A Question and a Revision

Volume 45, Issue 2

“Can an atheist make great sacred art and architecture?” This was the question posed on Faith & Form’s Linked-In discussion group. A lively dialogue ensued. It was a quiet Sunday and although I am neither an architect nor a religious person, I leapt into the fray. I cited two people who believed strongly in a link between art and the divine: Father Marie-Alain Couturier and the art collector and philanthropist Dominique de Menil.

Both believed deeply in God but also believed that nonbelievers could create sacred art and architecture. That implies that they accepted the nonbeliever as part of a larger order. Couturier felt that mediocrity had taken over the design and adornment of the 19th century and that Modern art created by artists of the highest caliber, existing independently of the academy, would create the most appropriate art. It was the artist’s humanity and skill, not his or her devotion to Christian stories, that could produce the most spiritual art.

The work he directed or influenced suggests the validity of his approach. He became close to the great architect Le Corbusier and was instrumental in the commissions for Ronchamp and La Tourette, France, two of the most important pieces of 20th-century architecture commissioned by the Catholic Church. For the church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy in the Haute Savoie, France, Couturier worked with many of his favorite artists, among them Matisse, Chagall, Braque, Léger, Rouault, Lipchitz, and Richier. They were Catholic, Jewish, atheist, and communist artists. While the architecture was not as distinguished as that of Ronchamp, the church stands as a testament to his approach. Couturier wrote that it “…would be safer to turn to geniuses without faith than to believers without talent.”

Dominique de Menil’s most controversial project remains the Rothko Chapel for the University of Saint Thomas in Houston. It would eventually become a nondenominational chapel rather than a Catholic place of worship. When Rothko painted the 14 canvases in the octagonal building, he believed they were intended for a Catholic university, although he was aware of the change in plans before his death.

Rothko grew up in an Orthodox family and had studied his Jewish faith intensely in Russia. He was well versed in the Bible and interested in mythology and philosophy. He was agnostic yet very spiritual. In conversations with Katharine Kuh, a curator from the Art Institute of Chicago, he said that his paintings were of a spiritual and contemplative nature.

The Rothko Chapel feels more like a sacred space than many of the cathedrals I have visited in Europe. Instead of invoking a specific narrative, Rothko was seeking a more universal one; the conflict between faith and despair was at the center of his work. According to the writer Susan Barnes, Rothko spoke to de Menil about his experience of the paintings at a church at Torcello, Italy: “He said that he had sought to create, between the chapel’s entrance and its apse, the same tension he had felt at Torcello—that between doom and promise.”

Rothko wanted to reduce painting to the extent that it could be a catalyst for the individual to be alone with his or her soul. Someone without any spiritual connection probably won’t create great sacred art or architecture. They just don’t need to believe in God.

The author is a writer based in the Bay Area, California. You can read more at his blog.