Litmus Test

Volume 44, Issue 4, by Michael J. Crosbie

The other day, in the Faith & Form LinkedIn discussion group, a group member brought up the topic of the fealty of those who work with congregations on architecture and art projects. He wanted to know if he might not be considered for a stained-glass commission if the congregation knew he was a Mormon (assuming the congregation wasn’t Mormon). An artist who is a Mormon adds another component to the issue, because some denominations don’t consider Mormons to be Christians.

There are at least two issues here: Would a congregation hire a stained-glass artist who wasn’t of the same faith?; would the congregation hire someone they considered some sort of pagan? The first question deals with whether the artist can truly understand the theology of a religion that he or she is not a part of, at least well enough to create art that embodies the beliefs of that religion. The second issue is one of worthiness: should a congregation give work to a “non-believer” when there might be believers who could accomplish the work? In other words, should you reward a non-believer with a commission? Or, to put it another way, is it OK with God?

A member of our group commented that you don’t have to be a believer to be a talented architect or artist: “Probably the greatest church architect of the 20th century, Bertram Goodhue, was a committed agnostic, if that’s not an oxymoron.” Another pointed out that Henri Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary for a community of Dominican nuns in Vence, France, was the achievement of a lapsed Catholic who designed the architecture, art, and everything in it, and then pronounced it his greatest masterpiece. Another member who joined the discussion said that an architect or a designer’s religion doesn’t matter to her: “Their job is to interpret my building dreams.”

Religious architecture and art are probably the only fields where practitioners might be questioned about whether they share the beliefs of their clients, or have a thorough knowledge of the faith. “Do you need to be an athlete to design a stadium?” one of our group members asked, “or a lawyer to design a courthouse, or a doctor to design a hospital?” Beyond that, do architects and artists have to profess the same values, ethnicity, or nationality as their clients? Such questions arose a few years ago when a Chinese national sculptor was selected to create the memorial statue of Dr. Martin Luther King in Washington, D.C. Shouldn’t an African American do the sculpture, some asked. Does it matter?

One member commented that some congregations seek designers with different backgrounds because of their insight into a different architectural tradition. His research of Antiochian Orthodox churches in the U.S. revealed that some congregations seek out Muslim architects because they believe that such architects have a better feel for the Eastern Mediterranean aesthetic than most local architects.

We’d like to hear what you think about the use of a “litmus test” for architects and artists bidding to work for certain congregations. Join the Faith & Form group on LinkedIn and weigh in with your opinion. Or you can write to us here on this website.

Back to editorials