What Kinds of Church Architecture Speak To Us Today? Or, An Obsession with the Pantheon

Many readers of America will have visited, or at least heard about, the Pantheon in Rome. I knew little about it on my first visit there several years ago, but was overtaken by it the moment it came into view from the street. And once I stepped inside the rotunda, and saw the Catholic altar amidst a circular series of niches originally for display of various gods, the world of ancient religions seemed to linger in the space and to continually rise up from the floor and walls through the "oculus," the large circle in the dome, and be taken up into the heavens. Or were the heavens coming down into this most famous container?

Here is the wikipedia page on Pantheon (all typical cautions about Wikipedia assumed).


Here is a tidbit on the Pantheon that I penned for a recent book:

"Inside Pantheon, attention goes up and down, on a vertical axis, rather than back and forth, on a horizontal axis. Pantheon’s cylinder and dome, rising up majestically on all sides upon passing from the porch through the doors, take perception up, again and again, to the oculus, and its illumination of all interior space, shifting its shadows as the hours of the day pass. As MacDonald observes, this spatial orientation is different from what would become that of Christian basilicas and their horizontality of attention, their back-and-forth, fore and aft self-presentation through cruciform structures. (William L. Macdonald, The Pantheon, p. 34)"

"While Christians may feel some familiarity upon stepping onto the front porch because they are expecting an axis of longitude to continue forward inside Pantheon, once they step through the doors at the back of the porch and into the giant cylindrical space of the rotunda behind, that promise of what a Christian would expect to be a basilica-like axis is immediately revoked, dispossessed, 'dissipated and lost in an incommensurable void,' in MacDonald’s elegant architectural language. (Macdonald, p. 67, putting MacDonald's architectural language to theological work.)"

"Indeed, the ancient Vitruvian conviction, made famous for modernity by da Vinci’s drawing, regarding a deep consanguinity between circle and square architecture, such as the vaulted form of the Pantheon, and the naturally extended upright human body, suggest that it is no accident that humans feel both dwarfed and taken up inside Pantheon, because they feel a fundamental fit between the body’s erect frame and the shape of the container that is the rotunda. The body is invited to recognize its dimensions because of the proportionality of this tremendous container to the body. It may be part of what gives Pantheon the sense of communicating being at home in the cosmos."


Now this summer has presented me the occasion to take my preoccupation, even obsession, with the Pantheon even further, and begin to initiate a genuine research project on it. One of my basic theological questions is what the Pantheon's history and architecture teach us about the relationship between Christianity and ancient religions in the second through seventh centuries (when Pantheon became a church) and what prospects its history and architecture give for Christianity's relationship to multiple religions and cultures today.

There are some remarkable historical and architectural studies of the Pantheon, but very little theologically (of which I am aware). Those excellent historical and architectural studies include William L. MacDonald, The Pantheon: Design, Meaning and Progeny (Harvard University Press, 1976) and Kjeld de Fine Licht, The Rotunda in Rome: A Study of Hadrian's Pantheon (Gyldendal, 1968). I am currently reading Harold W. Turner's rigorous and deeply considered theological, phenomenological, and historical study of houses of worship: From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenology and Theology of Places of Worship (Mouton, 1979), which is not about the Pantheon directly but rather a cross-cultural study of the structures of built places that have been considered conducive to prayer, worship, liturgy. Turner builds a theory of the domus dei, the "house of God" found across cultures, as having a common theological and phenomenological structure. Ancient temples were important to establishing the genre of domus dei

A lot of my current research is focusing on the relationship between contemporary secular music practices and spiritual practices, and so keeping one foot in Pantheon studies is also a way of remembering another (pluralistic) time for Christianity, indeed in some ways of remembering another Christianity. As have many others, I find this cross-temporal and cross-cultural habitation to give some helpful perspective for theological work.

But all this does raise the question: What kinds of church architecture speak to us today, and why? What church architectures open Christianity to the future in hope, and why?

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States


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8 years 6 months ago
Speaking of round buildings and Hadrian, there's his tomb, now the Castel Sant' Angelo. 

I think some churches are interesting looking, like  Hallgrímskirkja, but I feel conflicted about the whole church architecture thing - sometimes it seems like too much money is spent on the building when it's what goes on inside that really matters.
8 years 6 months ago
The new churches feel like theaters to me, not unlike those arenas we see the TV evangelists use.  And watching the parishoners joining hands during the Our Father or praying with their arms extended, heads tilted upward and eyes closed, adds to that TV ministry feel. 

It won't surprise anyone who has seen my comments here that I view this as just more of the 'Protestantization' of the Church that I believe is taking place.  Cozy, padded seats, bright lights overhead projections of the missal, ice-cold air conditioning, emphasize the comfort and importance of the parishoners; whereas the priest is below pew/seat level with a plain block of marble serving as an altar.  Tribute to the Saints are hard to find within.

No doubt that there are many reasons, financial, esthetic, utility, and otherwise, for the design of new churches.  And I actually enjoy the bright, cool, expansive feel of modern churches, much as I love walking into a theater looking for my seat at a Broadway show.  But each time that I walk into an old gothic church, I feel the presence, the glory and majesty of God; not so much in the modern churches.  No doubt the very things that I love about old churches is what puts off contemporary, authority-rejecting, Catholics.  

Gerelyn Hollingsworth
8 years 6 months ago
I would like to see a return to the sacred groves in which our Ancestors worshipped before missionaries from Rome burned them and chopped them and despoiled them.

 The original Pantheon, with the 'rural appearance'  noted in the Wiki article, surely recalled those days.  The tall trees shaded the groves until the sun was high enough in the sky to pierce the darkness.
Gerard Brungardt
8 years 6 months ago
George Knight provides an answer to the question in your title here as he discusses Thomas Aquinas College's new chapel.
8 years 6 months ago
Never read this, but might be worth checking out:  "Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again," by Michael Rose.  Here's the Amazon link:

Amongst other things, this book apparently explains why my church's tabernacle was on the side of the church and recently moved to behind the altar in it latest renovation.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
8 years 6 months ago
I attended a beautiful wedding in this beautiful new church recently.


As we approached, it was visible across a cornfield, looking like the basilica of St. Clare at Assisi that inspired it.  Please read the architect's description linked above and the pastor's:

The first modern church I've been in that compares to  old ones.  The other wedding guests, Catholic and Jewish, raved about the church.  See what you think.


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