15. To Build in a Time of Plague

The Christian world is full of churches, chapels, and memorials thanking God for halting plagues and honoring the saints for their intercession. The stories are tremendous, as are the works themselves. It is salutary for us to learn about these plague churches built by our predecessors in the faith.

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Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Speaking of salutary, Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, is usually just called La Salute, which means “health.” The plague of 1631-1632 killed one third of the population of Venice, which makes our current pandemic look comparatively less severe. The plague suddenly ceased on November 21, 1631, the day Doge Contarini and Patriarch Tiepola made a vow to dedicate a church to the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Health and Protectress of the Republic of Venice. The architect, Baldassare Longhena, conceived of the church as a crown to honor Mary as Queen. The Venetian Senate decreed the building of the church, and every year on November 21, two bridges of boats are built across the Grand Canal. The Senate of Venice attends Mass along with many Venetians and pilgrims. The vast, octagonal church has two domes and two picturesque bell-towers behind the smaller dome. Built on a platform made of 1,200,000 wooden piles, it is constructed of bricks coated with marble dust. If you have been to Venice you will have seen it located on the Grand Canal, or you may have seen it in famous paintings by Canaletto, J.M.W. Turner or John Singer Sergeant. Its interior holds priceless religious masterpieces by Tintoretto and Titian.

Step closer
“Santa Maria della Salute” by John Singer Sargent, 1904

Salute is one of five plague churches in Venice. The stories of the other plague churches are equally fascinating. I will mention only a few details here.

The La Chiesa di San Giobbe (St. Job), built in 1462-1471 near the Jewish ghetto, is named after the Old Testament saint who was so patient in suffering. La Scuola e Chiesa di San Rocco (The School and Church of San Rocco), built in 1485-1550 and decorated by Tintoretto, is one of the five “Guilds of the Charitable Brethren.” This guild’s particular duty was charity toward plague victims. La Chiesa di San Sebastiano (The Church of Saint Sebastian), built in 1506-1518 and decorated by Veronese, contains artwork depicting plague symbolism from the Bible such as the Pool of Bethesda. La Chiesa del Redentatore (The Church of the Redeemer) designed by Palladio and built after the plague of 1575. As with the Salute, a Doge and a Patriarch of the city made a vow to build a church if the plague would cease. It did, so they commissioned the great architect Andrea Palladio to design it on the island of Giaddecca, across the Grand Canal.

Church of the Redeemer, Venice

Venice was subject to the ravages of the plagues of Europe because it was the center of trade for the Eastern Mediterranean and the caravan routes of Asia. But European cities such as Cologne (whose name refers to perfumed waters thought to ward off the plague!), Munich, Bingen, Oberammergau, Vienna, and other cities have churches, chapels, monuments, memorials, and artworks thanking God for halting plagues and imploring the intercession of the saints.

So let us pray to the saints in Heaven for their intercession in this our time of plague that we might not to fall into the despondency, despair, or confusion. Let us makes vows as the Doges and Patriarchs of Venice did, to to build or beautify our churches, even if on a smaller scale. Like them, let us ask the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession, and God, who makes good come out of evil, will surely answer our prayers.

Sculpture in Santa Maria della Salute’s high altar, depicting the City of Venice (figure of young woman on the left) asking Our Lady to banish the plague (figure of old woman running away on right)

For more information on the plagues of Europe, and the plague churches, see The Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine: Avery, Harold (February 1966). “Plague churches, monuments and memorials”Proc. R. Soc. Med59 (2): 110–116. PMC 1900794PMID 5906745

12. Start Small

On Pentecost the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to found the Church. On that day, over three thousand were baptized: an impressive increase for Day One. However, in terms of architecture, you could argue that the Church was born in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is small.  Most good, even great, things start that way.  Here we find the newborn Jesus. A few animals, a few visitors.  Under a simple structure to protect a small family.

All great saints started small.  Their great projects started small. In the case of St. Francis, the tiny Portiuncula chapel was the third church that he restored after receiving his mandate from Christ: “Rebuild My Church.”  Here he came to understand his vocation more clearly in 1209, and to found the Order of Friars Minor. The basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli was built over the Portiuncula in 1679.

