Sacred Art – Recapturing a Treasure

The cathedrals of Chartres, Paris, Cologne, Florence, Siena and Toledo open their doors each day to thousands of pilgrims and tourists alike. They come to look, to gaze and to stand in wonder at these majestic marvels of architecture. Pugin, the famous British architect of the nineteenth century, once remarked that the Gothic style of these magnificent cathedrals was the only architectural and artistic style which Christianity created for itself.

At its birth, the Christian church simply worshipped in the houses of believers, most often those of its wealthier members. The very first followers of Jesus in Galilee assembled as church in St. Peter’s house in Capernaum along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The Christians at Corinth met in the home of the wealthy business couple Aquila and Priscilla (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:19).

When the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century, Christians began to build churches. They simply adopted existing architecture. They turned away from the temples of their pagan neighbors to their basilicas. The temples did not have the space necessary for congregations to gather and worship. But the basilicas did. The basilicas were used as courts of law and as meeting places. Rome’s St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran come from this earliest period of church architecture.

Over the centuries, Church architecture changed both in the East and the West. Gradually, the Orthodox Church introduced strict norms regarding sacred art. This process reached its high point in a 16th century council held in Moscow called “the Council of the Hundred Canons.” Even our Islamic neighbors have rather strict norms that make a mosque immediately recognizable anywhere in the world. Not so the Catholic Church.

Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Modern and Post-Modern: there is no one style that the Church has canonized. In fact, in its document on the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council noted, “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved” (Sacrosanctum concilium, 123).

Different theological points of view, coupled with the technology of each new age, have produced churches whose spires stretch upward to heaven to churches in the round whose simple form encircles the congregation gathered within. In the course of time, there have risen magnificent cathedrals and modest country churches. While not canonizing any particular style, nonetheless, the Church clearly embraces sacred art as a legitimate and needed expression of faith.

However, some more recently built churches and some churches renovated in the last forty years raise a serious question. Does it not appear that “a considerable part of the Church’s cultural and artistic patrimony has been squandered in the name of honesty and simplicity”? (Uwe Michael Lang, “The Crisis of Sacred Art and the sources for its renewal in the thought of Pope Benedict XVI,” Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy, p.105).

Vatican II instructed bishops to “carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 124). Such an admonition almost seems useless in face of the iconoclasm that has stripped so many churches of sacred images and beauty. The desire for simplicity and practicality has led to churches empty of much religious symbolism.

With the Industrial Revolution came steel, plate glass, and mass-produced components. Bold, new imaginative structures arose. Emphasis on form made decoration something of a crime and led to the disappearance of much artistic imaging within our church buildings. Abstract images and splashes of color have replaced the biblical scenes and figures of the Gothic cathedrals that remind the worshippers of their place in the history of salvation and the communion of saints.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the theological emphasis on the people of God gathered for liturgy led to some very healthy changes. Churches have been built to allow for the greater participation of the laity in the liturgy. But there have also been some rather questionable results.

Some churches have the altar situated in the middle of the congregation. At times, this violates the architectural line of the building itself and loses a sense of coherence. As a result, there is structurally no longer the vertical direction of the ancient cathedrals that gently draws the worshipper into the liturgy and upward to heaven.

With a rightful emphasis on the place of music in the liturgy has come the positioning of choirs and musicians in full view of the congregation. At times, this boldly detracts from the worshippers’ attention on the altar and can make worship seem like a performance. With a greater emphasis on music, organ pipes have assumed more than a functional position in church buildings!

Unfortunately, the theological emphasis on the liturgy as action has often led to the removal of the Eucharist from a central position in the Church. Tragically, we have churches with the tabernacle off to the side of the church. Others less felicitously with the tabernacle placed behind the congregation. Peoples’ backs to the Lord! How uncivil! In either case, the position of the tabernacle no longer leads the faithful to adoration and worship.

