The Power of the Empty Space
From the perspective of the history of architecture, St. Peter’s is a late Gothic basilical church with recessed galleries. The perception of the space is influenced by a gallery that ends at the last bay of each side aisle. A nave space is implied. As mentioned earlier, the church stands on the foundations of Roman thermal baths, creating a complex building history and a very fragile base. Exact geometric conceptions are negligible, and no right angle is seen there. In the interior experience of space the longitudinal and transverse axes play a part. The material used, subtle in its overall appearance, is integral to the experience of the space. Opened up by large windows, the space is at rest in itself and in the light (fig. 1; the illusrations are found on the accompanying CD).
The defining factor of this space is the cross altar by Eduardo Chillida.4 Chillida has chiseled the stone, light granite from Rhode Island, in a way that reflects and emphasizes light, but precludes any shine or reflection. Light and shadow are caught within it, and present it as both an autonomous and an integrated object in the space. Separated from each other, its three segments allow the changing cast of light and shadow from the church windows to enter into its interior. It is linked and located within the light Gothic space. Seen from the nave, the different heights of the arms of the crosses reach from various directions into and away from one another, with the view concentrated on the cross form at its center. Outer and inner spaces are created, and it is the outer and inner spaces that evolve. For Chillida the most important aspect is the inner space, evident from the apse. The sculpture exists in five elements to include three forms of masses and two forms of emptiness. The mass is equally important to creating a sense of emptiness, because a tension exists between mass and formlessness. Such tension helps viewers turn to themselves, find their own sense of interior space.
The altar sculpture is placed in the perceived center of its inner space at the crossing point of the longitudinal and transverse axes of the church. The center of the altar and the center of the church coincide, and the visitor is immersed in an exciting rapture. The altar in this church can be experienced as a cross altar based on its inner form as well as its positioning on the cross of the space. The connection of the altar to space is indicated by Chillida in the following words:
I wanted to create a work that enters into dialogue with the light. In this church space there are indeed different types of light: a physical light and a spiritual light connected to this space. On the longitudinal axis of the nave stands . . . the main altar of the church . . . . As a result of this a specific relationship is created that paves the way for spiritual light in this church space. Creating this dimension was one of the original ideas in the making of this work. Thus the sculpture is functionally related to the space.5
Eduardo Chillida sees his art as a creation of spaces. “My entire work is a journey of discovery in space,” he once said to me. The imagination of space is the goal of his thinking. The construction of the interior space makes an impression as visitors identify the actual inner space of the altar, and this is turned further into an inward reflection. The altar prompts identification with inner space. This experience is totally dependent on an empty space so that individuals can come to their own interior spaces. This interior space is for them simultaneously also an empty space. All sculptural activity circles around that open middle, which acts as a spiritual center, and activates more than the optical powers of viewers. What is reflected is the limitedness of the surrounding space, and individuals experience the freedom of letting themselves be who they are regardless of what personal belongings accompany them.
According to Eduardo Chillida, space has expressive qualities. As he said, “It sets the matter that encompasses it in motion, determines its proportions, chants and orders its rhythms. It must find its analogies, its echo in us, it must possess a type of spiritual dimension.”6 This artistic philosophy of space in St. Peter’s is the basis for building a bridge to the people of our day.
From a pastoral viewpoint the concept of emptiness is necessary for experiencing a church as sacred space. Emptiness is needed as a dimension in order to meet the inner needs of people, to help care for modern souls, and to help people come back to themselves. In its pastoral principles the largely empty church space of St. Peter’s stems from two existential impulses: doubts and questions. To begin with, every church spacefull or emptyis an image. It is based on the architectural form of the space itself, its furnishings, and the lighting conditions. If the space is filled with pews in post-Reformation style the space is concealed. Pews cover the floor and rob the columns of their bases; walls appear to float, or diffuse the gaze in grids and crossing lines. These things, and more, rob the space of its clarity and its character. For visitors to find themselves in such space takes a lot of effort because they are bombarded by impressions. Nevertheless, they struggle to find themselves in the sacred space.
Church spaces are today to a great extent filled with many optical, and therefore distracting, eye-catchers: statues, pictures, and furniture such as seats, lecterns, and flower vases. Like the overall interior space, the altar space is also often overloaded with many accessories so that what is central, the altar as sculpture and the cross as symbol, do not dominate. As a result the eye finds no rest; it cannot surrender itself to the light; it is not guided by the architecture according to the time of day.
The French architect Le Corbusier expressed what a sacred space is about:
The key is the light.
And the light clarifies the forms.
And these forms have power to excite
Through the play of the proportions,
Through the play of relationships,
The unexpected, the astounding.
But also through the spiritual and intellectual play
To be its basis:
Its true birth, its ability to endure, structure . . .7
Even the sacred images limit the realization of the space, and contribute to shutting out the space and throwing viewers into doubt. In many cases pictures capture the idea of a biblical scene, or the image of a saint, in a specifically selected, designed form. Most visitors to churches lack the knowledge needed to understand them. Images distract viewers, or indirectly challenge them, not allowing for an openness to the space; visitors are hardly given a chance to be touched by them, but are rather shut off from the deeper spiritual dimension. The role of a church space is, however, to elicit the emotion of its visitors, to absorb and shape it. In images, fixed messages of belief can therefore to a great extentbecause unmediatedonly interfere. The fixed stories of the images block visitors who cannot understand aesthetics and iconography, and they are distracted. No venue exists to impel the inner space of the visitor further.
A largely emptied church should, as a sacred space, engage visitors by its openness, and invite a response, without their having to renounce their Christian, Catholic, or Evangelical character in doing so. The individuals who enter a church want to come to rest. Their moods are supposed to emerge as they are immersed in an atmosphere of space. Visitors seek first themselves, then their God, and then perhaps a message. The awakening of their own experience is the pre-condition for any effort to move beyond themselves, and to go there visitors must move questioningly. They have to come up with their own experiences, questions, and inner stirrings; they must struggle within and beyond themselves. They have to be encouraged to come into the space with their certainties and doubts. Overall, they have to go in with their questions.
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