Portiuncula, inside Santa Maria degli Angeli Church, Assisi, Italy

At the Portiuncula, which was and is the center of the Franciscan Order, Saint Francis gathered his friars in Chapters (general meetings) each year, to discuss the Rule, to rediscover their fervor and then set off again to proclaim the Gospel.  Millions have visited this tiny chapel to receive the Portiuncula indulgence (or have traveled to receive the indulgence at designated affiliates) and many copies of this tiny church have been built throughout the world.

portiuncola at Franciscan
Portiuncola at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Steubenville, Ohio

A few centuries later another tiny church was built in the city of Rome. On the spot where St. Peter was crucified, in the outer cloister of a much larger church, stands a tiny chapel called “the Tempietto,” or little temple.

tempietto by Bramante
Bramante’s Tempietto, Rome, Italy


Commissioned by King Ferdinand of Spain, it was built around 1510 by Donato Bramante, a visionary who took his inspiration from ancient buildings such as the Temple of Vesta and the Roman Pantheon.  This tiny church has a hemispherical, concrete dome on the top and perfectly spaced niches and pilasters on the main body. A ring of doric style columns completes the outside. Contemporary critics such as Georgio Vasari considered it one of Bramante’s masterpieces, and it became an inspiration for the “rebirth” of architecture in the Renaissance and beyond.

The Tempietto has an intimacy in scale, yet it dares to be a House of God.  It has a mini-grandeur within the wild grandeur of the universe.  Large buildings, in order to feel intimate, need to have human scale. Small buildings, by contrast, dare to do big things, and point towards infinity with the humility of their proportions.

One of our favorite projects at Laudate Sacred Art is Our Lady of the Way Chapel in Hyde Park, New York.  This historic wayside chapel is presently being restored using funds raised by a small but dedicated congregation consisting of Catholic students at the Culinary Institute of America and friends of the chapel.  The more grandiose buildings of the rest of the former Jesuit Seminary now house an internationally famous cooking school, but the chapel is still administered by the Archdiocese of New York. Smaller than most living rooms and seating about twenty- four congregants, it is a gem of sacred architecture and a model for the “small church” movement of our times.

Our Lady of the Way Chapel outside view
Our Lady of the Way Chapel, Hyde Park, New York

The final point of this short article, is “Do not be afraid to start small.”  Do not be afraid to stay small. For even great architects, no project is too small.  For all architects, designers, lovers of architecture and design, and anyone who wants to experience the Divine, small is beautiful.  Small is Bethlehem.

Nativity Walnut Shell - 203-3-137


10. Art and Life

What is the connection between art and life?

In the Christian understanding of marriage, a man and woman cooperate with God, the source of all being, to welcome new human life into the world.  We use the term procreation, rather than just reproduction, because the human parents cooperate in the act of creation. An artist picks up a paintbrush and pigment, or a chisel and stone, or some other tool and corresponding medium, and makes art.  Does the artist need to cooperate with the Creator, before a new painting or sculpture enters the world?

Our creative ability is one of things that we have in common with the Creator, although our ability to make art is different in both quality and quantity from the Creator’s.  God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing.  Human beings make art by rearranging substances already created by God.  However, vital aspects of art, such as the artistic idea, vision, touch, movement, seem to emerge ex nihilo from us, as they are “new in all the world.”  Our brains, hearts, etc., have already come ex nihilo from God, so we can’t really claim ex nihilo abilities.  (Here the thinker, poet, artist and lover cry, “Foul,” because there is a divine aspect and wholly original aspect to creative work that deserves its due.) But in the physical execution, wherein the realm of idea or vision becomes a physical, tangible work of art, we always reform and rearrange materials already created by God.  Yet, even here, too the artist feels a sense of the divine as he molds and remolds, learning in an uniquely human way to manipulate God-given matter with much of the delight He must feel.

Accepting that we do not, strictly speaking, create ex nihilo, and accepting the distinction between God as creator and human as maker, no one can argue that we are not wildly creative.  Even people who say that they cannot draw a straight line usually turn out to have some other artistic talent.  At the very least they will garnish their sour cream dip with a sprig of parsley; not even the sparrows outside the window bother to garnish anything.  As G.K. Chesterton stated in The Everlasting Man: “Art is the signature of man.” When you see art on the walls of an ancient cave, you know that one of us has been there, thousands of years earlier, decorating the walls.

