Christian Art and Architecture for the New Church

Raymond Pitcairn 1

New Church Life, 40.10 (October 1920): 611–24.


The Heritage of Christian Art

What is art? And what is its relation to religion? To many artists, indeed, art avowedly is their religion; but this, no doubt, in the sense that what one loves enough, he worships. It is admitted that the arts are cultural. With the ancients, culture and worship were synonymous—even as kultur and materialism became synonymous in our day.

In the works of many writers, the virtues and religion are confused with art. Ruskin and the idealists are prone to confusion of this kind. On the other hand, one might gather from the statements of many realist and materialistic critics that if morals in any wise should be connected with a work, art surely would be lacking. But, in the interest of philosophy, let us make this clear distinction—religion is not art, nor art religion. What, then, is art? And what relation does it bear to worship and religion?

Art is not art because, inwardly considered, it is moral; nor on the contrary, because it is immoral. The moral import of a work of art—the story it tells—has as little to do with its merely artistic merits as do "ill-dressed food or ill-made clothes with the respectability or piety of the cook or tailor." A man of superlative morals may paint a picture which, viewed symbolically, is sublime; yet as a work of art his picture may woefully transgress the laws of drawing and of color, and may possess not even one artistic virtue.

Art—or, if you please, art for art's sake—is merely the technique of emotional appeal, the mastery of human expression. The root meaning of art is skill, and in this sense the more artless it appears, the more skillful is the art. For the less conscious we are of technique, the more living is the art, the more powerful the expression. The quality and excellence of art is measured by the power of its appeal, effected through harmonious arrangements in the artistic medium employed, whether this medium be the organs of the human body, words, sounds, or symbols of these, or materials of whatever sort, arranged in varying forms for the purpose of expression. In themselves, these forms are neither good nor bad, save for the purpose and the connection in which they are used. So in the letter of Scripture, which is written symbolically, or according to correspondences, symbols taken from all the kingdoms of nature have a significance, good or bad, according to the connection in which they are employed. Money, for example, is used in the Word to denote things both good and evil. Morally considered, a coin is neither good nor bad; but man may make it serve God or the devil. Viewed as a coin, it is good or bad solely according to its powers of purchase. So art may serve the powers of good or evil. A painting, a piece of sculpture, literature, or music, viewed as art, is good or bad according to its ability, through harmony and beauty of expression, to stir emotions in the human heart.

Intrinsically considered, all the mediums of artistic expression are dead. Art is living only by virtue of that which animates and is higher than art, even as speech lives by virtue of thought which is its spirit. So the body of man without the soul is dead. But through the soul the body lives, and without the body the soul cannot exercise its power; for power resides in ultimates, and through correspondence the two are one. The forms of art are ultimates, and they are powerful, although the origin of their power is from a higher or more interior source. The power of art was recognized by the ancients: "If I may write the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws." Because of the power that resides in ultimates, the art of an age outlives all else of its civilization. The reason is that art deals with the loves and affections of mankind. These are man's very life; and hence the art of any epoch holds the spirit of the age.

Ritual is the oldest of the arts. The truth is that all the arts are gifts of God, intended primarily to be the hand-maidens of religion, even as the liberal art of printing was given primarily for the preservation and dissemination of the Word of God. The arts are cultural; indeed "culture" is derived directly from a word which, in the Latin tongue, means worship. In worship, art makes one with religion if it express and interpret religious feeling truly, in the sense that thought and speech make one through correspondence.

The history of the world is written in the temples of all the ages. Worship is the outward manifestation of religion, and religion rules the life of every age until its fall. When our Puritanic ancestors damned art because it "more frequently appeared in fiddling and dancing than in good deeds," they failed to understand that art was not to blame, but men and women whose religion was no longer of the life.

Speaking generally, the art of all the nations of the past is symbolic; and human monuments which are symbolically religious have a twofold fascination, felt even by those who do not love religion, save in its relation to art and history. What would be left of archaeology if religion were extracted from it? Doubtless even the infidel would find it stupid.

Art for the sake of art is vastly better than art for the sake of gain, or art pandering to public opinion, or serving other unworthy and debasing ends. Even so, "art for art's sake" is very poor philosophy.

