Book Review – How to Read a Church

Readers may be interested to see the following brief review of How to Read a Church that I prepared for the free Catholic book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.  Tiber River is the first Catholic book review site, started in 2000 to help readers make informed decisions about Catholic book purchases.

As an Architect focused on the renewal of Catholic sacred architecture, I enjoyed How to Read a Church quite a bit.  Author Richard Taylor presents the material well, in a readable manner, and the list of subject matter is quite thorough.  Simple black and white illustrations are provided throughout the text, with several plates of grayscale photography in the center of the book.  All of the illustrations are of course an essential aspect for a work describing saints and symbols in ecclesiastical art and architecture.

The readership seems to be the real question here.  The volume is perhaps small enough for a pilgrim to carry along for a journey to visit the churches of western Europe, but the impression one has is that this book is probably more applicable for the student than for the traveller.

The book does a good job of referencing the many scriptural foundations for these selected symbols, but is unfortunately quite lacking in terms of referencing actual installed artworks or particular buildings that have employed the symbols or portrayed particular saints in the manner described. 

There is a brief presentation of historical background on a good many saints that is used to support the reasons for their traditional symbolic accoutrements.  The book is a nice resource in that regard.

The theological content I found to be quite solid – although readers should know that the author is writing from the Anglican perspective.  That said, he takes some pains to make his text general enough so that Catholic readers will find little to object to.  He does stop short on occiasion when the Catholic mind is aware of a bit more richness belonging to one symbol or another.

I can’t say that the book is well footnoted, as the author would have done a better service to students with more complete sourcing of the historical information he offers. On the other hand, the index is quite good, and the ‘Further Reading’ list is solid.

All I found it to be a good work, and probably helpful to anyone who is a moderately knowlegable student of art and architecture, well suited for a high school reserach project or the like.  Good to have on the shelf as the occaisional reference for those involved with sacred art and architecture.

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