Thursday, October 9, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Art

It has been so nice to read and write about things other than the failing economy and the upcoming obamanation. Having the mistakes made at the new Oakland Cathedral to rant about has been a wonderful respite from the news of the day, if only for me. So here we are in the fourth installment of my critique of the Cathedral.

I think it abundantly clear that the exterior of the Cathedral of Christ the Light is inadequate as a visible sign of heavenly realities. But what of the interior? Certainly it is true that many churches can be quite ugly on the outside, yet indescribably beautiful on the inside, such as one of my favorites: San Vitale in Ravenna (See two images above. This church also happens to be one of the two most important churches in Christendom for the development of western iconography). Who knows? Perhaps $190 million buys you interior beauty in Oakland. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend Mass at the Cathedral, and any full critique of the interior would necessitate the critic to see the building used in the intended fashion as a sacramental in the service of the liturgy. At any rate, judging the building qua building and art qua art is fine enough for now.

The first question any Catholic pilgrim asks when venturing into a new church is "Where is the tabernacle, so that I might cross myself before Him." In more recent buildings this usually amounts to a frantic visual scanning of all four corners of the room for anything that looks like a red candle to signify His Presence, or more frequently a sign that indicates the hallway one must traverse to find the Eucharistic adoration closet. Here, the Tabernacle is front and center. Right behind the altar. Yes, it's a bit insignificant in size, especially in the presence of a 80 foot tall quasi-corpus, but I was happy to see it hierarchically disposed nonetheless.

If one's eye is not immediately taken by the 'Omega Point' (the 80 foot Christ image in the 'apse'), then it is taken by the first real proof of the existence of the mystically reported traditional symbol of Christ: The Vesica Piscis. Truly, for most people who are not used to visually examining the geometry of a building, looking skyward and seeing the almond shape is the first hint that this is in fact a symbol at all employed here dispite the hype, and yet is more reminiscent of the eye of Sauron than the Ichthys.

The scale is in fact intimate, and I must say that having been in the place I am reconsidering the appropriateness of scale that I assumed for my counterproposal. While my proposal seated 500 more, it would have been twice as big. Although to be clear, theater-based seating and planning is notoriously less volumetric than the more traditional cruciform or basilica plans. But that is a whole book unto itself.

The materials are, well, sterile at best. The lower register, amounting to about the first 12 feet of the outer walls, is Brutalist: raw concrete. This brutalism is reminiscent of the master of the genre, Le Corbusier, and you all know HOW I FEEL ABOUT HOW CORBU RUINED CATHOLIC ARCHITECTURE. There is no decoration at all with the exception of the occasional green glowing exit sign, and there is no indication that this is a valuable building housing valuable 'goods'. These things, of course, make one want to, well, exit. It is, in fact even less detailed than the chancery less than 200 feet away which holds only paper. The sterility, accentuated by the lack of liturgical presence at the time, was overbearing, and I even found myself, God forgive me for saying this, thinking that the other quasi brutalist monstrosity in California-- the L.A. Cathedral-- would be a welcome visit after this, if for no other reason than because the colors are much warmer in the L.A. Cathedral, and the feeling is therefore much more inviting and comfortable. But here, it is cold and barren, a feeling that is heightened by the arid grey of the dais and altar: upon which life itself is given to us, so it was disappointing that the design of the altar was so disconnected with the reality of the glory that happens on it. There is of course, abundant wood, but it must have taken great skill to ensure that the wood would do so little for the design. There is no detail. Seriously, it's a bunch of stacked 2 x 6 in el cheap-o Douglas fir. How did this church cost so much with bare concrete and Home Depot lumber? Oh yeah. The infrastructure of the underground parking. Great use of money.

There is, with the exception of the mediocre stations of the cross, no art at eye level (although my wife very rightly pointed out that it's nice to have the stations at the eye level of children because they are often missed by kids) There is a side chapel dedicated to the Holy Family with some fairly decent work, and traditional in mode, but it is nothing exceptional. Opposite the Holy Family Chapel is the Chapel of the suffering Christ, and I must say that the thought crossed my mind that Christ is suffering precisely because this artwork is hidden in a back corner and not in the nave. Most unfortunately, Our Lady of Guadalupe is stuck in the very back, behind the sanctuary in a proto lady chapel that doubles as an Eucharistic Adoration Chapel. A very undignified setting for the patroness of the Americas.

