Exploring the Sacred

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Beholding the Sacred

Above:  Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, CA

Mid Century Modern

Sacred Art In the Age of Mid Century Modern
One of the most prominent artistic developments of the latter part of the last century was the Mid-Century Modern Art Movement.  More than a movement it was a philosophy born during the post-war period and existing for a few decades after.  Mid-Century Mod is marked by bold experimentation and stylized interpretation.  It’s futuristic, and it departs from the rigidity and structure of classical art.  It incorporates fluidity and a certain freedom in its interpretation.  At its core, the Mid-Century Art movement mirrors the resiliency and imagination of people moving away from the horrors of the second world war as they sought to run towards a brighter future without limits. 

The Church Responds
The mid-century modern art movement reached the area of sacred art as well and rightly so because it seemed to fit into the spirit of what Second Vatican Council.   The buzz and sensation of “aggiornamento” moved pastors, artists, liturgists, and architects to experiment with modern styles and bring something different into the church.   It was the age of the birth of space exploration and innovation, and the church, not wanting to stay behind would also move towards creating sacred art that looked toward the future. 

Many existing churches built by previous generations experienced a type of iconoclasm in an attempt to “update.”  Vestments, statuary, paintings, and pretty much anything that was a remnant of the pre-Vatican II church was tossed out.  The richly decorated and heavy vestments were traded for flimsy flowing chasubles decorated with rainbows, flowers and abstract expressions of art.  Murals were painted over, and side altars were decommissioned (tabernacles were moved to the side altars in many cases).  Statuary was relegated to basements where many disintegrated into dust.   Sadly, many church organs were silenced and remained so for decades as guitars and drums, tambourines and pianos became part of the new way of “doing” liturgy. 

The landscape of church architecture also changed.  Second Vatican Council invited the church to express how we relate to the sacred in a more familiar way- (so the communion rails were done away with), and architects departed from traditional styles and instead experimented with new lines and new bold forms.   The outcome were houses of worship in the round or amphitheater style.  Airy, open and more “inviting” buildings replaced the massive brick and mortar buildings with dramatic steeples and heavy ornamentation.  The drama of liturgy played out on altars placed much closer to the people.   New churches were sprouting up with an unfamiliar interpretation of the old and a certain freedom that came from art forms that were more accessible to the people.  It was the art of the people.  The mid-century modern church with its open feel mirrored the fresh breath of air that Second Vatican called for. 

A prominent example of Mid-Century Modern Sacred Architecture in California is Pier Luigi and Pietro Belushi’s Cathedral Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco. 

Mid Century Approaches the Millennium
Sadly, by the 1980’s and 90’s many of the churches built in during the height of the mid-century movement were beginning to look dated and in need of updating; many of them suffered the effects of renovation.  Pastors sought to replace the fixtures and art that was “modern” in the 1950’s-1970’s with something else to fit the aesthetics of the last couple decades of the 19th century.  

It is exciting to step into a church that has survived a “renovation” phase of recent decades, and while it may seem dated to many, it also evokes a certain nostalgia of an era dominated by newness, curiosity, revolution against the norm, and a desire to bring the future into the now… both for the world and for the church.

Mid-century modern sacred art is beautiful.   It is a reminder of a generation of dreamers and doers, and visionaries and explorers.   

Saint Theresa's Catholic Church, Palm Springs, CA