Removing the tabernacle from the central position in the Church can lead to an anthropocentric view of liturgy. Liturgy easily becomes about us and not about the divine presence into which we are being drawn. When a church positions the tabernacle in a prominent and central place, the worshipper is caught up in the action at the altar and visually led to the Real Presence in the tabernacle.

Sacred art is faith translated into vision. It is both an apologetic of the faith and a catechesis in faith. Both the architecture of the church building and its interior decorations are always at the service of the liturgy.

Sacred art is “oriented toward the infinite beauty of God… redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as [it is] directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God”  (Sacrosanctum concilium, 122). As the Church continues to renew the way in which we celebrate divine worship, ennobling our language of prayer and focusing us on God, there stirs the hope of recapturing the treasure of sacred art within our churches.

Serratelli signature

Source: The Beacon

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34 comments

  1. “Unfortunately, the theological emphasis on the liturgy as action has often led to the removal of the Eucharist from a central position in the Church. Tragically, we have churches with the tabernacle off to the side of the church. Others less felicitously with the tabernacle placed behind the congregation. Peoples’ backs to the Lord! How uncivil! In either case, the position of the tabernacle no longer leads the faithful to adoration and worship.

    Removing the tabernacle from the central position in the Church can lead to an anthropocentric view of liturgy. Liturgy easily becomes about us and not about the divine presence into which we are being drawn. When a church positions the tabernacle in a prominent and central place, the worshipper is caught up in the action at the altar and visually led to the Real Presence in the tabernacle.”

    How sad; and from a bishop leading the USCCB liturgy committee. His opinion reveals a lack of ecclesiological and theological understanding. Liturgy is action – a both/and action. His over-emphasis and choice of words betrays an ideology. “…real presence in the tabernacle…” seems to say it all. Could have sworn that SC focused on the actual eucharistic community and asked that “stored” communion not be used – thus, refocusing away from the tabernacle. He never uses an image from scripture; never uses the term community; but picks quotes from SC and even makes it appear as if B16 would approve of his opinion. Interesting how he starts with art and liturgy and winds up with a statement about tabernacles and eucharistic liturgy.

    1. He never uses an image from scripture; never uses the term community

      What biblical imagery would you have him use? He uses the phrases “communion of saints” and “people of God”, but because he didn’t use the word “community”, and this means what for his essay?

      Bp. Serratelli did not say anything about using “stored” communion; he simply mentioned the acknowledge of the presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle. “Stored” Eucharist is no less Eucharist than “fresh” Eucharist; our reverence to our Lord in the Sacrament should not depend on how many hours ago a Mass was celebrated.

      1. “Stored” Eucharist is no less Eucharist than “fresh” Eucharist; our reverence to our Lord in the Sacrament should not depend on how many hours ago a Mass was celebrated.

        True. But the point of communion is not only to receive Jesus sacramentally present, but to complete the sacrificial action, since an element in any communion sacrifice is the sharing in the victim who has been offered. Of course, the Mass is validly celebrated as long as the priest receives the species consecrated at that Mass, but surely the sign-value of the Mass as sacrifice is diminished if the faithful do not also receive from the elements that have been consecrated at that Mass.

      2. The problem here is the mistaken idea that a tabernacle should be in a focal point of a liturgical space.

        As soon as one insists on that the tabernacle have prominence, then one has the problem of how to treat it during liturgy when it is irrelevant.

        I have long wondered about what Rigali and Burke had in mind in two case when they told the pastors that they had excellent Eucharistic chapels, not holes in the wall or boxes on poles, but that they were being required to put the tabernacle on the wall behind the altar where of necessity the presider would put his back to it during Mass.

    2. When a church positions the tabernacle in a prominent and central place, the worshipper is caught up in the action at the altar and visually led to the Real Presence in the tabernacle.

