The Hillenbrand Lecture at the Liturgical Institute
On Tuesday evening, February 2, Dr. Denis McNamara, assistant director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of St, Mary of the Lake, presented one of the annual Hillenbrand lectures, which is a series of lectures sponsored by the Institute to address topics of serious study related to the Sacred Liturgy. The Hillenbrand Lectures are named after Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, a Chicago priest who was one of the leaders of the Liturgical Movement. Among other things, he was an organizer of the “Liturgical Weeks” of the 1940s.
making some introductory remarks.
(all photos may be viewed full-size by clicking on them)
Dr. McNamara is a well-known architectural historian, specializing in sacred architecture. His most recent book, Catholic Church Architecture and The Spirit of the Liturgy, was recommended “wholeheartedly” by Archbishop Raymond Burke and characterized as “ingenious” by Professor David Fagerberg of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.
McNamara’s lecture was titled “A Jeweled Garden Where the Angels Live: Gothic Architecture and the Inheritance of the Temple”. In it, Dr. McNamara showed how the legacy of architectural symbolism of the Jewish Temple was taken up by the early Christian church and continued to inform the language of Gothic architecture. I was fortunate to have attended his lecture, and present a few excerpts from his presentation here.
McNamara began his remarks by pointing out that the title and inspiration for his presentation comes from Margaret Barker, who used the phrase “a jeweled garden where the angels live” to refer to the Temple of Jerusalem. McNamara’s study of Gothic architecture led him to believe that the architects and builders of the Middle Ages were deliberately using Temple themes to show the fulfillment of the Old Testament and its people in the New Covenant of Christ and his Church.
McNamara asked the question:
Why make a medieval church look like this? Is it just that Constantine dumped all of the imperial court ritual on to the simple fellowship meals that the early Christians are supposed to have had, and ruined the purity of the early Church? That’s the dominant, mainstream thought in architecture for the past 30 to 40 years. Or is there something more? I would argue that there is something more.
Dr. McNamara showed several slides of reconstructions of the Temple, and observed that:
The inside of the temple was in cedar covered with gold, but it was carved: Carved with leaves, vines, palm trees, gourds, vegetables, and flowers. What comes to mind? The Garden of Eden. How can you experience the restoration of the Garden, before the restoration actually happens? Well, here it is, architecturally, in these panels carved with flowers, leaves, and trees. And this is not just some sort of “Walden Pond”, Thoreau-ian kind of garden: this is a glorified, perfected, ordered, radiant garden, overlaid with gold. A garden where gems are in the very walls and floors: It’s an eschatological garden: the image of the world restored at the end of time.
McNamara then proceeded to explain the development of churches in the Patristic age, in which the fathers explicitly adopted Temple imagery and themes:
If you look at someone like the patristic-era church historian Eusebius, you see that he calls the altar the “holy of holies”… he calls the bishop of Tyre, who built a new church, the “new Zerubbabel”, after the governor of Israel who rebuilt the Temple after the Babylonian exile. So the bishop is a new temple-builder and a new tabernacle-builder, and the altar is the new Ark, the place of God’s presence. So the “shadow” [of the Old Testament temple], comes roaring right into the early Church. Note that Eusebius doesn’t say “Wow! That royal imperial court liturgy is so cool and makes Jesus look really important, so let’s do that.” No. He is saying “let’s imitate the temple”.
How we understand these issues is of great import, for how we think about liturgy, and our place in it, depends largely on how we conceive of our relationship with the worship of the Old Covenant:
…Cardinal Ratzinger insists that both the synagogue and the temple entered into Christian life. But what happens to Catholic worship without Temple imagery? The Ark of the Covenant, which is fulfilled in the tabernacle, the abiding presence of God, gets moved to a less prominent place, the church becomes a meeting hall, and the priest becomes a “presider”. And so, you see, a lot of thinking about liturgy “breaks” on what you think of the Temple. It’s not an accident that a lot of reformation denominations said that “the Temple is obsolete.” Read Calvin: for him, [regarding the Temple] “it’s all done, it’s over. It was interesting, It helped the Israelites, but we don’t need it anymore.” And so the church becomes a meeting house and the priest a leader or presider, rather than a sacral image of Christ. So again, our ideas about the church and liturgy “break” on how we think about the Temple.
Dr. McNamara used numerous examples of medieval gothic churches and cathedrals to show how temple themes were used again and again, such as jewels and gold to convey radiance and light:
… So in Gothic architecture builders were able to open up the walls to let in gem-like colorful and radiant light. And they used the colors of the gems, and the very gems themselves, that were used in the temple… They couldn’t cover the windows externally with rubies and other gems, but they used the next best thing – stained glass.
McNamara used the church of St. Denis in Paris as an example of these temple motifs. He quoted from Abbot Suger, who rebuilt the church as the first true exemplar of the gothic style in the 12th century:
Abbot Suger, writing of this church, says that the image (building) is the symbol of the Church glorified…but it’s also the holy of holies where God dwells – this is temple language.
Another example of the gothic use of Temple motifs can be seen in the church of Sainte-Chapelle, also in Paris. Though it was severely damaged in the French revolution and reconstructed in the 19th century, that reconstruction was done after extensive archaeological research and with a serious effort to make the reconstruction as faithful as possible. McNamara said of this church:
The flame-like spires are covered with little leaves and garden-like vines, reaching up into the sky. You walk up into the church, and you see gold, patterns of flowers, leaves, and trees. You see the whole world is a glorious, radiant, colorful interior, with a starry sky above. The apostles are on each of the 12 pillars of the church, and then when you look up close, you see leaves, flowers, angels, rubies, emeralds; then, the view up to the sky above heavenly Jerusalem.
Dr. McNamara persuasively argued that the Gothic church was replete with Temple imagery, particularly that of the restoration of the Garden of Eden. So Margaret Barker’s phrase, which she applied to the Temple, might readily be applied to Gothic churches as well: They are “Jeweled Gardens Where the Angels Live.”