Tuesday, June 29


Five Things Any Parish Can Do to Improve Sacred Space

I am currently involved or looking into a number of interior or church furnishing design projects, which are becoming more prevalent these days as parishes attempt to bring a sense of tradition and beauty to their chancels and naves without having to break the bank by resorting to the wrecking ball. There are two paralell issues here: one is re-renovating churches that had their furniture disarranged or their paintwork dulled-down in the sixties and seventies, while the other involves trying to add a traditional element to a more modern interior. While there may be lavish budgets in places, often this has to be done on a shoestring. Here are five suggestions that can be done with a modest budget:

1. Rearrange the Furniture. The rather Zen-like, insubstantial quality of most modern church furnishings--except when they are Flinstones-style neo-primitive monstrosities--may actually be to your advantage here. Moving the freestanding portable altar in a few feet, shifting the clergy seating so they face inward rather than at an angle, and moving the tabernacle stand back to the center may be enough, at least initially, to restore order to a seriously compromised sanctuary. Such items can be slowly replaced by more dignified furnishings over time, or augmented with new additions such as a tester, altarpiece, or new paraments and hangings. The main issue here is ensuring that the new arrangement confirms to sound liturgical principles, such as highlighting the tabernacle and altar, as well as allowing for easy circulation of the sacred ministers. This is particularly important in older churches which were not designed with freestanding altars in mind.

This private chapel, with furnishings collected and arranged by a Benedictine monk, shows what can be achieved with a logical, liturgical and orderly arrangement of even fairly simple furnishings. While this is intended as a temporary chapel, in a more permanent situation the interior could be ennobled further with color and stencilling intended to highlight the altar and crucifix.

Alternately, one solution might be to eliminate some of the furnishings, or temporarily remove them on an ad experimentum basis. Most older churches were designed to focus on their high altar, and the removal of a freestanding altar--either temporarily, for special occasion masses said at the old high altar, or non-Eucharistic liturgies such as vespers--can do much to restore a sense of ordered clarity to an interior, especially if accompanied by an appropriate liturgical catechesis. More and more parishes are opting to consider this idea, which might have been unthinkable only a few years ago, and rediscovering the wisdom and beauty of facing liturgical East during mass. You will also be amazed at how much circulation space it opens up.

Fr. Chris Marino, a priest of the archdiocese of Miami, renovated Visitation Parish during his time there. Note the results that adding a little color and marble (above) can achieve to an otherwise unremarkable interior (below).

2. Consider a New Color-Scheme. Many older church interiors have been whitewashed or painted beige over the past forty years, while new ones are often characterized by fairly timid paint-jobs. If new furnishings are not possible, it may be possible to restore a sense of sacrality and hierarchy to an interior by using color strategically in such a way that it highlights the altar and sanctuary. A predominantly white interior might have greater amounts of color and guilding within the sanctuary, while an interior with a light-colored marble altar or reredos might be repainted with deeper, vivid colors on the surrounding walls. It is important to avoid large uninterrupted blocks of color or striping along cornices to avoid a cartoonish look; stencilling and ornamented borders can help break up such areas and create a sense of texture and variety within the space. The strategic addition of marble or other stonework in some areas may fulfill a similar function.

Note how stencilling can break up and add interest to large unrelieved areas of color.

3. Add New Paraments and Hangings. Wall-hangings can cover a multitude of sins, from cracked plaster walls to hideous glass-block windows, and, when placed strategically, can highlight the most important elements of an interior. A simple cloth dossal behind the altar and tabernacle, well-draped, can do a lot to restore a proper sense of directional focus, especially if paired with matching frontals. Color is an important factor here. It may not be practical to change large-scale hangings with the liturgical seasons. A color should be selected that harmonizes with the interior, though one should note traditionally green was used as the color of choice for permanent sanctuary hangings. An inexpensive alternative to a proper hanging tester might be one made of draped cloth hung over a couple of ornamental rods. Spreading a good-quality Oriental carpet on the sanctuary floor would also revive a medieval tradition in this context. With regards to windows, the Italian and Spanish habit of hanging light canvas curtains over them to control lighting might be revived here, though in an effort to dull the brash colors and crude patterns of much modern stained glass.