      It would seem that he is suggesting ocular communion. One can be caught up in the eucharistic celebration with the tabernacle to the side or in a private chapel. His disdain for tabernacles to the side or in a private chapel does not jive with the USCCB Built of Living Stones document. I think we forget the purpose for the tabernacle, that is, reservation for adoration and communion for the sick. I would argue that when we are actively celebrating the eucharist and eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ we can’t give our attention to both the real thing and reserved sacrament.

  2. It would be interesting if someone did a random sampling of churches build in the US at different periods and different styles and had a random sample of people evaluate them. I suspect more recent churches might receive higher approval by any standard, beauty, comfort, inspiring, etc.

    While there are some beautiful old churches, even inspiring ones, many that I grew up with, e.g. where I was baptized, where I made my first communion, etc. were not particularly beautiful or inspiring. They were rather pedestrian, what steelworkers and miners could afford. Both those churches have been made over, but only somewhat improved. I have some sentimental feelings about them, but I would gladly replace them with many of the recently built churches in the suburban area where I currently live.

    The parishes where I currently worship are generally made out of better materials, stone, brick and wood than the older churches. They have different shapes but I like them all because they are not the boxes of my youth. They are all comfortable, beautiful and inspiring.

    There are a lot of practical problems that the bishop mentions: location of altar, tabernacle, choir, etc. Most of the churches around me have not done a very good job of solving these problems. The churches of my youth did not have options in these areas so they were no problems.

    1. Pretty much the best church in your area is St. Martin of Tours in Maple Heights – or at least it was at the time of construction. It’s been crapped up a lot over the past ten years or so; but for a long time it was the show piece of the Diocese. St. Paschal Baylon also fairly amazing, but I forget how they did reservation there. Probably the best chapel in the area is the one at John Carroll – that is a real jewel, and the little tracker is to die for.

    2. Identifying “best” churches, whether in a diocese or in the world as the author did, is the wrong way to approach the issue. The important churches are those where people worship on weekends, not on vacations, or sight seeing trips.

      The Vibrant Parish Life study tells us that the people rank “a church large enough for worship” as #9 out of 39 items in importance; but they rate it #1 in being well done. They rank “Well-maintained parish facilities and grounds” as #12 in importance but #2 in being well done.

      Clearly people are very satisfied with the physical plant of the parish.

      While the church and other buildings are important in their priorities, there are more important things:
      #1. Masses that are prayerful, reverent and spiritually moving
      #2 The parish as a supportive, caring community
      #3 The parish exhibiting a spirit of warmth and hospitality
      #6 New members of the parish are welcomed
      #7 Parish leadership that listens to the concerns of parishioners
      What characterizes these in addition to being in the top 10, is that they are all ranked poorly in being well done (21. 18, 19. 24, and 29 respectively).

      The people are very clear that Christian life (and therefore the parish) is about love of God and love of others. The management is clearly more concerned about buildings than listening to the people and witnessing the Gospel (loving God and neighbor).

      Talking about monumental church buildings is just another way of being obsessed about the importance of money, a common fault of management in most institutions, including non profits.

  3. I’m embarrassed for this prelate. I take it he’s looking beyond Patterson. Do you suppose he missed the part in SC about Christ being truly present in the assembly, in the Word proclaimed, and in the ministry of the priest. But he remembers the preeminent presence in the most holy sacrament of the altar (pardon my small case).

    As I see it, the purpose of finding off center locations for the tabernacle was two-fold: to stress the centrality of the altar where the action of the Eucharist is focused; and to ensure that the priest would not have his back to it. Makes sense to me.

    Remember this is from the same hierarch who has taken the lead in the campaign that promises the same Mass but a richer language (or something like that).

    1. Another reason for Eucharist chapels is so that there is some place for the meditative personal prayer for which many like to use the church building but which is not the functional purpose of specifically liturgical space.

