Corpus Christi Church: Its Architecture and Art

Our beloved parish church is far better known for liturgy and music (including commissioned music and great congregational singing in English and Latin) than as a work of architecture or for its art. A parishioner who is also an art historian and critic published a pamphlet on the church and its works of art some years ago for the 75th anniversary of the parish; now the same writer takes advantage of a long Internet scroll to expand the discussion, including issues that could only be touched on before. Here are the topics, as spelled out in the following sections:


1. The Basic Building. Besides being a fine setting for the liturgy, Corpus Christi is an interesting building, historically and culturally speaking. The basic set-up.

2. A Problem of Modernity. How did what has always been a ‘progressive’ parish wind up with, , not to mention living happily ever after with, a no-two-ways-about-it, historicizing style?      

3. Classical vs. Gothic. Digging deeper on the implications of style; extremes of style in the previous century; eyeing what Columbia was up to; national morale in the Great Depression.  

4. Merton’s Sense of the Sanctuary. The operative interior of the church as it struck Thomas Merton, who saw it when new; his astute sense of the interior.    

5. Between Classicisms. There’s no denying that the church would have pleased post-Edwardian conservative taste, much as it may now appeal to necrophiliac classicists in their perverse form of postmodernism; yet it isn’t beholden to such.   

6. Earlier Painting. Fragments of Gothic stained glass; an intriguing Renaissance crucifix; a decent would-be Renaissance altarpiece.

7. Commissioned Painting. Credible works on glass and wood panel by Valentine d’Ogries, an Austrian-American designer who worked on Anglican and Catholic churches.

8. Contemporary Art. A sculpture; three paintings by two painters represented in museums; some few temporary installations.

1  The Basic Building

This fine, fairly small Roman Catholic city church was designed for the pastor Father George B. Ford by Wilfred Edwards Anthony (1878-1948). Design began in 1935; the building was finished and dedicated in the following year. If not a textbook architectural masterpiece, it’s a more than respectable project, partly as an inventive solution to the problem of a church as one functional component of a multipurpose, vertical urban structure, and partly in interesting regard to historical style.

The present church, on a steel frame with a red brick exterior, is the second church for Corpus Christi parish on this site. The earlier, built in 1906, also combined church and school in one building; but it looked merely like a school. The new program finds precedent in churches built in Ireland from around the time of Catholic Emancipation (1829), combining church atop a parish school, with an awkwardly high basement for the school. Even in Manhattan, however, Wilfred Anthony’s “cab-over-engine” approach is by no means anomalous. Examples include the Gothic Revival Calvary Baptist Church on West 57th Street, with a hotel on top (1931), and Hugh Stubbins and Associates’ modern St. Peter’s Lutheran Church of 1977—the major venture of its moment in American religious architecture and art—freestanding underneath one corner of the huge Citicorp Center on Lexington Avenue. Combinations like these are hardly ever perfect marriages: at Calvary the church is like an afterthought smoothed over on the façade with Gothic wallpaper, while St. Peter’s, with an interior that is at least semi-precious gem of modern church-building, seems all too literally under the wing, if not the heel, of capital.

              Anthony’s handling of the Corpus Christi façade is clever, using a large limestone “frontispiece” with Doric pilasters, punctuated by a rose window (and the coats of arms of Pius XI and Cardinal Hayes, the New York archbishop) to claim as façade everything s from the basement to a (mock) attic story and (real) belfry above: gymnasium at bottom, then church proper, then school, and even a convent above that. As a façade, the street front is more graphic than sculpturesque, tight up against the building line. A stone frontispiece, as it’s called, interrupts the brick with its temple-front on four pilasters—so shallow that they almost look inlaid. Above are two visible upper stories (more are visible on the building’s side), the top one disguised as an attic with a shallow Mansard roof. Windows at the centers of both these stories add vertical emphasis to the belfy above, as if a bell-tower had been flattened into the face-front wall.  

              One enters Corpus Christi through a pair of red-painted doors onto a narthex or vestibule dominated by a staircase leading up to the church’s high “ground floor.” This disposition is used when a sanctuary is on higher ground than the entrance: for example, at Our Lady of Esperanza, on West 156th Street, as altered in 1924 (if truth be told, more elegantly than here). Inside, the lower level of the narthex contains an architectural relic: set into the wall is a brick from Santa Maria Maggiore, an important early Christian basilica of Rome. Relics of this kind are something like relics of saints’ bodies, reminding us of the far-flung presence of the “Corpus Christi”; indeed, the “members”—as much building metaphor as a bodily one—in St. Paul’s literary image of the “Body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12) have sometimes figured in European architectural theory. Other Christians here on Morningside Heights harbor relics of the same kind: a stone block from the agora at Corinth, “Where Many Hearing Paul Believed,” set as a cornerstone in the Interchurch Center at Riverside Drive and Reinhold Niebuhr Place (West 120th Street); and a little chunk of St. Hilda’s abbey at Whitby in Yorkshire, “Where This Abbess Presided and Taught in the Seventh Century A.D.,” set into the side of St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s Episcopal School on West 114th Street.

