Beautiful and Ugly Churches

IN TIERS OF GLORY. The Organic Development of Church Architecture through the Ages. By Michael S. Rose (Mesa Folio Editions, Aquinas Publishing Ltd., P.O. Box 11260 Cincinnati Ohio 45211 2004), 136pp. 200 color illustrations. PB $29.95.

In a previous book, Ugly as Sin, Michael S. Rose analyzed recent trends in church architecture and pointed out that there are three constants in great and traditional Catholic churches—permanence, elevation and iconography. There he offers a serious critique of church architecture, especially that of the twentieth century.

A church building should say something about what it is for and what goes on inside. It should say something about God and man and the relationship between the two. A Gothic cathedral like Notre Dame in Paris and St. Patrick’s in New York naturally tend to raise the mind and heart to God—they are like hands joined together in prayer to the Father.

In Tiers of Glory is a beautiful book. It could be used as a coffee table offering, but that is not its primary purpose. The author presents an overview of great church architecture from the time of the Caesars in Rome to the end of the twentieth century. The inside cover of the book says that Rose “identifies the canons that have been common to Catholic churches throughout history—from Roman basilicas to Byzantine and Carolingian churches, from pilgrimage shrines to Gothic churches, from Renaissance classicism to Baroque opulence—that is, elements that have been common to churches in every age except our own.”

Rose explains the importance of the basilica form, borrowed from the Greeks and Romans, in the development of Catholic Church construction down through the centuries. In the last century there was a break from this tradition, perhaps best symbolized by the “Bauhaus” style coming out of Germany.

In the eleven chapters of this attractive book the author explains why the great churches of the past—Basilicas, Gothic Cathedrals, Renaissance and Baroque churches—are in conformity with Catholic theology, and why many modern structures are not. There is a dramatic difference between a Gothic cathedral and a parish church that looks like a motel or a shopping mall.

As they say, a picture is equivalent to a thousand words—or more! What I find valuable in this book is that the text is illustrated with 200 examples, in full color, of what the author is talking about. When the classic styles are shown next to modern structures, anyone can see that much has been lost as modernist ideas have been given expression in modernist buildings claiming to be churches.

The photographs are beautiful; the text is brief and crisp. This is a book that will both delight and inspire. Also, in the last chapter Mr. Rose offers some positive suggestions on how to improve church architecture in the twenty first century.

Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Ramsey. N.J

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