Awhile back, the website Science and Religion Today asked me to write a short piece on the topic of aesthetics of places of worship, and I thought about some of the ideas in that piece when I saw these amazing images of vaulted ceilings from the book Heavenly Vaults, by David Stephenson. I realized I never posted the piece in full here, so I thought I share these ideas from the archives:
People seek many different things in a spiritual experience, a fact attested to by the variety of religions and rituals practiced around the world today. But if there’s one motivation that all faiths seem to share, it’s a desire for transcendence — a wish to rise above mundane concerns and commune with a higher or more complete entity. When we worship, we look to shift our perspective away from the trivial towards the big picture, to put ourselves in context of a larger whole. Can design help us do this?
In short, yes. Design won’t make believers out of atheists, but it can certainly provide conditions for deepening the experience for the spiritually inclined. Researchers studying awe, an emotional state closely linked to transcendence, believe that a key trigger is a sense of vastness. Encountering objects or spaces that are extremely large in scale, from Ayer’s Rock to the Grand Canyon, stimulates what psychologists call a need for accommodation — a need to take this new experience and fit it into our existing mental models, stretching them in the process. As our mental models struggle to accommodate the power behind works of great scale (both natural and manmade), we feel smaller by comparison. Our focus broadens, which effectively minimizes our daily preoccupations. The builders of the great cathedrals, the Angkor temples in Cambodia, and Easter Island’s famous moai statues all understood, whether explicitly or intuitively, the power of great scale to inspire this perspective-shifting, spiritual sense of awe.
Scale can be particularly effective when the exaggerated dimension is height. Earthly existence naturally has a vertical orientation, defined by the gravitational force that holds us to the earth. Upward directionality is associated with lightness, air, and spiritual thoughts, while downward brings connotations of heaviness, earth, and physicality. Some religions conceptualize this vertical dichotomy as a moral one, with heaven above earth and hell below it. And many religions conceive of the spirit as a weightless entity, which is freed upon death from its gravity-bound body. Defying this downward pressure by turning our gaze upwards naturally leads many of us to a more spiritual frame of mind. Structures that are upwardly expansive feel more conducive to worship than those with low, dark ceilings. This effect can be enhanced by adorning the ceiling with elements that cause the gaze to drift upward, such as lighting fixtures, ceiling frescos, or skylights.
Turning the gaze upwards has another effect: it allows more light into the eye, and light is another aesthetic element that can enhance our spiritual experience. Light is a common metaphor for deities and a proxy for their blessing. In Genesis, God’s first act after creating heaven and earth is to proclaim “Let there be light.” When a religion wins a convert, they say he has “seen the light,” and the object of spiritual quests is “enlightenment.” Many early religions, such as those of ancient Egypt and Greece, featured gods of light or sun as primary deities. It makes sense that light would be so prominent a feature in worship, considering its significance to our survival. Light was certainly on the minds of gothic cathedral builders when they developed the practice of using flying buttresses. By taking pressure off of the walls, these exterior structures allowed for taller, lighter cathedrals with vast expanses of glass windows that were previously impossible. Structures of worship are at their most sublime not just when they’re bright, but when they call attention to the light and focus our gaze on it. Stained glass windows are one way architects of religious structures have done this. Others work with natural light. A particularly beautiful example is Osaka’s Church of Light, designed by Tadao Ando. The cuts in the expansive structure shape the light, giving it form and presence. The result is an expansive space with a transcendent glow.
Surely there are other aesthetics more specific to different religions that can enhance the experience of prayer and spiritual contemplation. Features such as the structure’s shape, color treatments, and level of adornment all vary according to belief systems. But these three elements — scale, height, and light — seem to have deep roots in human nature or cultural practice that make them particularly conducive to achieving spiritual communion. Can you pray meaningfully in a dimly lit, undergound cave? Surely the answer is yes. But an expansive, well-lit space is more likely to put you in a prayerful mood.