              At the top of the vestibule stairs, behind a pair of white-painted doors, is the sanctuary, also now painted entirely in white (years ago, the apse, up front, apparently had its whiteness relieved by punctuations of red and blue). This interior, the church’s principal space, is what people ordinarily mean whenever they refer to the architecture of Corpus Christi.  

Since its dedication in 1936, the interior has seen few visible changes. The most conspicuous exception concerns as the installation of stained glass and commissioned paintings; and, later, the removal of a Communion rail that, before Vatican II, originally marked a frontier between the sanctuary of the clergy and the nave of the people.[1] Otherwise, what we see is as Anthony originally designed it, down to the fittings chosen in consultation with Father Ford, including a polychrome wooden processional cross also designed by the architect.


2  A Problem of Modernity

One might have thought that in 1935 an up-to-date Catholic parish would want something conspicuously modern in style. It would have been easy to clad this largely steel building, already so organized to its various functional purposes, in any style of masonry; but, given patronage and clientele, it would no doubt not have been easy to present it without some mode of historical ornamentation at all. That may explain some of the blandness of the façade, whose stripped-down, even thin, classicism, is a mere stepping-stone to the more vigorously classical sanctuary within, which has much more to do with Renaissance and Baroque Europe, and where questions of historicism become surprisingly acute.

              It deserves to be asked why Father Ford, in particular, famous in his own right for progressivism in other respects, did not embrace the orthodox architectural modernism that just around this time was attaining international repute. On the other hand, moderns can praise him for not going along with the semi-modern (like “semi-classical” music) Art Déco churches then being patronized by new money even in the outer boroughs of New York.[2]  Whatever the politics of the situation, Father Ford must have known the genuinely modern problem, sometimes exaggerated by those hostile to contemporary culture within the English-speaking Church—Evelyn Waugh is a notorious example—of the ideological status of modernist architecture, especially 1930s “Functionalism,” in religious circumstances (not much talk about Thomistic “beauty of reason” there!).

              In fact it was while Corpus Christi was under construction that the great Columbia art historian Meyer Schapiro observed that a contemporary Catholic apologist for the Functional style wound up fabricating a mistaken theological rationale while failing to acknowledge significant examples: “In architecture . . . the recent innovations, the new international or functionalist styles, spring from wholly secular, sometimes reformist, ideas of human and technical efficiency; the architects conceive of man as essentially a biological and economic creature capable of attaining happiness through adjustments in his physical environment. These new styles have been regarded in a neutral sense as the conventions of a time and place, like a language which can be applied to any content, practical or religious. But the interest in art today plays a part in the formation of general attitudes and constitutes an important ideological field, especially in educated circles. The adoption of a still problematic and disputed style by the Church may help to strengthen the forces from which the style arose.”[3]

But then, thanks to the ‘Liturgical Revival,’ encouraging cultural awareness of the modern world, the next generation would be better off. How refreshing to read in a brief 1952 essay on ‘Church Architecture of Today,’ by Pie-Raymond Régamey, a French Dominican art historian (the Catholic Church owes a great deal to French Dominicans for their advocacy of modern church architecture): “It is often argued that the functional quality of modern architecture is materialistic of its very nature. On the face of it, this might seem to be the case . . . But it is important to remember that architectural forms cannot of themselves be considered materialistic any more than they can be considered pagan or Christian. . . . If in our time we feel unable to infuse a Christian spirit into architecture, that spirit must be very weak indeed.” Besides, “Christianity should be at its most vital in a time when dangerous currents have to be turned to the glory of God. But no one can seriously consider modern architecture as a dangerous current. It has been branded as materialistic and therefore anti-Christian, but only by those who insist on condemning anything new on principle and whose reading of the Gospel is Pharisaical. Such reactionaries will certainly never triumph in the pagan world we in fact live in.”[4]    

By and large, only Continental Europeans produced masterpieces of 20th-century modern Roman Catholic church architecture and art. And perhaps only in the Catholic churches of Central Europe (and Protestant state churches of the North) were modern and contemporary art hospitably received by the people. Italy may be disputed territory; but even in France the design of important modern churches and their accoutrements had to be defended by exceptionally sophisticated clergy with access to power. For Americans, the Catholic bottom line does not seem to have been money as much as the hostility that ignorance begets, as a little tale will help to explain. A generation ago, a certain modern silver papal processional cross with downturned arms used to be despised by conservative U.S. Catholics, who blamed it on Vatican II. In actual fact it was made for St. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Boston in 1979, on something like two weeks’ notice by the late Dimitri Hadzi, a devout Greek Orthodox professor of sculpture at Harvard (and colleague of the present writer). How many clerics since—unaware that they were formerly expected to dislike it—have bought plagiarized copies, not to mention the thousands of mass-produced personal versions of the same crucifix design sent free with charity solicitations, all with no thought of this as the once offensive crucifix design, let alone of Dimitri Hadzi.

