Industrial vs. Cistercian Austerity: Dominikus Böhm’s Modernism


Domikus Böhm’s Heilig-Kreuz Kirche in Dülmen

Heiligenkreuz_Innenhof-Kirchenfassade 2005The Romanesque Facade of the Abbey Church in Heiligenkreuz

In a fascinating series Shawn Tribe and Matthew Alderman, have been examining what they call “The Other Modern” in sacred architecture: architecture which learns from the tradition rather than rejecting it, but which nevertheless has a peculiarly modernist flair. One of the questions which they have raised is whether it is possible to make use of elements of modernist minimalism and austerity in an authentically Catholic fashion. Even if the avante garde of modernism tended to use minimalism as an expression of nihilism, or the as a revolutionary demonstration of man’s self-alienation in his works, are there no other uses possible? Could one use a form of modernist austerity to achieve “noble simplicity”? There have certainly been architects who thought that it could, and the “Other Modern” series has brought some interesting examples to light. There have, after all, been examples of austere architecture in the Church’s past, Tribe and Alderman raise the example of Cistercian architecture.

The question of modernist vs. Cistercian austerity came to my mind last summer when I took a tour of the Heilig-Kreuz Kirche in Dülmen, built by the German architect, vestment designer, and composer Dominikus Böhm. Now, Böhm’s architecture is not an example of the “Other Modern”–it is simply modern–but I think a consideration of  it can help to show what it is about modern austerity that a successful Other Modern has to avoid. Böhm was an enthusiastic proponent of the twentieth century Liturgical Movement, and, while a convinced modernist, he included allusions to traditional architectural styles – especially the Romanesque – in his buildings for the sake of better expressing his theology. The tour guide, who lead some of my confreres and me through the Church, made a point of comparing Böhm’s architecture in general with Cistercian architecture, and Dülmen in particular with our Abbey Church in Heiligenkreuz, which has some striking coincidental similarities to Heilig-Kreuz Dülmen.

This has set me thinking on what exactly the meaning of austerity was for the Cistercian Fathers, and how it relates to the turn to austerity in the ecclesiastical architects of the industrial age, especially those associated with the Liturgical Movement. For S. Bernard austerity in architecture was part of monastic perfection. In the Apology to William S. Bernard writes the following:

I say nothing of the enormous height, extravagant length and unnecessary width of the churches, of their costly polishings and curious paintings which catch the worshipper’s eye and dry up his devotion, things which seem to me in some sense a revival of ancient Jewish rites. Let these things pass, let us say they are all to the honor of God. Nevertheless […] I as a monk ask my fellow monks: […] “Tell me, poor men, if you really are poor what is gold doing in the sanctuary?” There is no comparison here between bishops and monks. We know that the bishops, debtors to both the wise and unwise, use material beauty to arouse the devotion of a carnal people because they cannot do so by spiritual means. But we who have now come out of that people, we who have left the precious and lovely things of the world for Christ, we who, in order to win Christ, have reckoned all beautiful, sweet-smelling, fine-sounding, smooth-feeling, good-tasting things– in short, all bodily delights–as so much dung, what do we expect to get out of them? (S. Bernard, Apologia ad Guillelmum abbatem)

The contrast that he makes to cathedral churches is illuminating. He is willing to grant that for the “fleshly people” lavish decoration can be a means to arousing devotion; for them it is a good thing that leads them to God, but it is not fitting to monks. For S. Bernard not all ways to God are equal, and the monk is supposed to try to follow the most perfect way. One can compare S. Bernard’s teaching on marriage to his teaching on art. Marriage is a good thing and a way to God, but it is not the most perfect way to God— virginity is a more perfect way. Similarly, lavish art is a good thing, which can arouse devotion, but it is more perfect to do without it. The monks are called to give up all consolations of the senses, to concentrate entirely on the unum necessarium.

