Building a church or monastery is a task that requires
more than blueprints and construction materials, since the finished
product is a refuge where man goes to encounter eternity, according to
artist Breda Catherine Ennis.
Ennis, professor of Fine Arts at the American University of Rome and the
European University of Rome, and host of Vatican Radio's "Art on the
Air," spoke with ZENIT about sacred architecture. She said that the
culminating moment in building a church or chapel is when it is
consecrated, since at that point "it goes from being a work of man to
being a work of God."
The Irish artist recently participated in the restoration of the chapel
in the Irish embassy to the Holy See. Here she shares with ZENIT some
reflections on her profession and its mission.
ZENIT: Pope John Paul II addressed artists various times. For this
Pontiff, how important was architecture for liturgical celebrations?
Ennis: The Holy Father Pope John Paul II affirmed that the Church is
taking steps forward to try to bring artists to return to the Church.
He, in turn, wanted to meet with artists and with architects to
collaborate in the objective of mutual enrichment.
It should be recalled that church architecture, for 50 or 60 years, has
not had guidelines, as much from the iconographic point of view, as from
the liturgical. The orientation has practically been lost.
Both Paul VI and John Paul II had a great role in [fostering] a new
sensitivity for a renewed artistic responsibility in the liturgical
field. John Paul II maintained, in fact, that the artist should again
take on his responsibility, and that the Church should help both artists
and architects to seek a more beautiful environment. He said as well
that the lack of beauty was one of the things that created most problems
One of his great concerns was that people don't go to holy Mass, neither
on the days of obligation nor on the feasts of Christmas or Easter, and
he wanted to find the way to attract youth, motivating them to return to
the Church together with their families.
ZENIT: And how is Benedict XVI continuing this message?
Ennis: John Paul II opened the door of the Church and now Benedict XVI
is explaining to people what is inside. He is teaching the ancient
message of the interior of a church, as much from the symbolic as the
theological point of view. What is the role of the pulpit? Why is the
altar so important? What is the pallium? This seems obvious, but people
have lost the visible and symbolic contact with the Church and its role
in our lives.
I have always thought, and I tell my students in the master's classes at
the European University, that the base of sacred architecture and art
should be more God and less "me."
In a certain sense, I see John Paul II as the architect and Benedict XVI
as the artist, without forgetting that Paul VI donated the land to build
the edifice. The work of these three great Popes has been that of again
bringing people close to the "sacred" to contemplate it, to understand
what "the sacred" is, in particular in that which deals with the
construction and decoration of a church. We should rediscover the
spiritual dimension of a place of worship.
ZENIT: Among the main churches in Rome, which one do you think best
transmits this spiritual meaning?
Ennis: Going beyond the modern or contemporary period, I would choose
the basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. It is a
Paleochristian church that has been modified less than other churches of
the same period. It is the church that has remained most complete, and
has most approached what an ideal place of worship should be, both
because of its construction and because of the atmosphere of
spirituality that shrouds it.
Another is the Church of Jesus (Il Gesω), which houses the tomb of St.
Ignatius of Loyola. There, in the late afternoon, when there is less
light, there is a fascinating sensation. True, when it was built,
candles were used in this church, so one can't judge the light with the
current illumination. Before, certainly a profound atmosphere of mystery
When the main light in this church is turned off, one perceives that the
walls are impregnated with prayer. There is a presence of total
sacredness. It is a church that seems to attract you. You have to think
twice before raising your voice. Behind the penumbra, a light band of
light arrives that transports you and helps you. Dusk in this church is
a sublime moment.
ZENIT: And how do you perceive this sense of the sacred in other
churches around the world?
Ennis: I think of Notre Dame in Paris, because when one hears music
within that church
which has a fabulous choir
it seems that the bare walls are themselves singing.
In contemporary art, bare walls transmit coldness, emptiness; in Gothic
churches, on the other hand, the atmosphere of all these columns makes
one feel like they are in an impressive forest. A spiritual forest of
The abbey of Casamari (in Veroli, close to Rome) is another fascinating
church. It moves you when you go in, because all of the walls are bare,
but when the sun shines in from the windows and the alabaster, it seems
to be a divine light that carries you out of this world. The great
paintbrush with color that God uses in your soul.
ZENIT: What should an architect who designs churches be like?
Ennis: The talent of construction is in the capacity of developing one's
role studying what surrounds where the church will be built and
understanding what the people in that zone do. You can't arrive like a
train and do whatever you feel like. You should study the terrain, the
many needs of the zone and the parish. Something like what the artists
who pained Christ and Moses in the Sistine Chapel did.
All the artists, under the direction of Perugino and the Pope's
theologians, worked harmoniously together, though with completely
distinct styles. All to give a visual message of the Bible. Thus they
accomplished a work that was focused on the task of "interpreting" this
sacred history told through images. It is not the history of the artists
themselves. For me, this is a masterful work of harmony and humility
before the divine. This harmony and humility is fundamental for
architects and artists of today.
ZENIT: Which modern churches have touched you in a particular way?
Ennis: One is the church of Le Corbusier, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp,
France. Another is the cathedral of St. Mary in Tokyo [designed by]
Kenzo Tange. The first is a union of spiritual waves, color tones and
subtle lights. The second is an "encircling curtain" of elegance and
perfection that brings you to the "essential" in the religious
ZENIT: How can an architect of the 21st century combine modernity and
Ennis: By giving attention to two elements: the material, and at the
moment of work, spiritual preparation, that is, trying to bring people
to the Lord. One should make an interior preparation because the rest
will come on its own. It's not a matter of having a creative depth or
inspiration. If you have that, it's a gift of God. And for those who
receive this grace, they will have a task that is necessarily greater,
or a vocation, which is that of serving They should be at the service
ZENIT: You made an altar and a lectern for the chapel at the Irish
embassy to the Holy See here in Rome.
Ennis: Yes, and it was an incredible experience. The Irish minister of
foreign affairs entrusted me with designing an altar and lectern for
this small chapel at the end of the restoration of the embassy itself.
This was the first time I'd received a commission for a "sacred" work.
At the beginning, I was very nervous. I placed myself in the hands of
God and I began to pray to receive the right "inspiration" to create a
work that would honor the function of an altar. Paleochristian, Celtic
and modern elements came into the design. It is an altar of solid oak
from Slovenia. An Italian carpenter, Luigi Branchetti, took charge of
the craftsmanship. We have used certain techniques that go back to the
Renaissance. On the front of the altar, I painted three panels of color
and in the center, a cross in white and yellow on a turquoise
background. The sides I painted in red, blue and gold
with real gold. There are reliefs on the sides made in wood with a
drawing of a Celtic-Greek cross.
The altar was consecrated by Cardinal Sean Brady and the president of
Ireland, Mary McAleese, was present. This experience made me aware of
the importance of prayer, necessary for work in the sacred realm, and
also the enormous energy that a work of this kind requires.