Volume 47, Issue 1 :: By Anat Geva
Mario Botta’s Church in Seriate
The relationship between architecture and art in houses of worship can be addressed through two approaches. The building itself or parts of it can become sacred art, where art develops as an organic part of the structure (such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s sacred architecture). Or, architecture can provide the space/frame for the artwork, allowing the sacred art to express its own independent voice. This latter approach calls for a collaboration between the architect and the artist (one thinks of Percival Goodman’s synagogues).
The church in Seriate, Italy, designed by Mario Botta in 1994 and opened in 2004 exemplifies a combination of these two approaches, integrating sacred design and art concepts. Botta designed this Catholic church as a piece of sacred art, introducing symbols in stone; in the interior he designed two apses that frame and exhibit a crucifixion scene carved into the stone wall by the famous Italian artist Giuliano Vangi.
The church, dedicated to Holy Pope Giovanni XIII and a winner of a Faith & Form/IFRAA Award in 2005, is located near the small 17th-century church of San Alessandro Martire in the suburb of Paderno-Seriate south of Bergamo. Botta’s church includes a sanctuary that stands perpendicular to the old church, and a one-story rectangular oratory opposite the old church. These two parts and the historic church create a complex with a defined courtyard where the new church serves as the centerpiece.
Architecture as Art
Botta’s use of simple transformation of geometry, natural materials of stone and wood, and his articulation of light enhanced his fundamental idea of design: “architecture has its roots in earth. The idea of ornamentation is secondary to this…. They [people] are not distracted by decoration. The wall itself becomes an ornament.”
Botta transformed the plan (81 feet square) of the sanctuary into a volume shaped by diamonds. These configurations created four sloped roofs designed as skylights hidden by the 75-foot vertical walls of the facades. This verticality, the simple longitudinal cross carved in the front stone wall, and the diamond corners give the exterior its artistic value. Some can interpret the facade as a sacred image of angels’ wings.
The church was conceived as an intermediary between earth and heaven. Leonardo Servadio called it “The Golden Gate to Heaven.” Earth is represented by the Verona split-slab stone that clads the reinforced concrete building, while the light entering through the church’s skylights symbolizes heaven.
As earth and heaven are universal sacred elements, so are fire and water. The red color and the rough texture of the Verona stone on the exterior shines in the sun like fire. Manipulating the light and shadows on the exterior facades deepens the artistic composition of the church and its sacredness. Botta designed the gutter as an artistic detail representing water. It is indented into the diamond shape of the façades’ corners.
The interior floor is finished with reddish Verona polished stone, which extends upward to the plinth of the walls. The lower part of the wall serves as a base for the rising gilded wood planks that clad horizontally the rest of the walls. The effect of light bouncing off the gilded, soft material draws the worshiper’s eyes upward to meet the cross in the ceiling. This cross divides the concrete slab into four parts where the four skylights converge. Botta utilized this structural design to serve as a sacred symbol enhanced by light. Moreover, the ceiling slab is clad with gilded wooden planks, which remind us of the gilded art/decoration in historic churches.
It should be noted that Botta designed the furniture of the church as well as other sacred elements, such as the altar and the font. He treated the latter as pieces of stone art rising from the floor. The half-sphere shape of the baptistery contains sacred water, while the stone and rectangular shape of the altar represent earth and fire.
The two apses behind the altar, the focal point of the sanctuary, are framed as half-diamond polished Verona stone walls indented into the major back wall of gilded wooden planks. This indentation mirrors the half-diamond entrance, which protrudes into the sanctuary. The geometric relationship of indentation and projection of the two half-diamonds on each side of the sanctuary and the corners’ diamond-shaped walls enhance the longitudinal axis of the space, which caters to the Catholic faith. While the walls themselves become the ornaments accompanying the axis, they turn into a background frame for the sacred sculpture in the apses.
Architecture as a Frame for Art
Botta believes that stone sculptures express the earth and the depth of time and serve as a discovery, which offers a “new terrain that can stir other emotions.” Therefore, he left two Verona polished stone walls behind the altar as a stone block where the artist would carve his composition. In addition to the form and material of the space, Botta’s lighting design defines the architecture as a frame. A skylight above each side of the apses and a slit window on each of their sides light the art carved in the wall. Though the art becomes a part of the whole design, it was given a place to breathe and unfold its own interpretation of the sacred.