Father Ford was to recall, “I wanted a Colonial American looking church, the style of which would be English in origin, but with a beauty added by American adaptations.”[5] With all due respect, only an amateur (though he was a good one) would think of beauty as a superadded quality that comes in various flavors. We’re lucky that Ford’s good taste saved the day. When Americans call a building like this “Colonial,” they ordinarily mean to point up 18th-century, preferably pre-Revolutionary elements of a classicism stemming ultimately from the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, as passed down by the official academies of Western Europe, and from there to the most remote colonies of the British (or Spanish or French) Empire, though they may also imply the patriotic commemoration of escape therefrom.

              Whatever exactly Father Ford meant by his “beauty added by American adaptations,” it covered a harmonious stylistic pluralism in the fittings of the church that does seem markedly American in its inclusiveness, its stylistic catholicity. We gain a sense of this in practice from various fittings that Ford selected for the Corpus Christi interior: grand Belgian Baroque silver candlesticks, three silver altar lamps (the middle one old Russian, the others from Italy), and Bohemian crystal chandeliers, as well as Italian Renaissance and Renaissance-style paintings.


3  Classical vs. Gothic

The academic classicism encountered here comes down through the Renaissance from Rome and ultimately Greece—“academic” because it was considered fundamental in all the European art academies as based on the only surviving ancient how-to-do-it book, by the early imperial Roman architect Vitruvius. Its most conspicuous feature is the column with base and capital, in accord with proportional “orders,” like modes. Corpus actually has no columns, but it does have their secondary forms of flat pilasters (without fluting) outside, and square piers and pilasters (with fluting) inside.

Vitruvius’ Roman, second-hand classicism, based on forgotten and inaccessible Greek classicism, was the only literate game in town until the mid-18th century, when direct archaeological study gave architects new knowledge of actual Greek buildings. That project became politicized in the 1820s, when democratic interest in the Greek War of Independence arose.[6] Then prevailing imperial Roman tradition became a more or less critically conservative default.

At the same time, however—a hundred years before Corpus Christi—something else was happening on the aesthetic Left, respecting the Gothic of the cathedrals. The Gothic had the Christian faith going for it; and once it re-emerged in early modern historical revival, whenever it required mobilization against a classical academic tradition now associated with paganism and the secular. The Protestant art critic John Ruskin, drawing on the work of the Catholic convert architect Augustus Pugin, promoted the hands-on craftsmanship of the pre-capitalist Gothic period as the root of a specifically Christian architecture. Notably in The Stones of Venice (1851-53), Ruskin takes classicism as both pagan and bourgeois; and despite finding industry personally distasteful, his empirical view of the Gothic anticipates the (otherwise equally anti-classical) contribution of engineering to the architecture of the modern period. A century after Ruskin, the art historian Erwin Panofsky would give the lecture that became his tour-de-force Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951)—arguing that the very logic of Scholastic philosophy by systematic subdivision is part and parcel of High Gothic cathedral design. This famous lecture was given at St. Vincent’s Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where it was also first published as a little book.[7] There is no denying the implicit, and unalloyed, Christianity of the Gothic; but that does not mean it is appropriate to every historical situation.

              When Father Ford famously joked that his church looked like a Protestant church, whereas the huge Gothic Revival Riverside Church, nearby, looked like a Catholic cathedral, this was more than a witticism because our architect Anthony had already been a protégé of one of the important late practitioners of the Gothic Revival, the American Ralph Adams Cram. Cram’s New York church work had included the Gothicization of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, half a mile away, started in Byzantine-to-Romanesque. So if Gothic could be considered more Christian than both forms of classicism (and Christian socialist in the bargain, if you asked Ruskin’s disciple William Morris), as well as being more proto-modern, why did Father Ford want Wilfred Anthony to change parties?

Ford’s likely rationale concerns the social history of style in America during the Great Depression. What people commonly call “Colonial” was a Neo-Georgianism (from the several Hanoverian English kings called George in the 18th century) that had become a hallmark of cultural assimilation. The idea was so-called Americanization, preferably with an underlying British instead of “foreign” accent. At the time, the close-by Columbia University and America at large were not accustomed to Catholicism on high levels. Remarkably, Wilfred Anthony’s mentor Cram, an Anglican, publicly defended Al Smith’s running for president of the United States, in the face of great anti-Catholic prejudice.   

