NORWALK—Father Michael Clark took an audience of more than 150 faithful on an informative and insightful guided tour of Gothic architecture at All Saints School auditorium for the first talk in the 2024 Bishop’s Lecture Series.
Advancing a series of slides on the large screen alongside of him as he spoke, Father Clark said that gothic architecture is a uniquely Catholic expression that was “rooted in light” and transformed the culture of worship and of building technology.
Bishop Frank J. Caggiano introduced Father Clark and noted that he was right person to discuss sacred beauty because of his education and his ministry as the founding rector of the Georgetown Oratory and the moderator of the Guild of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Georgetown.
The bishop said the first lecture on Sacred Arts and the others to follow “are (an) extraordinary opportunity to grow deeper in our faith and most especially to come to understand the different aspects of discipleship that invite us to come to know, love and serve the Lord ever more deeply.”
In his 45-minute presentation followed by questions and a reception, Father Clark described gothic architecture as the Church’s own self-expression.
“All other decorative styles have been borrowed, but gothic comes from the church herself. Augustus Pugin (19th century artist and architect) described it as the only truly Christian architecture, and that’s because it is the only form of architecture born from the womb of the church herself from her sacred liturgy.”
Father Clark began his talk by noting that his familiarity with gothic architecture was formed as a boy when he grew up in Chichester, England.
“I have a distinct advantage when talking to you about gothic architecture because quite frankly, I grew up with it. All of us who grow up in Europe know the beauty of sacred buildings. I had the privilege of living with one intimately for many, many years. There’s one cathedral in England that I know every single nook and cranny, and that means that perhaps in an unwitting way, I learnt the rules or the vocabulary of gothic architecture from the textbook itself.”
Throughout his lecture, Father Clark dropped some fascinating architectural details. He said no one has been able to replicate the incredible lightness and durability of Roman concrete (the secret ingredient is volcanic ash)… The spire of Salisbury Cathedral at 404 feet from the ground is still the tallest medieval structure in the world, but the foundations of this building are only four feet deep. The massive cathedral floats on a bed of gravel on swamp land… While we approach cathedrals today as unpainted gray stone, many were once brightly painted in festive colors that we might today describe as gaudy.
Father Clark explained that Gothic architecture descends from the Roman arch, but it made significant advances and innovations in order to create the taller, more light-filled cathedrals that continue to amaze worshippers and visitors.
He said we owe a debt of gratitude to Roman ruins.
“These whale carcasses of antiquity are important to the study of architecture because they are so widely known. They’re still there to us today, and they have been studied by architects from generation to generation.”
Walking his audience through some of the basics of ancient and medieval architecture, Father Clark said the well-known, semi-circular arch is the calling card of Roman architecture, but it had an inherent instability, because at its apex, it is relatively weak and cannot bear weight.
The gothic discovery of the pointed arch made it possible to build soaring cathedrals because the strength of the arch, formed into vaults, rendered it capable of transferring enormous weight. Likewise, developments in medieval glass-making made it possible to have walls of windows that painted the Church’s interior with natural light, he said.
“Once gothic architects discovered the pointed arch, there was no turning back. Once discovered it was unforgettable because it had that significant advantage. It also produced breakthroughs in the use of light that the Romans would have surely envied,” he said.
While gothic architecture pointed to a spiritual sublime, it was also deeply humane in its admission of light and relationship to nature.
“The engagement with the Holy Spirit directly and the humility of masons and architects in the medieval period allowed them to construct buildings ever more focused on the human person,” he said.
Father Clark concluded his lecture by reflecting on the relationship between liturgy and the worship space.
“Our liturgical spaces then need to bear witness to what is happening around us. And that is why gothic architecture is indeed, as Pugin said, truly Christian. None of this is possible in buildings that ignore doesn’t directionality that pretend the sun doesn’t rise in the east.”
Describing human being as a union of body and soul, Father Clark said “We need to worship God in space, but in spaces that are convenient. Humans need to experience the divine in their bodies in such a way that allows us to locate ourselves in God’s universe. It’s the true participation in transcendent mystery that the sacred liturgy, in fact is calling us to.”
Commenting that much contemporary architecture is oblivious to seasons and landscape, Fr. Clark said there is evidence of a gothic renewal underway. “It’s going back to those basic principles to create buildings that respond to their environment, that use the ingenuity of the people that make them and are also ecologically sound and intelligent in their design.”
He also recalled the beauty and unity experienced by the priest when saying Mass in a gothic cathedral.
“Believe me, there is nothing as thrilling as a priest celebrating holy mass at sunrise in a church which is truly oriented, because at the moment of consecration, it is as if all creation is recruited for the praise of its maker in the rising sun, which draws attention to the elevated host. And in that cooperation man discovers his vocation.”
Bishop Caggiano will be the second speaker in the series on Wednesday, May 15, 7 pm at Greenwich Catholic School. His topic is “ The Eucharist: Destination of the One.”
Each evening will begin with prayer, followed by a 45-minute talk by the guest speaker. After a short break, there will be a 30-minute period of conversation and dialogue with participants. Refreshments will be provided before and after the program begins, and Bishop Caggiano will also deliver brief remarks at all of the lectures.