Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.

Art and the Church

Belgium: Sint Pauluskerk, Westmalle

Sint Pauluskerk in Westmalle, Belgium
Organic Unity in the Woods
by Albert Hengelaar
How can you conceal a church and make it stand out at the same time? A good example of this can be found in Westmalle in Belgium, where architect Marc Dessauvage (1931-1984) left behind the most striking of his 15 realized church designs. It is a project that also carries the stamp of the visionary local pastor and according to Dessauvage also of the building committee of the congregation, which asked him to make his design ‘more mild.’ The architect expressed his thankfulness for this. It helped him in the evolution of his ideas about a ‘clear, direct and serving architecture.’
The question we started off with is confusing. The landscape of West Europe is after all marked by nothing more than churches. Whether it is in a village or a big city, at sea or in the mountains, the church tower still functions as a physical route planner. Not in Westmalle. You drive out of the village and turn into a forest road and after 50 meters you enter the parking lot of the church. The unusual design of the building tells you that you have arrived at a special structure. A robust concrete cross stands protectively in front of the church that is surrounded by woods. The parish centre can only be reached by a forest trail. And that is how it was intended.
Before you enter, the church feels a bit dark – a feeling that disappears as soon as you are inside. Through a maximum of window surface the reception hall is filled with light while at the same time making a connection with the garden.
Everywhere in this spacious structure the same materials come back: bricks, grey concrete, concrete pillars, windows with wooden frames and white ceilings. This sobriety and unity lend an atmosphere of peace and calm to the complex. Once inside the worship space the multilateral form is the first thing that strikes you. The benches are arranged in three segments facing each other and the altar.
Sitting in one of the benches and looking in the direction of the liturgical centre the visitor does not have any horizontal eye contact with the world outside of the church. Behind and above the believers there are, however, large slanting windows that are all light, trees and sky. The architect: ‘Nature is flowing through the building, without however robbing it of its intimacy around the choir. That intimacy is, no matter how paradoxical this may seem, enlarged by it, as the light now streams from above, forming a beautiful circle around the altar.’
Erik De Smet writes in Kerk en Leven that Dessauvage fully empathized with the spirit of Vatican II. That becomes very clear when the architect speaks of ‘a looser arrangement in unequal groups that gather around the priest in a much more spontaneous manner.’ The architect wanted to tie in with the ‘villa style,’ resulting in what could be called a spiritual sitting room.
Here and there sculptures add their meaning to the large brick walls. Especially the crucifix by Rik Van Schil from 2005 is a sculpture of great merit and significance. You can look at these eyes for a long time: loving and tender, full of tranquillity and wisdom. There are also two sculptures by Jan Ceustermans, made around 1960.
Even after the pastor passed away the congregation in Westmalle continues to hold this church in high esteem. The artistic gifts of its members are put to good use and the building is available for concerts as well.
There is no coffee room in this church. For a drink the believers first have to take the forest trail to the parish centre. The church is a place of worship. In this way it is very clear why one has come.
Photos Michaël Marynissen