Now compare the passage from S. Bernard with one from a biography of the controversial twentieth century Catholic craftsman and sculptor Eric Gill:

[Gill’s] concern to root out the fake in art led him to praise machine-made reinforced buildings, without however deviating from his belief that ‘Industrialization whatever the grandeur of its products is ultimately incompatible with the nature of man’. His own experience in an architects office had been of providing scale drawing of fake Gothic ornaments. and once for both sides of a wrought iron gate! No wonder then that he […] said it was more honest to be true to our machine society and to make buildings, furniture and utensils that are un-adorned, functional and true to their materials. ‘Plainness is a negative virtue, it is a privation, an asceticism’. (Malcolm Yorke, Eric Gill: Man of Flesh and Spirit, p. 93)

Gill had a great love of ornamentation, and he saw austerity as an unfortunate necessity forced on man by the Industrial Revolution, which had turned ornamentation into kitsch. In his essay “Twopence Plain, Penny Coloured” he argues that plainness is a necessity of the moment to wean the people of bad taste, but that (once the distributist-agrarian movement has succeeded) it will be time to return to the ornate. For Gill the austere is inferior to the ornate, but unfortunately necessary in our degraded circumstances. That is nearly the opposite of S. Bernard’s teaching; S. Bernard thinks the ornate is inferior, but may be justified for the sake of those who are not willing to chose the way of perfection. But despite this opposition between S. Bernard’s and Gill’s positions, I think that architects like Böhm combine aspects of both. Let us take a look at the Heilig-Kreuz Kirche in Dülmen, comparing and contrasting it to Heiligenkreuz.

The massive stone exterior makes obvious references to the Romanesque, but it is free of all ornament save for a huge rose window, designed by Böhm.

Rose Window - Copy

The Rose Window in Dülmen

Heiligenkreuz_Abteikirche-Langhaus-Drei Fenster 023

The Western Windows in Heiligenkreuz

The interior is shaped like a big rectangular box, with a flat ceiling supported by steel rafters. The nave is very dark with only small widows near the ceiling.

Interior Facing West

The Nave towads the West in Dülmen

Heiligenkreuz_Abteikirche Abendlicht 2003 - 3

The Nave towads the West in Heiligenkreuz

The darkness of the nave stands in intentional contrast to the light which floods into the church from hidden windows behind the sanctuary, which is raised unusually high. By coincidence, this leads to a similar effect to that caused in the Abbey Church in Heiligenkreuz, by the joining of the dark, Romanesque nave to a huge Gothic sanctuary whose windows let in a blaze of glory, signifying the heavenly Jerusalem.Interior Facing East

Interior toward the East in Dülmen


Interior toward the East in Heiligenkreuz


Interior at Dülmen toward the South


Sanctuary at Heiligenkreuz

The theological idea behind Böhm’s use of light was deeply rooted in the Liturgical Movement of his day. The dark nave signifies the human condition in the darkness of sin. Today the altar has been taken out of the sanctuary and placed at the front of the nave, but originally the altar was not only up on the high platform of the sanctuary, but it was farther raised by three steps. All eyes where to be drawn to the sacred sacrifice taking place on the altar. On the altar was a tabernacle with a relief of the Last Supper. The light flooding in from behind made the altar and tabernacle appear as a black silhouette. This gives a picture of all of salvation history; man is saved from the darkness of sin by passing through the death of the cross into the glory of the Resurrection. Behind the sanctuary the floor falls again to the level of the nave, forming a kind of chapel where the 19th century mystic Bl. Anna Katharina Emmerick is buried. From the nave one can see neither the floor of the Emmerick chapel, nor the windows at its sides, giving a remarkable impression of an infinite realm of light.