This interior, already handsome, could be made even more beautiful by removing its carpeting, moving the server's chairs to one side of the sanctuary, and either replacing the existing altar or disguising with new frontals. I note, with approval, that the freestanding altar has its own footpace or predella as opposed to being simply left at the same level as the chancel, though perhaps at the expense of some of the liturgical circulation space.

4. Put in a New Floor. In older churches that were lightly re-ordered in the 1960s, often the only thing that cannot be set right by rearranging the furnishings a bit is the floor, which is often covered with an ugly, sound-deadening layer of carpet, often in a dubious color. Wall-to-wall carpeting plays havoc with accoustics, is often dingy and hard to clean, and instills an uncomfortable institutional or domestic note in otherwise glorious interiors. Simply removing the carpeting may reveal a perfectly usable floor underneath. Damaged floors can be replaced with tiles, woodwork, stained concrete--which can be surprisingly handsome--or even some artificial floor-coverings. New flooring can be added gradually, beginning with the sanctuary or the central aisle of the church and expanded over time.

There is nothing wrong with each of the individual elements here, but they have been combined in a somewhat muddled way. While placing relics within an altar--even visible through a glass front--is traditional and appropriate, this sort of arrangement on shelves is more suitable for a large reliquary cabinet independent of the altar, much less below the mensa of one. Reliquary altars work better if all the relics are placed in a large casket occupying much of the interior, or within a recumbent figure of the saint. The individual statues, each of different sizes, seem placed somewhat haphazardly. Perhaps if they were on brackets underneath the arms of the cross it might be better. The stenciling could also be altered to highlight them in some way, while the presence lamps would be better suspended on chains rather than crowding the gradine.

5. Re-Organize Well-Meaning Clutter. Quite a few parishes assume simply adding catalog-bought statuary, flowers, and candelabra to a bland contemporary design they will be able to bring beauty and tradition to their church. Often the result is distracting and the contrast can even make older elements, not properly engaged with their surroundings, appear museum-like, more like artifacts than aids to devotion. New statuary should never simply be plunked down on a pedestal without considering their place within the church. Rather than simply installing a statue, consider creating some sort of aedicule or altarino-like shrine to mediate between the sculpture and its surroundings. It should feel like a permanent element of the interior and not merely a late addition. The same goes for indiscriminately-arranged flower arrangements, potted ferns, and other odds and ends. Try to create logical relationships between these elements and other furnishings like votive candle racks and kneelers. Nartheces, with their pamphlet-racks and literature tables can fall particular victim to this disease.

An example of one of the Stations of the Cross in a traditional style that could harmonize with a more modernistic interior.

A good example of a consistent application of a modernistic style to a traditional layout. The reredos, while somewhat abstracted, nonetheless includes a centrally-placed tabernacle, crucifix, and prominent images of the saints, and ennobles the style of the interior without clashing with it.

Finally, one overall principle: Work with what you have, and don't work against it. You may not be able to turn your 1950s A-frame church into Chartres, but if you try to find art that harmonizes with its perhaps now rather quaint attempts at futurism, while at the same time seeking to reconnect it with tradition, the result may have a pleasing consistency to it. Simply dropping garish plaster statuary in a dull modern church results in a museum diorama of the history of American Catholic bad taste. Try instead to find common ground, while at the same time ennobling it in some fashion. Many of the examples of the "other modern" we have showcased on this website may give you ideas. While it may lack the grandeur of Rome or Florence, it can still become a beautiful, unified expression of the Faith.

A stylistic "clash," though a fairly minor one. This image of Our Lady of Grace is a very good quality example of a more traditional plaster statue, unlike many today. However, it is somewhat removed in style from its more modernistic/art-deco influenced surroundings, which are actually fairly traditional in their symbolism and layout if not their lines. A more simple Art Deco or Romanesque-influenced sculpture might complement the interior with more success. The placement of a votive-candle stand tucked to one side of the altar shows a very intelligent and orderly use of space that minimizes clutter while filling up largely unusable space, though two smaller flower-vases on either side of the devotional statue, towards the back of the mensa, might work better.

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