Eying Columbia might have made for other difficulties besides the question of Renaissance humanism as secularist. McKim, Mead & White’s campus plan was, and largely remains, a symmetrical composition of quadrangles bounded by handsome brick Italian Renaissance-style classroom buildings, each differently but compatibly ornamented.[8] Dead center, however, stands the pumped-up Palladianism of Low Memorial Library, clad in stone, with Charles Follen McKim’s inscription in the pavement in front, barefacedly quoting Sir Christopher Wren’s inscription in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral: “If You Seek His Monument, Look Around You.” By the time Anthony was asked to make Corpus Christi classical, the great early modernist American architect Sullivan (mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright) had already mocked this building for its brazen vanity: "Look at this mirage! See the Ionic columns, the entablature, the dome and so forth. Note especially the and-so-forth, for it is the untold that counts here—the discrete silence. Some say it is eloquent of speech; so the exile eloquent of his country.” To Sullivan the centerpiece of the Columbia campus was practically un-American: as if one (i.e. McKim) could “forget and deny one’s land.”[9] Not exactly what Ford was looking for in the way of American adaptations. 

Catholics were not alone in seeking their slice of a newly common revived “Colonial” apple pie either: Corpus Christi already had, behind it on the next block, the equally assimilationist Georgianism of Gehron, Ross & Alley’s Jewish Theological Seminary of 1930 on West 122nd Street. The style even had a certain up-to-date, Jeffersonian and New Deal aspect. Jefferson had practiced an 18th-century British Neo-Palladian architecture himself; and in the 1930s countless public works of all kinds that many would call Colonial were built in the United States in accord with it. Arguably its definitive national canonization came about, at the time of Corpus Christi, with the so called “restoration”—actually the almost total rebuilding, to the point of mythic fabrication—of “Colonial Williamsburg” in Virginia, undertaken by the Rockefellers, no doubt to bolster national morale, along with all the new W.P.A. Colonial courthouses, schools and post offices, during the Great Depression.

4  Merton’s Sense of the Sanctuary

Father Ford’s choice of style was wise. Corpus Christi might harmonize with the better implications of the Renaissance humanism at Nicholas Murray Butler’s Columbia, but with a certain respect for Cardinal Newman. For Ford was setting a basically Oxford-Movement tone, here in the New York of the 1930s: distinguished liturgy and preaching, social concern, and even the university ministry of a Newman Club. As a matter of fact, despite the 19th-century Oxford Movement’s stylistic commitment, Newman himself criticized the Gothic Revival as “the emblem and advocate of a past ceremonial and an extinct nationalism.”[10] All the more reason, now, to consider his own order’s Oratorian beginnings in late 16th-century Rome as having issued in several huge English Oratory churches, before and after 1900, beholden to the Order’s original late Renaissance-to-Baroque style (if with more indulgently Baroque décor). These modern British churches are by no means as “simple” as Corpus Christi inside, but they raised the question of Baroque, as against Renaissance, style.

Thomas Merton, who first worshipped at a nearly-Colonial, early 19th-century Episcopal church (in Douglaston, Queens), picked up on the subtle but dominant Oratorian key in Corpus Christi, writing in The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), when the church was still new, “It had a kind of seventeenth-century Oratorian character to it, though with a sort of American colonial tinge of Simplicity.”[11] This comment is reinforced by a longer discussion in a text of 1964, on “Liturgical Renewal: The Open Approach,” in which Merton writes of the Corpus interior: “The sanctuary has a seventeenth-century look. But it is the air of Caroline Anglicanism as well as Baroque Catholicity.”[12]

Merton’s astute mention of a “Caroline” element deserves attention. It best explains why some people look at our interior and think of Sir Christopher Wren, the most famous British Baroque architect. Caroline refers to the period of British history under Charles I, before the English Civil War. The reign of Charles II (called the “Restoration”), is when most of Wren’s parish churches were built; so that thinking of Wren alone largely misses the subtlety of Merton’s Caroline for the earlier phase. This is important if one wants to stress a simplicity in the Corpus interior, not only in regard to ornament (which becomes more Wrennish at the climax of the altar) but of the overall spatial conception, which might even recall Wren’s formidable British Baroque predecessor, Inigo Jones.

              A continuation of the same Merton passage on the sanctuary can summarize much that we have covered here, including Father Ford’s testimony: “It has no baroque excess about it, but it is consciously splendid, in an honest, forthright way.” Noting the American “Colonial” angle as showing the “courage” of being unafraid of “being labeled ‘Protestant,’” he continues with a rather Mertonian salute to Father Ford: “There is enough about the tabernacle, candlesticks, and the ritual itself that is purely Roman, Post-Tridentine Roman. The paradox is then that here was a progressive who was able to get more out of all the things the conservatives claim to prize than the conservatives themselves!”[13]


