Where Did You Go, Michelangelo? The Problem With Ugly Churches

The interior of Notre Dame in Ottawa.
The interior of Notre Dame in Ottawa. (photo: Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

How is it that the oldest churches in Christendom—the four major basilicas of Rome (St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major), Notre Dame in Paris, Chartres—all seem timeless, undated almost? That is, if you visited the Cathedral at Rheims or San Marco in Venice or the Duomo in Milan or even some of the finest Minor Basilicas in America (Our Lady of Victory in South Buffalo, Sacred Heart at University of Notre Dame), you’d be hard-pressed to say, “Hey! I know this Church was built in [date]!” without consulting a guide book.

By contrast, it’s not hard to figure out when a post-Vatican II church was built. There seemed to be a time, in those heady days post-1965 when building a “circular” or centrally-focused church meant topping it with something akin to a washing-machine agitator. Strangely, this phenomenon caught on: instead of the roof of the church looking like an upside-down ship—at least from the interior, which is supposed to represent the upside-down hull of St. Peter’s barque—newer houses of worship looked like they were wearing a particularly awful crown. The headquarters of the Blue Army (The World Apostolate of Fatima) in Washington Township, New Jersey is an example of this.

Art and architecture does—and must—change, of course. One need only look at the art in the 20th century which began with the ending of the Post-Impressionists (when painted images were still somewhat recognizable) to mid-century abstract expressionism (when nothing was recognizable) to today’s “Can-You-Name-A-Single-Living-Artist-Of-Import?” (aside from perhaps David Hockney) to see how quickly art—and life—change.

The problem for the Church is two-fold in this situation: first, for centuries we were taught that the Church was “unchangeable”. This was, at best, a misnomer. True, the Mass stayed the same for several centuries, but a Church charged with preaching the Gospel in all places at all times must change if it hopes to survive, let alone grow and spread. Hence we saw martyrs in such far-flung places as Japan and Oceania, and have incorporated them into our liturgical calendars. The Church may not “change”, but times do.

The second problem was that for many centuries a good bulk of art in general was not just “church” art, and much of it was at the very least theologically inspired. Most of the great artists from Michelangelo and Leonardo and Raphael were practicing believers, and even when they weren’t working on St. Peter’s or the papal apartments or “The Last Supper”, their work had theological overtones. This is, of course, not so much the case today. Can you name a major Catholic artist sculptor or architect?

Wallace Stevens famously wrote that art must change, give pleasure, and be abstract. Most of us would agree with the first two: there are different types of art throughout the centuries, sure, and we want it to make us feel, good, definitely. But when art, especially in a church, becomes “abstract”, then we are in an area that by definition is tough to grasp.

It’s not there are no beautiful churches being built today: Our Lady of Lourdes in Green Bay, built in the 1990s, came out very nice—and has the added innovation of Stations of the Cross that face a window so you could theoretically make them from your car during one of those brutal Wisconsin winters. Marcel Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota seems to have weathered the past half-century fairly well. It certainly gets high marks for sheer originality.

But speaking generally, new churches built post-1965 suffer from a surfeit of repression. We are all now familiar with the list of complaints: tabernacles moved to the side, no altar rail, stained glass windows that are merely colored glass and not representative of any saint or image, and stations of the cross that are so “abstract” so as to be unrecognizable.

The point here is not to complain about new churches for the sake of complaining, but because their form does not provide their necessary function. A church is supposed to inspire us—through the liturgy, yes, but also through its very being.

If you look at the early immigrant churches of any group that came to the United States in any area of this country, they usually began with a ramshackle, makeshift place of worship while at the same time saving money—money most immigrants could barely afford to give—to build a church they could be proud of. And they quickly built incredible testaments to their and our faith.

We see this in Philadelphia at St. Mary’s, at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore, at Old (and New) St. Patrick’s in New York—and as you travel in from the coast, the stunning Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna. These great centers of the faith were not built merely to replicate what Europe had produced—though the immigrant-groups certainly drew on that inspiration in their longing for their ancestral homelands—but provided something Catholic-Americans could be proud of. And they would lift them up, if not financially out of their poverty, then spiritually.

Curiously, as Catholics became increasing assimilated to the American experience and successive generations of immigrants no longer mired in urban poverty, they moved to the suburbs and built new churches. But these new churches—a seemingly endless array of A-frame designs, or the aforementioned circles of stones looking like they were wearing floppy beach-hats—are not only uninspired designs, but uninspiring to visit, let alone pray in.

What happened?

At this point “Vatican II” is usually the answer, but that’s only half of it. The other half is “the implementation of the decrees of Vatican II.” No Church council exists in a vacuum, and the time period of Vatican II (1962-65) was a particularly bad one for art and architecture in general. (Can you think of any beautiful works of art or buildings that were produced in that time period?) Few people will look back to the mid-1960s and say that this was a time of artistic excellence. In fact, it was quite the opposite: the flush of excitement of the abstract expressionism of the 1950s was spent—and the “pop art” of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, “primitive art” of Jasper Johns and “found art” of Robert Rauschenberg—were all the rage. Or at least in vogue. None of this has weathered well.

Mercifully, churches were spared Warhol’s “pop art” and Lichtenstein’s cartoonish paintings, but Johns’s primitivism does crop up in some houses of worship and it’s not exactly the stuff contemplation and meditation are made of.

Further, Mies van der Rhoe’s “Less is More” was the mantra of many architects, and for ill this was applied to the newer American churches built in the 1960s. Many are spartan, to say the very least.

Still, we live in hope: the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston isn’t a total disaster, and some churches are “restoring” their tabernacles to the center of the sanctuary and “bringing back” baptistries that don’t look like wading pools or a bird baths. But one has to wonder: where are the great Catholic artists and architects who will build the next generation of churches? Thomas Day (whose subtitles to his books I’ve borrowed for the title of this article) is correct: Where has Michelangelo gone? And why has bad taste triumphed in a Church where artistic beauty was once our hallmark?