The lance and helmet of a warrior.
The beams of a ship, lending contoured grace.
The threat of a dragon, and the fire that might ensue...
One of my friends, Drew Remick, is someone knowledgeable in the discipline of sacred architecture. And I wish he could've been with us when we visited Joan of Arc's church in Rouen... For this sacred space contained many of the critical elements that contribute to a holy place of prayer. And they were done in an imaginative, yet incredibly symbolic and meaningful way.
Designing this new church was Louis Arretche, the famous Rouen architect who was at the heart of the reshaping of Saint Malo. His idea, at least in the interior of the structure, was to model the church on the shape of an upturned wooden boat.
Where had I heard about boats and sacred space before? In true serendipitous fashion, it was from the person mentioned in my last entry – Fr. Nick Ayo, the very person who set me on to the stories of Joan of Arc.
Fr. Nick talks about the origin of the word nave in his marvelous book about Notre Dame, Signs of Grace. "Nave," from the Latin "navis," that is, a vessel upon the sea. From this word we derive others in English, all having to do with navigation.
In fact, is that not what we do in a place of prayer? We navigate our way through life.
When Arretche designed the square and church for Saint Joan, he had many considerations before him... even beyond the demands that would accompany the church itself. For the old market square, where Joan was burned at the stake, was one of great historical significance, and the government also wanted the market plaza to be part of the design. So both the world of the sacred, and that of the marketplace, would have to be integrated into a single model.
And... There was the issued of stained glass windows, that were crafted during the Renaissance. They had been carefully removed from the earlier church before the onset of the Second World War. These, too, needed to be part of the new structure.
ust as daunting, this space had to be a vessel for the heinous crime that had taken place six centuries before, an action that gave France a martyr and a heroine. The plaza needed to be a noble testimony to the deeds and witness of Jeanne d'Arc.
On the interior of the church, I have already mentioned the hull of the ship that the architect wanted to convey. But the exterior was another matter, and I hope the picture that's included conveys the genius of the design. In a sweeping canopy, the roof has the appearance of the protective gear of medieval combat: helmet and soldier's mail are suggested in the slope and ridge pole (or, push your imagination a little bit... It also looks like the scales of a dragon).
And, as if to confirm what your imagination might be suggesting, here is the southeastern corner of the church:
Finally, there is one more element, that which rises over the entire complex of the square. At one and the same time, it is striking in its simplicity, functional and descriptive of the woman that is honored. Here is the cross outside the church. But look closely – for when you do, you will see that the part closest to the earth is an accurate representation of the lance of a warrior. But as it leaves the earth where it is planted, it is transformed – into the Cross of Christ.
Sometimes, the designers of our houses of prayer do everything in just the right proportion: Pragmatic considerations are addressed. The imagination has room to wander (and wonder). Catechesis informs the design and shapes the outcome. And it all comes across in a simple and straightforward manner.
It is a fitting place of prayer named after one who raised her soul heavenward, raising it like a lance.
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