Newsletter Issue:
Fall 2022

Norman Foster’s Vatican Chapel: A Hermeneutical Analysis

by Mike Hogan, Cohort ’20

If the United States is a bellwether of global trends, organized Christian religion is experiencing severe and impactful stresses to once-settled principles. On the one hand, notions of proper behavior toward fellow human beings, which historically have often been inspired by the ethical, humane actions of Jesus Christ as recounted in the New Testament of the Bible, appear out of vogue. In their place, aggressive behavior toward those who express contrary views to one’s own, in the form of so-called “culture wars,” becomes de rigeur behavior of the Christian. On the other hand, the classical awe-inspiring standards for construction of places of worship, which emphasized the height of an enclosed space in which sound and light resonate, have been forsaken in favor of wide, squat mega-churches designed less to inspire than to accommodate masses of Christian worshipers who seek affirmation in being part of the most populous congregations. Norman Foster designed his Vatican Chapel, part of the Holy See’s 2018 Venice Biennale Pavilion at the island of San Giorgio in Venice, against these seemingly disconnected trends. Several unique characteristics of his non-traditional design suggest both an awareness of this background as well as a reconciliation of their apparent inconsistencies in its rendering of the chapel as metaphor.

The curator for the Holy See sought architects who would bring different expressive languages to contemporary re-interpretations of a chapel designed by the Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund in 1920 which featured a triangular roof supported by thin columns. While revolutionary in its historical reference to the hut and temple structures, Asplund’s chapel maintained the classic enclosed chapel motif in which light enters the structure through windows – in this case, skylights. Its effects, then, were drawn from the historical notion of what the chapel represented – that is, an enclosed structure designed to inspire the piety and prayerfulness of visitors by the very essence of the chapel’s architectural configuration. The chapel thus played its anticipated role to direct the viewer to the experience sanctioned by the church. Norman Foster’s 2018 re-interpretation forsakes the enclosed structure through which light enters in a controlled manner for an open “architectural” structure that is entirely exposed at time of construction and which may partially be covered with the passing of time by jasmine plants. The lack of epidermal exterior definition and the consequent reliance entirely on natural lighting in Foster’s chapel challenges the very meaning of what a chapel is. What are we to make of this?

The classical enclosed structure of places of worship has served to reinforce the Christian church’s ideal of a curated prayer experience. Organized Christianity, and the Catholic Church, in particular, has sought to define what its congregants should believe and how they should experience these beliefs. Through these and related actions by the church hierarchy, the chapel has come to represent the closed, curated experience church leaders prescribed. Foster’s architectural economies challenge these presumptions quite simply and forcefully by their predisposition to unfettered exposure to nature – to the flora that embellishes its planks, to the fauna that may enter its sanctuary, and to the infinite sea which lies beyond its altar. If the enclosed chapel has come to signify the constrictions of the hierarchical Christian experience, then Foster’s chapel is a metaphor for what Christianity is not – that is, for an open and inclusive religion that encourages natural, non-curated contemplative experience in celebration of and unity with nature. As metaphor, his chapel is aspirational, seeking to achieve the antithesis of contemporary Christianity’s emphasis on mega-structures and culture wars (at least in its North-American version). Paul Ricoeur has astutely observed that metaphor is an act of predication and not of denomination (158). Although it is aspirational as a direction in which the Church ought to head, Foster’s effort with the Vatican Chapel nonetheless demonstrates the accuracy of Ricoeur’s assertion: through his metaphor of the Chapel as the Christianity it is not, he offers not a redenomination of what Christianity is, but a subservience of what it is to what it ought to be.

1. Norman Foster, Vatican Chapel, Island of San Giorgio, Venice, 2018.

2. Norman Foster, Vatican Chapel, Island of San Giorgio, Venice, 2018.
3. Norman Foster, Vatican Chapel, Island of San Giorgio, Venice, 2018.

4. Norman Foster, Vatican Chapel, Island of San Giorgio, Venice, 2018.

By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.