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Online Edition: March 2011, Vol. XVII, No. 1

Can a Church Building Image the Church?

Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, by Denis McNamara. Chicago: Hillenbrand Books. Hardcover, illustrated. 256 pages.

“Church architecture properly belongs in the category of ‘image’, since a church is a sacramental building that makes present to us the realities of heaven and earth at the end of time”, writes Denis McNamara in the preface to his newest book, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy. “This book tries to get at the deep meanings of liturgical art and architecture, and by association, the Sacred Liturgy itself”, he writes. “It is meant to help pastors, architects, artists, members of building committees, seminarians, and anyone interested in liturgical art and architecture come to grips with the many competing themes at work today. The goal then is to drink deeply from the wells of the tradition, to look with fresh eyes at things thought to be outdated or meaningless, and to glean the principles that underlie the richness of the Catholic faith.”

Dr. McNamara makes a specialty of bridging the gap between the Church’s great artistic tradition and the documents of the Second Vatican Council by understanding today’s liturgical architecture as sacramental buildings that show the continuity of the Old Testament temple tradition as well as a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem. He has also done groundbreaking research on the sacramental meaning of the classical architectural tradition. The author is assistant director of Chicago’s Liturgical Institute of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, and has served on the Art and Architecture Commission of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is also the author of articles on art and architecture for many journals, and his 2005 book Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago appeared on the Catholic Bestseller List.

The “Spirit of the Liturgy” incorporated into the title of this book is directly inspired by books of that title written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), published in 2000, and by Father Romano Guardini, published in 1918. “Both these books address the deep meaning of the liturgy and the nature of Christian liturgical time”, Dr. McNamara notes. “The time of image is the time in which we live”, he writes, “a time when we come to know God through sacramental forms which present earthly images of heavenly reality”.

The power of beauty to convey truth is fundamental to understanding the importance of liturgical art and church architecture. In his conclusion, he writes, “Beauty, theologically understood, becomes the lens through which we know what is right.… In Beauty we see the wholeness of things.”

The book’s five sections explore these themes: I Architectural Theology; II Scriptural Foundations; III The Classical Tradition; IV Iconic Imagery as Eschatological Flash; and V Introduction to the Twentieth Century. A chapter from the last section, “Meeting House or Church: the Hermeneutics of Discontinuity and Reform”, appeared in AB September 2009.

The author’s thoughtful approach to these topics — and the penetrating insights he offers — will be especially welcomed by all Catholics who are interested in liturgical art and architecture. This book makes a significant contribution to the renewed (and growing) interest in the strong link that exists between Catholic art and liturgy, as well as to the ongoing reappraisal of the effects of liturgical changes of the past four decades.

We heartily agree with the author’s concluding sentence:

“Let us, then have truly liturgical art and architecture, an architecture of Beauty, an architecture of reality in the time of the image, an architecture of the Sabbath, a built theology of Love in the Age of the Church.”

Reviewed by Helen Hull Hitchcock

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