarian one, which has not been frankly met. In European churches, where
the altars are so numerous and the pavement is left quite free, so that proces-
sions can cross the floor in all directions, columns and piers offer no impedi-
ment. But in the American church, where the high altar is the center of in-
terest, — the focal point for an entire congregation, — the division of the floor
space into three parts by two rows of columns, which obstruct the vision of a
considerable number of people, appears arbitrary and irrational. To omit
the columns altogether, however, is simply to rob the church of its traditional
aspect, substituting an auditorium character which is very objectionable. No
expedient can be entertained which does such violence to historic sentiment.
A compromise commonly resorted to consists in reducing the diameter of the
columns, often to a grievous attenuation, which is only begging the question.
What might be considered a reasonable solution is illustrated in the plan of
the new Cathedral designed for Los Angeles, Cal. Here the optical condition

[ i6]




INTERIOR OF BASEMENT CHURCH AT BROCKTON, MASS.
Illustrating the spanning of the entire nave without recourse to the usual small columns.



is satisfied and the traditional perspective at the same time preserved by ma-
king the nave fairly broad and the side aisles merely of ambulatory width.
The transepts, which are ordinarily more or less screened from a view of the
altar by the big piers which normally result from the intersection of the nave,
are here rendered entirely available by the splaying of the corners. As this
large central space can find logical architectural expression only in a dome,
which is essentially a cathedral feature, such a plan would require modifica-
tion to fit the needs of the parish church — a modification of which it is quite
susceptible, as shallower transepts would obviate the necessity for splaying
the piers at the crossing. With the basilica type of plan, however, there is the
difficulty that the ambulatories would not be wide enough to permit of being
terminated by side altars. The ambulatory feature, therefore, is to be rec-
ommended, in association with the basilica, only for the smaller churches
where, by means of ventilated niches in the outer walls, it may be made to
give excellent place to the confessionals, without the usual displacement of
seats.

There need be no outrage done to tradition, therefore, in satisfying an
utilitarian condition w^hich, if it be not arbitrary, is at least considered fre-
quently to be of some importance.

Should the new papal recommendation in respect to church music prove
to be widely effective, it will make for the deepening of the chancel, which will
be a great gain from the artistic point of view. At present the chancel has,

[ 17]




ST. PATRICK S CHURCH. WHITINS VILLE, MASS.
An example of the N'orthern Italian Gothic in brick and terra cotta.



nearl\- al\va\s, too little architectural dignit\- and is not seldom reduced to a
big niche in the rear wall. The spirit of such a change as this would be singu-
larl\- opposed to that which is working towards the auditoriumizing of the
church. One is toward the historic plan; the tendenc\' of the other, awav from
it. Whatever the issue, the deep and lofty chancel would be unquestionably
in the interest of good architecture. In Gothic designs we too rarely see the
gable-ended chancel of the English t\pe, which gives such fine opportunity for
a noble mullioned window. The objection to a flood of light over the altar
may easily be met by emplo\ing for the window decoration such a subject as
the Crucifixion, which would require a low, mellow tone in the glass.

The basement church is a source of perplexity to the architect, as it is often
very difficult to express it exteriorh' without prejudice to the general effect.
Ideally, the base of any formal architectural composition ought to be as nearly
as possible unbroken in order to convey an impression of repose. The pierc-

[ i8 ]




CHURCH AT CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

A stately type of Italian Byzantine executed in gray brick and dull white glazed
terra cotta, with mosaics in color.

ing of this base, then, bv a series of windows large enough to carr\' Hght unto
a wide and very low apartment must serve to impart a more or less uneasy
look to the superstructure. Many of our buildings in consequence look rest-
less and undignified. The basement church is not by any means, however, an
artisticalh- impossible condition of the architect's problem. Indeed, I be-
lieve that it may be given a decidedly serious and artistic character, being,
at the same time, well aware that its effect is nearly always hideously ugly.
Architects appear to have been satisfied to regard this untraditional feature
of the church as hopelessly utilitarian. The idea of this secondary church is
utilitarian, but it is a church and ought to be treated responsibly. That it is
susceptible of some measure of architectural interest is fairly demonstrated by
St. Margaret's, Brockton. Mass. Here, by a steel girder construction, the
usual clutter of small columns has been avoided, the number introduced cor-
responding to that designed for the church overhead. These columns have
been given a sturdy character with capitals of rich symbolic pattern, close-
knit in a Byzantine manner, the capitals varying in design. The line of the
chancel is marked by a vigorous segmental arch, and, within, distinction and

[19]



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TYMPANUM.

Illustrating the artistic restraint which ought to characterize ecclesiastical decoration.




PEW END
CELTIC STYLE.



importance have been given the
altar, horizontally rather than verti-
cally, by carrying the reredos the
width of the nave. The altars and
reredos being executed in white ce-
ment, the expense was much less
than would have been necessary to
purchase a small altar of marble
which, in itself, would be inadequate
to furnish the chancel. The stations
of the cross are set in the wall and
surrounded, not by ready-made
frames, but by arabesque borders of
special design. If the basement is a
necessary adjunct of the parish
church, and there are many reasons
for considering it such in populous
centers, it ought to be worthy of
serious artistic study.

A word may well be said on the
subject of the window lighting from

[ 20]





TYPE OF ARCHITECTURAL
FIGURE.




CHURCH AT LEOMINSTER, MASS.

An example of the late English Gothic, showing large east window of a rich de-


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Online LibraryCharles Donagh MaginnisCatholic church architecture → online text (page 1 of 2)