Mission Modern: St Bartholomew Chapel

PEGGY PEATTIE, Union-Tribune
PEGGY PEATTIE, Union-Tribune

In October 2007 the Poomcah wildfire devastated the Rincon Reservation in Southern California and completely destroyed the historic mission chapel of St Bartholomew. The chapel served the Rincon Band of Lusieño Indians as an extension of the parish of the San Antonio de Pala Astencia, an early mission established in 1816. Only the detached bell tower survived the fire, preserving the chapel's original California Mission bell. Images of the community celebrating Mass in front of the destroyed church even before the smoke had cleared prompted San Diego architect Kevin deFreitas to offer his services to aid the reconstruction.

The resulting replacement chapel blends a wealth of symbolism common to Rincon culture and the Roman Catholic Church through the California Mission tradition. This iconographic synthesis occurs amidst the planar composition, material palette, and interest in sustainability characteristic of the tradition of California architecture descended from mid-century Modernism. The realized design is the direct result of an admirable process of collaboration and mutual education between the architect and the building committee made up of tribal elders working under the Tribal Council.

The majority parish churches have little in the way of a specific local culture to which to respond leading often to a reliance on somewhat arbitrary or ersatz traditions to generate form. The existence in this case of a traditional symbolic language, a community invested in the continuation of that language, and clients eager to share their heritage grants a substantial basis for architectural form. And it is a collaborative process, without blind imposition from any one party, that makes it possible to achieve a truly inculturated church building.

St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Interior
St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Interior

Liturgical Inculturation after the Second Vatican Council

It is rare these days to read an architect's description of a new Catholic church without the claim that it "meets the requirements" of Vatican II; unfortunately, in most cases this a vague claim based on any of various interpretations of the "spirit of the council." While Mr. deFreitas does not make this claim in his descriptions, there is one very specific area where the St Bartholomew Chapel is an perfect example of addressing the principles of the council texts: the inculturation of the liturgy and its communicating signs.

The concept of adaptation or inculturation discussed in the council documents--notably Gaudium et Spes, and further clarified in an Instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship on Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy--is not an imperial usurpation by an incorruptible entity imposed from above. Sacrosanctum Concillium notes that the Church "has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community" and, out of respect for and to "foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples," preserves intact and admits into the liturgy itself those elements of peoples' way of life that "harmonize with its true and authentic spirit" (#37).

Where earlier texts spoke of liturgical adaptation, the CDW now prefers inculturation.

The term inculturation is a better expression to designate a double movement: 'By inculturation, the church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community' [Pope John Paul II's encyclical Redemptoris Missio #52]. On the one hand the penetration of the Gospel into a given socio-cultural milieu 'gives inner fruitfulness to the spiritual qualities and gifts proper to each people ..., strengthens these qualities, perfects them and restores them in Christ' [Gaudium et Spes #58]. On the other hand, the church assimilates these values, when they are compatible with the Gospel, 'to deepen understanding of Christ's message and give it more effective expression in the liturgy and in the many different aspects of the life of the community of believers' [Gaudium et Spes #58]. This double movement in the work of inculturation thus expresses one of the component elements of the mystery of the incarnation. (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, IV Instruction: Inculturation and the Roman Rite #4)

To truly achieve this double movement requires a collaborative process. This is especially true for architectural projects where the need for community engagement is inherent and the danger of professional well-meaning outsiders always present. Both the conciliar texts and the later instructions for their right application have much to say regarding inculturation within the artistic expression of the liturgy as well as for architecture by extension if not inclusion.

The liturgical celebration is enriched by the presence of art, which helps the faithful to celebrate, meet God and pray. Art in the church, which is made up of all peoples and nations, should enjoy the freedom of expression as long as it enhances the beauty of the buildings and liturgical rites, investing them with the respect and honor which is their due. The arts should also be truly significant in the life and tradition of the people The same applies to the shape, location and decoration of the altar, the place for the proclamation of the word of God and for baptism, all the liturgical furnishings, vessels, vestments and colors. Preference should be given to materials, forms and colors which are in use in the country. (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, IV Instruction: Inculturation and the Roman Rite #43)

Interwoven Meanings in the St Bartholomew Chapel

It is important to understand inculturation as the context for reading the symbolic components of this chapel. The architect and the clients took great care that all of the materials, forms and colors came from local use and reflected the symbolic languages of the church and the people. The symbolism here is not a straightforward one-to-one relationship; it is not necessary for the inhabitant to know a single esoteric intended interpretation per element for the building to work. It therefore succeeds where many modern churches fail for two primary reasons. First, there is a layering of meanings, sources of meanings and modes of expressing those meanings. And second, the emphasis is on the subjective act of discovering and reading the symbols rather than on their objective form.

