On the Spirituality of Spatial Emptiness:
The Example of St. Peter’s in Cologne
The recent renovation of St. Peter’s, one of the oldest parish churches in Cologne, was undertaken owing to an increasing danger of collapse. After three years of difficulties of construction and negotiation the church was finally re-opened in a stable condition in September 2000. First established in the sixth century in the form of a small chapel built on the ruins of Roman thermal baths, it grew from church to church: Carolingian, Romanesque, Gothic, and early Renaissance. The Second World War destroyed it to such an extent that only a few remnants of its walls were left standing. As the city of Cologne was being reconstructed, these remains were spatially rearranged and renovated. This process of continual revitalization has lasted almost two thousand years. The current Jesuit church in Cologne is characterized by simplicity and emptiness. It is a space cleared of pews and all other furnishings, distinguished by two rebuilt organs, and above all an altar by Eduardo Chillida. What pastoral and artistic concept of space lies behind this?
Dimensions of the Space
Space, like time, belongs to the most basic human condition. It is accessible and open to the whole world, or else it is closed like a solid block of stone. When considering space, we have to differentiate between the casing and the encased. From an architectural perspective a space is initially empty, notwithstanding consideration of its possible function. Design, construction, building materialsincluding textures, and above all lightcreate the space and define its character. Yet beyond this, the space must be furnished and enlivened by an individual alone, or by those who desire to reside in it. Space has, in addition to an emotional dimension, above all a spiritual, conceptual dimension. It is a space of consciousness, or a space of representation, or it is an artistic space.
The space of consciousness arises in its contours from the desires and perceptions that are connected with the space. Admittedly, it exists only as a space in the mind; it is a fiction in the consciousness, but identical to the subject that senses it. This space of consciousness is initially built on what the individual experiences with the senses: seeing, hearing, touching, thinking . . . It is a model based on desire, the product of the momentary impressions, thoughts, intuitions, and memories that establish it as space. For this reason it is the location of a settling down, of inner-experiences, as the Kiel phenomenologist Hermann Schmitz called it.1 Emotions, ideas, and intuitions qualify this space, as do emotional and spiritual experiences. This space of consciousness is the inner world of the subject, a space of personal feelings, and, as an atmospheric space, a supra-subjective phenomenon.
The space of representations is primarily a space of knowledge. It is filled with mythological, religious, and historical images and symbols. It represents the symbolic cosmos of the world of meanings, and it represents no empirical existence but instead only an imagined reality. On this level possible facilities and functions are negotiated. The aim is to represent the individuals who reside in this conceived space, or visit it, and to delineate and calculate the effects that the space has on them.
Thoughts on an artistic space were conceived by Martin Heidegger in his text Art and Space.2 He distinguished artistic space from geometric space. All individuals need a space in which to find themselves and in which to dwell. Space generally has its foundation in its open expanse, but the individual has to determine this space creatively. Such creation is the freedom of the space. Here individuals order their experiences, and here they can dwell as themselves. The artistic space is therefore in the first instance a place in which things can be present, but between these things, in the space, an emptiness remains.
Dimensions of the Sacred
This basic view leads us to another concept, sacred space. A sacred place is a holy place. It differs from familiar space. The German philosopher Josef Pieper defined it as something expressly removed from ordinary use. An individual needs spaces that will open up possibility. Sacred space allows us to step out of acoustic and optical noise and to enter a space where silence and real hearing are possible.
Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, takes us one step further when he understands the medieval Gothic church as a dwelling. The church is primarily an enclosure by means of which an internal space is closed off from the outside. In the enclosed space something sublime, celebratory, and unearthly stirs, something about to explode limits and lead out into the immeasurable. Another step is taken by Hermann Schmitz, who specifies sacredness as a looking at an exaggeration of experience, an unfathomable excitation that can manifest itself in a church, yet the experience needs to be more understandable. The endeavor is to obtain concentration and formability out of what is often overwhelming.3
In this connection Schmitz speaks of “atmospheres,” which he understands as feelings cast indeterminately into the vastness, feelings experienced as gripping forces. For this reason during the past two hundred years sacred space has increasingly been understood as an aesthetic category. Participation in a space has come to be considered as an experience of an “atmosphere” of a space. People today continue to think of emotions connected to specific memories as sacred. Such a connection is problematic, however. The word sacred is not objective but a vague description of a special atmosphere of space. The atmosphere provides support to a community during celebration, it brings people to themselves, it helps them feel fulfilled, and it encourages them to be at home with themselves. It comes down to two points: the atmosphere of the space, and the atmosphere that is stirred within the individual.
In the new space of St. Peter’s emptiness is a defining factor, produced by the absence of seating, the grayish filtered glazing; a reduced view of the organ limits its appearance in the space. This ensemble of reduced forms structures the space and the experience of the altar with its presence and absence of reduced forms, its tension between full and empty. Space creates a resonance, an echo within the visitor.
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