Ethan's speech for the Catholic Art Guild Conference and Gala: 'Formed in Beauty' November 4, 2018 / by Ethan Anthony


St John Neumann Catholic Church

St John Neumann Catholic Church

Throughout history, artists, architects and theologians have often developed prescriptions for achieving beauty in building and the arts. The earliest of these, the Ten Books on Architecture by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, was written by a Roman architect and engineer who lived in the first century B.C.

St Charles Borromeo’s Instructiones Fabricae Et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae applied the teachings of the council of Trent to Church architecture and in the post Reformation era, the revival of Catholic Church Design was guided by The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, published in 1841.

In our own era we have had the SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM of POPE PAUL VI promulgated in 1963 and better known as Vatican Two and most recently Built of Living Stones was published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000, a theological reflection on the liturgy and church architecture including church planning and art in worship spaces.  In addition, in the last 15 years a number of books have questioned the teachings of Vatican II in favor of a return to those of Borromeo and Pugin.

Also the Bishop, Pastor, Building committee and various Diocesan Councils also play a part in the design and planning of American churches. After taking into account all of these, the architect must carefully solve the program needs. This must be done while respecting both general and specific building codes and achieving a great and beautiful space fit for the Catholic Liturgy. And, finally if that is not sufficient, all of this must usually be done on a budget that is too small to provide greatness of materials or finishes or any decent artwork let alone art glass windows.

So how do we architects of a new round of American Catholic churches avoid mediocrity and find a path through these many difficulties and restrictions to create a building which is beautiful and holy and filled with the Spirit?

How can the architect function as a resource for the Parish and the Pastor? If this new creation is to include the art and craft of other individual creators, how does the architect conduct this sometimes cacophonous orchestra and achieve a coordinated symphony of creativity?

And, did I forget to mention Beauty? We know it when we see it, we feel it, it goes to the core of our being…touches us personally, breaks through our defenses, our sophistication. Can beauty still be a possibility after all of these other factors have been taken into consideration?

Finding and following beauty is the beginning and end of my every day. I know it is a thing, that it exists. In fact I spend much of my time judging the beauty of the work of the multitude of artists, crafters and contractors who are working on our projects often far away.

When the concerted efforts of so many are required to produce a project, how can so many different people come together and how, can the architect guide the crafter or artist and still allow them some freedom to contribute?

How can one director provide guidance that may not be understood by the workers who produce the work or even the owner who pays for it until it is substantially complete? Can a guiding vision overcome differing levels of skill and conflicting ideas and guide the owner, the user and the many producers to a cohesive and beautiful result?

Cram wrote in 1914: “Every architect knows that the success of his work depends largely on the craftsmen who carry it out and complete it with all its decorative features of form and color, and yet in a nation of 100 million people, with a dozen schools of architecture practically nothing is done toward educating these same craftsmen, and either we secure the services of foreign-trained men, accept tenth rate native work or go without.”

The situation remained as Cram described through the 1960’s but has improved greatly in the last ten years. There are now schools of traditional art and craft in some major cities and crafters of high skill are becoming available as  the demand for that kind of work begins to grow.

The great art workshops of the past such as those of  Rembrandt and Rodin,  and John Angel in the twentieth century followed a guiding vision that directed many individual artists to produce a vision of great beauty. They depended on many assistants working more or less independently, all learning the work from the master and each other and all gaining a common understanding of beauty based on starting from Precedent.

As the great artists did, we now gather around us a small group of arts and crafts specialists who carry out this vision and contribute as they produce artifacts and parts of buildings that follow these universal principles. We provide guidance for the wood, stone and iron work and other skills needed to complete the project.  Truly, the architect is a composer and conductor to the orchestra of arts and crafts workers who create the building, their symphony.

We begin with the iconographic planning and a look at the traditional placements of iconography throughout the building. The placements for iconography are ultimately finally committed to drawings and there begins an iterative process with the artists and crafters and one that is more cycled than the typical shop drawing process such as that, for example, of producing wood cabinets.

The first drawings may be loose sketches which are then drawn in CADD. The artist then returns a submittal drawing that further refines the concept which is critiqued by us and returned with notes. In sculpture the next step after the sketch is a clay then, after it is approved, finally the marble is carved.

And what guides us as the Director of this symphony? 

Two writers have provided clear guidance for the architect in this task; Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and John Ruskin.

A.W.N. Pugin studied, measured and sketched medieval catholic churches across England and began the gothic revival with his 1835 design for St George’s Cathedral in Southwark England the first new Catholic church to be built in England in 300 years. Much of the revival was framed by Pugin in his books, Contrasts and The true Principles of Pointed Architecture.

In his Principles of Pointed Architecture Pugin wrote:

“The two great rules for design are these:

1st, that there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety.

2nd, that all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.”

Ornamented Architecture

The instructions contained in Pointed architecture were in large part specific design principles for ornamenting architecture both in the elaboration of the building fabric and in the addition of artistic content. In advocating an ornamented architecture Pugin was advocating a return to an architecture that contained Catholic liturgical meaning after most aspects of the Catholic liturgy were banished for 300 years. First in the Reformation of Henry VIII then in the “enlightenment” and Revolution in France the Catholic church and religion had been systematically destroyed.

During the Puritan years Catholic ornament had become a particular target for the suppression of the Catholic liturgy and, the puritans and after them the French Revolutionaries stripped the saints and Doctors of the church from the walls.

