Theology and Architecture of the Chapel
As Philip Johnson, who designed the Chapel, explains it, the building consists of three basic geometric shapes: a cube for the body of the church, a sphere for the dome and a granite plane connecting these shapes, by intersecting both the dome and the cube.
The Chapel anchors one end of the Academic Mall, opposite the library at the other end, symbolizing the balance of faith and reason, a central tenet of the University of St. Thomas.
Approaching the Chapel from the Academic Mall, the entrance is in the form of a huge tent flap representing the opening of the Tent of Meeting of the Old Testament. The lack of a door or barrier invites all into the narthex to meet their God.
Inside, the fascinating play of natural light – from the dome, from the skylight over the altar and over the statue of Our Lady on the east wall, as well as from the tilted glass cross in the west wall – is perhaps the first impression striking the visitor. This light, reflected against the whiteness of the walls, makes the interior space alive, as it constantly changes with the intensity and direction of the light. Within this play of light all the elements of the interior cooperate to create a space of quietness – one would like to call it of "visual silence" – and thus a natural shell for prayer and contemplation.
Because of the diagonal position of the granite wall, the axis of the building shifts almost imperceptibly as one enters it. Facing the sweeping Renaissance-like facade of the Chapel from the piazza, the visitor expects the longitudinal axis of the whole Mall to continue also within the Chapel, as it does in older churches: through the door in the middle of the facade one’s eye encounters the main altar, with the tabernacle placed on it, in the center of the apse.
With our Chapel, however, this is not the case. To start with, the opening is slightly off-center; you are led away from the expected central axis. This realization is confirmed and reinforced as you enter the sanctuary area through a door which is at an angle to the walls of the cube. Consequently, what you seem to be walking "toward" most directly is not the center of the back wall but the place on the wall where the tabernacle is located slightly to the left of the curved apse.
This creates a dynamic tension between the logic of the Chapel cube and the actual logic of the Chapel interior and makes it possible for things to occupy the emotional and aesthetic center of the space without actually being at the physical center. For instance, the crucifix in the apse is not at the geometric center of the wall or the apse. This drawing of attention to the tabernacle, with its eternal light, is important for Catholics because it reminds them of the real personal presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated Bread reserved in the Tabernacle.
There is another significant shift. For all those sitting in the pews the altar moves into the central position, stressing its role as the place of the Eucharist in the sacramental memorial of the saving sacrifice of Christ.