The Church of Corpus Christi and Its Art
by Joseph Masheck
Corpus Christi Church, renowned for its music as well as its liturgical ceremonial, is less well known for its architecture and art. Not that a church should be a museum any more than it should be a concert hall or, for that matter, a theater for the conjuring up of theatrical illusions. The church is a special setting for divine worship in Word and Sacrament in the here and now, worship making its own direct reference beyond the here and now. In this, music and art can assist, though bad music and art can also positively obstruct spirituality (Savonarola warned against church art bad enough to make sophisticated people laugh). Whatever transcendental possibilities of their own they offer outside the context of worship, the arts have supporting functions in the specifically religious setting.
Music has an advantage here, not for its potential to lend a mystifying aura to liturgy (which is not an enshrouding but an unveiling), but because it can reinforce attention or lend expressive emphasis to the liturgical celebration. Attention to sacred words and actions is rarely undistracted; so if our thoughts wander into the realm of the specifically musical, at least they are likely to return from there, by way of our consciousness of the liturgical rendition, where form and content, composition and performance, coincide. By comparison, painting, sculpture, and architecture may be elevating–they may even occasion thoughts about the difference between true and false embodiments of the divine–but they are not as immediately liturgical. Paintings of small artistic importance can function respectably as church decoration, while, at the other extreme, virtually all convincingly spiritual contemporary art stands outside the church altogether, whether made by believers or not.
Moreover, it is of the nature of music to negotiate transformation: attending to it means following how one thing becomes another, which may evoke the way Scripture and the Sacraments serve to transform us in the world, even evoking the possibility of the world’s transformation, through grace, in justice. Such meaning is hardly foreign to art; indeed, it has been an urgent aspiration of painters especially from the earliest moves toward an abstract, or “pure” painting. Often abstract artists have worked with a sense of the high significance of art as an exercise in the resolution, rectification, or justification of parts and wholes, in addition to the general and more conspicuously “spiritual” sense of artistic expressiveness as life-affirming.
Even in our day the church has tended to pass over matters such as these, in well-intentioned but impractical vague pronouncements on liturgical art. There is, as well, the simpler problem of just how many crucifixes, sets of Stations of the Cross, or, for that matter, abstract paintings one church can accommodate. Unlike music, art takes up space (even when it no longer depicts space); and a church full of advanced non-liturgical art, however spiritually worthy the art, might uncannily resemble an old-fashioned church full of plaster saints from the wholesalers that used to line Barclay Street downtown.
All this is by way of introduction to the fabric of Corpus Christi Church and its notable artistic furnishings. Wilfred Edwards Anthony’s Corpus Christi, begun in 1935 and dedicated in the following year, may not be a textbook architectural masterpiece, but it is quite interesting as a project, not least for its inventive solution to the problem of a church as one component of a multipurpose, multi-story urban structure. The program finds some historical precedent in, for instance, churches built in Ireland around the time of Catholic Emancipation (c.1829) which combined church and parish school, but with the church over an awkwardly enlarged basement for the school. Actually, Anthony’s “cab-over-engine” idea is by no means anomalous. In Manhattan alone one thinks of Calvary (Baptist) Church on West 57th Street, with an apartment house on top and a religious bookstore to one side, and Hugh Stubbins and Associates’ Saint Peter’s (Lutheran) Church of 1977, the major venture of its day in modern American religious art and architecture, stuck under a corner of the (freestanding) 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; Saint Peter’s, a semi-precious gem of modernist church-building, bears a symbolic onus of being under the wing, if not the heel, of capital. But Anthony’s handling of the Corpus Christi façade is clever, especially his employment of a large limestone “frontispiece” with Doric pilasters, punctuated by a rose window (and the arms of Pius XI and Cardinal Hayes) to claim as church façade most of what extends between the entrance steps and a (mock) attic story and (real) belfry above.
The present church is the second Corpus Christi on this site. The earlier one, built in 1906, also combined church and school in one building, though apparently less successfully. Since 1936 there have been some changes in the disposition of the church interior, such as the installation of the main altarpiece and, later, the removal of a Communion rail that originally drew a clear line between the sanctuary of the priests and the nave of the people. Also, windows originally of clear glass were replaced in the 1940s by colored ones, yellow painted with black designs for those along the flanks and decorative violet stained glass in the apse. Otherwise, what we see is as Anthony originally designed it, down to the fittings chosen in consultation with Father George Barry Ford, for whom the church was built; these include a polychrome wooden processional cross also designed by Anthony,
It deserves to be asked why Father Ford, famous for his progressivism in many other respects, did not embrace the orthodox architectural modernism that just around 1935 had reached a high point of international repute. Whatever the politics of the situation, he may have known a genuine modern problem, sometimes exaggerated by those hostile to modern culture within the church (Evelyn Waugh is a notorious example): namely, the ideological ambiguity of modernist architecture, especially 1930s “Functionalism,” in religious circumstances. For instance, one contemporary Catholic apologist for the Functional style wound up fabricating a mistaken theological rationale while failing to acknowledge significant examples and overlooking altogether the best modern religious art of the Catholic Church.
