“In the arts, one may find peace and contentment, for we may use our ability to transform our inner energy in a satisfying manner.”
—Melita Rodeck, AIA
Architect Melita Rodeck established the Regina Institute of Sacred Art in the late 1950s—shortly after forming her own architectural firm—with the purpose of bringing together design professions to help establish a set of standards for the quality of sacred art. A large part of the organizational mission involved “educat[ing] parishioners about the psychological need and emotional impact of good design.” The institute also helped parishes to realize the significance of these ideas by participating in their efforts to redesign and redecorate religious spaces. (IAWA newsletter, no. 8, Fall 1996)
Perhaps more significantly, one can look at Rodeck’s work with religious architectural spaces within the context of a much longer history dealing with what sacred art, architecture, and design should be expected to accomplish. Of particular relevance is the history of Catholic artistic engagement, with its strong implications that a sense of sacred beauty was essential to the message of eternal life and divine bliss. (Saward, John. “The Poverty of the Church and the Beauty of the Liturgy.” The Institute for Sacred Architecture 31 (Spring 2017).) This same notion is supported in the work of the Second Vatican Council, which dealt at length with religious art in the 1963 Sacrosanctum Concilium. Among the many doctrinal concepts outlined in this document were notions such as “of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands.” The document further directed that such arts should “seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display.” (“Chapter VII: Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings.” In Sacrosanctum Concilium. Second Vatican Council, 1963.)
The Sacrosanctum Concilium further specifies that art can and should be reflective of the times and acknowledges that all manners of artistic styles have been embraced throughout the history of the Catholic church. This bears heavily on Rodeck’s approach to architectural design in these spaces, which is extensively modernist in its execution and carefully uses light, form, color, and scale to shape the experience within the space.
This reflects a modernist sensibility of human-space interactions, moving away from a dependence on highly narrative interpretations of religious interiors in favor of evoking emotional responses to elements of the built environment. This approach also reflects a concern with religious harmony, and a tendency to encourage slightly decentralized expressions of devotion through the acts of meditation and contemplation, which are not necessarily rooted in any particular religious tradition. This is the emotional impact of good design that Rodeck spoke about—it has the power to elicit a palpable and immersive connection, to invite parishioners to examine their own relationships with the mysterious, the sacred, the divine, and the spiritual.
In The Role of Religious Art Over 50 Years: An Assessment, James Hadley concludes that “the power of religious arts of the past 50 years has been their capacity to invite us to gaze more intently into the fragment, the incomplete reality we feel has seized us, and there begin to perceive the possibility of human psycho-spiritual and physical wholeness restored in the divine.” (Hadley, James. Faith & Form: The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art, and Architecture 50, no. 3 (September 1, 2017).) This sentiment is certainly reflected in Rodeck’s approach to creating spaces that are beautiful and minimal, that in their simplicity encourage meditation, connection, and reflection, and that are capable of stirring profoundly complex experiences.
Materials from the Melita Rodeck Architectural Collection can be viewed in the Special Collections Reading Room at the Virginia Tech Libraries.