This does not mean that the symbolism is open to any interpretation or that there is any less skill or intentionality on the part of the artist. In fact, there is more skill required to consider potential readings as well as a certain humility to conceal intent. This type of operation requires an architect willing to admit their need for education and to be receptive to input from users, especially when they represent different cultures. For St Bartholomew, Kevin deFreitas relied heavily on elders from the Rincon Tribe of Luiseño Indians on the building committee who he describes as "extremely patient in sharing their culture" as they "in a sense they saw their role of protecting their history and culture."

St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Plan !!Kevin deFreitas Architects
St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Plan !!Kevin deFreitas Architects

One of the best examples of layered meanings incorporating specific Luiseño iconology is the incorporation of an abstracted Wamkish in the plan. The Wamkish were the traditional ceremonial enclosures of the Rincon in the form of semi-circular enclosures woven from thicket. The distinction between being inside or outside the enclosure was a key feature of the ceremonies. In St Bartholomew, an abstracted Wamkish in white stone forms the north and south (liturgical east and west) walls of the church. These wall sections define two significant moments of the church: the entrance moving from convex to concave, relating to the traditional ritual use of the Wamkish, and the concave enclosure of the sanctuary on which hangs the corpus. The type of reference at work here is not one that "looks like" its subject matter but rather one "modelled after" it. While it would be visually recognized as related to a Wamkish by its native users, more importantly it would also operate as one and carry the associated ritual importance (without in fact being one).

The architect compares strips of wood on the lower portion of the sanctuary section of this wall to both an abstraction of the scale of the Wamkish and the thicket material used to make traditional Wamkish. He also notes the similarity to the Christian image of the crown of thorns. This is a case where similarities in tectonic form (woven branches) lead to different cultural iconographies but also to convergent and mutually illuminating intrinsic iconologies.

St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Wamkish !!Kevin deFreitas Architects
St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Wamkish !!Kevin deFreitas Architects

With the parallel symbolism in these wooden strips we begin to see the interwoven complexity of sources, expressions and interpretation of meanings at work in the chapel. Mr deFreitas also relates the three sections of the wall which, though distinct, form a complete circle as an image of the Trinity. The architect's description of the material treatment of these walls further develops the iconographic complexity by increasing the types of architectural features and experiences which can carry symbolic meaning:

The Stone walls of the Wamkish also have meaning designed into them: the two entry pieces are covered in "rough" hewn split faced stone that is orientated horizontally, symbolizing our lives outside of our communion with God. ... This ties in with how we personally enter the church; going sideways, with blemish and not receptive (convex shape), at the terminus of the entry axis is the Corpus on the large concave wall (receives entrants like a catcher's mitt). ... The exact same stone is used on the Altar Wamkish piece, but honed smooth and straight. It is installed in a vertical orientation literally pointing up to Heaven, which is how our lives can be redirected if we submit and follow Christ. ... The radius of 3 walled Wamkish elements is exactly 33'-0".

So far in this one set of walls we have typological references, space, ritual phenomenology, plan geometry, figural imagery, abstract imagery, material choice, tectonic articulation, material finish, detailing, light and numerology all carrying distinct but mutually-reinforcing meanings. Figural image, though present, is no longer the dominant iconographic medium. And this trend continues throughout the major building elements, as described by the architect:

The roof structure from the side profile appears to make a very flat "v", this is picks up the profile of the valleys in the mountain backdrop to the East of the Chapel and also references the wings of the dragonfly (Rincon symbol). The wings is also an important Biblical symbol of peace, Noah's dove returning with the Olive branch, as well as protection the Psalms refer frequently being raised up on Eagles wings.

The Wood ceiling is intended to recall the story of the disciple Nathaniel's conversion. Nathaniel met the disciple Philip privately beneath a Fig tree, later Christ meets Nathaniel calling him to be a disciple. Nathaniel doesn't fully understand who Christ is, Christ tells him that he first saw him under the Fig tree, a miracle because they were alone. Nathaniel agrees to follow Christ and is given the new name of Bartholomew to acknowledge his conversion. Bartholomew was a fisherman by trade, so the elliptical skylight over the altar area form the body of the Icthus/Christian Fish symbol, cut into the concrete slab below the skylight is the rest of the fish symbol recognizing Bartholomew's trade and the fact that Christ calls us all to be "fisher's of men".

St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Interior 2 !!© Harrison Photographic
St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Interior 2 !!© Harrison Photographic

The Rammed Earth walls (dirt from the site was mixed with cement powder to form the major side walls of the chapel) ... so that the structure is not only located on Tribal land, but literally constructed from Tribal land. ... God created Adam out of dirt, and we are reminded that our mortal lives will result in our bodies, not our spirits, returning to dirt.