However, Corpus Christi is obviously not of standard ecclesiastical Gothic or even Roman Baroque ilk. 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.” Why this should have seemed so right in 1935 is part of the social history of artistic style. Wilfred Anthony had already built a sophisticated neo-Gothic Catholic church of the proto-modern “Arts and Crafts” sort in New York: Saint Catherine of Siena on the Upper East Side (1931); our church was going to be something very different from that, but hardly strange. For neo-”Georgianism” like this was a hallmark of cultural assimilation: the idea was to manifest a cordial Americanization, if necessary with an underlying British, instead of “foreign,” accent. At the time Columbia University and America at large were not accustomed to conspicuous evidence of Catholicism on the highest levels, while Charles Follen McKim’s campus for the still considerably Anglican university stood close by as one of the grandest monuments of Renaissance revival classicism in the country, with a strong Italianate flavor of its own that the cult of the British Colonial generally edited out (except for guaranteed-tasteful della Robbia Madonnas and the like). Neither were Catholics alone in seeking their slice of the “Colonial” apple pie: Corpus Christi already had behind it, on the next block, the equally assimilationist Georgianism of Gehron, Ross and Alley’s Jewish Theological Seminary of 1930 on West 122nd Street.
This particular style also had a certain Jeffersonian aspect of democratic civility. As an architect, Jefferson himself had practiced an eighteenth-century neo-Palladianism that is at the heart of it. Countless public works of all kinds were built in the United States in the 1930s according to just such a modified or modernized, more or less neo-Palladian, classicism. Arguably, its definitive canonization as “all-American” came about in the same years with the so called “restoration”–actually, the almost total rebuilding, to the point of mythic fabrication–of “Colonial Williamsburg” in Virginia (where almost nothing of most buildings survived), which, undertaken by the Rockefellers, advanced the national cultural morale, along with the new W.P.A. Colonial schools, post offices, and other public edifices, during the Great Depression.
Father Ford’s choice of style was wise. The result may not have been radical, but it was no think compromise. If Corpus Christi would show that it could harmonize with the best implications of the Renaissance Humanism of the Columbia of Nicholas Murray Butler without implying that its own stance was doctrinally groundless, this would be by advancing a broad and modern Catholicity with evocations, specifically, of Cardinal Newman. It would have been all too easy to get something simplistically “Catholic” in look, only to stand yet again apart. But notwithstanding the basically Oxford-Movement tone set by Father Ford–distinguished liturgy and preaching, a university ministry, social concern, even a Newman cult of sorts–this was not going to be a temple of medievalizing nostalgia. As a matter of fact, Newman himself had criticized the revived Gothic of the nineteenth century as “the emblem and advocate of a past ceremonial and an extinct nationalism”; and it is relevant that Newman also turned to the Italianate for his own London Oratory. Thomas Merton, who had grown up in a real Colonial church (in Queens), picked up on just this subtle but dominant 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.” The evocation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri but also of Cardinal Newman allows of transcending the problem of nationalistic “Georgianism” as a matter of assimilation to a C-major of eighteenth-century English colonial subordination.
This view is reinforced by a longer discussion in a text of 1964, on “Liturgical Renewal: The Open Approach,” in which Merton writes: “The sanctuary has a seventeenth-century look. But it is the air of Caroline Anglicanism as well as Baroque Catholicity. 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!”
Whatever exactly Father Ford himself meant by his “beauty added by American adaptations,” it covers a richly harmonious stylistic pluralism that does seem somehow markedly American in its positive inclusiveness, its stylistic catholicity. We gain a sense of this in practice from the various major fittings selected for the Corpus Christi interior, including exuberant Belgian silver candlesticks, three hanging altar lamps (the middle one old Russian, the others from Italy), and two splendid Bohemian crystal chandeliers, as well as more than merely tasteful Italian paintings. Needless to say, it took more artistic aplomb for priest and architect to work out this unique and beloved ensemble than any precast historicizing formula would have allowed.