sanctuary The Sanctuary in Dülmen Today


The Sanctuary in Dülmen in 1939

5791647_l Dominikus Böhm’s Tabernacle, showing the Last Supper

Sanctuary Lamp

Dominikus Böhm’s Sanctuary Lamp

At first it seems that Böhm uses austere simplicity for reasons very close to S. Bernard. He wanted a complete lack of distraction, a complete concentration on the mystery of salvation that is made present on the altar. But Böhm does not see this austerity as tied to a particularly state in life—he wants it for all Christians. There is a kind of one-size-fits-all attitude to the 20th century Liturgical Movement, that is probably tied to modern egalitarianism, and perhaps also to attitude toward human life fostered by industrialism. And it is its roots in the industrial that is perhaps the chief aesthetic difference between Böhm’s architecture and Cistercian Romanesque. The huge expanses of featureless steel, glass, and concrete which Böhm uses have the kind of machine-like quality, which Gill thought of as the most honest way of building in our age. But this machine-aesthetic is very different from the Cistercian aesthetic. The Cistercian Romanesque is ordered to withdrawing from the beauties of the visible world to seek God alone, but it does not deny those beauties. Even in its plainness, Cistercian architecture has a human quality; the proportions, the workmanship, the few ornamental details—they all speak of a basically friendly world, one which it is a real sacrifice to give up. The machine aesthetic has a kind of Manichean contempt for the material world; its featureless expanses of industrial perfection speak of a world which is basically alien to man. Far from showing the visible as a world of sensible delight, from which one withdraws into the desert to be alone with God, it tries to de-mask the world as a basically ugly, strange place, in which there is no danger of our feeling at home anyway. Böhm does achieve a certain grandeur, but it is a grandeur (to quote Gill again) ‘ultimately incompatible with the nature of man’. For the “Other Modern” Böhm’s industrial austerity can serve as an example of what to avoid.


Windows in the South wall of the Sanctuary at Dülmen

Photo Credits: here; here; here; and in Holgar Brühl’s brilliant article, “Architektur, Macht und Übermacht. Thesen zur Architektur Dominikus Böhms in den 1930er Jahren,” in: Münster 58.1 (2005) pp. 45-52, at p. 47.

12 thoughts on “Industrial vs. Cistercian Austerity: Dominikus Böhm’s Modernism

  1. Dear Pater Edmund,

    I enjoyed this article on modern and cistercian architecture. It has made a few things clear in my mind which I have often thought about. I like modern art and architecture, but when it is destined for the Church I think special sensitivity is needed. I am all for the ‘Other Modern.’ I think the architect of the Cistercian church in Dallas achieved this.


  2. Frater Edmund,

    First of all, you have an excellent blog.

    As to this post, one of the biggest problems with the church in Dülmen is that it is completely whitewashed. Whitewashing a church is one of the quickest ways to ruin a church because it destroys any natural feeling. Contrast the Dülmen church, as Brother Ignatius suggests, with the abbey church in Dallas: simply using real stone improves it a lot and gives it a warm feeling that invites one to stay, but the sparseness of the interior forces one to focus. At the same time, though, when stone isn’t used at the church in Dallas, it sticks out like a sore thumb, such as the concrete pillars on the side aisles and the metal poles supporting the lectern.

    It also seems to me that a lot of modern church architecture self-consciously strives to achieve a Verfremdungseffekt but instead ends up simply alienating the worshiper. The Dülmen church seems like a good example–there was obviously a real attempt to play with lighting and elevation, but something went wrong.


  3. First of all, the reordering of this Böhm church is deplorable. The substitution of the the cross of the Resurrection for the old high altar subverts the architect’s intentions entirely. These reorderings play havoc even more with Liturgical Movement churches that with older and more traditional sacred spaces because, as you observe in your (very enjoyable) post these buildings were conceived to illuminate the liturgy in pristine clarity. I wonder if you have seen Schwarz’s Fronleichnamskirche in Aachen where a very unfortunate ‘stage/platform’ extension to the sanctuary has left the former altar as a very sorry and symbolically impoverished place of reservation?

    But I do slightly take issue with your casting of Bohm’s intentions as manichean. Thinking of his other churches and the stretching of materials, especially brick, to the limits of structural tolerances, the exultation of the plastic qualities of concrete in his use of parabolic arches and, here, looking at the image of the old altar, a magnificent, honed piece of stone standing island like in the sanctuary, it is difficult not to see D Bohm as being as in love with the possibilities of formal expression in broad continuity with tradition as he evidently was with the preconciliar liturgy.