St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Rammed Earth !!© Harrison Photographic
St Bartholomew, Valley Center - Rammed Earth !!© Harrison Photographic

Manifold Iconologies in Modern Architecture

The mutually-reinforcing presence of complex manifold iconologies carried by building elements other than objective form represents what is quite possibly the greatest gift the modern conception of architecture has to offer to the church. There are unfortunately numerous counter-examples wherein this has failed to be a gift through weakness of conception and poor quality of execution. I would suggest that this can be attributed to the concurrent rise of the modern conception of the architect--that is, as an artist or individual genius behind a singe autonomous work. But in this case, an architect (in part gifting his services) with an openness to collaboration and a multiplicity of meaning redeems the modern church project.

What I mean by "modern" architecture in this context is not a particular style but a conception of architecture where ornament is conceived of as distinct from tectonics. It is only at this point that the question of style ("in which style are we to build") is even possible. Note that so-called traditionalists currently arguing for Gothic or Classicist buildings are operating under this modern conception and using an entire stylistic language as symbol. Once this question is asked, symbolic content is a matter of choice to be applied. When the choice itself becomes the most important aspect of the symbolic content of a building, any intent behind the selection of any building component becomes a potential carrier of meaning, a symbol. It is easy to see then how artistic intent, for good or ill, is able to carry so much weight in modern architecture.

In one dominant thread of Modernism, space came to the fore as the primary carrier of meaning (see especially Rudolf Schwarz). This is not to say that space was not previously an integral part of architecture; the distinction lies in the attitude towards choosing or shaping a particular type of space as a symbol in and of itself. There was no particular Christian iconographic truth to the linear basilica spatial model when it came to be the dominant church form; it was simply how Romans built assembly spaces. Modern technological ability to create greater diversity in spatial configurations increased the expressive potential of space as symbol. Schwarz himself seems skeptical at times calls out the insufficiencies in this approach: space as symbol lacks some of the specificity we expect from signs and may not be sufficient alone.

"Sufficient alone" is the key to the problem. Stripping away ornament shifts the symbolic focus of architecture towards space (or behavior or phenomenology in later architectures), but in doing so it increases the indeterminacy of interpretation. All too often, minimalist churches rely on a single over-arching metaphor with a single esoteric explanation (the central altar as "communal table" or three figural elements as the Trinity or a sacred number used as one major dimension). Without the proper hermeneutic key such metaphors are easily overridden by larger mundane building elements not imbued with the same symbolic intent. Or they may simply be something out of the user's perception.

The frustratingly ubiquitous Trinitarian example--where three of anything supposedly constitutes a sign of the Trinity--fails because it does not reveal what makes the Trinity distinct from a trio. It does not illuminate any of the particular relationships or identities of the mystery. The tripartite Wamkish example from the St Bartholomew Chapel does this by identifying each by the presence or absence of figural liturgical artifacts (the corpus and embedded tabernacle for the Son, the baptismal font for the Holy Spirit, and the unadorned local stone as elemental creation for the Father). It also establishes the continuous but distinct relationship by the material continuity ("of one in Being") and circular unity of three distinct wall elements. This is a very difficult mystery to express in physical form and may not be immediately evident to every viewer. But as we have seen, this is not the only symbolic purpose of these walls. And for a familiar church building, visited regularly over a long period of time, it is invaluable that mysteries and meanings come to light over that time. This is a significant part of why old churches packed with hidden figural signs sustain our attention for so long; the same can be achieved through other means as well.

The symbology evident in the St Bartholomew Chapel overcomes the failures of modern non-figural iconography first by treating the elemental building components--altar, plan, roof, longitudinal walls, transverse walls, etc--as the primary symbols and incorporating all of the features of each--scale, form, material, ornament, etc. Add to this the convergence of iconographic systems from multiple cultures discussed above and more and more of the potential readings of these features are wrapped into the acceptable and edifying architectural hermeneutics. Intent becomes less and less dependent on a single author's ability to shape perception. In this case it also means that the culture of the Rincon is part of the architecture through a sensitivity to their interpretation of the building rather than by the plastering of symbolic images which would quickly become museum-like, superficial or even offensive.

When done right the modern conception of architecture enables a type of complex embedded symbolism using everything from figural elements to spatial configurations, materials to phenomena and any other building aspect--whether designed or incidental--as its medium. In the St Bartholomew Chapel this is done with so much richness and sensitivity that it makes a perfect example of the symbolic potential of modern architecture.