A striking theological observation, or perhaps more properly, demonological  observation, is that the devil cannot make anything.  He cannot create ex nihilo the way God can. And furthermore, he is shockingly crippled and deficient in comparison to us in terms of his artistic ability and execution.  He cannot make even the simplest things that we can make.  The devil can’t sew, weave, draw, dance, and contrary to popular opinion, can’t play the fiddle.  (Even Screwtape can’t actually write a letter.) As a folk singer twanged: “The devil can’t make a pickle in the brine, much less a cucumber on the vine.”  What he can do is seek the ruin of souls.  But regardless of the ruin he makes out of human lives and loves, the devil (and anyone who cooperates with him) is nonetheless created by the Creator. The devil can only meddle in a world already created and governed by God.

To make things challenging for artists, the devil actively seeks the destruction of beautiful things made by human hands. He will try to prevent beautiful art from being made in the first place. Failing that, he will try to sow confusion and despair in a myriad of ways, as we try to preserve or restore its beauty.  The devil hates artistic beauty almost as much as he hates an ordinary man and woman when they marry to “go forth and multiply.”  Art reminds him of the Creator’s power and of humanity’s participation in that power. He despises our uniquely human reflection of God’s Image and Likeness.

Sometimes artists and designers are told that their work doesn’t really matter very much in the great spiritual struggle between good and evil.  We may hear:  “The Church is not about the building.  The Church is not about stuff.  It is about people.  It is about souls.”

Is is true that we must care passionately for the salvation of souls.  And we should not be pure materialists or at least not atheistic materialists. (See our post “Why are you such a Materialist?“)  But if it is not about “stuff,” but only about spirit, that is religious dualism, the basis of destructive heresies such as Gnosticism.  When a heresy “explains” life as a battle between spiritual and material forces, either spirit or matter is seen as lower, evil or (in the case of atheistic materialism) non-existent.  When matter is denigrated, and human beings strive to live in the lofty realm of the spirit alone, they quickly find themselves in the devil’s preferred realm, since he is a purely spiritual force.

How should those of us involved in art and restoration deal with the difficulties and confusion that often attends artistic work?  First, we should not be too surprised by the setbacks and difficulties we face when we do our work. Next, we should thank God that He has given us this uniquely human power to make beautiful things and that we are assisted by His Grace in this. Then, we should be persistent, doing the very best with the materials available.

This is where planning is important.  It is important to have a plan to go back to when things become confused, noisome, etc., as they often will, during the creative process.  Then, even though the devil sticks his purely spiritual nose in to our work, we can go back once again to our plan.  Our plan cannot be just an idea, however.  That is too purely spiritual.  It should include a drawing or set of drawings, along with a written description of our methodology for the execution of the work.

What is the connection between life and art?  In both life and art, we should be fruitful and multiply.  We should not fear that we are merely wasting time and resources or indulging in a guilty pleasure.  We give glory to God by generously welcoming children into our families and making beautiful churches filled with  art, and by conserving and restoring as much as possible the beauty that past generations have left to us. We are doing our uniquely human work in cooperation with the Creator.

See also G.K Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas,  from the chapter entitled “A Meditation on the Manichees,”  San Francisco: Ignatuis Press, 1986. 

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9. The Restoration of the Riddle

For many years the angels have knelt atop their “riddle posts” in the tiny chapel of Our Lady of the Way on the Hudson River. Their posts on either side of the Blessed Sacrament hold tapestry “riddle curtains,” which separate the altar from the rest of the chapel (from the Middle English riddel  “to separate.”) Their sincere expressions and the precious materials indicate the seriousness of their task.

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7. What is Scale, Anyway?

We notice it when it is missing.

We lament that a church “lacks scale.” But what does it mean?  What is the difference between a church that has scale and one that does not? In architecture, scale refers to the relative size of architectural parts as compared with the whole or as compared with the human figure.  The human aspect is key.  When you, the lowly “human figure,” enter a church (or any building) that lacks scale, you feel disconnected, disoriented, lost or anonymous. Dehumanized.

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