The charm of art, the appeal of ritual, may satisfy the esthetic sense, may deeply move a votary of the beautiful, and yet may fail to elevate the mind and heart to God and to His kingdom. Ceremony and religious form may serve merely to steep the soul in sensual beauty, inspire love for things which in themselves are of this world and earthly. All who love religious art and ritual for art's sake alone are idolaters, whether they realize their idolatry or not (AC 409, 10437).

But if humility and the spirit of a living faith in God dwell in the heart and mind, a soul conceived in rapture from on high is born of art, and heaven with all its holiness and power is present in the ministry of art.

The Heritage of Christian Art top

In the Apocalyptic prophecy, the Lord says of the New Church, "Behold I make all things new." A new Revelation was given, a new Church founded, and the question is asked: "Why should there not be a New Christian art and architecture? Why should we have a Gothic house of worship, with arts and crafts of medieval inspiration?"

In Bryn Athyn Church, indeed, there are significant departures from the traditional Gothic plan, notably the sanctuary, built to surround the altar upon which rests the open Word—symbol of the Lord, the Son of Man, who is the Word—the central object in our worship. However, we are not here concerned with New Church symbolism, but with the outstanding fact that the first New Church Cathedral is a Gothic structure, and with the reasons that underlie this fact.

With the fall of every church—and there have been five great churches since the world began, which are the subjects chosen for the five-light western window at Bryn Athyn—"some nucleus of a church remains which those of the vastate church do not acknowledge" (AC 407). A new church is established with this remnant. In other words, the new dispensation is accepted first by some of the former church whose heredity, environment and training—indeed, whose entire disposition—is according to the genius of the church from which they came.

As provided at the consummation of the churches of all former dispensations, the doctrines and traditions of the dying age are preserved for succeeding generations in the writings, art and architecture of the passing church. In Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, religion and mythology derived from the Ancient Church were expressed with power and beauty long after those nations had become spiritually decadent. For in the last days of an epoch, an autumnal renaissance transpires; art flourishes, and through art the spirit of the passing age is clothed in ultimate and lasting forms, in which those of the dying Church take more delight than in the spirit.

Thus the very centering of thought and interest in the natural and material things connected with religion—which marks the fall—is used by Providence to save for future generations truth that otherwise would perish. And so the Ancient Church speaks yet through the mythologic art of Greece and Rome, and Truth Divine revealed in the Ancient Word given before the writing of Hebraic Scripture lies hidden in the monuments of Assyria and ancient Egypt.

Christian symbolism and the traditions of primitive Christian faith have been preserved in like manner in the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages. And, while it cannot be denied that many things therein bespeak the traditions of men rather than the Word of God, as comprehended by the early Christians, nevertheless it will be found that in these Christian temples there is far more for the New Church than has yet been realized. The New Church has in them a heritage of Christian art vast and beautiful, much of which has not yet been explored. Moreover, it must be true of the Lord's new coming, as of His first advent, that He "came not to destroy, but to fulfill" the teachings of the former Revelation, whose worship was solemnized in these cathedrals, whose art portrays in many beautiful and graphic forms the story of the Christian Gospel.

But, granting all the beauty and significance of this early Christian art, why should the New Church look to the past for its artistic inspiration? That is the question.

A new art, a new architecture, which is expressive of an age or of a people, is a thing of growth. It must follow, nor is it possible for it to precede the development of the mind which forms the life and thought expressed in the laws and customs and the art and culture of a growing civilization. If this be granted, it is natural that the new Christian Church should take the forms of Christian architecture for its temples; and from this art the architecture of the New Church will grow, until the prophecy, "Behold, I make all things new," will be fulfilled when Christian art will live again in forms more glorious than of old.

The early Christians based their art, their architecture, and their modes of thought and life, on those of Rome. Life today is so confused, so like a pudding stone in variety of composition, that the problems of a new civilization are more complex than at any previous period in history; and forms of art and ritual will therefore vary much. However, a people of Christian stock will naturally select Gothic architecture of the great church-building era as their starting point. For this Gothic architecture, and the traditional Romanesque and Byzantine from which it sprang, is Christian architecture, the only Christian architecture that has a powerful emotional appeal, preserved to men for the material upbuilding of the Lord's New Church.