Two architectural items of historical, more than visual, interest in the church are small fragments from two of the most venerable of European church buildings. Set into the righthand wall of the narthex or vestibule is a brick from Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the great basilicas of Rome, this covered by a plaque explaining (in Latin) that it is a souvenir of the 1900 Jubilee Year. Fragmentary architectural relics thus set into another building can be meaningful in a way that need have little to do with fetishism: like saints’ relics they can evidence the wider reverence in which a remote but distinguished place is held, reminding us, even, of the farflung presence of the Body of Christ (Corpus Christi), that single Body of all the generations. Actually, the bodily “members” in Saint Paul’s extended literary image of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) long held significance for European architectural theory. Besides, some of our separated brethren too, here on Morningside Heights, have their own relics of the same kind: witness the 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 the little chunk of Saint Hilda’s abbey at Whitby in Yorkshire, “Where This Abbess Presided and Taught in the Seventh Century a.d.,” set into the side of Saint Hilda’s and Saint Hugh’s (Episcopal) School on West 114th Street.
Corpus Christi also has some tiny fragments of the original stained glass of the great Rheims cathedral, severely damaged by bombing in the First World War. These are set into two of Valentine d’Ogries’s modern windows in the apse, those at the right, which have the benefit of morning light; the one at the extreme right, appropriately enough, was installed in 1944, when many communicants of Corpus Christi were in a Navy officers’ program at Columbia, as a naval and military memorial. Work on all the other d’Ogries windows, also painted, continued until 1946. Those of the nave carry images; those above, in the gallery, symbols of various sacred personages, together with dedications. All are painted simply in black and show, as regards to monochrome pane of glass, an appropriately subordinating flatness of design, which is to say a fundamentally modern respect for the integrity of the surface as a plane. It is always interesting to look at some of these windows and to 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. Also visible from the (apse) end of the gallery as this angels window is the only neo-Gothic feature of the church, one well hidden, as though for ecumenical and diplomatic as well as stylistic reasons: a stained glass window commemorating English Catholic martyrs from the time of Elizabeth I to Cromwell.
The main altarpiece, also by Valentine d’Ogries, is a Christ the King. The actual feast of Christ the King was a new observance, having been instituted by Pius XI in 1925 as a stress on Christ’s kingship in the face of rising fascism. The painting itself is an earnest if dated example of “Liturgical Revival” art of the time. One beholds the powerfully frontal, hieratic image of ancient kingship (even if the inescapable potency of such imagery is here more indicated than elicited) flanked, on either side, by roundels illustrating scenes from salvation history. Only in Holy Week, when the wings of this triptych are shut, is it possible to see the beautiful gilt lettering of the donor inscription on the outside of the doors–a nice touch, this gift of a beauty of pure form at a time when, traditionally, the beauty of even the holiest images is withdrawn. Otherwise, everybody seems to like the way the black-and-white checkered paving of the floor beneath Christ’s throne in the principal panel extends the actual paving of the aisle of the church itself, indicating a relation of this specific liturgical space to the Kingdom of God (the church was dedicated on the Feast of Christ the King in 1936).
Unlike the high altarpiece, the somewhat later Stations of the Cross, by the same d’Ogries, have a perhaps unexpected modern interest. Tues, they too evidence some uninspired Liturgical Revival restraint; nevertheless, they show inventive variations in the placement and rotation of the Cross silhouettes against a gold ground: it is developments in modern art that, ironically or not, reveal these lovely Stations as rather more than mere illustration. On the other hand, more than merely a matter of church decoration is the bulgy, folksy Holy Family relief against the rear wall, and a (rather tame) Baptism of Christ by Frances Railton in the baptistry.
Other paintings have distinct importance, notably the early fifteenth-century Florentine pulpit crucifix. If the considerable repainting of its surface disqualifies this Cross for historical purposes, it is still a wonderful piece. Consider the articulation of the overall silhouette, with recessions and protrusions that respond to one another, up-and-down and left-and-right, but also to the “represented” Cross painted on the wooden ground. Only this 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). Likewise, all four arms carry subsidiary figures in the enlarged (in three cases, terminal) zones, although there are really five such images in all, four of them human figures and one a symbolic image. A pair of saints interrupting the stem of the cross (there is some disagreement about their identities) is countered above by a symbolic Christological pelican (from the legendary idea that the pelican nourishes its young on its own blood. There is a well-tuned relation of the superscriptions above the head of Christ; to the meandering framing band of the whole crucifix at adjacent points; to 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. One could go on about this fine painting–whenever what we see now was done. Suffice it to mention one more 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), really comes next in time after the Florentine crucifix, because it is really not old at all. This is the altarpiece of what before Vatican II was the Lady Chapel and is now the location of the tabernacle. It is, apparently, a fairly modern pastiche based on two paintings by Lorenzo and executed with substantial skill. The painting may not be authentic in the historical sense of “period,” but it has genuine appeal anyway, including vividly citrous patches of color and, at the bottom, 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).
