What is God? Length, Breadth, Height, and Depth

While preparing for my recent seminar on church architecture, I had a chance to revisit a favorite story: the architectural implications of the theologies of two prominent 12th century abbots in the Benedictine tradition. Both were patrons of architecture who in different ways set out criteria for church design. Their writings read as fundamental contrast in the very nature of religious architecture, all the more so because it parallels positions taken as mutually exclusive in contemporary arguments. But in fact, they are both absolutely right, and the responsibility of the church architect should to fulfill the requirements of both, not choose sides.

Bernard & Suger

Bernard & Suger

St Bernard of Clairvaux (~1090–1153) is a pivotal figure in the early Cistercian movement, founded as a reform of the Benedictines. Abbot Suger of St Denis (~1080–1151) is generally/popularly credited with the inception of the Gothic as a style, and his architecture appears to represent the superficial opulence the Cistercians sought to reform. Cistercians accused the mainstream Benedictines of living a life too comfortable and worldly in buildings too costly and showy. When this entered the realm of worship, Bernard denounced this richness as vanity and distractions.

Bernard

Bernard

Abbot Suger's building activities at St Denis certainly fall into the realm of sumptuous outward display. But in the specifics of his approach, Suger is quite clear that the showiness was not the object. As an advisor to the French monarchy active in courtly life, his perspective on this may have been skewed. On the other hand, having therefore seen what was deemed worthy for a terrestrial king, how would he not want at least as good and beautiful for the worship of the heavenly king?

Basilique Saint-Denis by Pierre Poschadel

Basilique Saint-Denis by Pierre Poschadel

(Note that the above photo does not reflect the painting and precious metals Suger describes in his accounts of his works on the church.)

Two features of Suger's thought stand out as defense against Bernard's accusations: the depth of the theological traditions he attempts to embody and the specific focus of its implementation. Suger draws on the understanding of divine light (and darkness) of patristic authors, especially Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and St Gregory of Nyssa. Here's a sample of Pseudo Dionysius:

“Supernal Triad, Deity above all essence, knowledge and goodness; Guide of Christians to Divine Wisdom; direct our path to the ultimate summit of Thy mystical Lore, most incomprehensible, most luminous and most exalted, where the pure, absolute and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their Darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty.” (online source)

Note the emphasis on divine darkness as an order of light outshining light itself. This notion is built in part on the Old Testament images of God's presence as a cloud: meeting with Moses, over the Ark of the Covenant, descending on the Temple at its dedication, etc. This 9th century mosaic in the Oratory at Germigny Des Pres, France, uses the image of divine darkness to differentiate between sanctity of the Ark and the the other-worldliness of the Cherubim (the spatial field of gold) and the even greater divinity of God.

Apse Mosaic in the Oratory at Germigny Des Pres (c. 806); photo by Manfred Heyde via wikimedia commons
Apse Mosaic in the Oratory at Germigny Des Pres (c. 806); photo by Manfred Heyde via wikimedia commons

The divine darkness challenges the reductive light=good idea that stands in for symbolism in vague and lazy religious architecture. But effective light only in architecture only has meaning in the context of contrasting darkness, which I believe is underused in current church design.

Suger outlines three types of light: lux, lumen, and illuminatio. Lux is that natural light that shines indiscriminately on all people (Matthew 5:45: “He makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good”) and all material things. Think of this as the light that shines outside the church. Lumen is that lux transformed and sanctified by passing through the stained glass window, which marks the boundary of sacred space. (Isaiah 9:2: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” A similar transformation occurs by reflection from precious metals and gems, etc., building on the principle of God's creation as self-revelation. The final light is that lumen transformed again by passing through the eye into the believer. This is the transformative light of enlightenment (Ephesians 5:8: “Now are you light, walk as children of light"). (Dr Patrick Hunt of Stanford gives a more detailed examination of this theory of light on his Philolog.)

The emphasis on the transformative nature of light as it interacts with the material world gives a different significance (trying really hard not to say "casts a different light upon"...) to Suger's insistence on fine materials, especially as regards stained glass itself.

The second defense of Suger's position comes through the focused application of "every costlier thing:"

Suger
Suger

Suger came to reject courtly life and the use of fine things within the monastery. But in the church, in the service itself the most valued of created things are used fittingly and with reverence. (Here the debate starts to sound a bit like arguments today about whether or not it is appropriate to spend money on church buildings, but to reduce this merely to our consumption- and commodity-based economic model would miss what is truly important to both.)

Yet Bernard wholly rejects this distinction:

Bernard
Bernard

It is not quite clear if St Bernard speaks specifically to the monastic community when he refers to "we ... who have abandoned all things beautiful to see...." Such a statement certainly applies to religious communities. But it does also apply to the church as a whole, even if to a lesser degree. The excitement recalls the distraction we quoted earlier of forgoing meditation on things of God to delight in material things. But Abbot Suger did not see a conflict between inner purity and outward splendor.

Suger
Suger

Their back-and-forth (which I have artificially spliced into a bit of a dialog here) sounds very familiar to debates about the value of design and of art in contemporary churches...  except more erudite and with far better theology.

Both have had immeasurable and long-reaching impact on the building of churches well through the 20th century and to today. For most of that time, the continued development of Abbot Suger's Gothic had the more evident influence. But modern architects interested in purity of space and the poetics of light and form—and also social/communal integration with architecture—found great inspiration of the Cistercian architecture which proceeded from St Bernard. This may be surprising if we think of modern architecture as against tradition; but it is more widely true that 20th century modernists were more against traditionalism than tradition itself. So when St Bernard says something like ‘There must be no decorations, only proportion,” it could easily have been said by a 20th century architect. (I haven’t been able to find the original source that quote, but it has been often repeated and is evident looking at the buildings.)

Abbaye du Thoronet

Case in point, Le Corbusier visited the cistercian abbey of Le Thoronet at the recommendation of Fr Marie-Alain Couturier, O.P. (whose role in the thoughtful religious/liturgical aspects of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp are too often overlooked). Le Corbusier, writing in the forward to a book of Lucien Hervé's photographs of the abbey, described it as a building where "every detail represents a principle of creative architecture" and “nothing further could be added to it.” “Light and shade are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth, tranquility and strength. Nothing further could add to it.”

Abbaye du Thoronet

Which leads us to another quote from St Bernard of Clairvaux that architects seem to like, and that I used intentionally provocatively out of context as the title for this post.

What is God? Length, breadth, height, and depth.

Out of context, it is sufficiently abstract, spatial, and enigmatic to feel important and to render a vague spirituality and significance to architecture. Read from a Cartesian or Miesian universality of space, these dimensions tend toward an the idea of an invisible unity permeating the universe and ordering, or rather, allowing order to be created upon it. This god is impersonal and non-specific.

One tenant of Dom Hans van der Laan's proportional system built around the plastic number is the fundamental difference between length, breadth, height, and depth in the perception of space. For example, the measure of width is suited to doubling because of the symmetry of man standing in space and length to linear repetition on account of directionality. This conception of space, with its inherent order and orientation (as created by God and participated in by man, not created by man's perception), is more in line Bernard's differentiated measures. But Bernard's characteristics (manifold effects) of God draw out the particular poetic usages of the measures, and I shall give him the last word:

St Bernard of Clairvaux
St Bernard of Clairvaux