Gothic architecture reached its zenith in the great medieval cathedrals, built five hundred years before the consummation of the former Christian Church. And it is significant that since then religious architecture has lamentably declined until it became uninspired and lifeless; until symbolism—the soul of Christian art—expired in the sixteenth century, and the symbolic quality which was its ruling passion was supplanted by a love of craftsmanship and mere technique expressed in the elaboration of meaningless detail. Representative or symbolic art thus perished; and as the spiritual quality of Gothic art gave place to decorative technique, so, too, fidelity to use, expressed in the structural integrity which vitalized the earlier Gothic buildings, became subordinate to prettiness of style.

Confronted in our Gothic quest by several architectural periods or styles, which, toward the end of medieval glory, bear melancholy evidence of decay, we ask: What sort of Gothic should be the basis of our work? Which is the noblest type of churchly art—the architecture most expressive of deep religion and truly Christian feeling?

The most enthusiastic churchmen and architects beyond the borders of the New Church would not argue that inspiration can be found in the dead and ugly Gothic structures of the last century. Victorian Gothic is impossible, as all will admit; for it was a false revival of medieval art. There was no new spirit in it. Seeking to recall the departed soul of medieval architecture, these pseudo-Gothic builders, through the sorry medium of architectural decadence, called up an inane and imposter spirit that revealed false art and architectural trivialities.

However, if the intention be to appraise the architecture of Gothic times, which ended with the Renaissance, it will be found that tastes and beliefs differ widely, even among architects and artists, in matters of religious art. In his work on Church Building, Mr. Cram harps upon the spirit that is returning to the Old Church, and argues for a theological and doctrinal restoration. His aim is to clothe the church in the English perpendicular Gothic of the sixteenth century. To this end he adduces artistic, national and theological arguments in favor of the Gothic art of that decadent period in which Christian architecture, as a noble art, was soon to perish. In addition to the defense of his position from an artistic viewpoint, he is inspired by a conviction that in building upon this late English Gothic "we are restoring a theological and administrative continuity, and we must fitly express this in structural form." The New Church looks for neither a doctrinal nor a theological restoration of the former Church, nor for its administrative continuity.

Howbeit, we would approach the subject from both a doctrinal and an artistic viewpoint, as does Mr. Cram. But his ideal is to take up the architectural life of the Church "where it was severed in the sixteenth century." Mr. Cram holds that from William the Conqueror to William of Wykeham there had been a sure and logical growth until, by "what almost seemed divine inspiration, William of Wykeham turned the gropings that had been hitherto into clear seeing." And he maintains that in the sixteenth century architecture of the tombs and reredoses of Oxford and Cambridge were expressed "the highest forms of sensitive beauty"—the Gothic which is a "free, mobile, all-comprehending expression of a religion and a race." Hence, he concludes, "one style, and one only, is for us; and that is the English perpendicular." With other phases "we have nothing to do." "All before had been experimental essays toward national expression, crude often, and always inadequate" (Church Building, Second Edition, 1914, by Ralph Adams Cram, concluding chapter pp. 261–270).

From all this we emphatically dissent, believing that the enthusiasm of Mr. Cram the churchman has unduly influenced the better judgment of Mr. Cram the architect. Wykeham and late English Gothic has been well characterized in a recent editorial in the Architectural Review which declares: "There is much glamour about William of Wykeham. He was a great churchman and an able statesman, but he conferred no benefit upon architecture when he transformed the Norman nave of Winchester Cathedral, which Durham, Ely, St. Albans, Southwell, bear testimony must have had great dignity, into the wiry, tenuous, monotonous thinness of that least inspired of English Gothic styles, the perpendicular. . . . The fan vaulting, which is by no means the best in England, gives the decorative quality of its time. The west front is impoverished, and has been mischievous in its suggestions to architects of the Victorian epoch. . . ."

During the six years thus far devoted to the building of Bryn Athyn Church, the appeal of twelfth and thirteenth century Gothic and the earlier architecture from which this was derived has become increasingly powerful, and the later perpendicular and flamboyant periods have become to me more and more superficial and cloying. I would exclaim with Emile Mâle: "Fully to appreciate its grandeur we must compare (this) medieval art with the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries!" For, as Charles Eliot Norton has truly said, "after the fourteenth century, the practice of cathedral architecture of the old kind fell into desuetude." My own strong and growing convictions in this matter led to the elimination of many early features of the church approved by Mr. Cram.

