Renee Kohler-Ryan is not averse to scandal. In fact, she is rather in favour of it. The Sydney-based University of Notre Dame academic told a global conference on tradition last month that when it came to church architecture, scandal was far preferable to stagnation; novelty, to the stultifying effect of mindless repetition.
In a paper to confound polemicists on both sides of often-heated architecture debates, Dr Kohler-Ryan used ‘scandal’ in its original sense to connote a ‘stumbling block’ – that which had the potential to cause unavoidable offence.
“Tradition relies on scandal for its endurance,” Dr Kohler-Ryan told some 200 conference participants.
“It is through continual change that that which is constant in traditional architecture is preserved.”
Church architecture, she said, is more vulnerable to traditionalism – the fetishisation of specific elements or forms – than it is to what is new.
Traditionalism, far from making us the bearers of the tradition of Roman Catholic ecclesial architecture, makes us incapable of speaking in our own voices.
Subsequent non-communicability, were it to take hold, would sound tradition’s death knell.
Citing the work of future-Pope Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Dr Kohler-Ryan said it is truth, and not merely custom, which is the real object of the Christian project.
While artists in every age received stimuli from personal experience, surrounding culture and their own encounters with the divine, Catholic churches, in being set aside for “the ultimate sacrament of encounter” – the Eucharist – demanded certain consistencies.
The centrality of the altar, for example, remained a constant – “the radiating presence which the altar has within a sacred space” being manifest in church design throughout the centuries.
The altar brings heaven into the community assembled on earth, taking the community “beyond itself into the Communion of Saints of all times and places”.
Even though Catholic places of worship were distinct in placing Christ at the centre of the community, churches do not repudiate the influence of Jewish worship. Ratzinger draws a parallel between the Eucharistic liturgy and the Jewish recitation of the Kaddish – angelic prayers from Isaiah and Ezekiel, Dr Kohler-Ryan said.
“In saying this prayer the worshippers make it their own so that, [Ratzinger] says, the congregation does not offer its own thoughts and poetry but is taken out of itself and given the privilege of sharing in the cosmic song of praise of the cherubim and seraphim.
“Crucially, this repetition is only meaningful if those speaking know what they are doing and why.
“The Christian development of this truth becomes repeated in the way that we start to orient our churches no longer toward Jerusalem but toward the rising sun, which symbolises Christ.
“The whole Church and the people it represents start to become at one with the cosmos which like them is oriented and transformed by Christ’s incarnation, death, and Resurrection,” Dr Kohler-Ryan said.
The Church’s preference for truth above mere custom made the “shocking” nature of ‘traditional’ churches deemed scandalous at the time of their consecration, an ever accessible reality.
Although uncomplimentary towards traditionalism, Dr Kohler-Ryan’s chosen examples of “scandalous” churches were hardly ones likely to appease those in favour of a radically areligious aesthetic.
St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, an exemplar of the baroque, embodied “a style disruptive and annoying to purists” when it began to take form in the 16th century.
At once “lighthearted and serious”, the almost garish church “evokes and embodies the senses in a full-bodied form… playing with perception; trapping and transforming as much light as possible, making everything radiate”, Dr Kohler-Ryan said.
Typical of the style, it aims to suggest to viewers that they are watching an unfolding process and not a fixed and finished composition.
That intention is embodied in the arms of its colonnades, constituted by pillars set in curved formation – features that seem like walls and yet are not walls.
“It can all seem a bit much but this actually seems to be the point,” Dr Kohler-Ryan said.
Such scandals which ultimately prove to be of the tradition are necessary in making truth and beauty communicable to people.
“The artist is tested for whether or not he has translated the content of the tradition into a style that can transport us while at the same time expressing our relationship to God.
“We too are tested for our capacity to recognise whether something that is new is still of the tradition.”
Being “of the tradition” was, therefore, a dynamic process which paralleled Augustine’s account of what it meant to be both a recipient and transmitter of the Sacred Tradition – the unchanging deposit of Christian faith.
“The problematic nature of tradition is to be found in the toughness of its demands.
“To truly live the Tradition for [Augustine] means being able to embody in one’s current age what was embodied previously, differently,” Dr Kohler-Ryan told attendees.
“Augustine’s forebears in the Tradition lived in various times and places.
“He could never live the Tradition in exactly the same way as anyone else. He is nonetheless only of the Tradition when he embodies the truth he shares with them.”
Augustine described his forebears, the Fathers of the Church, as being the great conversationalists and judges to which Christians ought to refer when discerning whether an apparent innovation was of the tradition, or not.
The abbey church of St Denis, situated in what is now a northern suburb of Paris, provoked outrage when its existing structure was rebuilt and enlarged by Abbot Suger in the 12th century, Dr Kohler-Ryan said. Among its critics was no loftier a figure than St Bernard of Clairvaux whose own prescriptions for austerity in church architecture and decoration stood in stark contrast to what Abbot Suger achieved.
In embarking on the project, Suger took the remarkable step of widening the distance between the church’s two outer walls – walls which, tradition held, had been blessed by Christ, himself.
In the midst of his apparently radical innovation, Suger demonstrated his commitment to the tradition in the reverence he showed for the walls, preserving as much of them as was possible in their repositioning.
His designs were based on eye-witness accounts of churches he had never seen – accounts from pilgrims returning from Jerusalem, including those of Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”), completed in 537, situated in what is now, modern day Istanbul.
Considered to be the world’s first gothic building, St Denis inspired the design of churches throughout Europe and Great Britain in the succeeding three centuries.
The newness in the scandal that tradition requires for its vitality will always be problematic, Dr Kohler-Ryan said.
Even if ultimately deemed to be of the tradition, developments will nevertheless still seem strange and possibly unrecognisable in their first
The thought of Anglo-Catholic poet T S Elliott provided an important corollary, she said. There has never, nor will there ever be, a creative genius who stands outside the tradition.
New artists do not supersede simply by coming after, they must engage in that which has come before in order to be recognised as participating in an art making tradition. Every receiver must become a forebear.
“[The artist] must remain reflective and truly himself, and at the same time undergo what T S Elliott called a depersonalisation.
“What he has to convey in his poems is not just about him, it is about universal human concerns.
“The one error of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express.
“In this search for novelty in the wrong place, it discovers the perverse.”
Ratzinger, Augustine and Elliott are all agreed in their embrace of development as distinct from “progress”.
“Each involves change,” Dr Kohler-Ryan said, “but where progress obscures and denies its source, development touches upon what was there at the beginning, waiting to be revealed in not just one, but a variety of different ways.”
“Development brings with it hope that is present because of a trust in what has been given while progress depends upon leaving behind the past and relying on human powers alone.”
The adoption of novelty for novelty’s sake can result in churches which fail to join the pantheon of worthy Roman Catholic churches.
Dr Kohler-Ryan nominated some more recent church designs as being so radical a departure as to be considered not “of the tradition”: The Church of the Assumption of Mary in Riola di Vergato, Italy, designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and consecrated in 1978; and the Donau City Church in Vienna, Austria, designed by Austrian architect Heinz Tesar and consecrated in 2000.
“If one is too intent on accepting something because it is new, even what is offered may be so far from a development as to constitute sheer nonsense.
“A child of the tradition must be recognisable for all its novelty. This capacity to be recognisable stems not from historical chain of events
“It develops along the contours present as they are in every age but in a variety of styles of what it means to be humans in conversation with each other, across the ages, because they are in the presence of God.”