After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, many church buildings were transformed to downplay their Catholic nature. High altars, communion rails, and colorful statues were often discarded in an effort to be more accommodating to the modern world. Lost in this effort was nothing less than a Catholic identity.
However, in the past 20 years, many parishes have seen the importance of a distinctly Catholic building. Traditional churches are making a comeback and Dan Rigali of Daprato Rigali Studios in Chicago is happy to be a part of it. Rigali is carrying on a family tradition that dates back to the 1800s — a tradition that deeply values sacred art’s role in the salvation of souls. Rigali explained this and more to Catholic Digest.
Q: You were raised in an architectural arts family, so was it a foregone conclusion that you’d be working in this field?
A: I had many great work-related experiences growing up in my family. By the time I was in high school I got to help with some basic painting and other things that didn’t require refined artistic capabilities. I enjoyed it, but decided to major in business at the University of Denver. When I graduated in 2009, I initially started working at another company. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my place was really at Daprato Rigali Studios. It became clear to me that sacred art is extremely important — not just for pleasant viewing, but for soul transformation.
Q: What do you say to people who think beautiful churches are too expensive to build?
A: I say that it can be just as expensive to build a mediocre or ugly church as it can be to build a beautiful one. In fact, it can be even more expensive to build a mediocre or ugly church, since modern architecture does not take into account sound principles of building. Flat roofs are just one example: They retain water and cause untold damage. Far better is a soaring roof that not only lets water slide down efficiently, but which causes the onlooker’s glance to go upward. A vertical orientation is very helpful to get one’s mind focused on heavenly things.
The church building and everything in it should be functionally Catholic, so that the liturgy can be conducted properly and so that we can be taught about Catholicism even when no liturgy is taking place. This is a paraphrase of No. 124 of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Q: What do you say to people who think grand artwork is frivolous or that money could be better spent on the poor?
A: It’s not a matter of either/or. The Church has been doing both for nearly two centuries. Not only is sacred art not a hindrance to helping the poor, but it’s actually part of that outreach. We do have material needs, but we also have spiritual ones. In a society that, despite rejecting Christianity in many ways, still retains a respect for helping the materially poor, we don’t think making churches beautiful makes anyone poorer.
Sacred art enriches all of us. It reminds us of the order that exists in the universe: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit maintain everything in being; Mary has a unique role in salvation brought about by her Son; St. Joseph is the patron of the Universal Church and specifically the model of what a husband, father, and worker should be; the nine choirs of angels serve God and help us gain salvation; and so forth. These things are more than worth depicting in glass, stone, marble, plaster, and paint.
Benedict XVI taught about the value of beauty even before becoming pope. In The Ratzinger Report (Ignatius Press, 1985), he was quoted as saying that the only effective arguments for Christianity are the saints and the art which the Church has produced. These two realities are more related than most people think. Both are embodiments of the divine, or making materially present what is spiritually good. Who is more likely to strive after holiness: Someone who has seen glorious representations of it in colorful glass at his church or someone who sees the trees through clear glass at his church?
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: Parishioners have a renewed sense of purpose when beautifying their church, so this becomes evident in their faces and how they act. I really enjoy being a part of that process of making their churches better. There’s an inspirational question: What are you doing today that will matter a hundred years from now? And I like it for two reasons: One is that we have a reasonable hope that in a hundred years all of our projects will still be in place and influencing believers for the better. The second is that in a hundred years I’ll certainly be gone from Earth, but I have a reasonable hope to be in heaven around the people I’ve collaborated with here.