Beauty, The Churches of Peace, and What We Build Instead

“17th century Silesian Lutherans had to build these in one year with the cheapest materials. 20th/21st century American Lutherans have unlimited time and resources…” (cryptic ellipses original)

The Silesian Churches of Peace

The above is a friend’s response on seeing some pictures of the “Churches of Peace.” Never heard of the Churches of Peace? That’s alright. Here’s the relevant info from the Wiki:

The Churches of Peace (Polish: Kościoły Pokoju, German: Friedenskirchen) in Jawor (German: Jauer) and Świdnica (German: Schweidnitz) in Silesia were named after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

It permitted the Lutherans in the Roman Catholic parts of Silesia to build three churches from wood, loam and straw outside the city walls, without steeples and church bells. The construction time was limited to one year.

Despite the physical and political constraints, three of the churches became the biggest timber-framed religious buildings in Europe due to pioneering constructional and architectural solutions.

The church in Jawor, [named for] the Holy Ghost is 43.5-metre (143 ft) long, 14-metre (46 ft) wide and 15.7-metre (52 ft) high and has capacity of 5,500. It was constructed by architect Albrecht von Saebisch (1610–1688) from Wroclaw (then German Breslau) and was finished a year later in 1655. The 200 paintings inside by were done by Georg Flegel in 1671–1681. The altar, by Martin Schneider, dates to 1672, the original organ of J. Hoferichter from Legnica (then German Liegnitz) of 1664 was replaced in 1855–1856 by Adolf Alexander Lummert.

By that time, the town had been part of the Lutheran Kingdom of Prussia for about a century. Another 100 years later, in 1945, the town became part of Poland, as a result of the Potsdam Agreement.

The similar church, erected in Głogów (then German Glogau) burned down in 1758, but the one in Świdnica, [named for] the Holy Trinity, survived like the one in Jawor. Both were restored by a Polish-German cooperation, and recognized by UNESCO in 2001. Since 2001, the two remaining churches are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Here are some pictures:

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What we build instead

Again…

“17th century Silesian Lutherans had to build these in one year with the cheapest materials. 20th/21st century American Lutherans have unlimited time and resources…”

How do Lutherans finish that sentence, in actual factum? I give you…some random American Lutheran churches:

I apologize if either one is your church. It’s not you; it’s it.

No doubt, the objection will be raised, as it always is: “We don’t need beautiful buildings to have a reverent Divine Service, good preaching, right doctrine, etc.” But that’s entirely beside the point, which is that we don’t need ugly ones, either, yet we have them. We have a choice, and we choose ugly. Why?

It’s not often that I find myself voicing agreement with the Rev’d Jack Cascione, but he nails it here:

Certainly John the Baptist showed that location has nothing to do with theological excellence. However, when given the opportunity, God designed the most beautiful and theologically symbolic building of the Old Testament at Jerusalem. Are we now to equate beauty with the Law, as one pastor above implies, and view the God of the New Testament as an aesthetic dolt? Yes, we could worship on a hillside or in our homes, but doesn’t artistic excellence express visual praise?

(Hmmm. On a side note, I’m actually very OK with equating beauty and the Law. In fact I’d say that the umbrage some Lutherans take at this equation is awfully telling.)

Visual praise, indeed. One cannot look at the Frauenkirche in Dresden, St. Paul’s Church in Ft. Wayne, or even the comparatively humble Silesian Churches of Peace, and think that their builders had anything else in mind (excepting the merely metric concerns of space, durability, etc).

I might worship this baby, so I think I’ll throw it out with the bath-water…

Abusus non tollit, sed confirmat substantiam. “Abuse does not destroy, but confirms, the substance.” This medieval legal maxim is cited by Luther in Part IV of the Large Catechism, the locus on Holy Baptism, in his argument against those who reason from the lapse of the baptized to the inefficacy and worthlessness of Baptism itself.1.“Therefore they are presumptuous, clumsy minds that draw such inferences and conclusions as these: ‘Where there is not the true faith, there also can be no true Baptism.’ Just as if I would infer: ‘If I do not believe, then Christ is nothing’; or thus: ‘If I am not obedient, then father, mother, and government are nothing.’ Is that a correct conclusion, that whenever any one does not do what he ought, the thing in itself shall be nothing and of no value? My dear, just invert the argument and rather draw this inference: ‘For this very reason Baptism is something and is right, because it has been wrongly received. For if it were not right and true in itself, it could not be misused nor sinned against.’ The saying is: Abusus non tollit, sed confirmat substantiam, ‘Abuse does not destroy the essence, but confirms it.’ For gold is not the less gold though a harlot wear it in sin and shame.” (LC IV.58-59)  The phrase is equally applicable, though, with respect to the misuse or abuse of a beautiful church building, or indeed of any beautiful thing. One’s idolatrous misuse of something beautiful does not negate its goodness— on the contrary: it shows that a good thing is being put to alien use, to a use which is foreign to its purpose. The golden cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, the splendid vestments of Aaron, the majestic Tabernacle— surely all of these presented the Israelites with temptations to idolatry, a lá the golden calf. Indeed, the ceremonial of the Levitical liturgy itself was a temptation towards idolatry. In the Old Testament as in the New, people worshiped finery and thought of their reverent ceremonies as meriting grace ex opere operato. Hopefully, though, we are not so stewed in illogic that we think this comprises an argument against finery and reverent ceremony. It obviously does not. Such things are good. Again, abusus non tollit, sed confirmat substantiam. Knowing this, we should repent and pray for grace that we might recognize beauty as a gift of God, and learn to order our affections aright so that we do not worship and serve created things rather than the Creator.