Pugin began, after the Catholic Restoration act of 1829, to work on new designs for a Catholic architecture that would replace the Roman classical architecture of the Renaissance. Catholics of the day were still persecuted and viewed the dominant architecture as pagan based as it was on pagan temples and worship. But the Renaissance also had done much to simplify and remove liturgical information from the surface of buildings.

If ornament was to be returned to the church once more, Pugin said it would have to be integral. Pugin felt that ornament must be limited to elaboration of the structure what we today refer to as architectonic.  This, he felt would bring life to the underlying building and avoid mere decoration, which might mask and confuse the underlying architecture of the building.

During his short working life he succeeded through his gothic revival in re-establishing gothic architecture as the language of religious building. Of course, the gothic revival faded to be replaced by other revivals until the rise of modernism just before the Second World War.

What happened to ornament? Why don’t we see it on buildings today?

After World War II with the rise and dominance of the modern movement, the architect was once again told to delete all ornament and with it we lost the hand of the crafter and artist. The new iconoclasm.

In the post modern era that followed the decline of the modern movement, we have seen the re-emergence of building arts and crafts and our work is part of that revival.

A Place for Art and Craft

We have continued the long-established practice within our firm of making space in the building for the work of arts and crafts. A void space is created and it becomes a place for an iconographic statement: a bas-relief or statue, a mural, iron hardware, custom designed marble furnishing sets, altar, ambo and Tabernacle throne,  carved and moulded terminations and in wood, glass, paint and other new materials, symbols that add layers of meaning onto the framework provided by the building.

Adding iconography to the work is part of a process of design and partly a process of visualizing what the final result will be after the artist or crafter has added symbolic or representational meaning to an architectural element. Where in a Roman classical building a column represents a plant form, a lunette over the door at St John Neumann contains a scene that Father Dowling felt crystalized the relationship between the church and the parishioner.

Matthew 19:14. “Let the little children come to me…” This church is a pedagogical tool for the children in the parish school next door as well as for the adults of the parish who are reminded that like children they too need to come to God with an open heart.

The creation of space for iconography and symbolic meaning becomes one important source of inspiration for the design. In our buildings a column maybe has a representation of a biblical scene that is of vital importance to the liturgy and the life of the people. The artist and crafter, fashion parts of the building while adding a higher symbolic life.

During most of the history of humankind building projects have been the result of the work of many hands directed by the priest or religious and the artist and or architect/interior designer even the landscape designer gets into the act. The contribution and mark of the crafter also is there and is not seen to be a disfiguration but the seat of the iconographic conversation.

John Ruskin in his 1850 work The Stones of Venice made the argument that the maker and the making were inextricably intertwined. He further noted that the Gothic architects of Venice created for the glory of God. The gothic building was the book of Christianity written in stone. In gothic architecture as Ruskin saw it, the maker is not only the producer but also another worshipper, praying in stone or iron or wood or paint. Every part of the creation is infused with a unique and critical message. The message of a building is its soul.

The language of Architecture

In fact, even the modern architect who avoids religious architecture describes modern buildings with a language that is derived from spiritual references, Mies said: “God is in the Details”, Paolo Soleri titled one of his books: The Bridge between Matter and Spirit is Matter becoming Spirit.

Frank Lloyd Wright said: “Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.”; “Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

But, “the Building does not matter” and the “God is nature” 

We hear sometimes today that the building in which we worship doesn’t matter. What is important we are told, is the body of the faithful, the congregation, the worshipper wherever the worship takes place and that sounds good but in fact worship almost always takes place in a building. Further the building imparts much to the essence of worship.

In a recent essay in the Jesuit publication America Magazine the author described how on a visit to Rome, he came away feeling that a tree was more inspiring than the “grandiose” churches of Europe. Only Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia inspired him even in comparison to the great cathedrals.

Wright expounded a similar theme: “I believe in God, only I spell it nature.” “God is the great mysterious motivator of what we call nature, and it has often been said by philosophers that nature is the will of God. And I prefer to say that nature is the only body of God that we shall ever see.”

Nature is indeed very nice but it is not human worship and those who espouse the beauty of nature as more beautiful than the beauty of the Catholic Liturgy writ in ston risk losing the worshipper. Human kind finds great comfort in a familiar Liturgy and a Liturgical setting that contains reinforcing symbols and iconographic information. From the day of the Sacred Groves our civilization has made places of the spirit and of remembrance lest we forget in everyday life the values and spiritual knowledge we have gained. God, in a real sense dwells in these places. How can they not be about God, contain God, be where God lives. 

And it was to make sure that God was not alive in the great cathedrals or Abbey churches that the Rationalists and Naturalists of the French Revolution demolished so many great churches. Glastonbury Abbey, Syon Abbey, Tintern, Rievaulx, Fountains, literally thousands of great foundations once homes for religious men and women, defiled, destroyed, desecrated, the occupants sometimes murdered, the great fabrics pulled down and the stone stolen away to build great houses for the new rich of the land.

Their spirit and the spirit of God is still present in these great places, in all of these abbeys, even when the remains are only a tiny sliver of their former greatness. This presence instills me with awe to this day.

Even when the bones that remain are only a few, only broken, only barely still there, they yet contain this power, this awe-inspiring presence, this inspiration, this infusion of the spirit. And we pick up their work where they had to lay it down, to do the same work, to pick up the same spade and dig enthusiastically.


26 Feb 2012 England and France 193Whitby.jpg