5  Between Two Classicisms

The cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt was largely responsible for the 19th-century notion that the Renaissance was fundamentally secular and that was a good thing. The last significant gasp of that point of view in English-speaking culture had appeared some twenty years before our present church, namely, Geoffrey Scott’s late Edwardian book The Architecture of Humanism, unabashedly subtitled A Study in the History of Taste (1914). To this day this is a sentimental source for a perennial, upper-class sense that, notwithstanding its pagan origin, Renaissance architecture, especially in its ephebic early maturity, can become, as it were, so nicely bleached and pressed as to be downright churchy; whereas the same view considers the Baroque excessively and embarrassingly Catholic. Although partial to the della-Robbian good taste of early Italian Renaissance churches, in 265 pages Scott only uses the word ‘God’ once—in a quotation from a bishop, Anglican of course, and in a footnote at that. There is, to be sure, a touch of Geoffrey Scott in the Corpus Christi sanctuary.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

              Some twenty years after the appearance of Scott’s dilletantish book, Corpus was planned and built. Less than twenty years after that appeared a much profounder defense of Renaissance classicism, especially in regard to church-building, as based on Pythagorean geometry and Neoplatonic musical harmonics: that other great Columbia art historian Rudolf Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1949). What this meant at the mid-20th century, was (a) on one hand, that what Scott was pleased to call ‘humanistic’ architecture by stressing its sheer secular good taste, had something of a spiritual dignity after all; and (b) on the other, that modernism at its moment of high conviction could take bilateral symmetry away from academic classicism (where most of the time it had nothing to do with the Christian Cross anyway) and coopt it for modernity.   

Wilfred Anthony might have benefitted from Wittkower (mentor of the present writer) had Architectural Principles been published earlier. In tracking the question of proportion, especially musical proportion, from Vitruvius to Palladio to the Neo-Palladianism of 18th-century Britain, Wittkower had no reason to tackle something more broadly important, namely, the 17th-century philosophical “Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns,” in which ancient but pagan classical learning was pitted, not against Christianity but against the new scientific knowledge. Most people now would agree that the Moderns won this international dispute by arguing that the Ancients despised all the definitively modern achievements of science, whereas Moderns could also appreciate ancient wisdom. To make a long story short: in architecture, Claude Perrault, a physician and anatomist as well as an architect, who had what we can consider a sense of engineering structure, effectively demolished the arguments of the head of Europe’s then only architectural school, the French Royal Academy of Architecture, François Blondel, favoring proportion.[14] Unfortunately, today “proportion” has become little more than a conservative buzz word. That was by no means the intent of Wittkower, who had little to say about all practically superstitious reliance on a “golden section.”

We need no recourse to the golden section, nor do we have to measure the sanctuary of Corpus Christi to see how constrained Wilfred Anthony was by a city lot and other practical exigencies in this project. It’s enough to say that we’re lucky that the ceiling of the nave is as lofty as it is. How can we say so? At a very conspicuous point in the Corpus Christi sanctuary it becomes transparent that Anthony was plainly not obsessed by proportions at all, for better or worse, for here, where Anthony had a free choice about dimensions, he manifestly muffed it. I speak of the evenly spaced pilasters that line the chancel and apse, at the front of the sanctuary. Because all of these pilasters are of the Ionic order, and are all the same in width (19 inches), having taller pilasters stretch up from the floor of the chancel and shorter ones up the steps of the apse, means that at least one of these two width-to-height ratios simply cannot conform to whatever supposedly standard Ionic proportion might have been used. No; only artistic intuition, not mystic recourse to proportion, could have saved the day to produce such a happy effect.


6  Earlier Painting

The stained glass includes certain relics of mediaeval glass, like the brick from Santa Maria Maggiore mentioned before. These are fragments from the original stained glass of the great Rheims cathedral, severely bombed in the First World War, set into two of the windows at the right of the apse, which have benefit of the morning light.

As for panel painting, a point of pride in the church is the early 15th-century Florentine pulpit crucifix. Despite considerable repainting, it’s still a marvelous painting. Consider the articulation of the overall silhouette, with recessions and protrusions that respond to one another, up-and-down, left-and-right, and to the “represented” Cross painted on the wooden ground. Only the handling of the shaped field and its framing rim permits the coincidence of two otherwise different cross types, a “Greek” cross, with four equal arms, and a “Latin” one, with longer vertical axis. All four arms of the piece carry subsidiary figures in the enlarged (in three cases, terminal) zones, though there are really five such images in all: four human figures and one symbolic image. A pair of saints interrupting the stem of the cross with protrusions left and right—there is disagreement about their identities (see Ann Plogsterth’s notes in the present website)—is countered above by a symbolic Christological pelican, from the legendary idea that the pelican nourishes its young on its own blood.

A well-tuned relation prevails here between the superscriptions above the head of Christ; the meandering framing band of the whole crucifix at adjacent points; the ends of the arms of the painted, represented Cross within the already cruciform field; and finally, to the slightly tilted (or, in its flat projection, rhomboidal) footrest, further down on the long stem of the crucifix.[15] One could go on about this painting, whenever what we see now was done. Suffice it to mention one other feature: the lyrical relation of the “S”-curves of the two airborne angels at either side of Christ’s torso to one another, left and right—like the sound-holes of a violin—but also, at the same time, to the more rigid, yet complementary, forms of Christ’s arms diagonally bisecting the arms of His (represented) Cross above.

