Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Louis Bouyer on Sacred Architecture and Liturgy

Jewish origins of Christian worship

One of the characteristics of Pope Benedict’s theology of the liturgy is his emphasis on the Jewish roots of Christian worship, which he considers a manifestation of the essential unity of Old and New Testament, a subject to which he repeatedly calls attention. Bouyer pursues this methodology in his monograph Eucharist, where he argues that the form of the Church’s liturgy must be understood as emerging from a Jewish ritual context.

In Liturgy and Architecture, Bouyer explores the Jewish background to early church architecture, especially with regard to the “sacred direction” taken in divine worship. He notes that Jews in the Diaspora prayed towards Jerusalem or, more precisely, towards the presence of the transcendent God (shekinah) in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Even after the destruction of the Temple the prevailing custom of turning towards Jerusalem for prayer was kept in the liturgy of the synagogue. Thus Jews have expressed their eschatological hope for the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the gathering of God’s people from the Diaspora. The direction of prayer was thus inseparably bound up with the messianic expectation of Israel.

Bouyer observes that this direction of prayer towards the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem gave Jewish synagogue worship a quasi-sacramental quality that went beyond the mere proclamation of the word. This sacred direction was highlighted by the later development of the Torah shrine, where the scrolls of the Holy Scripture are solemnly kept. The Torah shrine thus becomes a sign of God’s presence among his people, keeping alive the memory of his ineffable presence in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Ratzinger notes in his Spirit of the Liturgy that in Christian sacred architecture, which both continues and transforms synagogue architecture, the Torah shrine has its equivalent in the altar at the east wall or in the apse, thus being the place where the sacrifice of Christ, the Word incarnate, becomes present in the liturgy of the Mass.

Syrian Churches

Bouyer’s Liturgy and Architecture made available to a wider public in the 1960’s current research on early Christian sacred architecture in the Near East. The oldest surviving Syrian churches, dating from the fourth century onwards, mostly follow the model of the basilica, similar to contemporary synagogues, with the difference, however, that they were in general built with their apse facing towards the east. In churches where some clue remains as to the position of the altar, it appears to have been placed only a little forward from the east wall or directly before it. The orientation of church and altar thus corresponds to the universally accepted principle of facing east in prayer and expresses the eschatological hope of the early Christians for the second coming of Christ as the Sun of righteousness. The bema, a raised platform in the middle of the building, was taken over from the synagogue, where it served as the place for the reading of Holy Scripture and the recitation of prayers. The bishop would sit with his clergy on the west side of the bema in the nave facing towards the apse. The psalmody and readings that form part of the liturgy of the Word are conducted from the bema. The clergy then proceed eastward to the altar for the liturgy of the Eucharist. [...] What is widely agreed, however, is that the celebrant would have stood in front of the altar, facing east with the congregation for the Eucharistic liturgy.

Roman Basilicas

Early Roman churches, especially those with an oriented entrance, such as the Lateran Basilica or Saint Peter’s in the Vatican (which is unique in many ways), present questions regarding their liturgical use that are still being debated by scholars. According to Bouyer the whole assembly, the bishop or priest celebrant who stood behind the altar as well as the people in the nave would turn towards the east and hence towards the doors during the Eucharistic prayer. The doors may have been left open so that the light of the rising sun, the symbol of the risen Christ and his second coming in glory, flooded into the nave. The assembly would have formed a semicircle that opened to the east, with the celebrating priest as its apex. In the context of religious practice in the ancient world, this liturgical gesture does not appear as extraordinary as it might seem today. It was the general custom in antiquity to pray towards the open sky, which meant that in a closed room one would turn to an open door or an open window for prayer, a custom that is well attested by Jewish and Christian sources. Against this background it would seem quite possible that for the Eucharistic prayer the faithful, along with the celebrant, turned towards the eastern entrance. The practice of priest and people facing each other arose when the profound symbolism of facing east was no longer understood and the faithful no longer turned eastward for the Eucharistic prayer. [...]

Another line of argument can be pursued if we start from the observation that facing east was accompanied by looking upwards, namely towards the eastern sky which was considered the place of Paradise and the scene of Christ’s second coming. The lifting up of hearts for the canon, in response to the admonition “Sursum corda,” included the bodily gestures of standing upright, raising one’s arms and looking heavenward. It is no mere accident that in many basilicas (only) the apse and triumphal arch were decorated with magnificent mosaics; their iconographic programmes are often related to the Eucharist that is celebrated underneath. These mosaics may well have served to direct the attention of the assembly whose eyes were raised up during the Eucharistic prayer. Even the priest at the altar prayed with outstretched, raised arms and no further ritual gestures. Where the altar was placed at the entrance of the apse or in the central nave, the celebrant standing in front of it could easily have looked up towards the apse. With splendid mosaics representing the celestial world, the apse may have indicated the “liturgical east” and hence the focus of prayer. [...]

Bouyer acclaims Byzantine church architecture as a genuine development of the early Christian basilica: those elements that were not appropriate for the celebration of the liturgy were either changed or removed, so that a new type of building came into being. A major achievement was the formation of a particular iconography that stood in close connection with the sacred mysteries celebrated in the liturgy and gave them a visible artistic form. Church architecture in the West, on the other hand, was more strongly indebted to the basilican structure. Significantly, the rich decoration of the east wall and dome in Byzantine churches has its counterpart in the Ottonian and Romanesque wall-paintings and, even further developed, in the sumptuous altar compositions of the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, which display themes intimately related to the Eucharist and so give a foretaste of the eternal glory given to the faithful in the sacrifice of the Mass.


Source: Uwe Michael Lang, "Louis Bouyer and Church Architecture," Sacred Architecture 19 (Spring 2011): 14-17, doi: http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/louis_bouyer_and_church_architecture.

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