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  From Gawky to Graceful:
Post Vatican II Art & Architecture

 essay by Annie Dixon

The Catholic Church of the past forty years has dressed herself with the sartorial savvy of a gawky teenager, going through an awkward stage while struggling with growing freedoms and responsibilities and trying to express herself. Architectural and artistic statements were made with great enthusiasm and little experience as developments in the sacred and secular worlds broke down old authoritarian models and opened up both worship and stewardship to new levels of participation.

Following the decline of the Latin Mass came the rise of mass communication, bringing the faithful face to face in the worship space and into faceless contact in cyberspace. Liturgical changes coming out of the Second Vatican Council not only dictated new forms and locations for furnishings; they also encouraged the formation of committees that dicated the style and budget of the building and its interior. Twenty-five years later, technological advances provided these newly empowered committees with direct access to a plethora of self-taught artists and discount suppliers, but with no reliable quality control filter. Sadly, the cumulative effect of all these shifts in power and priorities created a paradigm shift in the marketplace for Catholic art and architecture that too often resulted in blandly cost-conscious buildings, sparsely decorated with mismatched furnishings and appointments of varying quality and durability.

The good news for the future is that the generations raised in these churches now long for inspiring buildings and imagery. At the same time, the shortage of priests requires fewer, larger churches to serve a greater number of parishioners whose larger budgets can support detailed architecture, worthy materials, and custom appointments. And, in order to create a stylistic vision and ensure compatibility of all elements of the building and the interior, these overworked pastors and their overwhelmed committees are increasingly turning to professional designers and consultants to coordinate the projects and bring in qualified craftsmen and reputable suppliers. Thus, the modern Catholic Church now has the opportunity and the ability to uphold standards of nobility in materials and aesthetics. This does not necessarily signal a return to traditional forms but certainly a renewed appreciation for the Church's rich heritage of beauty and symbolism which can be carried into worship spaces of any style, promising a more informed, elegant, and mature wardrobe for her buildings in the future.

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For the 40th Anniversary Issue of Faith & Form magazine, Annie Dixon was one of forty practioners, patrons, and pundits invited to look back and look forward on the state of the liturgical arts.

For more articles by Annie Dixon, click here.


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