Transcendant architecture: St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, Vancouver

Dome, St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church, Vancouver, 1983

Dome, St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, Vancouver, 1983

We have a need for what I would call ‘the transcendent’ or ‘the numinous’ or even ‘the ecstatic,’ which comes out in love and music, poetry, and landscape. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t respond to things of that sort. But I think the cultural task is to separate those impulses and those needs and desires from the supernatural and, above all, from the superstitious. ~Christopher Hitchens

I’m not a pious person. If anything, I have an an antagonistic relationship to organized religion, perhaps inspired by compulsory morning prayers — Assembly, as it was called — endured at English schools. Among us working-class wags, hymn singing became a contest to substitute ribald lyrics rude enough to reduce nearby schoolmates to hysterics.

A stint in Scouts, where Sunday service was encouraged, also exposed me to the sanctimonies of the church. I was more interested in the art of knot-craft and kindling fires, than fire and brimstone. I recall bringing down the wrath of god (or his earthly administrators) by starting a spud-gun shootout during prayers. Returning from a Lent service with a palm cross was cause for some concern for my agnostic parents.

Yet I have a great appreciation for church architecture and undying respect for the craftsmen, especially stonemasons, behind such wonders.

My English heritage instilled a reverence for historic buildings, both holy and secular — cathedrals, castles, stately homes … not to forget pubs, like Nottingham’s Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. Some of my earliest memories include the exploration of such ancient places, including the latter establishment’s caverns, echoing with ale-inspired jubilation.

The church dome pictured above is, by comparison to those antiquities, a young acolyte. The Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Parish was established in Vancouver in 1911. The present site at 550 West 14th Avenue, a few blocks from my apartment in 1983, was purchased on June 15, 1962. The Byzantine-style church, designed by renowned New York City architect Julian Jastremsky, was completed just a year before I made the photograph.

My interest in the beautiful dome arose from another (perhaps more arcane) rite, observed by many photographers of my generation: the sacred rituals of Ansel Adams’ Zone System. Using a spot meter to calculate exposure, I measured the reflected luminances of the scene, from the deep shadows under the backlit “web” of the glass dome, through the midtones of the ribs, to the highlights of the window arch (now decorated with stained-glass). Printing from that negative (made with Ilford FP4 film, exposed at 125ASA, developed in Perceptual 1:1 for 15 minutes) I “conducted the score,” as Adams’ musical metaphor would have it, hoping to reproduce the full “symphony” of tones, from shadowed bass to the subtle high key notes.

These days, of course, prints are made on the latest pigment printers from a digital scan.

Like the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens, I concur that great art, including the soaring architecture stirred by religion, ultimately aspires to communicate the numinous —perhaps a longing for a greater connection to the sacred. Certainly, religious edifices often constructed over generations, give a sense of transcending the of boundaries our fleeting lives.

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