Balthasar and Sacred Architecture

Axel Haig - Burgos

Philip Nielsen has a nice article on Balthasar’s aesthetics:

“Depicting the Whole Christ: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sacred Architecture”

Here are a couple of my favorite points:

For Balthasar, a Church totally devoid of images is not something that could concentrate the eyes of the congregation purely on Christ (as many Protestant and even some Catholic thinkers would assert), but is rather much more akin to a Gospel in which half the parables of Christ were removed.


…sacred art and architecture should avoid taking on merely human dimensions, seeking rather to preserve the “dissimilarity” between God and his creatures. Sacred architecture’s first duty is to create a sense of “spacing” between God and man. The church, but especially its sanctuary, must clearly depict a distance between God and his creatures. A church that looks like a living room makes an awareness of the difference between Creator and creature more difficult to perceive—it makes it an act of near heroic virtue. “Spacing” can be achieved first and foremost by scale, ornamentation, art, and architectural cues such as rails, screens, stairs, or curtains. All of these elements, insofar as they make the glory of God more clear to the participant, express true beauty. This beauty must lead to God, however, not simply to an aesthetic experience. “The awareness of inherent glory,” writes Balthasar, “gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God.” [Balthasar, New Elucidations, 136.]

Nielsen is a Phd candidate in architecture at Texas A&M and previously studied theology and architecture at the graduate level at the University of Notre Dame.


Image: Catedral de Burgos, by Axel Haig (1835-1921)



  1. I’m hardly one to criticize Balthasar, but I’ve been in living rooms in which the glory and presence of God was encountered more powerfully than many beautiful churches I’ve been in.

    • Yes, I know what you mean, and I would especially point to moments of suffering. Yet, Balthasar himself can speak powerfully about encountering Christ’s glory “hidden” under the cross — in those who suffer affliction, the non-beloved and non-beautiful. So, I suspect that Balthasar (like all Catholics) would want to say both/and, not either/or, when it comes to a theology of glory and a theology of the cross.

      • Right, I wouldn’t try and make it an either/or kind of thing at all. I visited Europe several years ago and had the pleasure of going to several great cathedrals, which was quite an experience, though I was unfortunately not interested in theology at the time. The use of space and architecture in theology is something that’s starting to really pique my interet. Any specific work you’d recommend?

      • It was my first visit to the National Cathedral in Washington, about 10 years ago, that first sparked my interest in connecting theology to art. And then a few years after that, my brother and I took a trip to Rome and Florence for a week, which further shook my world of basically Baptist aesthetics!

        I recommend A. W. Pugin’s classic, True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, which is an admittedly romanticized portrayal of Gothic architecture, like his other notable monograph, Contrasts. Not surprisingly, Pugin’s reputation fell victim to the tide of the existential/modernist wave in the 20th century but also the criticisms of fellow Victorian Gothic revivalist, John Ruskin. Ruskin’s disdain for Pugin probably has more to do with Ruskin’s ardent nationalism and his increasing religious skepticism. Pugin had converted to Roman Catholicism, offending both Ruskin’s nationalism and his skepticism. Those are my guesses — since I’ve only done a small amount of research on them.

  2. Outstanding, I’ll be sure to check all that out. I saw a good lecture by Wolterstorff on ‘Sacred Spaces, Sacred Art’ (I think thatwas the title) and he connected architecture to theology by saying that the goal of architecture is to create space where believers can pray in peace, or simply be with God in peace.

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