Thus, in the constant change and development that have marked the growth of Bryn Athyn Church—which, fortunately, started in an earlier perpendicular period than the decadent Gothic of the sixteenth century—our efforts have ever tended strongly toward still earlier Gothic forms. The powerful artistic appeal of the earlier Christian art has been the impelling cause and inspiration of our trend in this direction. But, if the beginnings of New Church architecture are in Gothic art, there must be something more than this artistic faith and inspiration to plead for the avoidance of the later types in which our work began. And there are indeed symbolic grounds of vital interest that confirm our affection for the forms and traditions of the Golden Age of Gothic. To these I would briefly call attention; for there is evidence to prove that the early Gothic art, which was the glory of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was inspired by truths of doctrine of the unperverted Christian Church.

Of all the works of art created by the hands of men, there are none that seem to live, through the human spirit that breathes within their every part, as do the marvelous churches and cathedrals of the Middle Ages. The secret of their deep emotional appeal is that in these temples was enacted the religious drama of the lives of those who built and those who worshipped in them. They are fashioned in the human form—not merely the shape of the human body, which their plan indeed resembles—and there is a human quality in all their parts, and in the varied uses which those parts subserve. Their art comprises all the arts; in them religion makes appeal to all man's senses. Their perfection and their unity arise from the perfection of variety so organized that all things conspire to one end. The varying minds of many men whose labor was inspired by love and joy abounding in their work are written in these monuments of Christian art, which may be likened to great symphonies in which a multitude of voices join in sublime and mighty harmonies, full and rich, and well-nigh infinite in their variety. All other architecture is by comparison inadequate and elementary.

The cathedrals were not mere liturgies in stone; nor was their function solely to give means whereby religion might appeal emotionally through art to all the senses; neither was their soul the spirit of the prayers of men. They are a human telling of the story of the Word, wherein the illiterate could read, in sculptured stone and wood, in glorious windows, metal work and painting, despite the intrusion of perversions, the story of the Word of God.

The symbolism of the western porch of Chartres Cathedral will illustrate the Biblical character of these ancient churches; for here, as a writer on medieval times has said, "the whole Gospel is revealed to the gaze of the Christian who is about to enter the house of the Lord." The central figure represents the Lord as King of kings, and in a wealth of sculptural detail is told the story of Joseph and Mary and the Nativity of our Lord up to the massacre of the innocents by Herod, and the events leading to the last appearance of the Lord to His disciples on the Mount of Olives. As described by Cecil Headlam, "we have been shown Him expected, prophesied, prefigured, and again, realizing the prophecies and fulfilling all the acts of His divine mission." Here we find the risen Christ triumphant surrounded by the four beasts of the Apocalypse; below, the twelve apostles sent forth to preach the Gospel; and above, the twelve Apocalyptic angels and the four and twenty elders. This is none other than the prophecy of the New Church depicted in sculpture' that is among the most treasured art in all the world, in statuary that is more spiritual in feeling than any ever fashioned by the hands of men.

"Each part of the cathedral," says Headlam in his Story of Chartres, "like the cathedral as a whole, is the superb product of the intimate alliance of nameless architects, nameless sculptors, nameless painters of glass, working with the one object of setting forth the glory of God to the multitudes, illustrating for all unreading eyes the Word of the Lord. The cathedral is a Bible in stone, and the porch a Gospel in relief, a sculptured catechism, a preface and a resume of the Book. Each stone, thus understood, is seen to be a page of a great drama. This drama is the history of humanity from the creation of the world to the day of the last judgment. Within, the same story is repeated. The jewelled windows are there not only for the sake of the holiness of their beauty, not merely to provide the pilgrim with the dim religious light suitable to his mood. . . . The five thousand figures in those legendary lights are the commentary and the repetition of the sculptured text without."