Architecture: self-expression or self-denial?

In his December 2009 article for The American, “The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty,” English philosopher and art critic Roger Scruton bemoans the modernistic infection which everywhere blights the land. His comments are directly concerned with the aesthetic development of modern cities, but what he has to say certainly pertains to architecture in general and church architecture in particular:

Aesthetic judgements may look subjective when you are wandering in the aesthetic desert of Waco or Las Vegas. In the old cities of Europe, however, you discover what happens when people are guided by a shared tradition which not only makes aesthetic judgement central, but also lays down standards that govern what everybody does. And in Venice or Prague, in Bath, Oxford, or Lisbon, you come to see that there is all the difference in the world between aesthetic judgement treated as an expression of individual taste, and aesthetic judgement treated in the opposite way, as the expression of a community. Maybe we see beauty as subjective only because we have given the wrong place to aesthetic judgement in our lives—seeing it as a way of affirming ourselves, instead of a way of denying ourselves. […]

 

When it comes to beauty, our view of its status is radically affected by whether we see it as a form of self-expression, or as a form of self-denial. If we see it in this second way, then the assumption that it is merely subjective begins to fall away. Instead beauty begins to take on another character, as…one of the values through which we construct and belong to a shared and mutually consoling world. In short, it is part of building a home. […]

 

And here, it seems to me, is where beauty matters and how. Over time, people establish styles, patterns, and vocabularies which perform, in the building of cities, the same function as good manners between neighbors. A “neighbor,” according to the Anglo-Saxon etymology, is one who “builds nearby.” The buildings that go up in our neighborhood matter to us in just the way that our neighbors matter. They demand our attention, and shape our lives. They can overwhelm us or soothe us; they can be an alien presence or a home. And the function of aesthetic values in the practice of architecture is to ensure that the primary requirement of every building is served— namely, that it should be a fitting member of a community of neighbors. Buildings need to fit in, to stand appropriately side by side; they are subject to the rule of good manners just as much as people are. This is the real reason for the importance of tradition in architecture— that it conveys the kind of practical knowledge that is required by neighborliness.

Scruton’s point is quite amenable to our Lutheran doctrine of vocation: does a needlessly ugly building serve the neighbor? No, it does not— not insofar as it is deliberately and needlessly ugly. Again, there is no need to raise the false antithesis that we “don’t need” beautiful buildings and that beautiful buildings present unique temptations to idolatry. I know plenty of people who worship their ugly buildings, just as I know plenty of people who humblebrag about their ugly lives. In a churchly context, at least, the reason is often the same in both cases: we believe in imputed grace, see, so we don’t need no fancy works. God loves us no matter what we do, and no matter how ugly our works are. So here are some ugly ones, just to remind you. Neener-neener, put that in your lip and dip it, Pharisees.

You’ve heard that line, or something like it, right? If not, give it time. You will.

Conclusion

While we have no specific commands of God to ornament our houses of worship in the exact same manner as the Tabernacle— and later the Temple— was adorned, if we cannot infer the truth that God is well-pleased by expressions of physical beauty in the temples of the New Testament, have we Lutherans not succumbed to a species of functional gnosticism?

One final point: I am not here making an argument for elaborateness and high style, as though these things define what is architecturally beautiful. These are not what make something beautiful. Again, Scruton is most on-point:

[M]ost works of architecture are not great and should not aspire to be so, any more than ordinary people should lay claim to the privileges of genius when conversing with their neighbors. What matters in architecture is the emergence of a learnable vernacular style— a common language that enables buildings to stand side by side without offending each other.

When one beholds the Churches of Peace, especially when one looks with awe on their stunning interiors, there can be no doubt that their lines express such “common language.” It is the language of the Church of all times and places, however the accent may differ, a prayer of thanksgiving and adoration in wood and stone, a joyous and exalting confession of God’s grandeur. Good church architecture doesn’t just “make you think”— in fact, let’s just avoid this modernist shibboleth and its attempt to make a virtue out of distraction. Good church architecture invites you to pray. With that in mind, let’s all pray that we can recover something of the architectural arts in our beloved Lutheran Church— not “instead of” but “in the midst of” whatever measure of confessional and liturgical renewal the Holy Spirit is pleased to grant us.

 

+VDMA

 

References   [ + ]

1. “Therefore they are presumptuous, clumsy minds that draw such inferences and conclusions as these: ‘Where there is not the true faith, there also can be no true Baptism.’ Just as if I would infer: ‘If I do not believe, then Christ is nothing’; or thus: ‘If I am not obedient, then father, mother, and government are nothing.’ Is that a correct conclusion, that whenever any one does not do what he ought, the thing in itself shall be nothing and of no value? My dear, just invert the argument and rather draw this inference: ‘For this very reason Baptism is something and is right, because it has been wrongly received. For if it were not right and true in itself, it could not be misused nor sinned against.’ The saying is: Abusus non tollit, sed confirmat substantiam, ‘Abuse does not destroy the essence, but confirms it.’ For gold is not the less gold though a harlot wear it in sin and shame.” (LC IV.58-59)