Oct 15, 1997

On the art of building churches… 

Online EditionVol. III, No. 7: October 1997

On the art of building churches… 

by Archbishop Christoph Schönborn

Editor’s Note: In his recent essay The Temple as the Maternal Place Archbishop Chrisoph Schönborn, of Vienna, spoke of the Church as Mother, "as the maternal place, the source of all that is living and thus the source of art as well". The following excerpts from his essay, which appeared in Catholic Dossier [May-June 1997], are reprinted with permission. Archbishop Schönborn, a Dominican, was editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"Mater Ecclesia: this image is a synthesis of what the Church had been during the first centuries of Christianity."

"The Fathers of the Church never stopped singing the maternity of the Church. Is not the Church that woman of the Apocalypse who gives birth, under the menace of the Beast, not only to Christ but also to all his brothers (cf. Revelation 12)?"

"The Church, mater et magistra, is not only the Church to come; it is certainly celestial, the Jerusalem on high, but at the same time it pursues its path here below "between the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God," in the phrase of Saint Augustine (The City of God 18, 51).

"More precisely, the Church is where Christ is: she is in heaven with Christ, but she is here below where Christ comes, where, in the eucharistic celebration, he has "his dwelling among men." So it is not surprising that the title Ecclesia Mater should also be given to the buildings of the Church. It is no accident that so many cathedrals are dedicated to Our Lady, for if the Church is mother this is above all because Mary is in the Church, because she is the Church in its purity, sanctity, maternity. It is in her that the Church is already without stain and blemish, as the Council said (Lumen Gentium, no. 25). [The power of the great Christian churches], their "maternity", comes to them from their conformity with the celestial model. This is the classical structure of sacred art.

On the authenticity of artistic vision

"The ideal case is that of an artist who himself has the mystical vision that he seeks to represent. One could certainly compare it with theology. The ideal would certainly be that theologians should be saints, and that their sanctity would give them that conaturality with their object that would enable them to speak not only of theological ideas but of divine realities. If one is not a Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas, one had better take inspiration from the vision of the great masters rather than wish to be original at the expense of being empty. If the artist is not a saint, if he does not have experiental knowledge of the things of God, let him be inspired by those who have.

On innovation

"Sacred art can innovate if it is faithful to the celestial prototype. The vision of the artist or of the priest who is the mediator of this vision will have need, once the work is realized, of being received and recognized as true. The most convincing reception of the work will perhaps be this: that in such a church, before such a work, a young pagan can kneel and pour out his whole heart. Then the artist will know that God is truly served by him. What a recompense!"



Archbishop Christoph Schönborn