A SENSE OF THE SACRED: THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS OF CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE AND ART

Written by R. Kevin Seasoltz Reviewed By Murray Rae

Kevin Seasoltz’s book, A Sense of the Sacred, offers a descriptive account of developments in sacred art and architecture through the course of Christian history. For the most part the book is arranged chronologically although, within the discussion of twentieth century art and architecture, the discussion is also arranged according to geography. Thus Seasoltz begins with a discussion of sacred art and architecture in the Bible and early church and develops his survey through the post-Constantinian period, the Romanesque and Gothic eras, the Renaissance, Baroque and Reformation periods and on into the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Three chapters are devoted to twentieth century sacred architecture, and these are followed by a chapter on nineteenth and twentieth century sacred art. All of this is preceded by two chapters on culture, the first of which is titled ‘Culture: the context for theology, liturgy and sacred architecture and art’, while the second chapter explores the response of the churches to cultural shifts. A brief concluding chapter attempts some summary remarks about the place of the arts in worship.

The book provides us with a great deal of information. The art historian who doesn’t know much about church history will find in the early chapters an account of historical developments up to and including the Reformation that serves well as background information to the development of much of the Western artistic tradition. The theology student who is largely ignorant of art history will learn of the importance of art in providing a profound enrichment of the church’s liturgy. And the lay-reader will undoubtedly develop a heightened awareness of the symbolism and theological significance of church buildings.

Despite these benefits, however. Seasoltz’s book is not easy to read. It is relentlessly descriptive, rather akin to the style of the visitor information brochures that one finds in churches, and that describe the various points of interest in the church building. This is all very well—or it would be if we could see what was being talked about, but Seasoltz leaves the visual experience largely to our imagination. There are a handful of photos clustered together in the centre of the book, but the lack of images to accompany the text is a major weakness of the book. If are really is an important vehicle for theological expression and communication, as Seasoltz contends, then more images would have enabled a much more effective communication of the point.

Similarly disappointing is the lack of rigorous theological analysis. Only in the concluding, very brief, chapter does Seasoltz offer any criteria by which the art and architecture might be assessed. It would have been more useful to lay these out at the beginning and then to have used these criteria as the basis for discussion of the works considered. Instead, the accounts of various art works and church buildings are often rather impressionistic and under-developed. Seasoltz does note, with respect to the continually changing culture within which sacred art and architecture are set, that we need to ‘discern which changes are creative and which are destructive of human life, and ultimately to discern which changes foster idolatry and which promote true worship of the divine’ (3) but he offers no guidance on how we should make such assessments. Nor does Seasoltz address some quite basic questions like, ‘what constitutes sacred space?’ or ‘to what extent if at all, is God involved both in the calling forth of sacred art, and in our apprehension through it of His word and truth?’

Much like the curate’s egg, then, Seasoltz’s book is good in parts but, in my judgement, it delivers only a piecemeal discussion of the theological foundations of Christian architecture and art.


Murray Rae

University of Otago, NZ