But, when it comes to art, there is that 800 lb gorilla (Oh, my Lord, I am so sorry for so flippantly referring to images of you in that way), which is called the 'Omega Point', a.k.a Christ PANTOKRATOR. Of all the things about this Cathedral that are to be discussed, this image really bothers me not because I am coming into this with an a priori decision that it is that bad, but because I cannot decide whether I love it or hate it. I am a huge fan of images of Christ Pantokrator in the apse, on axis. It really is the most fitting icon that can be placed in a sanctuary. The eschatological goal of the Mass is paramount, and is also something regularly forgotten or overlooked, which is why we rarely see Pantokrators in churches anymore. Referring to the West Fa├žade at the Chartres Cathedral for the image is a stroke of genius, because that particular Pantokrator is among the least frightful in the genre of Christ-as-Judge, but the representation here is quite horrible. PIXEL ART is usually just a waste of creative intellect, and this is no exception. The angular projection of the apsidal wall distorts the image, and there is something quite eerie about it. From straight on it looks like a TV projection, and because there is no other art to be easily seen, I am tempted to christen this image as 'iconoplasma'. (interesting phrase, that...christening an image of Christ) But, after reflection, I must say that the good Bishop Vigneron was a champ for getting the artwork in that he did, and doing it with as much meaning as possible. Certainly he chose the Chartres Pantokrator because copying something from the past kept something despicable from being designed by lesser artists from today's artistic cesspool, so kudos for that.

Before I end this ridiculously long post, I must mention one last bit. My critiquing of architecture has only one steadfast principle: If it can be given a funny nickname, it sucks. There's the BATMAN BUILDING, FRED AND GINGER, or THE LIPSTICK BUILDING as some secular examples, while THE YELLOW ARMADILLO and THE MAYTAG CATHEDRAL represent the ecclesiastical typology (Hmmm. and both in California...). That being said, take a look at the Cathedral's Confessionals in the picture on the left. Wow. This 2 x 6 blocks of wood motif really began to bug me after a while. It's in the sanctuary, throughout the mausoleum, and here in the confessional. It was everywhere. Needless to say, it was when I was studying this confessional that I was overcome with the desire to play Jenga. I can just imagine the long lines at reconciliation hour when Fr. Whosit is in the winner's bracket for this year's Jenga championship.

And so I smugly sat in that confessional chair and jotted down the note to remind me to come back home to my Oh-So-Important-and-Witty-Blog and nickname this place the Cathedral of Christ the Blight, or maybe Our Lady of the Igloo or St. Laundrybasket's.

Ah, but alas, there was more to the story. Here we have a correctly placed tabernacle; one of the only contemporary uses of Christ Pantokrator in memory; a hierarchical arrangement of sacred furnishings; an organ for use in Sacred Music, even if right now it's not chant; and even some contemporary (not modern) paintings and sculpture that doesn't make you vomit--all things that I fight for in my own practice. And even if the design is horrible (really well done horrible, but horrible nonetheless), I must admit these are qualities I praise when present in other styles.

So perhaps, when he inherited $60 Million of previously fundraised capital and an ugly as sin design for a church 5 years ago from the more liberal Bishop Cummins, Bishop Vigneron actually pulled off something quite helpful in the bigger picture of ecclesiastical design and helped other bishops and pastors to feel like they, too can do these things right, no matter what their dumb liturgical design consultant says, and that while this particular church is not that good, good things are coming for Catholic architecture because of its lead.

Perhaps he kept reins on what would have been a much worse project.

Perhaps he just dedicated the 'Cathedral of Christ the Light at the End of the Tunnel'.

I sure hope so.


Cathedral of Christ the Blight (written prior to visiting the Cathedral)

There is No Prayer There (commentary on the exterior of the Cathedral)

Cathedral of Christ the Blight part II (replies to objections to my commentary)

Missing the Middle (or Central) Term (commentary on the placement of the Tabernacle in the Cathedral)


Anonymous said...

"The first question any Catholic pilgrim asks when venturing into a new church is 'Where is the tabernacle, so that I might cross myself before Him.'"

Too many Catholics cross themselves entering and leaving a pew without regard for the placement of the tabernacle, even when it's in the nave.

That said, the 1967 document Eucharisticum Mysterium, section 53advises the placement of the tabernacle in a separate chapel.

It is a long post, and I might be back to offer a few more alternative views. I do think you should reconsider the funny nickname meme. "Christ the Blight" is pretty atrocious and does not show you in a good light. If it's tough taking that suggestion from me, consult a trusted priest.


Maureen said...

Can't concrete be painted?

