Angels in the Architecture

Volume 51, Issue 1 :: Suzanne Bott

The significance of materials in sacred architecture—what matters most?

Basilica of Siponto, Manfredonia, Italy.

Basilica of Siponto, Manfredonia, Italy. Permanent Installation by Edoardo Tresoldi. Used with permission, Edoardo Tresoldi. Photo: Roberto Conte

When we consider what materials or architectural features are most important in fostering the sublime experience of connecting humans with divinity, it is essential to acknowledge the diversity of faiths and beliefs held by members of the spiritual community. While the goals of connecting, understanding, and uniting with the sacred energy of a higher power are universal and date back to the earliest periods of human existence, the differences in cultures and settings have set parameters on the development of sacred structures. These differences result in buildings that reflect the unique time and place of their development—from simple earthen mounds to monumental temples carved into cliffs; from soaring stone cathedrals to simple glass and timber chapels set gently into the woods. Consequently, the design features that create meaning are exceptionally diverse.

However, there are certain fundamental elements that have been present since the earliest days of human existence that foster a tangible connection from the earthly to the divine and that are universal among cultures. They typically relate to the basic sensory experiences of sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste, and are the most basic factors that create a shift from the everyday phenomena of ordinary life to the sublime transcendence of an otherworldly awe and reverence.

When prehistoric clans crouched together around flickering fires for warmth, comfort, cooking, and safety, and gazed in awe at the heavens above, they searched for meaning and experiences to provide answers to the earliest existential questions. Small groups banded together to share rites and rituals, ceremonies and decision-making, and to build upon the sacred natural sites to create structures. During periods when the world was filled with extreme danger and endless uncertainty, the ability to come together and find “common union”—communion with others—provided a secure foundation for facing the unknown and a physical space to explore the questions of the universe.

They watched and wondered as meteors and constellations passed overhead, and followed seasonal passages of fertility and growth, harvest and death. They created stories and ways of connecting their experiences of mystery, awe, and wonder into structures of power, beauty, and meaning connected to the earth and the natural systems of water, energy, and landscape. They turned sources of water into holy wells, sacred springs, and divine rivers; energetic pathways into connective ley lines and labyrinths; and gardens and forests into colonnaded cloisters of herbs and rising columns reaching into vaulted heavens.

Mystical questions could be answered through ornament and decoration—heavy stone statues, beatific portraits, descriptive tableaux, elegant calligraphy, and richly decorated objects could tell stories that answered the eternal questions. Heavy carillon bells and horns, great pipe organs, deep rhythmic chants, and commanding choirs could send powerful sounds over worshippers to connect their simple existence with the sublime. Familiar features of nature could be found in forests of columns connecting earth to sky, and the heavens could be seen in an array of sun, moon, and stars in a cobalt sky on ceilings above.

A specific focal point for worship, contemplation, and the imparting of wisdom by spiritual leaders was typically the most significant place in the structure, elevated above the earthly plane, again, symbolizing a connection to the higher power. This space would reflect its significance with its design, materials, decoration, and sacred objects, imparting the power of the sacred to provide worshippers with the ultimate experience of awe to fuel the fire of their beliefs. Regardless of the type of structure, its size or materials, the combination of shelter, beauty, power, connection, and mystery are universal in fostering an experience of the sacred and sublime.

Perhaps the most important feature, however, is the point of entrance into the structure, whatever its design, cave or cathedral, where a person steps across the physical and spiritual threshold and enters into a sacred space. This act of departing the outside world to enter the sacred space is profound in its significance. Features such as gentle stairs, dramatic doorways, hushed foyers, vessels of holy water and gently flowing fountains, dramatic lighting—both vividly bright and mysteriously dark—and the use of symbolic decoration, all contribute to the experience of transition and transformation so deeply tied to transcendence. Even in places where original structures may no longer exist, lost to disuse, benign neglect, or willful destruction, the sacredness of the site remains. The intangible spirit of place, the genius loci, the devotional energy stored within the materials, remains, and can be intrinsically and innately sensed by those who cross into a sacred space. There is no question one is standing on holy ground.

The author is a research associate at the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona. Her research explores the construct of “Sense of Place” and the factors that create meaning in our built and natural environments in an effort to support a more meaningful way of being in the world.

The author is a research associate at the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona. Her research explores the construct of “Sense of Place” and the factors that create meaning in our built and natural environments in an effort to support a more meaningful way of being in the world.