By Carmen Elena Villa
ROME, JULY 30, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Building a church or monastery is a task that requires more than blueprints and construction materials, since the finished product is a refuge where man goes to encounter eternity, according to artist Breda Catherine Ennis.
Ennis, professor of Fine Arts at the American University of Rome and the European University of Rome, and host of Vatican Radio’s “Art on the Air,” spoke with ZENIT about sacred architecture. She said that the culminating moment in building a church or chapel is when it is consecrated, since at that point “it goes from being a work of man to being a work of God.”
The Irish artist recently participated in the restoration of the chapel in the Irish embassy to the Holy See. Here she shares with ZENIT some reflections on her profession and its mission.
ZENIT: Pope John Paul II addressed artists various times. For this Pontiff, how important was architecture for liturgical celebrations?
Ennis: The Holy Father Pope John Paul II affirmed that the Church is taking steps forward to try to bring artists to return to the Church. He, in turn, wanted to meet with artists and with architects to collaborate in the objective of mutual enrichment.
It should be recalled that church architecture, for 50 or 60 years, has not had guidelines, as much from the iconographic point of view, as from the liturgical. The orientation has practically been lost.
Both Paul VI and John Paul II had a great role in [fostering] a new sensitivity for a renewed artistic responsibility in the liturgical field. John Paul II maintained, in fact, that the artist should again take on his responsibility, and that the Church should help both artists and architects to seek a more beautiful environment. He said as well that the lack of beauty was one of the things that created most problems for man.
One of his great concerns was that people don’t go to holy Mass, neither on the days of obligation nor on the feasts of Christmas or Easter, and he wanted to find the way to attract youth, motivating them to return to the Church together with their families.
ZENIT: And how is Benedict XVI continuing this message?
Ennis: John Paul II opened the door of the Church and now Benedict XVI is explaining to people what is inside. He is teaching the ancient message of the interior of a church, as much from the symbolic as the theological point of view. What is the role of the pulpit? Why is the altar so important? What is the pallium? This seems obvious, but people have lost the visible and symbolic contact with the Church and its role in our lives.
I have always thought, and I tell my students in the master’s classes at the European University, that the base of sacred architecture and art should be more God and less “me.”
In a certain sense, I see John Paul II as the architect and Benedict XVI as the artist, without forgetting that Paul VI donated the land to build the edifice. The work of these three great Popes has been that of again bringing people close to the “sacred” to contemplate it, to understand what “the sacred” is, in particular in that which deals with the construction and decoration of a church. We should rediscover the spiritual dimension of a place of worship.
ZENIT: Among the main churches in Rome, which one do you think best transmits this spiritual meaning?
Ennis: Going beyond the modern or contemporary period, I would choose the basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. It is a Paleochristian church that has been modified less than other churches of the same period. It is the church that has remained most complete, and has most approached what an ideal place of worship should be, both because of its construction and because of the atmosphere of spirituality that shrouds it.
Another is the Church of Jesus (Il Gesù), which houses the tomb of St. Ignatius of Loyola. There, in the late afternoon, when there is less light, there is a fascinating sensation. True, when it was built, candles were used in this church, so one can’t judge the light with the current illumination. Before, certainly a profound atmosphere of mystery was created.
When the main light in this church is turned off, one perceives that the walls are impregnated with prayer. There is a presence of total sacredness. It is a church that seems to attract you. You have to think twice before raising your voice. Behind the penumbra, a light band of light arrives that transports you and helps you. Dusk in this church is a sublime moment.
ZENIT: And how do you perceive this sense of the sacred in other churches around the world?
Ennis: I think of Notre Dame in Paris, because when one hears music within that church — which has a fabulous choir — it seems that the bare walls are themselves singing.
In contemporary art, bare walls transmit coldness, emptiness; in Gothic churches, on the other hand, the atmosphere of all these columns makes one feel like they are in an impressive forest. A spiritual forest of God.
The abbey of Casamari (in Veroli, close to Rome) is another fascinating church. It moves you when you go in, because all of the walls are bare, but when the sun shines in from the windows and the alabaster, it seems to be a divine light that carries you out of this world. The great paintbrush with color that God uses in your soul.
ZENIT: What should an architect who designs churches be like?
Ennis: The talent of construction is in the capacity of developing one’s role studying what surrounds where the church will be built and understanding what the people in that zone do. You can’t arrive like a train and do whatever you feel like. You should study the terrain, the many needs of the zone and the parish. Something like what the artists who pained Christ and Moses in the Sistine Chapel did.
All the artists, under the direction of Perugino and the Pope’s theologians, worked harmoniously together, though with completely distinct styles. All to give a visual message of the Bible. Thus they accomplished a work that was focused on the task of “interpreting” this message — sacred history told through images. It is not the history of the artists themselves. For me, this is a masterful work of harmony and humility before the divine. This harmony and humility is fundamental for architects and artists of today.
ZENIT: Which modern churches have touched you in a particular way?
Ennis: One is the church of Le Corbusier, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. Another is the cathedral of St. Mary in Tokyo [designed by] Kenzo Tange. The first is a union of spiritual waves, color tones and subtle lights. The second is an “encircling curtain” of elegance and perfection that brings you to the “essential” in the religious experience.
ZENIT: How can an architect of the 21st century combine modernity and spirituality?
Ennis: By giving attention to two elements: the material, and at the moment of work, spiritual preparation, that is, trying to bring people to the Lord. One should make an interior preparation because the rest will come on its own. It’s not a matter of having a creative depth or inspiration. If you have that, it’s a gift of God. And for those who receive this grace, they will have a task that is necessarily greater, or a vocation, which is that of serving … They should be at the service of others!
ZENIT: You made an altar and a lectern for the chapel at the Irish embassy to the Holy See here in Rome.
Ennis: Yes, and it was an incredible experience. The Irish minister of foreign affairs entrusted me with designing an altar and lectern for this small chapel at the end of the restoration of the embassy itself.
This was the first time I’d received a commission for a “sacred” work. At the beginning, I was very nervous. I placed myself in the hands of God and I began to pray to receive the right “inspiration” to create a work that would honor the function of an altar. Paleochristian, Celtic and modern elements came into the design. It is an altar of solid oak from Slovenia. An Italian carpenter, Luigi Branchetti, took charge of the craftsmanship. We have used certain techniques that go back to the Renaissance. On the front of the altar, I painted three panels of color and in the center, a cross in white and yellow on a turquoise background. The sides I painted in red, blue and gold — with real gold. There are reliefs on the sides made in wood with a drawing of a Celtic-Greek cross.
The altar was consecrated by Cardinal Sean Brady and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was present. This experience made me aware of the importance of prayer, necessary for work in the sacred realm, and also the enormous energy that a work of this kind requires.[Translation by Kathleen Naab]