              A Madonna and Child Enthroned with Four Saints, in the manner of Lorenzo Monaco (active 1388-1422), would come next in time after the Florentine crucifix, except that it isn’t old at all (see Plogsterth again). This is the altarpiece of what before Vatican II was the Lady Chapel and is now the location of the tabernacle.[16] Apparently it’s a fairly modern pastiche based on two paintings by Lorenzo and executed with substantial skill. The painting may not be authentic but it has genuine appeal anyway, including vividly citrus patches of color and, at the bottom, is a decorative strip of pseudo-Kufic script (Kufic script, used for ornamental, calligraphic quotations from the Koran in Islamic art, was often copied or parodied for its appeal as a play of forms in early Italian painting).


7  Commissioned Painting


Valentine d’Ogries’ (1888-1959), an Austrian-American painter and designer for churches, was commissioned to supply Corpus Christi’s stained-glass windows, in place of originally clear glass, and the altarpiece, in the 1940s, a few years after its dedication. I see that at this very moment (Ascension Day, 2019), Facebook testifies on d’Ogries aesthetic position in his work at large: “Though he wanted to pursue modern design,” he himself said, “They wanted 15th century so I gave them 15th century!” If some of that frustration shows in the altarpiece, its affirmative sublimation also shows in the high degree of formalization—akin to abstract painting—of the more decoratively subsidiary features of the Corpus Christi interior. 

The windows of the apse have violet glass with painted designs, while the flanks of the nave have yellow glass painted with black devices in alternating panes, below and above, in the gallery, larger centralized motifs (some pictorial) in quasi-Baroque frames. It’s always interesting to look at these windows and discover special features, whether the names of great composers of liturgical music, from Buxtehude to Gounod, in the choir’s window, or in another, upstairs on the right side, the names of more of the holy angels than one usually has heard of. Visible from the apse end of the gallery is the only Gothicizing feature of the church—hidden, as though for ecumenism as well as style: a more conventionally medieval-style stained glass window, also by d’Ogries, commemorating English Catholic martyrs from the time of Elizabeth I to Cromwell.

The main altarpiece, by d’Ogries, from 1947, represents Christ the King, the church having been dedicated on that feast day in 1936. Monsignor Myles Bourke, pastor from 1966 to 1992, used to emphasize that Christ the King was a new observance instituted by Pius XI in 1925 in part to stress Christ’s sovereignty in the face of rising nationalism and fascism in Europe. The painting is an earnest if dated example of early Liturgical Revival art, showing the frontal, hieratic image of ancient kingship (though the potency of such imagery seems more indicated than elicited) flanked, either side, by roundels illustrating salvation history (see article by Ann Plogsterth in the present website). In Holy Week, when the wings of this triptych are shut, the excellent gilt lettering of the donor inscription on the outside of the doors is exposed—a nice touch, this gift of a beauty of sheer form at a time when traditionally the beauty of even the holiest images is withdrawn. Otherwise, it’s fitting that the black-and-white checkered paving of the floor beneath Christ’s throne in the principal panel extends the actual paving in the aisles of the church, relating this specific liturgical space to the Kingdom to come.

D’Ogries’ “Stations of the Cross,” along the side walls, have more specifically modern interest, showing inventive variations in the placement and rotation of the Cross in silhouetted figure groups set against a gold ground. Formal sophistication makes these images something more than mere illustration. We can’t quite say that about the Holy Family relief against the left rear wall, or the rather tame Baptism of Christ by the illustrator Frances Railton, in the baptistry.


8  Contemporary Art

On a shelf on the righthand wall of the Blessed Sacrament chapel is a chunky little carved stone sculpture of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, by the English sculptor Peter Watts (1916-2002). It’s a nicely gritty bozzetto, or sketch, with springing posture and cocked head, for a larger, more suave and more belated Art Déco work at Thomas Merton’s abbey, Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. The inscription on the scroll (or “banderole”), “AMOR QUIA AMO”— the first half of a famous statement by Bernard in a sermon on the Song of Songs (“I love because I love; I love in order to love”)—is here in ordinary capitals, whereas in the final sculpture the letters look more modern. For Watts was influenced by Eric Gill, a calligrapher and typographer as well as a sculptor as well as sculptor who designed the typeface for the numerals in The Catholic Hymnal (1966), Corpus Christi’s “green hymnal.” This work was given by Merton to Robert Rambusch, who gave it to Father Raymond Rafferty, pastor from 1998 to 2013, who gave it to the parish.

            Corpus Christi has three contemporary paintings, two by Keith Milow, an English abstract and conceptual artist represented in the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Britain, and other museums. These are cross-shaped object-paintings belonging to a series of “Crosses Between Painting and Sculpture,” of which the church has Number 54 (1976), executed with iron powder as pigment, hanging in the sacristy doorway and visible from the nave when the doors to the hall are open; and Number 63 (1977), made with copper powder, in the narthex beside the outside entrance to the baptistry. Two other crosses from the same series belong to All Saints (Church of England) Church, Margaret Street, London.

