The Sacredness of the Void

Space, like time, is a fundamental, given element of humanity. It can be accessible and open to the world or completely closed off as if it were enclosed inside a solid block. When considering space, we should differentiate between the outer casing and its content. From an architectural and structural point of view, such space is initially empty, yet thought has been given to its potential purpose. Design, construction, the building materials used, including textures and, in particular, lighting all help to create and define its character. But transcending all these factors, it must be set up and enlivened, in a dynamic sense, by those who wish to inhabit it. As well as an emotional dimension, it represents first and foremost an intellectual, conceptional dimension. It is a space for consciousness, imagination, or artistic expression, where the senses, knowledge and creativity are negotiated.

As a conscious space, its contours are a result of the desires and perceptions associated with it. Of course, it only exists as a space in our minds, it is a fiction of our consciousness, yet identical with the subject filling it. This space of consciousness initially builds on everything man can experience through his senses; sight, hearing, touch, thought... It is a model created according to our desires, the product of the momentary impressions, thoughts, premonitions and memories which create the space as such. For this reason, it is a nesting place, for inner experiences, as Hermann Schmitz, phenomenologist from Kiel, calls it.. Emotions, premonition and intuition qualify it, as well as spiritual experiences. This consciousness is a subjective inner world, it is a personal, emotional space and at the same time, as an atmospherical space, a supra-subjective phenomenon.

The space of imagination, on the other hand, it is primarily a space of knowledge. It is filled with mythological, religious or historical images and symbols. It represents the symbolic world of the senses of the person it was designed by and represents no empirical essence, but an imagined reality. On this level, possible installations and functions are considered negotiable. The intention is to visualise the person inhabiting or visiting this imagined space and to define and evaluate the effect the space will have on him.

In his text Die Kunst und der Raum, Martin Heidegger formulates the concept of artistic space and distinguishes it from geometric space. He defines it as an anthropological condition, exactly what man needs in order to settle in, to feel at home, to find and to define himself. Artistic space touches on the two previously mentioned dimensions of space, but at the same time, transcends them. This space is generally based on free scope, which stimulates. Yet man must define and create it. This creative process constitutes his liberty. Here, he sorts his experiences and ultimately, he can inhabit this space in an self-developing way. Thus, artistic space is initially a place where things appear; such space is delimited by volume and objects. Between them and in them is the void.

Heidegger explains this formal definition of space according to its content by the actions of man, namely by clearing. This signifies the setting-up of an area, which renders it capable of being experienced. Such setting-up must be preceded by emptying; it only follows from this action that putting things in their place mentally can begin afterwards.

The sacral space, on the other hand, is the holy place. It is different from the space we are accustomed to. Three of its dimensions correspond to its purpose, they tend to alienate, gather and stimulate. Consequently, Josef Pieper defines it as something that has been alienated from its customary use. Man needs such places, places that provide opportunities to escape acoustic and visual noise into a space where silence reigns and real listening becomes possible. This is the only way he can achieve a truly human life.

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel goes one step further, when he too sees the medieval gothic church as a dwelling. This church is primarily concerned with enclosure, whereby an inner space is closed off from the outside. In this respect, Hegel was thinking of a locked house and goes on to say so in his Lecture on Aesthetics: “In the same way as the Christian spirit looks inward, the building itself becomes a place that is confined on all sides where the Christian community can gather and collect itself inwardly. It is the gathering of minds that shuts out in a spatial sense”. It is within this enclosed space that something sublime, ceremonious, eerie is stirring, something that is in the process of crossing boundaries and leading into the unknown.

Hermann Schmitz picks up this concept. As he understands it, sacredness is concerned with the mysterious stimulation of energy we are confronted with when we abide in the church, that is attenuated or increased by cultivating feelings, so that it feels sufficiently familiar and readily available within the enclosed area. This cultivation seeks to turn the inconceivable into a concentrated and tangible essence.

In this context, Schmitz speaks of atmospheres, which he perceives as something indefinite in the range of outpouring emotions, experienced as a poignant force. For this reason sacred space has increasingly been perceived in an aesthetic category over the last 200 years. Taking part in it was seen as experiencing spatial atmosphere. To this day, people have tried to adopt influential symbols associated with specific memories as sacral. This application is, however, not without problems. The word sacral is not at all objective, but simply a vague description of spatial atmosphere. At best, it can help underline what is perceived as sacral by the consummated belief of the celebrating community. Thus, it definitely depends on the mood of the visitor and the demands he makes on such a space.

