Things to Consider

Windows and Statues

March 07, 2007


Window (detail)If the stained glass windows and statues in your church could "talk" what would they say? Would they tell a story?  Like a detective you can uncover the story of any faith congregation by carefully "reading" the images in their worship space.  Perhaps the images speak of the suffering Jesus, or of creation or of the life of Mary or other saints, or maybe all of these.  Are the stories connected in any way to each other?  Do they reveal mysteries of our faith, show people in worship or tell stories of events of the past?

Images Reveal Mysteries of Faith

Images are a part of the abstract patterns and play of light and color and form in space, but they also have a role which goes beyond the decorative and even beyond the devotional aspects associated with them.  They can reveal for us the mysteries of our faith. When they reveal mystery they reach a level of mystagogy.  Most often the images and their placement in our churches connect directly to our faith life – they are a kind of visual theology.  They display our beliefs in pictures and sculpture. They are the way we hand down in pictures who we are as a people of faith and what it is that we believe and witness what we do when we worship God.

Images Tell Our Story

CrucifixionIn the windows which punctuate the walls of our churches, in the statues that inhabit our shrines, stare down from pedestals or line our sanctuaries are images. The images are likenesses usually set in the context of symbol and story.  Some stories we know well – like the passion and death of Jesus portrayed in the Stations of the Cross.
Others are more obscure – and we wonder why that particular saint is pictured – and who put it there and when.  Or maybe it isn’t a saint at all.  Pictures of George Washington and other ‘American’ heroes appear in church windows – often dating from times when the patriotism of a particular ethnic group or faith community was questioned.  Putting these images in prominent places was one way of telling the rest of the country that we are one with you.  These windows, like the statue or icon of a patron saint in a gathering space, clearly tell us about who this particular faith community is.

Images and Ritual Action

Images can be extremely powerful when they witness and re-present ritual actions from our worship life.  They can surround us enveloping our worship experience and stand as witness to all who enter – even when we enter for a secular event or tour.  One contemporary example of this occurs in our newest cathedral.

Worshiping at the new Los Angeles cathedral can be a powerful experience, but so can just walking through on a tour.  In both cases being surrounded by the images of the communion of saints in the wall tapestries grounds and supports our experience in this place.  These images designed by John Nava ground us in a theology that tells of our place among the saints.

Here the saints witness and re-present ritual actions of worship. They support us in the important gesture of moving in procession.  Procession begins our worship experience. In procession we approach the table of communion. And procession sends us back to our everyday lives.

The images in the cathedral’s tapestries gain their power from the high level of artistic quality of materials and design, the accessibility of their images and from their appropriateness in subject and placement. When all of these come together, we recognize a kind of integrity in the art, the architecture and the action in the space.   All who enter feel a part of this “community.”

It is not the large scale of this place that determines the value of the art in this church – though scale is very much a part of the cathedral.  Similar experiences of integrity of space, art and action can occur in small intimate spaces where images are appropriately scaled and thought through in subject and design. Through the use of computer generated tapestries, the cathedral artist has tapped into a very old visual tradition in the church. Images of ritual processions are among the earliest depictions in Christian worship spaces.  The beautiful mosaics on the wall of San Vitale in Ravenna from the 6th century depict an offertory procession. On the even earlier frescoed walls of the baptistery at Dura Europas we see processional images reflecting the actions of those who come in worship.

Images and Memory

Mary IconMost of the images in our churches are connected to us in another way as well – through memory. The memory of stories in scripture, of the lives of saints, or other events can serve as guides for us in our lives.  The image of Mother Theresa has entered into many of our spaces.  Her image reminds us that her life can serve as a contemporary guide for us.  Memory can also be the explicit subject of some of our images. Many churches are filled with ‘memorials’ from plaques to large paintings and sculpture. In memorials there can be a very powerful connection both to our lived memories and to a larger theological or cosmological context.  Painted triptychs from the Middle Ages frequently depict both a story from the life of Christ or saints and the image of the living donor in whose memory the work was given.  Entire frescoed wall schemes, containing images of memory and context, abound in our early churches in both Eastern and Western Christianity.

The recently unveiled sculptures for the Catholic memorial for 9-11 form this kind of powerful memorial experience from our own lifetime.  The four sculptures honoring the firefighters, police officers, workers, and witnesses to this great tragedy will be placed in St. Joseph Chapel which served throughout the rescue efforts.  They could easily have been yet another insipid version of, for example, a fireman rescuing a dying victim.  Sculpted by the gifted artist John Collier, they go far beyond our expectations.

While these images connect on a human level, they are placed within a larger theological context. So not a fireman, but St. Florian, patron of firefighters, and St. Michael, patron of policemen, and St. Joseph, patron of workers join Mary Magdalene bringing the spices to anoint the body of Christ.  We who are the Body of Christ suffer at the loss of members of that body.
Each figure of this bronze quartet brings human connection to their heavenly image.  St. Florian struggles to the point where human efforts become futile. The steps of the ladder he climbs are broken. The water pail spills. Yet, his face is turned upward in an ultimate gesture of hope and faith in God.  St. Joseph with both carpenters and steel workers tools carries forward the beam which is both the beam removed from destruction of that of rebuilding.  St. Michael the Archangel with God’s power in his sword slays the devil and we all secretly relish this retaliation. And we as witnesses, like Mary Magdalene, stand with face transfixed in amazement at the site before us. We bring our prayers; she carries spices and salves to anoint the Body of Christ.
Memorial in this work is not merely a literal recounting of events but the telling of remembered human stories in the context our religious beliefs.  Mystagogy – the revealing of mysteries – is embedded in this memorial.

Artistic Programming:  Visual Theology in Your Church

The power we recognize in the art works in the Los Angeles cathedral and in the memorial works in St. Joseph’s Chapel in New York comes from the artists’ ability to connect ritual action and memory with theology. They are part of an artistic program – a preconceived plan for the meaning and order of visual elements in a particular space. For most churches there is – or should be – an artistic program governing images.  The “program” is a kind of story that tells the way the images are connected and why they were chosen to be included.  Uncovering the artistic program of a church will clearly reveal a belief system that was meant to be handed down to each successive generation.  This is how our churches teach through their window and statues.

It is an interesting exercise to walk through your church and, like a detective, uncover the program underlying the images.  Some places will be easy – as in a church dedicated to Mary where all the images in the windows, etc. tell of her story or are connected to devotional practices centering on Mary.  Others will be more difficult and require some sleuthing about the theology and devotions current when an old structure was built.  Even the lack of images can tell us about the history and beliefs of those who built the space.  When theology made visible and aesthetic taste are combined, no wonder there can be such vocal feelings about the inclusion or removal a particular image in a church.

Carol Frenning is a liturgical design consultant in Minneapolis, MN.  This article first appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of RITE and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

Photos by Mike Jensen


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