Minimalism and the Church

“To appropriate: to take for oneself; take possession of; to steal.”

While at the theological symposium in Saint Louis last week, I had the rare pleasure of meeting a fellow liturgical artist. Kelly Schumacher is the founder of Angus Dei Liturgical Arts in Saint Louis, Missouri and a talented creative with a theological foundation for her work that is as elegant as it is intelligent. Her passion for what she does is unwavering and her enthusiasm is infectious.

The lecture that Kelly gave at the symposium was impressive and inspiring, but there was one point in particular that stood out to me. She was discussing the Minimalist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and the impact that it had on church art and architecture. As she presented an example of a particularly bare church interior with minimal design, she asked if we thought it was beautiful, if it recalled thoughts of a heavenly Jerusalem and the adorned Bride of Christ, and if it inspired faith and devotion. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “no…and we can do better.” She went on to say that by adopting minimalist design principles we are “appropriating false theologies”. I was floored by her choice of words and I’ve been trying to unpack them ever since.

The trend in art and architecture known as Minimalism has its roots in Industrial-era Europe but began to gain traction in New York in the 1960’s. The main stylistic components are abstract geometric shapes and the core of its psyche is a rejection of all metaphor and meaning beyond that of surface value. For architectural purposes this often means that structures are reduced to only their necessary components, the bare minimum needed to function. In Minimalist art we generally see large planes of solid color, nothing more. I have to wonder already if a system of design based on the idealization of meaninglessness is appropriate for use in our churches.

Minimalism is also heavily influenced by Japanese tradition and Zen philosophies, sometimes looking to the environment to reveal something spiritual and abstract in the design. Again, I wonder. How can this be congruent with our theology? What are we trying to communicate here? How did we get into this mess in the first place? Did we simply succumb to the trends of popular culture? Its true that these things tend to creep into design choices unnoticed, but we are in the world not of it, are we not?

Another point Kelly made in her lecture was that churches are holy places- holy, set apart. They shouldn’t look like every other building on the block. The church is the Bride of Christ, should she not look like it? Should she not be adorned for the marriage feast that is to come? Instead, Minimalism would have us strip her bare! What we are left with are sanctuaries that are utilitarian at best and cold at worst. Our faith is not a cold faith or a minimal faith. We are lavishly loved by a God who pours out blessings upon blessings. So why do we still cling to the tenets of a visual philosophy that so clearly conflicts with our doctrine? I have to echo Kelly when she says that we can do better.

Artistic movements often come with some pretty hefty philosophical baggage and the Minimalist system of design is no different. It is critical that we be cognizant and careful with how much of this baggage we invite to cross over the threshold into our churches. Our design will profess something- our art and architecture will tell the world something about us, and something about our God. What do we want it to say? Will we profess the philosophies of Minimalism? Zen? Every architectural element, every corner of space is a chance to speak the gospel and we are missing opportunities everywhere, opportunities we cannot afford to miss. We can do better, and we must.

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2 thoughts on “Minimalism and the Church

  1. Yes, yes, and yes! Minimalism, however, is only the tip of the iceberg — it is indicative of the basic problem of having forgotten the “language” developed by sacred artists throughout antiquity. This ultimately leads to ignorance of visual tools that can point us to Holy Scripture. I have met folks — pastors, even — who do not know the meaning of the nimbus reserved for Jesus Christ, or the Pelican in Her Piety, or many such images. These images are not magical or simple adornment — they point us to Christ. Yes, there are many times when the need for a new roof trumps the need for new art, but it is a shame when we all lavish much more on our own homes than we do on the Lord’s House.

    1. Hi Edward. Welcome to Artturgical and thank you for your comment! Its true that the language of religious art is, sadly, a lost one. It isn’t spoken or taught outside of the sphere of art history which is one of the many reasons why our work is so important. I do often wonder though, if as a lost language, it is something we should be trying to resurrect? Or perhaps it would be more helpful to develop a new language for the modern age? If our goal is to speak the Gospel, should we not be speaking the language of those who need to hear it most? The dead cannot benefit from our words or our work. It is the living and breathing who need us now. Perhaps it is time to leave the visual vocabularies of antiquity to antiquity? Then again, maybe the language of sacred art isn’t so difficult to access for the modern mind. Maybe returning to our visual roots is what we crave after all. As you can tell, I really don’t have any answers here. Perhaps a future blog post in the making!

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