      We are still fighting the mistaken impressions from the times when everyone in the assembly had to find modes of personal prayer while the priest said mass in an incomprehensible style, in a dead language, in a rubrically focused way, and in and ex opere operato mentality. This led to creating architectural diversions and distractions and devotional focal points since no one, not even the priest, was expected to participate in the Eucharist but just be devout and accurate in saying the black and doing the red.

      SC taught entirely different liturgical theology. Too bad this bishop shows signs of not having studied liturgy instead of promoting devotions.

      1. since no one, not even the priest, was expected to participate in the Eucharist but just be devout and accurate in saying the black and doing the red

        Tom, comments like this are just dishonest. Take a look at some hand missals or books on the Mass from before Vatican II and you’ll find that people were expected to participate. The priest wasn’t even expected to participate? Give me a break.

  4. I attended Mass in a church in Stroudsburg, PA, a couple of years ago. The church was your typical cruciform shape, but it was renovated sometime in the 60’s or 70’s to bring the altar into the midst of the congregation. It looked very awkward to me. Forgive the crude ASCII art, but the * marks the location of the sanctuary, against the wall.

    -|-*–

  5. Sorry, tried posting from my PDA earlier and it did not post.

    Art is not an uneducated man, and I am sure he knows the ecclesiology and the documents very well. I suspect he does not wish to be buried in Patterson.

    The sad fact now is that no bishop is free to speak the truth about liturgical matters – unless he has no ambitions.

    This piece was clearly intended for a very small audience, most of them cardinals.

    It is very sad to see bishops – many with great untapped potential – betraying their flock in order to appease those who have the power to advance their aspirations.

      1. Yes, that was my point. It is clear that he wrote this for his overseers to the detriment of his people. I doubt that a man with his training can really believe many of the things he said in that article.

    1. I suspect he does not wish to be buried in Patterson.
      ———————————————-
      I can understand that. So many of the parishes in the bishop’s diocese violate everything he so strongly objects to in his article. The same is true for the rest of the dioceses in
      New Jersey.

      .

    2. Wow, major typo here on my part . . . meant the opposite, Art is INDEED an educated man. Of course he is well schooled in liturgy. That’s the ironic thing; bishops who KNOW the liturgy are prevented from speaking the truth about the liturgy.

  6. Those building not only “draw the worshipper into the liturgy” but also give tourists the spiritual longing that comes from experiencing beauty. For many of us, our church is the most beautiful building in which we spend any length of time in a regular manner and where we can feel at home. Sometimes when I am in France I look forward to going to Mass simply for the pleasure of being inside the church building. Bishop Serratelli is very worried about the symbolic aspects of various pragmatic questions related to his understanding of the liturgy, but he barely touches on the fact that churches, simply by touching us, are an instrument for conversion.

    In terms of linking the architecture and decoration to the liturgy, I wish homilists used those tools at their disposal. In most churches I go to, at Mass I never hear any mention of the religious symbols and imagery surrounding us. Even if the lectionary reading happens to be represented on the stained glass window above our heads, or if we sing a hymn to Mary and there happens to be a statue of her nearby, the liturgy takes place in an oblivious manner, as if those artefacts were invisible. It does not take advantage of the artistic imaging whose disappearance the bishop deplores. That, in my opinion, is a weakness that diminishes the coherence between the physical environment and the liturgy.

    As to the bishop’s criticism on the positions of the altar and of the tabernacle, they are reminiscent of partisan liturgy wars. I think that the text would be much more interesting if he avoided those loaded questions. What he could have done instead would have been to give examples of sacred art from his own diocese.

  7. All of the major Basilicas in Rome have the tabernacle in a side chapel. For me I think it boils down to a perception of a lack of faith in the real presence of the eucharistic species. So, as I heard one priest say, “We put the tabernacle back in the middle of the sanctuary to put God back in the middle of our lives”. Sickening.
    The problem is that in our understanding of Liturgy according to the teaching of Vatican II we have multiple presences of Christ: assembly, minister, word, eucharistic elements. I still think we have a hard time believing he is truly present in the first three.

