The First Way: Via Positiva

The “first way” is the way of abundance in sacred architecture, the Via Positiva.   This way may be best understood as an attempt to foreshadow our participation in the glories of Heaven.  It is architecture that overwhelms our senses, so that we are lifted and immersed in the presence of an unfathomable God.  The glorious churches of the Baroque exemplify the Via Positiva.

St. Petersburg, Vienna
Via Positiva – St. Peter’s Church, Vienna, Austria

The Second Way: Via Negativa

The second way, the Via Negativa, is the way of the desert.  In sacred architecture the Via Negativa is embodied by a radical simplicity in which everything that distracts us from an encounter with God is stripped away.  The apogee of the Via Negativa is the architecture of the monastic tradition especially the great Cistercian monasteries.  

Via Negative monks
Via Negativa – Heiligenkreuz Abbey, near Vienna, Austria

Both the Via Positiva and Via Negativa May Lead a Soul to God

For persons living a busy life earning and spending (i.e. most of us), or living a life of struggle and scarcity, the way of abundance attempts to lift them into a blessed realm of color, light and glorious decoration.   We are reminded of God’s overwhelming love, generosity and grace.  However, in a materially glutted society, the way of the desert may be more effective than the way of abundance at leading souls to God.  In the Via Negativa, we are reminded of God’s simplicity, oneness and His quiet majesty. The Via Negativa expresses the very real human need to go back to the Cave in the desert, back to Bethlehem, in order to take away “all that which stands between you and Christ.” 

When the Via Positiva Fails

When the Via Positiva (the way of abundance) fails, we find gaudiness, garishness, a sense of disunity, “too much,”  and the disorder of chaos. An Englishman in Rome coined it, “a world of wealth in a desert of taste.”   In this case the intended “visual feast” provokes nothing more than indigestion. When the Via Positiva fails, it seems a pathetic attempt to create a heavenly banquet which only makes heaven seem that much farther away.

When the Via Negativa Fails

When the Via Negativa fails, we find sterility, dullness and deprivation. We feel depressed instead of inspired. Some examples of “sterile” churches fall into this category of the Via Negativa, where instead of restraint and soul-refreshing clarity, we find a banal wasteland or a sense of alienation. We feel we could be anywhere or nowhere.  Except for the element of shelter, we would rather be outside under the open sky.

Architectural Styles Are a Means, Not an End

So what is the point of making the distinction between the two ways?  At their best, both the Via Positiva and the Via Negativa are architecturally valid and consonant with the Church’s mission to lead souls to God.   However, both ways are only means, not ends in themselves.  How, then, are we to discern how to renovate a church? As usual, we must ask “a few more questions.”  Our next entry  discusses – what is it that makes a church, any church, beautiful?

Posted by Karen D’Anselmi, June 2016

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