We have a lot of concrete churches in our area from the thirties and forties that have lovely artwork painted on the concrete. Holy Angels with its huge apse painting full of angels is not totally unpainted everywhere else.

I'm also kinda surprised that they didn't use the pretty patterned concrete that you can get now. Even if it was just traditional Christian geometric motifs, you'd think they'd want to put something on the walls.

I'm glad to hear the place isn't as bad as it could be.

The Vitruvian Duck said...

Dear 'Anonymous' Todd,

Are you for real? Did you even read my post? Did you get to the end, where I noted that the gritty nicknames where perhaps not appropriate and then self-corrected by re-nicknaming it in an hopeful and positive light?

Your comments on have been disgusting. Check yourself before you attack people and shoot for humiliation without reading and addressing the substance of their remarks.

If you are going to be so unreasonable, please do not come back here.

The Vitruvian Duck said...


Yes, concrete can be made to be quite beautiful. The only restriction is the creative sense of the designer in his use of texture, pattern, color...

There is nothing wrong with modern materials. They can be used as can modern words in language. It's the form I complain about. Another way to see this is from God's example. Christ takes our fallen nature, and makes us beautiful by his sacrifice, even within the framework of the imperfections of the material world. Architects can take any material and give it nobility by the nature of the form it is used in. Some materials are better and more beautiful than others, but there are relatively few materials that are per se unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

The Jenga comment was really funny. By the way, thanks for taking the time and effort to critique project. It is hard to find articles as comprehensive as what you wrote.

Anonymous said...

"Your comments on have been disgusting."

Disgusting? Are you sure?

You admit you keep the gloves on for lay people, take them off for clergy. You can ask other people if you prefer if they think "Blight" associated with "Christ" is appropriate. I think it's an honest question.

I have no problem admitting your critical tone is bothersome to me, and I can't quite be sure you have the background to back up your statements touching on theology or church history. But if you want to get specific, I'm willing to look at anything I've written. I have no problem apologizing if warranted, and doing so unconditionally.


The Vitruvian Duck said...

Casablanca,'s nice to know that there's at least somebody out there who I have not offended with all this.


Ignoramus said...


I'm not offended in the least. This post is, in my opinion, a very thoughtful and humble essay. At more than one point you admit to having your views changed by your visit, and the "Cathedral of Christ the Blight" line Todd worries about is clearly a set-up for your self-reproach and the spectacular title, "Cathedral of Christ the Light at the End of the Tunnel."

Speaking for a moment to Todd, I think you should read carefully how Duck speaks of his Oh-So-Important-And-Witty Blog. The tongue is crammed so hard into the side of the cheek it practically hurts me to think about it. The Duck is taking a shot at himself in that passage.

To have a properly placed tabernacle in a contemporary cathedral is a thing of joy! The image of Christ at the front is almost terrific, but the distortion distracts me. Not having been there, I can only surmise that the final effect is nonetheless edifying.

Bare concrete walls bother me. Churches I have seen along that design always feel like prisons, which is what Americans associate with bare concrete walls. There is probably a philosophy behind it to the effect that the Church should recede into the background so the liturgy itself can be emphasized, or something along those lines.

Finally, can ANYONE tell me where Todd is posting his comments? He said he put them on the IC website--is that "inside Catholic"? He did not respond to my earlier question.

The Vitruvian Duck said...

Thanks, Ignoramus, for your lucid comments and support.

There has been a whole string of comments on this topic and mine and others' posts at Here is the link to that article and the comments:

Alberto said...

My parish -- St. Francis of Assisi in Concord -- donated the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Cathedral. Our pastor at the time, Fr. Hugo Hernandez, was a priest of the Missionaries of Guadalupe, so he obviously has a particularly strong devotion to OLG. He has expressed his dissatisfaction with the location of the image. Though some would interpret the location as a place of honor, since Mary was placed near her Son in the Tabernacle. This isn't a bad interpretation, and it was the interpretation held by the Bishop Vigneron.

You will be pleased to hear that our new Bishop, Salvatore Cordileone, has obtained one of only seven exact, full-scale replicas in the world of Michelangelo's Pieta. It was placed where some unsightly elementary school artwork stood before -- across the entrance to the Mausoleum. It is a very fitting image for the Mausoleum. This replica is on loan to the Oakland Cathedral for an indefinite period; the previous holder of this particular image was the Cathedral of St. Louis, Missouri. (Bishop Cordileone is a good friend of the former Abp. of St. Louis, Raymond Burke.