Giuliano Vangi transformed these walls into a “Christ with the Pious Women” scene with the pathos of his figurative language. The wall became the “landscape in which to evoke thoughts and fantastic visions,” and caters to the tactile aspect of our impulse to touch and explore after we trace the wall sculpture’s outlines with our eyes.
In the exhibition book Giuliano Vangi, the curator Massimo Bertozzi describes the work of the sculptor as “seeking in its own existence spatial balance.” In his architecture and natural lighting design, Botta emphasizes this balance and left Vangi’s solid figuration to evoke rich expressive emotions that enhance the spiritual experience of the church. This is an example of a juxtaposition of architecture and art where both follow the major design concept of linking earth and heaven while preserving their own specific interpretations of the scared.
Vangi’s approach to the sculpture of Christ as a humanistic figure was similar to his Christ sculpture in the “Crocefisso” of the Padua Duomo. In both, although different in materials and techniques, his Christ “maintains an absolutely anti-heroic attitude: this man wanting to prove he has vanquished the fear of death… and the memory of the pain and solitude which the final journey implies for him, just like for anyone else.” Light from the skylight above the apse illuminates the figure and creates the illusion of Christ raising from the stone (earth) to heaven.
On the other apse, the Pious Women sculpture is carved deeper in the stone, emphasizing profound inner earthly emotions of pain and sorrow. Botta’s skylight throws light and shadows on the sculpture, enhancing the unity of Vangi’s expressive force, which “made up spiritual suggestions as well as formal value.” In the background of the figures we notice two elements. A deeply carved line connects one wall to the other, and Christ to the Pious Women. However, the line continues beyond the figures, referring to a ground line representing earth rooted in stone. The second element in the background is the contour of a cityscape (is it Jerusalem?). This is carved more shallowly, above the figures, barely visible, as if afar. The light from above helps to blend the carving into the wall, as if the city is rooted in the stone. With this backdrop Vangi uplifts the sculptures of Christ and the Pious Women, emphasizing their importance and their sacredness. Botta frames the sculpture with light that lifts it to another level. Gianni Contessi describes it this way: “For Botta, light takes on a broadly symbolic value… It is a quiet architectural drama, which the architect seeks to create through light and through the construction’s gravity.”
The two apses’ walls, their sculptural outlines, the light penetrating from a skylight above that wall, and the background soft light bouncing off the gilded wood walls and ceiling become the ornament of the sanctuary, and witness the collaboration between architecture and art.
In my visit to Botta’s church a few years ago, I felt that the balance between Botta’s architecture as art and the architecture framing sacred art reaches a perfect harmony. The integration of materials, textures, colors, and the morphology of simple geometry generated a spiritual ambience in which the sculptural work punctuates the sacredness. It left me filled with awe.
- Geva, Anat. 2011. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sacred Architecture: Faith, Form, and Building Technology. London: Routledge
- Kampf Avram. 1966. Contemporary Synagogue Art. New York, NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
- Botta Mario. 2001 “Introductory Interview” p.15 in Dupree, Judith Churches. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. Pp. 8-17.
- Servadio Leonardo. 2005. “John XXIII Pastoral Center: The Golden Gate to Heaven: Seriate, Botta’s New Church” p. 108. In Capellato, Gabriele (ed.) Mario Botta, Architetture Del Sacro, Prayers in Stone. An Exhibition. Bologna, Italy: Editrice Compositori. Pp. 102-108.
- Botta, Mario. 2005.“Building A Church (Lugano, April 2004)”; and “For Giuliano Vangi (Before a sculture)”. In Capellato, Gabriele (ed.) Mario Botta, Architetture Del Sacro, Prayers in Stone. An Exhibition. Bologna, Italy: Editrice Compositori. Pp. 193-196.
- Ibid, pp.195-196.
- Bertozzi, Massimo. 2001.“Vangi in The Hermitage” p. 95. In Bertozzi, Massimo (curator) Giuliano Vangi. Exhibition Pp. 95-104.
- Ibid, p. 96.
- Ibid, p. 99.
- Contessi, Gianni. 2005. “John XXIII Pastoral Center: Consecration of The House” p. 105. In Capellato, Gabriele (ed.) Mario Botta, Architetture Del Sacro, Prayers in Stone. An Exhibition. Bologna, Italy: Editrice Compositori; and Capellato, Gabriele (ed.). 2004. Mario Botta, Light and Gravity: Architecture 1993-2003. Munich Germany: Prestel.