Restoring Sacred Architecture Will Reaffirm Theological Truth

This past spring, a marvelous new cathedral was dedicated in Knoxville, Tennessee. The dedication of Sacred Heart Cathedral is certainly a sign of the return of traditional architecture in sacred buildings. The cruciform cathedral was designed in a classical style, featuring arches and Corinthian pilasters in the nave. With a traditional long nave and cruciform transepts the architecture draws the eye to the sanctuary with a magnificent baldacchino which surmounts and emphasizes the altar. Together with the raised floor, beautiful ornamentation, and a beautiful tabernacle, the richness of the architecture of the new cathedral points to and beautifies the sanctuary.

With this arrangement, the cathedral bucks the trend of the past half-century towards fan-shaped churches or “churches in the round” which diminish or eliminate entirely the sanctuary as a distinct space. In many churches and cathedrals, the sanctuary is merely a raised platform, while others have eliminated it entirely, placing the altar in the midst of the congregation, or even setting it at or below the level of the congregation.

This diminishment of the sanctuary as a distinct space set apart from the nave of the church is a profound mistake since it eliminates the symbolism of the sanctuary and altar. Not only does the loss of this symbolism of the sanctuary have adverse effects on the liturgical life of the Church, but it also diminishes belief in essential tenets of the Catholic faith, particularly the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

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This new cathedral serves as a good example of the traditional understanding of sanctuaries, and with it in mind, we can look at how the development of the form of the church has its roots in both the Old and New Testament and symbolizes deep theological teachings. By looking briefly at what the sanctuary symbolizes both architecturally and theologically, we will see that restoring the sanctuary to its proper arrangement and rightful importance, such as at Sacred Heart, is not simply an aesthetic consideration, but one that affects our understanding of the Mass and our Faith as a whole.

The Hebrew Roots of Sacred Architecture
The traditional arrangement of the church is one that consists of a large rectangular space called the nave, with a smaller space raised above it: the sanctuary. Sometimes also called the apse, choir, or presbyterium, this is where the altar was located and access to this area was restricted to clergy alone.

The primary symbolic root of the form of the traditional nave and sanctuary comes first from the Tabernacle of Moses in the desert and its successor, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Moses, while leading the people of Israel in their desert wandering, was given instructions by God to build a place where sacrifice would be offered in the presence of the Lord himself. Moses was commanded to construct the tent of the Tabernacle with very specific dimensions and proportions. Thus, a large open temple area was staked out, and within it was a single enclosed tent consisting of a rectangular space, known as the Holy Place, and beyond it a cubical space divided from it, which would house the Ark of the Covenant, where the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the scrolls of the law were placed. In this cubical space, the Holy of Holies, the priests of the Israelites would offer sacrifice to God, present in a cloud.

Later, when Moses’s people established their home and the Kingdom of Israel, Solomon constructed a permanent Temple, taking the form of the Holy Place and Holy of Holies, with the same configuration and proportions, only larger and made of stone. Here, too, just as in the Tabernacle, God would be present in the Holy of Holies. In both the Tabernacle and temple of the Holy of Holies, a space was set apart by its decoration and architecture lined with sheets of gold, and encrusted with precious stones and rich fabrics. Truly, it was a space unlike any other.

Later, when the Temple was destroyed, and the people of Israel were scattered across the Mediterranean, a new form of building arose in place of the Temple: the synagogue. With the Temple and the Ark gone, the Hebrew people created through the synagogue an imperfect image of the temple. The form remained the same with a rectangular space to gather the people in and a place set apart; this place called the bema stood in place of the Holy of Holies, and here the Word of God was proclaimed from the Torah. While God’s presence was only to be symbolic, the connection remained clear: in this space set apart, God was present.

When the Church began in the years after Christ, the natural place for Christians to look to for the form of worship was Jewish tradition. The rites were also adapted from Jewish worship, featuring readings from the Law, adding the Gospels, and restoring the rites of sacrifice with the Eucharist. It was only natural that the Christian Church would carry forward the form of the synagogue, adapting it to Catholic worship. Thus, even in the earliest churches, such as at Dura Europus in Jordan, we find an adapted synagogue form with a clearly defined sanctuary where, just as in the Temple and in the synagogue, the presence of God was to be found. In the church sanctuary we find God present both symbolically in the Word, but also truly in the Eucharist.

The Church arose during the time of the Roman Empire, and because of this another form, one which carried with it deep symbolism, came to be adopted by the Church, that is, the basilica. The form of the basilica, which was not a pagan temple but rather a secular law building, was similar to the Temple/synagogue form, in that it was a rectangular space terminated by a smaller important space. The Roman basilica though had at its head the semicircular space known as the apse. In the apse, the Roman magistrates would pass judgment according to the law. This form was quickly adopted and the theology of the Second Coming of Christ was underlined now by the symbolism of the space. Here, in place of temporal judgment, Christ would offer his eternal judgment. This is why we find in most early churches the image of Christ “Pantocrator” or Christ the Judge as the dominant image.

National Shrine of the Little Flower, Royal Oak, MI (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

This judgment refers to the Book of Revelation, where the final symbolic meaning of the sanctuary is to be found. In Revelation, St. John describes in great detail the world to come and the “New Jerusalem.” He describes the walls of the city being made of pure gold, and the form of the city a perfect cube. This form is an echo of the Temple, in which the Holy of Holies was that same perfect cube of pure gold. Recalling that in the Holy of Holies God as a cloud was present, in the New Jerusalem, God the Son would be present enthroned in eternity.

The sanctuary, which took its form from the Holy of Holies does not just symbolize the past, but is a conscious prefigurement of the Heavenly City to come and Christ’s eternal presence. We begin to understand, too, that God was present in earlier times, in the Temple, and will be present in heaven, but also that he is present now.

It is clear that the Eucharist has a much richer meaning than what some progressive liturgists sought to emphasize in the 1950s and ’60s—that it was just a communal meal. Because of this emphasis, which is only part of the truth of the Eucharist, their church architecture reflected this. Sanctuaries were removed, and the stone altar of sacrifice was replaced with a table of wood, a meal table only, and the tabernacle where the Eucharist was reserved was removed to a room far away from the altar. When the architecture most Catholics have experienced for the past half-century is shouting “this is only a meal,” is it any wonder then that belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist has declined?

Architecture limited to symbolizing the communal meal edits out the deep layers of meaning to be found in sacred architecture, which reflects the many layers of understanding about the theology of the Mass and the Eucharist. The sanctuary symbolizes the full theological meaning beyond that of a simple communal meal.

Thus, we see that the sanctuary symbolizes the Law through the proclamation of the Word. We see in the apse a reminder of judgment. We see in the altar and the sacrifice of the Mass the mercy of the Lord. And, finally, we see through the presence of the tabernacle and the Eucharist a reminder of the unbroken chain of God’s presence in our midst from Old Testament times to our own day and to the New Jerusalem.

Restoring the sanctuary to its proper arrangement and importance is not simply a question of carrying forward outdated architectural traditions, but one which communicates critical understanding of the theology of our Faith. Simply put, sacred architecture teaches the faithful the truths of salvation.

(Photo credit: Sacred Heart Cathedral, Knoxville / Erik Bootsma)


  • Erik Bootsma

    Erik Bootsma is an architect working in Richmond, Virginia. A graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California and the University of Notre Dame Architecture School, he writes and speaks on the need to draw from traditional liturgy and architecture to return beauty and holiness to sacred architecture. To see examples of his work, visit

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