A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Angels in the Architecture

Fr Merv Duffy sm

by Fr Merv Duffy sm

A reader asked me to expand on a sentence in a previous article “When angels appear in the architecture it is usually in a higher register.”

The Church has always been convinced that angels and saints worship God and, therefore, our liturgy is in imitation of theirs. The preface for Eucharistic Prayer II leads into the “Holy, holy” with these words:

With the Angels and all the Saints we declare your glory, as with one voice we acclaim.

The “Holy, Holy” prayer itself is modelled on the vision recounted in Isaiah where six-winged seraphim chant “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

If we join in the heavenly liturgy in imitation of the angels and saints it is a small step to imagine them praying with us in the same liturgical space.

In his seventh sermon on the Song of Songs, St Bernard remonstrated with monks who did not show full active participation in the liturgy of the hours:

That the holy angels do condescend to mingle with us when we praise God in psalmody is very clearly stated by the Psalmist: ‘The princes went before, joined with the singers […].’ [...] instead of showing reverence for those princely citizens of heaven you appear like corpses. When you are fervent they respond with eagerness and are filled with delight in participating in your solemn offices. What I fear is that one day, repelled by our sloth, they will angrily depart.

St Bernard envisages the angels, not only as praying with and for us, but also as paying attention to our praying and responding to our attitude in worship.

Angels are spiritual beings and scripture refers to “a heavenly host” so we are inclined to expect angels to be above us – closer to God on high. There is a spatial metaphor whereby we consider upwards to be the direction of holiness (and likewise Hell is ‘down’).

I found an example of this metaphor beautifully told in the stones of the Church of the Holy Name of Mary in Hunters Hill, Sydney, Australia. Angels 1

Church of the Holy Name of Mary, Hunters Hill

Church of the Holy Name of Mary, Hunters Hill

This is a Marist Church opened in 1867 and staffed since then by members of the Society. It was designed and supervised by Br Louis Pichelin who had previously built two churches in the Pacific.

Looking up the nave of the church you see the pews for the congregation, then above that on a series of plinths a marvelous (and motley) collection of statues of saints. Above that again, decorating the pendant hanging from the centre of the cross-over vault (almost directly above the altar) is a set of small gilt angels high above.

Nave of the Church

Nave of the Church

Br Louis clearly wanted his church on earth to be linked with the church in heaven. You enter beneath the gaze of the four evangelists. That it is a Roman Catholic church is made clear by the majestic figure of St Peter waving his keys above the door. St Patrick having acquired a spot above St Peter looks to me to be a later Irish adaptation (and contrary to the overall plan). In the cool dimness of the interior you gaze towards the altar yet the vertical lines alert you to where the saints and angels model holiness and prayerfulness for you.

Pendant with angels (St Agnes on the right)

Pendant with angels (St Agnes on the right)

There has been a cool, clean minimalism in church decoration in recent decades which makes a church like the Holy Name of Mary seem baroque and anachronistic. Fashions change, as they should, but we do well to recognize the power of the metaphor of the angels in the architecture.

Close-up of the Angels on the pendant

Close-up of the Angels on the pendant

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