Whenever I go to Moscow one of my first stops is a church on the Red Square. Not the onion domed Saint Basil’s Cathedral, but a small one nested at the entrance gate. I go there because it is almost always open, dark and mysterious, and full of babushkas rhythmically making the sign of the cross. I go there because I like the darkness and devotion.
Russian churches are often very intimate, even those of the Kremlin, and the intimacy expresses well a highly personalised relation to God. Early Romanesque churches, with low slung arches might give intimacy as well, but with their white walls they seem to seek the light. God is not cloaked in darkness – God is light. Church architecture, not surprisingly, reflects different perceptions of God.
Over time churches became grander, and in the West the grandeur seemed to inspire a more distant relationship with God. The miracle of St. Peter’s is that it has remained personable despite its unsurpassed grandeur. I think it is the light!
The great Gothic cathedrals, which I love, mind you, tend to be more somber, and seem to me to try to take you up to God, rather than to take God down to us. The pointed arches are like arrows pointing to the heavens, and the great spires reach for the beyond and force us to look up towards the sky. The darkness of many of the Gothic cathedrals may have something mystical, but because of the vast space light seems to be rationed and we are invited to strive for God and his light. In this sense Gothic churches are perhaps presaging the advent of the central state. God is the great and remote ruler, not the close and intimate friend of Russian and some Romanesque churches. God is enigmatic like in Russia, not omnipresent in the sense of overwhelming light. Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, of course, gives lie to all of this, with its splendorous profusion of light, so it is dangerous to generalise, even if I think there is truth to the proposition that Gothic sacred architecture does represent a change in the suggested relationship between God and humans.
The few modern churches that are built tend to be very liberal with light. Yet, the image of God that is conveyed is de-personalised. In fact, quite a few modern churches are hard to distinguish from airline terminals. Sacred architecture tended to influence secular architecture significantly in the past, but we have now, ironically, come to a point where the secular shapes the sacred. Modern churches do neither point to the heavens, nor do they take God down to us. Modern churches seek to make God a rational proposition, and in doing so they may run counter to the central message in religion, which is one of heart above head!