In one sense, preferred by their atheist artist, these “Crosses” are secular works, punning on their ambivalence as painting and/or sculpture (though even as such they are not so unlike a pun like “Peter” as “rock”). But it becomes dissimulating to maintain that semiotically they are not Christian crosses, as Milow used to do;[17] artistic intention is not a free pass to meaning. The question of the artist’s own religiosity is irrelevant, however, the timeless example being the employment of famous gentile artisans, in order to have the best for God’s house, in the building of Solomon’s Temple, not to mention the great non-believer modern artists who have worked for the Church in Europe and elsewhere. It might be more worthwhile to take the objective, elemental materiality of their iron and copper pigments as a matter of significant immanentism.

The so-far most contemporary piece at Corpus, by Alfonse Borysewicz, an American, is Lectio No. 2: Crown (1989-90), a painting in mixed media on wood that hangs over the sacrarium (the basin emptying to the ground) in the sacristy: “a schematic Crown of Thorns painted modestly in black on a small gilded wooden panel that permanently dangles from its own inner wire hanger against another gilt panel, the whole in a raw, decrepit frame of slats”—this fine version of what Thomas Frick [has] called Borysewicz’ “scruffy formalism.”[18] When this painting came to Corpus Christi, Borysewicz had already executed a processional cross as well as an altarpiece for the Oratory Church of St. Boniface, in downtown Brooklyn. In 1998, on the occasion of Corpus Christi declaring itself a sister parish to a church in Cuba at San José, Esmeralda, in Camagüey (a province visited by Thomas Merton in April 1940), Borysewicz gave the Cuban church a painting from the same series—Lectio: Mother and Child—which was reported by a parishioner as enthusiastically received. Among other collections, Borysewicz is represented in Merton’s Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, in Kentucky; the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University; St. Francis College, Brooklyn; as well as the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.

In 2000-01 Father James Blaettler, S.J. organized short-term exhibitions of known and unknown abstract artists in the nave. At Easter 2000, Deborah Farre effected a cloud form in the clerestory space above the side chapel; and in Advent there was a group show. Lent and Easter in 2001 saw exhibitions by artists represented in New York and European museums and a significant artist-priest. In Lent, small lyrical-abstract “Stations of the Cross” paintings, from 1997, by Robert Natkin (1930-2010) were attached to the piers in the nave, keyed to the Stations by d’Ogries behind, while Father Andrew O’Connor likewise matched 14 photo-conceptual light boxes in the gallery to both sets of Stations below (these now have a chapel of their own at Father O’Connor’s St. Mary Grand, downtown on Grand Street). At Easter 2001 St. Anthony, 1996, by the famous Greek-American sculptor Stephen Antonakos (1926-2013), a white square relief back-lit by neon, was installed in the clerestory above the side chapel.

If some recent artworks are in modes that would have seemed beyond the pale to Wilfred Anthony, Valentine d’Ogries, and even Father Ford, what Ford built was never a museum to begin with; and whatever changes came later at Corpus Christi Church have managed to sustain his remarkably creative-eclectic spirit.[19]



1. For early views of the interior of Corpus Christi, see Desider Holisher, The House of God (New York; Crown), 68-71.

2. Significantly, symptoms of the contemporaneous Art Déco are normally purely ornamental, such as the only one I detect in this building, i.e., the then fashionable ‘reverse fluting’ on the engaged proscenium columns either side of the stage in the basement auditorium/gymnasium. Ann Plogsterth finds another: the vents with slim balusters in the doors of the confessionals at the back of the church, and a similar round-headed vent on the door of the pulpit (private communication).

3. Meyer Schapiro, review of G. Arnaud d’Agnel, L’Art religieux moderne (1936), in The Review of Religion 3 (1939), 468-73; here, pp. 468-69; with n.1, discussing contemporary totalitarian responses for and against Functionalism).

4. Pie-Raymond Régamey, ‘Church Architecture of Today,’ in his Religious Art of the Twentieth Century (New York: Herder, 1963), 221-30, here p. 221, 230. This problem has come to the fore again today, as, after the demise of a modernist orthodoxy, a hypocritical Catholic anti-modernism is able to hide behind the very thing it purports to hate, postmodern relativism: see Joseph Masheck, ‘OpArch: Unholy Antimodernism,’ Journal of Architectural Education 62, no. 3 (February 2009), 23, 99. In Living Machines: Bauhaus Architecture as Sexual Ideology, published by the West-Coast Jesuit Ignatius Press in 1995, E. Michael Jones repeatedly castigates Walter Gropius (director of the great Bauhaus art school, in Germany) for marriage troubles—though since then, that only remind one of the marital troubles of that former darling of the “ultra-”Catholic, anti-modernist cultural Right, Mel Gibson. We cannot ignore such politics as all around us rise new illiterate glass boxes whose boorish Neoliberal severity it would be perverse to blame on the transcendental ‘Less is more’ of the great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—that Catholic Mies who absorbed philosophic influences from Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and especially the contemporary Romano Guardini, who influences Pope Francis; see Masheck, ‘Thoughts on Mies’s Lemke House: Architecture, Feminism, Philosophy,’ The Brooklyn Rail, October 2018 (on-line).

