Swooping naves, intimate cloisters, glistening stained glass windows: if there’s one thing religious architecture never skimps on, it’s drama. So it’s no surprise that art galleries often turn to churches, monasteries and seminaries to elevate their works.
From the raw theatre of Berlin’s converted Brutalist beauty, the König Galerie, to the contemplative scenery of the nondenominational Rothko Chapel in Texas, these venues vary wildly in how they respond to – or react against – their divine origins.
Here are 10 spectacular churches for art pilgrims that speak to this holy union.
Previously a fire station, meat market, library, and Naval Museum, the St Nikolaj Church in central Copenhagen has served as a venue for contemporary art since the 1950s. Its site-specific installations ‘bring the past and present together under the same roof,’ says Nikolaj’s director, Andreas Brøgger while, while its spiritual origins ‘add a subtle extra layer’ to the exhibitions. The gallery’s minimalist graphic identity nonchalantly plays with the building’s religious past with phrases like ‘Let There Be Art’ and the Magritte-inspired, ‘This Is Not A Church.’
As the new kid on the block, the König Galerie only expanded into its sacred digs in Kreuzberg in 2015. The Brutalist church was completed in 1962 by Werner Düttmann and was later renovated by architect Arno Brandlhuber.
It now serves as exhibition space for the König’s collection.
The Rothko Chapel opened its doors in 1971 as a place of worship for people from all faith traditions. John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Mark Rothko to create the Chapel, and he worked closely with its three architects, Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry, to realise its design.
‘The art and architecture are one, as the paintings do not rotate; The Chapel is a pilgrimage site for both modern art lovers and spiritual seekers,’ says executive director Alison Pruitt. Open year-round, the Chapel is host to a rich public programme that tackles topics of spirituality, human rights and social justice as well as regular church services.
St Peter’s Seminary – Cardross, Scotland
Brutalist edifice St Peter’s Seminary is undergoing a revival spearheaded by Glasgow arts group NVA, after sitting derelict for 25 years. It opened fleetingly for a dazzling light installation in 2016, but works to the building to create a mixed-use gallery and performance space will begin soon.
The colossal structure was designed by architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia and operated as a seminary for just 14 years before being abandoned. When it opens fully, it’ll have 600-seat performance space that retains the integrity and drama of the original Modernist structure. NVA is stabilising the building, but has chosen a form of ‘partial restoration’. Speaking to us at the start of the process in 2015, creative director Angus Farquhar said: ‘NVA’s plans represent an unheralded form of regeneration; one that accepts loss and ruination as part of the site history.’ Future art interventions will turn it into a ‘living sculpture’.
Museo Bailo – Treviso, Italy
This 16th-century former monastery has undergone a significant upgrade by Studiomas architetti and Heinz Tesar, who won the bid for its restoration in 2010.
In addition to a new cross-shaped façade, its extension includes a new arcade and 1,000 sq m gallery. Sand-coloured stucco, terrazzo, Carrara marble, glass, and white cement give the museum an airy feeling that’s strikingly contemporary.
A Baroque style monastery dating from the 1800s now houses the Municipal Picture Gallery and the Contemporary City History Collection of Budapest. Its cheery yellow exterior speaks little of the dramatic cavernous interiors that play host to cutting-edge installations and performances by an international roster of artists.
Once a Catholic Boys School, the Singapore Art Museum houses the world’s largest public collection of contemporary Southeast Asian artworks. It ‘remains true to its original mission of education in art,’ stresses Provost and Lee Kong Chian chair professor Lily Kong.
Church of San Pellegrino – Lucca, Italy
Microscape is behind this extremely low-key (and low cost) church conversion – now a gallery space that houses Polo Museale Toscano’s collection of sculptures. One-upping Damien Hirst’s Venice Biennale show Wreckage, 200 or so (authentic!) relics are scattered throughout the church, like the precious hidden treasure of a benevolent deity.
The architectural add-ons are sparse while the occasional burst of artificial light lends an otherworldly glow.
Provencher Roy + Associés led the conversion of the former Erskine and American Church into a 460-seat concert hall alongside the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion – a six-floor gallery that houses the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’s historical and contemporary Quebec and Canadian art. It increased the museum’s space by a whopping 20%.
Gallerist Paul Johnson purchased this 50,000 sq ft cathedral in Detroit via auction for just $7,000. He invested $250,000 reviving the 1919 structure, giving it a facelift (and a new roof) before opening it last summer as a gallery with inaugural show War Games. ‘This building might never be worth that money, but it’s about the events we can have in it,’ said Johnson, who set up the JTG Detroit Project to oversee the cathedral’s renaissance. ‘Hopefully the building takes on a life of its own.’ Watch this space for details about upcoming shows…