    1. But the CCC talks about how there is a different in degree in the presence of Christ in the assembly, the minister, and the word.

      Do you genuflect to the assembly? (I hope not). Do you genuflect to the minister? (I should hope not, again). Do we genuflect to the word? (Not exactly). Now, we do bow — i.e., “reverence” — those representations of Christ, at least we’re supposed to (bows toward the assembly at the incensation; bow toward the priest-celebrant as in persona christi capitis as he passes by in the procession; and bow to the Gospel as the presence of Christ).

      The consecrated Host is Jesus Christ in a way that neither the assembly, nor the minister, nor even the Word written is.

      We must honor all of the presences of Christ. But neither must we dishonor our Lord in the form in which he has chosen to abide permanently with us: in his Eucharistic Sacrifice in all the tabernacles of the world.

      1. If you are going to quote the CCC know what it says. It says the eucharistic presence is unique. It does not say difference in degree. “This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”203
        I stand by the CSL teaching that Christ is present in the assembly, mininster, and word. We show reverence to the presence of Christ in these forms in various ways.

      2. I’m sorry, but with all due respect for your understanding of the eucharistic presence, how is Christ any less truly present in keeping his promise to be present wherever two or more of us gather in his name…..or to abide in us (with The Father) as we love him and keep his word? We could all do better in appreciating and reverencing the Eucharistic presence by considering not how this happens but why. He gives himself to us as real food and real drink so that abiding in us we can offer a united witness in keeping his commandment of love. He does not come in this manner simply so we can stare at him and whisper solemn prayers of devotion. How we act when he is present in us will determine the true value of our piety.

      3. But neither must we dishonor our Lord in the form in which he has chosen to abide permanently with us: in his Eucharistic Sacrifice in all the tabernacles of the world.
        ——————————————
        That sacrifice is manifested to us on the altar, not in
        the tabernacle. I would hate to see a return to the days
        of towering theatrical repositories for the reserved eucharist and up front, in our face so to speak,
        while the altar is denigrated to a point of being
        reduced to insignificance and just an after thought.

    2. I’ve heard Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics comment Latin-rite Catholics are too focused on treating the
      eucharist as a trophy, or a precious heirloom. Of course,
      one could counter, is not the honor paid to the book of the
      Gospels in eastern liturgies simply another way of
      paying respects to the divine presence? As Latin Catholics
      pray before the tabernacle, are eastern Christians doing
      the same thing by kissing the gospels, carrying it in processions, blessing the people with it, etc.?

      1. The reservation of the Blessed sacrament was not known in the early church. There did emerge fairly early on the practice of carrying communion to those not able to be present. Since reservation in a tabernacle that was associated with any kind of devotion or adoration was a fairly late development, that cannot be the principal way that Christ chose to remain among us. It is certainly a laudable practice provided that adoration flows from the offering of the Eucharist and leads back to it.

        Jesus is not a prisoner of the tabernacle, nor is he waiting in loneliness for his followers to come and spend time with him. I say this as a pastor who offers perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and encourages the faithful to come to the 24/365 chapel for prayer and adoration.

  8. It’s not well known, but I would recommend a look at the church at the Knock Shrine in Ireland. As I recall, it is built in a semi circle with the sight lines radiating from the altar. There are dividers between sections of pews that are set with stone window frames from various old abbeys around Ireland. I don’t know the function or the functionality of the dividers, but the use of of the old stone is a gracious nod to history.

    The Sacrament is reserved in a small chapel directly behind the altar. It is separated by a set of doors, so the priest does not technically have his back to the tabernacle. The effect is not of hiding or ignoring the Sacrament, but rather of something precious kept in a special place.