The church also has three truly contemporary works, both by Keith Milow, an English abstract and conceptual artist. 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. Now in one sense, which their author prefers, these “crosses” are secular works, punning on their own ambivalence as painting and/or sculpture–though even in this they are not so very unlike the many ecclesial puns, especially with respect to architecture, on “Peter” as “rock.” In another sense, they are quite inescapably Christian crosses in their own right, despite the problem of artistic intent; and in this sense the possible question of the artist’s own religiosity is likewise irrelevant (as it was with 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.
The third contemporary piece, by Alfonse Borysewicz, an American, is Lectio No. 2: Crown (1989-90) of mixed media on wood, in the sacristy, in which “a schematic Crown of Thorns [is] 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, decrepitly Renaissancesque slat frame–a good, markedly orthodox version of what Thomas Frick [has] called Borysewicz’ ‘scruffy formalism’ (Art in America, 1986.” 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. Theh in 1998, on the occasion of Corpus Christi declaring itself “sister” to a church in Cuba, San José, Esmeralda, in the province of Camagüey (visited by Merton in April 1940), Borysewicz gave that church a painting from the same series (Lectio: Mother and Child), which, reportedly enthusiastically received, hangs in the church today.
These recent works are in modes that could no more have been conceived by modernist artists of his day than by Father Ford. In Ford’s time T. S. Eliot, himself a devout Anglican, famously argued that it is modern culture which really keeps worthy tradition alive. If what Father Ford built was not a museum to begin with, whatever additions and changes have been made at Corpus Christi have managed to sustain a very special creative-eclectic spirit.
Joseph Masheck, Ph.D., a former editor-in-chief of Artforum and a past president of the Corpus Christi parish council,
has taught at Barnard, Harvard, and Hofstra; in spring 2007 he was visiting professor of the history of art at Edinburgh College of Art.
1 For early views of the interior of Corpus Christi, see Desider Holisher, The House of God (New York, 1946), 68-71.
2 G. Arnaud d’Agnel, L’Art religieux moderne (Grenoble, 1936); reviewed by Meyer Schapiro in The Review of Religion, III/4 (May 1939), 468-73. According to Schapiro, “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” (468-69; with n.1, discussing contemporary totalitarian responses for and against architectural Functionalism).
3 George Barry Ford, A Degree of Difference (New York, 1969), 70.
4 John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1873) (Garden City, N.Y., 1959), 113.
5 Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York, 1948), 207.
6 Merton, Seasons of Celebration (New York, 1965), 231-48, here 237-38; thanks to Father Rafferty for the reference.
7 I have discussed the Corpus Christi crucifix in relation to abstract art in an article on abstract painting: Joseph Masheck, “Cruciformality,” Artforum 15 (Summer 1977), 56-63, with illus. on p. 56.
8 The original deposition of the chapel is illus. in Liturgical Arts 8 (January 1940), 32.
9 For instance, Clement XIV, in his (paracanonical) encyclical “Cum summi apostolatus” (1768): “Unique . . . is the universal Church, whose foundation was established in this See by the blessed Peter. Many stones were united in its construction, but all rest upon and are based on a single foundation-stone”; Papal Teachings: The Church, ed. the Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, trans. E. O’Gorman (Boston, 1962), 43.
10 The Corpus Christi cross paintings of Milow are mentioned in a discussion of these issues: Stephen Games, “Faith-Saving Exercise,” The Independent (London), 5 May 1987, Arts section, p. 13.
11 Masheck, “Alfonse Borysewicz,” Tema Celeste (Siracusa), U.S. Edition, no. 31 (May-June 1991), 64-66, illustrating the painting as it hangs over the sacrarium (basin emptying to the ground); here, 66.
12 I have relied for basic historical information on the notes of Daphne Mebane Hoffman, in the Corpus Christi archives, and I am grateful to Denise McColgan, my former Barnard student and now an art historian herself, for research assistance at the Frick Art Reference Library.