The Church of the Incarnation at the University of Dallas is often criticized for its unappealing aesthetics. The question “What were the architects thinking?” often comes up among my circle of friends, and indeed, I have never heard it called beautiful.
Pause for a second. Let’s think about what it means for something to be called beautiful. Take, for example, Aquinas’ definition of beauty: “id quod visum placet,” which, translated literally, means “that which seen, pleases.” I find it hard to believe that someone looking at the Church of the Incarnation from outside would find it extremely pleasing. From the view of the Mall, all one can see are the rather plain brick walls surrounding the chapel, a concrete slab that covers most of the patio area underneath it, and the rather plain, circular, dark structure that makes for a roof to the church inside.
No. The church is not quite visually pleasing.
I, however, generally read Aquinas’ definition of beauty in a different light. I like to translate it a little liberally. I do understand the word “visum” to mean “seen,” but once in a while, I like seeing things with the eyes of the intellect.
I believe a disclaimer is necessary at this point. My education in art and architectural history is quite limited. Yet, when I step into the Church of the Incarnation, there are a couple of things that grab my attention.
First, the plain brick walls, and second, the concrete columns. You may think it strange, but this, in my opinion, brings to mind Roman architecture. You laugh? Well, just give me a chance to make my point before you stop reading.
I would like to bring to your attention two 18th-century paintings by Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Socrates” and “Oath of the Horatii.” Jacques-Louis David was a Neoclassical painter who tended to paint dramatic scenes amidst Roman architecture. In both of these paintings, however, the walls are devoid of elaborate detail. (I am not saying that all Roman architecture was built in that style, but some was.) The plainness of these walls serves to call for reason over our passions. I think the walls at our church serve the same function. True, the walls at the Church of the Incarnation do have some decorations: A couple of paintings by Lyle Novinski adorn some walls, and there is a rather simple wooden structure surrounding the circle around the main area of the church. Yet, for the most part, the actual walls of the church are rather plain.
As for the concrete columns, I find these the most interesting element of the church. These too are not quite visually pleasing. Yet, if we think about it, who is it that invented concrete? Yes, the Romans did. And much like the Greeks, the Romans made extensive use of columns. Now, this is a lot of guesswork that I am doing, but perhaps the church’s architect did have something older in mind when building it.
As Neoclassical thinkers liked to think, the Romans contributed much to the establishment that reason should rule over passion. And so, the next time you walk inside the Church of the Incarnation and think, “What were the architects thinking?” perhaps it is you who are putting your passions over your reason in refusing even to try to understand what is going on behind the architecture of the Church of the Incarnation.