Initially, each church space – whether full or empty – is an image. It is based on the architectural shape of the space itself, on its furnishing and lighting. If the space is filled with pews in the post-reformatory style, the space is hidden. The pews overlay the floor, hide the base of the columns, make the walls appear to hover, or the rasters and crosslines prevent a clear view. This all contributes to robbing the space of its clarity and character. The beholder must make the toilsome effort to distance himself from all this, should he wish to mentally arrive and stay here in spite of everything.

In addition, church spaces today are filled with a multitude of visual, distracting eye-catchers: statues, paintings, furnishings such as chairs, lecterns and vases of flowers. In the same way, the altar space is also often overloaded with trivia so that the essential focal points, the altar as a sculpture and the cross as a symbol, no longer dominate. One’s gaze cannot come to rest, let alone concentrate on the light and the way it is architecturally channelled to uplift one depending on the time of day.

Nowadays church spaces are widely packed with an abundance of visual eye-catchers, therefore drawing off attention: statues, paintings, furniture standing about such as seats, ambos and flower pots. As the nave it self, as well the sanctuary is frequently overloaded with a lot if negligibility weakening the centre, the altar as a sculpture and the cross as a symbol in their dominance. As a result, the glance is not steadied, much less it becomes impossible to shift one's glance over to the light and its architectural lead capable of carrying it through the time of the day, as it were.

Images further increase the effect of an enclosed space and cause the beholder to doubt. The images frequently depict the imagination of a biblical scene or a saint in a predetermined and selectively designed form. Most of the visitors to the church lack the knowledge and sensibility for this. They distract the beholder, or cause him to close his mind although he has scarcely begun to open it. The mission of a church space should, however, be to prise out, intercept and form and design the mood elicited from the visitor. Messages of belief frozen in images can only widely detract us in this respect, due to their abruptness.

A church whose contents have been more or less cleared away should be perceived by the visitor as a sacral space in its openness and appeal to him without denying its Christian, Catholic or Protestant character. A person entering a church is expecting to find peace of mind. He should first calm down and then be absorbed by the atmosphere of the space. The visitor searches first of all for his inner self and then for his God, and lastly, perhaps, for a message. The awakening of one’s own experience is the prerequisite for any attempt to feel one’s way and struggle beyond oneself. Moving forward along this path must be achieved through asking oneself questions.

The question itself as a question: this is all that can fill the void in a church described above in the same way it fills our inner space. This questioning unmasks the cheap vacuity of contemporary meanings of life on offer and, out of doubt and suffering; it leads us to find new answers, without overruling them by random answers. The question is self-sufficient. And this is made possible in deliberately sacral spaces. For the religious person, the question arises whether the question as a question is in fact the most exalted kind of mysticism and belief? On a religious holiday such as Whitsun, for example, an answer of any kind might not lie in the content, but in psychological encouragement, in the spirit of parrhesia, for instance, in fearlessness, faith, openness, freedom... – as a question?

Nowadays, not many people actually perceive the sacral space as a place to find answers, but as a space charged with the energy to search and question. It should provide people with the strength to awaken their own belief, while doubting and questioning, while remaining sceptical and yet listening. In this way, inner certainties can be perceived differently or built upon by the individual. According to an ancient theological distinction, it is the pastorally based change of focus from a fides quae to a fides qua, from a belief as a credo oriented towards content to an orientation towards the vital preoccupation with an active, creative belief in form and practice.

For this kind of orientation, the sacral space as a freed space from which everything has been cleared away is an essential prerequisite. This does not signify deconstructing a church into a factory building. On the contrary. Even a bare space requires bold, abstract shapes to lend it a sacred, dignified character. In particular, however, it requires freedom from superfluous furnishings that at best represents a confessional environment – and the complacency of its staff. Modern sacral space must be freed of its apparent non-ambiguousness to recover its openness and complex variety of meanings. This does not mean iconoclasm. In a Catholic church, for example, it means a careful consideration in selecting the location for the altar, the cross, the Madonna and possibly even for the patron saint of the church. But the rest should remain mobile so that the architectural design of the sacral space can free itself and be more clearly open to sacredness, not to mention to a wider range of liturgical use. The sacral atmosphere of a space opens up a dynamic dimension. It should not crammed full and be degenerated to mere statics. The aesthetic effort given to spaces allows the church space itself to become a multi-dimensional image again, if not to say: an existential stage. They should not provide people with answers, but open up ways for them to find their personal belief. In this respect, such spaces reveal paths and tracks of the mysterious God in this world. In the life and message of Jesus, these paths are foretold; within the church space the visitor can at best find indications of them. Whether he touches their truth depends on his following these tracks. The space itself merely tries to intensify the atmosphere. It allows pointers to appear.

Friedhelm Mennekes

Explanatory notes
Schmitz P. 284.