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The Search for Symbolism in Religious Architecture

By Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA

Every work of architecture is symbolic. Whether it is a bank, state capitol, school, home or mosque, every building serves more than a utilitarian function. Built environments are references to something beyond themselves. They are reflections of the culture they serve. In fact, over time they help to shape that culture. Consider the role of hospitals in the culture of health care or universities in the culture of higher education.

Religious architecture is really no different from other built environments except as a species. Whether it is a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, shrine or auditorium these buildings are reflections of the spiritual narratives embraced by particular religious groups. Like their secular counterparts, they nourish and shape the culture of the congregation they house. This is why there are diverse religious building types. Although connected in some cosmic or divine way, each religion possesses a unique storyline, which then, presumably, is reflected in the building.

However, religious buildings project a symbolic message that is distinct from others. While both religious and secular buildings can help humans with the intricacies of everyday life, religious places differ in that they provide references to a more extraordinary realm of possibility that often defies rational explanation. While secular places tend to be focused on immediate tasks and rewards, religion can create a broader perspective for living not defined by the commercial appeal of everyday life. Religions provide guidelines, inspiration and hope – recipes for dealing with the travails of human existence. They also help humans mark life-cycle events from the cradle to the grave, providing moments of celebration and comfort.

When we describe works of religious architecture as symbols or containers of symbols, it is helpful to understand what we mean by the term. The word symbol is sometimes misunderstood and used interchangeably with the word sign. Unlike signs, which convey clear messages, symbols are more messy or ambiguous. While a sign usually has nothing more to say than the message it delivers, symbols are multivalent and have plenty to say. A sign points to itself whereas a symbol points to something beyond itself. Further, symbols can effect what they signify.

For example, water is used in many religions as a symbol of rebirth or renewal. In rites of initiation the candidate is immersed in water, which has contrasting attributes. Water can take life; it can give life. Thus, water is a good symbol that actually effects what it signifies. Place someone under water for a while and the experience of drowning or dying becomes real. Pull that person up out of the water and there is the feeling of a new lease on life. Here is where water as a symbol points to something beyond itself. When used ritually it expresses the theological rationale for baptism. The person agrees to “die” to the older life while accepting new life in the faith community. This is why sprinkling a few drops of water on someone’s head does not possess the same symbolic strength as dipping someone into a large body of water.

Baptism by immersion in a Catholic church, Photo Credit: Source unknown

In order for a symbol to work the group using it also has to agree on what it stands for or points to. Otherwise, it will only confuse the assembly and compromise the ritual action. If water only means death then it will not function as a symbolic threshold to a new life. This is why the same symbol when used by different cultures could mean something entirely different. Likewise, if a congregation does not agree on what ideology or theology their house of prayer should mirror in the public eye, then that building will not work as a symbolic expression of that community no matter what architectural typology is used.

This brief examination of the word symbol can help identify the architectural indicators of a religious building. Is this symbolic language found only in towering steeples, stained glass windows and certain architectural styles? How well does any symbol reflect the culture of the congregation – who it is, what it believes, how it lives? Is the significance of religious symbols lost in the mélange of advertisements and commercials symbolizing a culture of consumerism?

In this discussion it is important to understand the difference between the terms, religious architecture and sacred architecture. Certain “secular” places possess a more sacred character than even designated places of worship. Some museums, for example, are more inspiring than even the grandest religious edifice. Upon close examination elements in nature, whether a mountaintop or a conch shell, possess “sacred” dynamics. Just because a building (aesthetics aside) is called a church or synagogue does not mean it will evoke an experience of the sacred, i.e., the wholly, holy other. Some say it is impossible to actually build a sacred space. Places become sacred over time because of the meaning humans give to them, because of the actions carried out there.

Time honored standards suggest that verticality, light, harmony, scale, proportion and the choice of materials and colors are still essential ingredients in any architectural form whether or not it is religious or secular. However, we are learning, from younger generations especially, that the so-called conventional symbols mentioned above (steeples, stained glass, etc.) and often used to identify religious buildings are no longer as important as other factors.

What apparently matters more to people of faith is their mission and how well they are treated inside the building. The new symbolic expressions, therefore, appear to include a spirit of hospitality, lively music, inspiring sermons, well-trained ministries, effective social outreach programs and energy conservation. These symbolic actions point to a truth beyond themselves at the same time they “effect” what they signify. They appear to possess more meaning for some congregations because they realistically reflect what the congregation believes in and is willing to stand up for.

Caption: Grace Fellowship, Latham, NY, Photo Credit: R. Vosko

If this is true, what does this trend mean in terms of designing religious buildings, especially ones used for worship? We are already witnessing the construction of non-traditional shapes that eschew typical religious symbolism and instead emphasize the importance of sustainable architecture, energy conservation, barrier-free design and a response to the needs of the congregation. Many of these new building types display a powerful presence in the community that would rival other significant contemporary structures. These more modern religious venues seem to attract younger people in great numbers while the mainstream religions, which favor a more traditional symbol system, are struggling to find members.

Richard S. Vosko has been working as a sacred space planner throughout the United States and Canada since 1970. He is the 1994 recipient of the Elbert M. Conover Award for his contributions to religious art and architecture. His work is continuously recognized for excellence in liturgical design. His vast portfolio includes 14 cathedral projects and innumerable synagogue consultations. A priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, Fr. Vosko writes and speaks on topics related to sacred places of worship. His award-winning book is titled, God's House is Our House: Re-imagining the Environment for Worship (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2006.


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