    As an aside to that para., couldn’t one argue that the whole 20C. thrust of magisterial teaching on the liturgy, 30-odd years, by that point, of participatio actuosa, led Böhm along this path to start with? His architecture refocuses on the liturgy not for egaliterian reasons so much as the desire to foster the authentic participation of all in the ritual of the Church. Now, what happens when you deform the liturgy is evident here; an architecture that has no secondary manifestations of piety to fall back on; just emptiness. This is, I feel, the substantive criticism of his approach.

    I wonder, have you seen/visited his son Gottfreid’s pilgrimage church at Neviges? In my opinion, this is the only modern sacred space that has filled me with awe in a way that more ancient buildings have done. I’d be most interested to hear your opinion of it.

    Giles Heather


    • I definitely think that you are right that it would be a stretch to call Böhm’s intentions Manichean. There is a big difference, though, between the churches he built in the 20s, when he did most of his exalting in the plastic possibilities of materials, and the much more austere and boxy churches that he started building in the 30s. I think the aesthetic in the 30s churches owes a lot to certain a kind of Moderinism that is Manichean. But that is not to say that Böhm himself had Manichaen intentions, only that there was a kind of built-in Manichaenism in the architectural idiom that he (at least partially) adopted. I had been thinking of this idiom in terms of industrialism, but JXAlayo made a really point in the thread on this at the NLM ( that in fact what Böhm is primarily influenced by here is Fascist Monumentalism. There is a really brilliant article by Holgar Brühl (unfortunately not available online) where he shows how Böhm’s change in style in the 1930s is a reaction to the Nazi-Regime in Germany; he used the architectural idiom of Fascist Monumentalism to challenge the totalitarian power of the State (along the lines of Card. Innitzer’s famous “our only Führer is Jesus Christ!”).
      I totally agree that post-conciliar re-ordering was a complete disaster for Dülmen. At the NLM thread Gregor Kollmorgen raises an interesting question about this: “The scheme with the (very) elevated sanctuary is very typical of pre-war liturgical movement churches and follows the concept of the “Wegekirche”, in which priest and people together are on their way towards the returning Lord. Ironic that so much emphasis was put on ad orientem by the original liturgical movement, when shortly afterwards it was discarded completely.” I think that the sudden change in focus between the pre-war and post-war Liturgical Movements actually has a lot to do with the fact that while the pre-war Movement tried to take ideas associated with totalitarianism and change their meaning – I think this is was the point of Gommaire Laporta and Pius Parsch’s project of “objective devotion”– the post-war Liturgical Movement had a huge overreaction against anything that looked remotely totalitarian, resulting in the disastrous celebration of feel-good subjectivism that got totally out of control in the 60s and 70s.
      And that brings me to your question about Böhm and the 20C Magisterium’s emphasis on actual participation etc. I think that is how Böhm himself would have seen it, but I think that what you term “an architecture that has no secondary manifestations of piety to fall back on” is the effect of just the over emphasis on objective vs. subjective piety that Pius XII condemns in Mediator Dei. Pius XII was all for “participation actuosa” but he thought that the conclusions which the Liturgical Movement had drawn from this principle were wring.
      I haven’t had a chance to visit Neviges yet. Everyone that I know who has been there has been quite impressed.


  4. Here are some pictures of another church designed by Böhm. (It is attached to a hospital in Cologne.) This church also features a sanctuary placed quite high above the nave, but here they’ve kept the altar in the original sanctuary.


  5. ““The Other Modern” in sacred architecture: architecture which learns from the tradition rather than rejecting it, but which nevertheless has a peculiarly modernist”

    Exactly. Besides, it’s never done otherwise. The postmodernism and the like always shows through.


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  8. Reblogged this on the theological beard and commented:
    A fascinating post. One reason why Church architecture is such an interesting topic is that of its nature it ties into so many other topics. It is the visible of so many invisibles.

    Something that struck me in particular was St. Bernard’s comment concerning paintings and ornamentation vs. simplicity of form. While Bernard’s approach is arguably not compatible with others’ such as the Byzantine, his words at no point struck me as iconoclastic. Whenever I look a pictures of Bohm’s church, however, I cannot help but think “iconoclasm” despite the magnificent light imagery. This especially so since that imagery has been completely negated by the altar being moved after Vatican II.


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