4. On a prominent public sculpture by Hadzi: Masheck, ‘An Omphalos for Harvard Square’ (1986), in Seamus Heaney (introd.), Dimitri Hadzi (New York: Hudson Hills, 1996).

5. George Barry Ford, A Degree of Difference (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 70.

6. See Masheck, ‘Politics of Style: Dublin Procathedral in the Greek Revival’ [based on a chapter in Irish Church-Building from the Treaty of Limerick to the Great Famine, a 1973 Columbia dissertation] in his Building-Art: Modern Architecture Under Cultural Construction [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 29-46; 234-42.

7. The present author was told by a monk of this abbey that Panofsky also converted to Catholicism there. His Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism so influenced the sociologist Pierre Bordieu that he not only translated it, but in the process coined his own key term “habitus” to substitute for Panofsky’s phrase “mental habit”; Nikolaus Fogle, The Spatial Logic of Social Struggle: A Bordieuian Topology (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2011), 43.   

8. And, as a constellation, curiously anticipating the Viennese modernist architect and urbanist Otto Wagner’s “Great City” project for Vienna; see Masheck, Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 78-80.

9. Louis H. Sullivan, ‘A College Library Building,’ in his Kindergarten Chats (ed. 1918), repr., The Documents of Modern Art (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947), 91-92, here p. 92.

10. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1873) (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image, 1959), 113.

11. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York, 1948), 207. Corpus Christ has become something of a pilgrimage site for American Catholics interested in the monk and “peacenik” Thomas Merton, for his baptism in our baptistry was a major turning point in his life. Not taken into account (most Americans don’t think of art as having ideological consequence) is that his conversion could have anything to do with art. But Merton was great pals with Ad Reinhardt, who would become a major abstract painter, and we know that Reinhardt’s influence entailed influence of Meyer Schapiro. Reinhardt, who came from a Christian socialist family, shared with his younger friend a devotion to the Schapiro whose amazingly eloquent analyses of art were accompanied by equally astute social analyses of its surrounding culture in every period, and who was an encouraging example of the intellectual concerned with social justice. See Masheck, ‘Where Thomas Merton’s Friend Reinhardt Was Coming From,’ in my Texts on (Texts on) Art (2011), 2nd ed. (New York: Rail Editions, 2014), 64-87; idem, ‘An Editor’s View of Reinhardt and Merton: A Generation Behind; a Generation Ahead,’ The Brooklyn Rail, on-line edition, January 16, 2014.

12. Merton, Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965), 231-48, here 237-38; thanks to Father Raymond Rafferty, retired pastor of Corpus Christi, for this reference.

13. Ibid.

14. Joseph Rykwert, The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Presss, 1980), 23-39; Anthony Gerbino, François Blondel: Architecture, Erudition, and the Scientific Revolution (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), esp. 57-65, 166-78. 

15. I have discussed the Corpus Christi crucifix in relation to abstract art in an article on abstract painting: Masheck, “Cruciformality,” Artforum 15 (Summer 1977), 56-63, with illus. on p. 56.

16. The original deposition of the chapel is illus. in Liturgical Arts 8 (January 1940), 32. In at least one of the archived blueprints of the church, this chapel is called “Newman Ch[apel?].”

17.  These Milow Cross paintings at Corpus Christi are mentioned by the present writer in a discussion of these issues: Stephen Games, “Faith-Saving Exercise,” The Independent (London), 5 May 1987, Arts section, p. 13.

18. Thomas Frick, ‘Alfonse Borysewicz at Stavarides [Boston],’ in Art in America, March 1986, p. 154; quoted in Masheck, “Alfonse Borysewicz,” Tema Celeste, U.S. Edition, no. 31 (May-June 1991), 64-66, esp. p. 66, illustrating the painting as it hangs in the Corpus sacristy.

19. For help with particular points in this essay I thank the Father James Blaettler, S.J., Mr. William Derby, Dr. Ann Plogsterth, Father Raymond Rafferty and Ms. Naomi Spector.

©Joseph Masheck 2019


Joseph Masheck, M.Litt. (DUBL.), Ph.D., studied art and architectural history at Columbia, and aesthetics at Trinity College, Dublin. A sometime editor-in-chief of Artforum, he received the College Art Association’s 2018 Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art. He has also served several terms on the Corpus Christi Parish Council.