This early art was strongly traditional. Emile Mâle, in his work, Religious Art in France of the XIII Century, has this to say of its traditional nature: "Faithful to the past, the XIII century did not relinquish the old conventions, and deviated little from tradition. By that time the canons of religious art had grown to have almost the weight of articles of faith, and we find theologians consecrating the work of craftsmen to their authority. . . . Art was considered one form of the liturgy, . . . and it was well for the art of the thirteenth century that it did so piously preserve the rudiments of this ancient symbolism, for by that means it attained the grandeur peculiar to works to which successive centuries had contributed.

But what is there in these traditions of peculiar interest to the New Church? "To begin with," says Mâle, "the whole church is oriented from the rising to the setting sun, a custom dating back to primitive Christian days, for it is found even in the Apostolical Constitutions." Again, we find in these traditions some knowledge of the science of correspondences, particularly as to numbers. Says Mâle: "The Middle Ages never doubted that numbers were endowed with some occult power. This doctrine came from the Fathers of the Church. . . . St. Augustine considered numbers as thoughts of God. In many passages he lays it down that each number has its divine significance. 'The Divine Wisdom is reflected in the numbers impressed on all things.' The construction of the physical and moral worlds alike is based on eternal number. We feel that the charm of the dance lies in rhythm, that is in numbers; but we must go further, beauty is itself a cadence, harmonious number. The science of numbers, then, is the science of the universe, and from numbers we learn its secret. Therefore the numbers met with in the Bible should be considered with reverent attention, for they are sacred and full of mystery. He who can read them enters into the divine plan." Again, "The symbolic meaning of each number is first dogmatically stated, to be subsequently verified by the examination of passages of Scripture in which numbers appear. The interpretations do not vary, and one feels oneself in the presence of a body of doctrine." "The same teaching couched in precisely the same terms was transmitted through the centuries."

Thus writes Mâle. It is vague and general, you may say; and so it is. But certain definite correspondences shine forth with brilliance. Let a single instance, quoted again from Mâle, suffice to illustrate: "From St. Augustine onwards all theologians interpreted the meaning of the number twelve after the same fashion. Twelve is the number of the universal Church, and it was for profound reasons that Jesus willed the number of His apostles should be twelve." How similar to Swedenborg's oft-repeated teaching of the significance of the twelve disciples!

But what as to the representation of God in this early Gothic art? What faith is there discovered? The following is quoted from the same student of the Middle Ages, and had I myself written the statement, it might well be thought that affection for the early Gothic art colored the vision of the writer, or that he who wrote saw with the eyes of one to whom the doctrine of the New Church was well known. "The artists of the Middle Ages," says Mâle, "imbued with this doctrine, almost invariably represent the Creator in the likeness of Jesus Christ. The absence in the churches of any likeness of God the Father filled Didron with needless amazement and Michelet with mistaken indignation. For, according to the theologians, God the Father created in principio, which is to say in verbo, that is, by His Son. Jesus Christ is at once Creator and Redeemer." Further Mâle says: "The world may therefore be defined as 'a thought of God realized through the Word.' If this be so, then in each being is hidden a divine thought; the world is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning. The ignorant see the forms—the mysterious letters—understanding nothing of their meaning, but the wise pass from the visible to the invisible, and in reading nature read the thoughts of God. True knowledge, then, consists not in the study of things in themselves—the outward forms—but in penetrating to the inner meaning intended by God for our instruction. For, in the words of Honorius of Autun, 'every creature is a shadow of truth and life.' "

To quote Mâle further:

"Had medieval artists confined themselves to historical cycles, there would be no reason to dwell on them further; but there was in the thirteenth century another and infinitely more curious reading of the Old Testament. The artists preferred, for the most part, to adhere to the spirit rather than to the letter. To them the Old Testament seemed a vast figure of the New. Following the guidance of the doctors, they chose out a number of Old Testament scenes and placed them in juxtaposition with scenes from the Gospel, in order to impress on men a sense of the deep underlying harmony. While the windows in the Sainte-Chapelle tell a simple story, those at Chartres and Bourges show forth a mystery."

