When I walk into a church, I like to know I've walked into a church and not an auditorium or some quasi-amphitheater. Churches should noticeably alert anyone who walks into their space that this is not just an ordinary environment where business continues as usual. Unfortunately, some churches' interiors suffer from either banal iconic and architectural construction, or are at the opposite end of the spectrum with flowery, very colorful, intricate, and distracting arrangements. I'm going to give you a few examples of those churches who miss equilibrium (using me as the scale) by applying too much of any one thing and those churches who get it just right.
Take St. Nikolaus Catholic Church in Austria(right). Oh you know you're inside a church when you walk in alright. But can you really keep track of everything that is going on here? It's beautiful from an aesthetic perspective, but distracting if you want to focus on an icon or some other facet of the church. You try meditating with the sound of a gong going off inside your head every time you look at the intricate arrangement of this church. The gold shine from the statues alone may require that some wear sunglasses if not sunscreen. This is a good example of overkill.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Church of the Sac-red Heart in Munich, Germany. Please tell me where exactly is the church in this pic? This church is what you might call modern architecture (I LOVE modern buildings), but is this interior not lacking in Catholic identity? The exterior of the church is indeed impressive (not shown here), but it appears that the interior is comprised of a series of tightly swathed ban boo sticks. Now, I'm pretty sure that the church is structurally sound, but where is the iconography that is conducive to Christian story-telling? Where is the Catholic identity in this church? A prosaic and languorous internal arrangement never strikes the interest of the laity.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
The beauty, color, and texture of the materials used in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. I think are self evident. The sheer elegance of this basilica is difficult for any church to match, let alone surpass. The majestic apse, multicolored icons, and light placement seem to diffuse a palpable sense of delicate accuracy, with a simultaneous reach for the Divine. Here I could focus my mind on the Christian Mystery. Here I find that elusive perfect equilibrium that other churches intentionally (but not maliciously) destroy on their way to constructing what they
feel is an appropriate liturgical setting.
Yes, I know the criticism: "Why build these beautiful but expensive churches, when you have the poor to feed." That brings me to my next example.
Minimalism Done Right
"Now this is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all." ~ John 1:5
Nový Dvůr Monastery in the Czech Republic is a truly remarkable abbey. Lacking the iconic and color components of the basilica in Washington, D.C., and the bedazzled clutter of St. Nikolaus Church in Austria, simplicity characterises just about every facet of its construction. There are no icons or massive crucifixes floating above the altar, and no statues of saints embellishing its interior. As you can see from the picture, the altar is of simple construction, with a tabernacle to the rear that is flanked by two candles. Other than the blessed sacrament, what else does a worshipper have that invites contemplation and prayer? Well, how about LIGHT! One of the places we search for God is in the Book of Nature, and in that book many symbols have been appropriately used to give us an insight as to who and what God is. One of the most prevalent symbols from the Book of Nature is light, and the altar inside this abbey seems to be surrounded by it. I would then say light can rank as an icon - of a sort - reminding us of the sacred Mystery. There are strong historical antecedents that clearly demonstrate that Nature and monasticism go hand in hand. Do you think it's by accident that so many monasteries are located in rural and bucolic grounds?
By the way, in the book New Spiritual Architecture, guess which group is credited with having the most progressive Church buildings in the world? You guessed it, the Roman Catholics.