    1. The Sacrament is reserved in a small chapel directly behind the altar. It is separated by a set of doors, so the priest does not technically have his back to the tabernacle. The effect is not of hiding or ignoring the Sacrament, but rather of something precious kept in a special place.
      ——————————————-
      I believe this was one of the reasons in the early middle ages for reserving the Blessed Sacrament in a separate chapel. It has held up under the test of time and the growth of a eucharistic theology. There are many ways an architect and liturgical artists can emphasize the holy eucharist as something special in “a special place”. Hanging oil lamps in the pastophorian, a
      curtain drawn before the tabernacle enclosure behind the altar to emphasize the idea of an ark of the covenant, and murals/mosaics with eucharistic and other biblical themes.

      I saw one church which had an “easter sepulchre” built as a meditation chapel behind the sanctuary in which there were scenes of the Resurrection, the three women at the tomb, etc. with an aumbry or wall tabernace as part of the tomb. Complete with chairs, kneelers, and a baptistery for public baptisms. It could be completely closed off during Mass and opened for other times.

      What this accomplished is, you knew where the “holy of holies” was kept and it wasn’t designed to visuallycompete with the altar which had singular characteristics in terms of decoration, design, adornments setting it clearly apart from this sepulcher/chapel.

  9. Art is only 67. Knowing what to do and what to say has got him thus far. Most likely, he feels there’s one more promotion left in the old bones yet. So he’ll continue to do and say what has worked for him.

    As someone said, (presumably), he became a priest to do good, and he did very well.

  10. Samuel J. Howard :

    since no one, not even the priest, was expected to participate in the Eucharist but just be devout and accurate in saying the black and doing the red
    Tom, comments like this are just dishonest. Take a look at some hand missals or books on the Mass from before Vatican II and you’ll find that people were expected to participate. The priest wasn’t even expected to participate? Give me a break.

    Don’t call me dishonest just because have a different interpretation or can cite a singe counter example. I happened to have had the medieval period in mind. In general, your counter example has no effect on the general observation being true.

  11. Westminster Cathedral recently removed its forward altar thus freeing up the sanctuary and restoring Bentley’s
    original sight lines. The Sacrament was always reserved in a separate chapel. I don’t think we should be too ideological about the position of the tabernacle; I personally don’t like it on a plinth against the back wall, but that is a personal preference. The London Oratory has a prominent tabernacle on the high altar, but the church is in the Italian renaissance style and they never celebrate versus populum.

    In the 19th century there was the famous and heated Rood Screen Controversy between the Oratorians and the followers of AWN Pugin. The Oratorians famously said of the latter: “His altars are so small you can’t celebrate a Pontifical Mass at them, and his screens are so thick you might as well have Mass in the sacristy for all the congregation can see of it”.

    A lot of the ‘re-ordering’ (if you approve of it) or ‘wreckovation’ (if you don’t) of existing buildings in the last 45 years has not been felicitous and there are signs of a reaction against it. A thought concerning ND de Paris – the forward cube altar is certainly incongruous, but then so is the existing high altar.

    1. I agree. The church is 12-14th century, but the altars are later additions, one from the 17th century and the other from the 20th century. Neither fits the style of the rest of the cathedral.

      But there are many things going on there anyway, dealing with the constant flux of tourists and with the frequent presence of high-ranking dignitaries, that would probably raise eyebrows of all detail-oriented liturgists.

      For example, last time I was there, at a Mass for the people of Japan, right after the tsunami, the recessional ended, not with the bishops, but with a few diplomats (ambassador of Japan) and politicians (Sarkozy) coming after the bishops.

  12. A few years ago I got to Notre Dame at about 9.30 a.m. It was already filling up with tourists but I could distinctly hear the sound of Gregorian Chant. I followed the sound but soon found my way barred by an iron grille guarded by a fierce old dragon who was turning everyone back. I pushed my way to the front and said “Pour la messe, Madame?” whereupon she beamed and let me through. In a little chapel at the apse end of the cathedral a bishop was celebrating Mass in French and Latin with a small schola singing Chant from some ancient books (presumably the Use of Paris which I believe persisted into the 20th century).

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