"God, who sees all things under the aspect of eternity, willed that the Old and New Testaments should form a complete and harmonious whole; the Old is but an adumbration of the New. To use medieval language, that which the Gospel shows men in the light of the sun, the Old Testament showed them in the uncertain light of the moon and stars. In the Old Testament truth is veiled, but the death of Christ rent that mystic veil, and that is why we are told in the Gospel that the veil of the temple was rent in twain at the time of the Crucifixion. Thus it is only in relation to the New Testament that the Old Testament has significance, and the Synagogue that persists in expounding it for its own merits is blindfold."

"It is in Origen that the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament first appears as a finished system. He begins by laying down as an axiom that the meaning of Scripture is threefold. For Scripture is a complete whole made, like man, after the image of God. Even as there are in man three components, body, vital principle and soul, so there are in Scripture three meanings, the literal, moral and mystical. . . . Origen challenges the literal sense in particular, for to him the letter seemed to contain absurdities and contradictions which had given rise to every heresy. 'Who is stupid enough,' he says, 'to believe that God like a gardener made plantations in Eden, and really placed there a tree named the tree of life which could be seen by the bodily eye?' "

"Augustine says in his Confessions: Often did I rejoice to hear Ambrose telling the people in his popular discourses that 'the letter killeth, and the spirit maketh alive,' and interpreting in a spiritual sense passages which, taken literally, seemed to be an exhortation to vice."

"We have here the great divisions of a universal history in which everything speaks of the Christ, and which form the very chapters of Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum Historiale. The Bible here presents itself to us as it did to the men of the Middle Ages, a succession of types of Christ whose meaning grew ever clearer. The patriarchs who symbolize the Messiah, and the prophets who proclaim Him, form an unbroken chain from the first to the second Adam."

The early Christians of northern Europe who built the great cathedrals were not, like the Latin fathers of the heretical councils, highly intellectual men, skilled in sophistry. Religion, as depicted in their art, was a concrete presentation of the Scriptures and their traditional interpretation. They were still primitive; in this respect their religion and their art, although symbolic, was simple and religiously emotional, not abstractly metaphysical.

And yet, "in those centuries of unquestioning faith, the artists strove above all to demonstrate the great dogmatic significance of the New Testament." The human interest of a sacred scene, the joy and suffering of the human characters portrayed, were entirely subordinate to doctrinal interpretation, the symbolic import of their work. In representing the crucifixion, "the thirteenth-century artist thought less of stirring the emotions than of recalling the dogma of the Fall and the Redemption, the central conception of Christianity."

The tenderness of mother love for the child Jesus, the human agony of the bereaved mother over the death of her Son, make a strong appeal in the Italian pictures; "but it was an appeal to the heart, in striking contrast to the appeal to the head, made by thirteenth-century art. In the fourteenth century, art grows more human, and the Virgin presses her child to her heart, smiles at him and offers him a bird or flowers. . . . In the thirteenth century, before such a mystery even maternal love is stilled. Mary keeps a religious silence and ponders, say the commentators, the words of prophets and angels which had even now come to pass. St. Joseph shares her silence, and motionless, with fixed gaze, the two are wrapt in solemn contemplation. So imposing and entirely theological a conception is far removed from the picturesque cribs which made their appearance at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and which mark the end of great religious art." The later medieval art is human, charming, tender; but that of the golden age which it succeeded is rapt with the solemn grandeur of religion. (The foregoing quotations are from Mâle's above-mentioned work.)

The cathedrals of that bygone age are filled with deep religious feeling. The life which has departed from the Christian Church still lingers there to stir our hearts with love and admiration for the living Church, doomed then to perish in the melancholy days that followed. For even in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—the age of Chartres and Rheims, of Paris, and of Amiens—the Christian Church was slowly dying from evils of life and heresies of doctrine. But it had a span of several centuries before its doom was sealed by the Last Judgment, which occurred not until the year 1757, thus five hundred years after the zenith of Gothic art was reached in the thirteenth century. In the great cathedral age, the Christian Church still lived; indeed, our European ancestors were not converted to Christianity in large numbers until long after the councils of heresy had foreshadowed the downfall of the Christian Church. It was not an old Church with them, but a new Church, beautiful and living, and there was yet a long time before the Consummation of the Age.

Footnotes top

1 An Address delivered at a Public Session of the Council of the Clergy, Bryn Athyn, Pa., June 26, 1920.