St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church, Arlington, Virginia: Interior Renovation & New Baptismal Font
November 27, 2007
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St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia was dedicated in 1963. From the beginning, Mass was celebrated in a multi-purpose space also used by the parish grade school as their gym. When the grade school was closed, the pastor and parishioners sought to transform the existing space into a more appropriate worship environment. A major interior renovation was undertaken and the new altar dedicated on August 18, 2007.
“Today we do not always live with strong religious images; consequently our parish life often is so uninspired and sad. Therefore, it is of great importance that a significant baptismal font make a permanent visual imprint on our memory. To create such a font, we turn to the artist who expresses visually the hidden reality of baptism. The artist (consultant, designer, architect, craftsperson) is called upon to create a lasting image, a symbol that is strong both during and after the celebration of the sacrament, one that remains a constant prompter of our understanding of baptism. Such a font will not escape our mind and memory; our one-time baptismal event then will develop into a baptismal way of life.” Regina Kuehn, A Place for Baptism(Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992) p. iv.
As a visual reminder of the relationship between the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, all of the major liturgical elements in the renovated church are on axis, beginning with the ambry containing the holy Oil of Catechumens, Sacred Chrism and Oil of the Sick; to the font in the baptistry; to the sanctuary and altar. The font at St. Philip’s was designed in the style of the early Church. It is octagonal to signify the seven days of Creation and, according to the Fathers of the Early Church, the Resurrection as the eighth day. Creation is described as beginning on a Sunday and ending on a Saturday. The eighth day signifies a new creation by grace that comes from the Resurrection. Christians everywhere receive that new life from the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ through the waters of baptism.
In the center of the baptistry is a Greek cross with equidistant sides. The center of the cross (filled with water) is representative of the tomb of Christ where we die in the waters of baptism. We are buried with Him, as St. Paul says, in order to rise with Him. The steps in the water represent a descent into humility. We strip off the old self who is left behind, dead, in the baptismal waters. Emerging from the water, the newly baptized is clothed in a white garment to symbolize putting on Christ. The seven steps in the font where the candidate stands represent the seven steps of the catechumenate, steps that are taken during their preparation period. An ancient precedent for a step-down cruciform font, built in 531 C.E., can be found in the Church of the Memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo, northeast of the Dead Sea.
The mosaics in the baptistry are images which several Fathers of the Church applied to the four Evangelists: Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The images come from the Book of Revelation (Rev 4:6-7, NRSV): “…and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.”
Working with the pastor, building committee and architect through sketches and colored renderings, the artists developed a mosaic style and medium that is compatible with the surrounding architectural design. The end result is a contemporary figurative style of mosaic fabricated in a classical Byzantine method, utilizing Byzantine glass mosaic tile, or smalti, made by Perdomo Mosaicos Venecianos de Mexico. The mosaics were assembled in the artists’ studio, cemented to mesh, shipped to the church in sections and installed over a five day period.
In order to help draw attention to the relationship between Baptism and the Eucharist, the altar and font are visually linked by use of the same stone. The entire altar, as well as the octagon and cross of the font are made of Jerusalem stone quarried in the Hebron Valley. Removable stainless steel and glass railings surround the baptistry for safety. Four of the railings have designs etched on the glass. The wavy lines symbolize water and the Vesica Pisces - Vessel of the Fish - symbolizes Christ. The early Fathers of the Church took the fish as a double symbol of the Savior and the Saved. The letters in the Greek word for fish, “IXΘYΣ”, (translated in English as “ICHTHYS”), spell out “ Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The four railings which are not etched allow a clear view of the mosaics.
The railings are removable for baptisms and funerals. For a funeral, stainless steel gratings animated with the symbols for water and fish are placed over the cruciform openings of the font. Clear Plexiglas is placed on top of the grating and the casket is placed on the font, over the water. At the beginning of a funeral Mass, the presider says, “In the waters of baptism, John died with Christ. May he now rise with Him to everlasting life.” The casket is blessed with baptismal water and the baptismal garment (known as the pall) is placed on the casket. We begin a new life with Christ when we are baptized and that life comes to fullness in eternal life when we die. Brown porcelain tile begins at the ambry, frames the baptistry and extends up the center of the church to the altar as a subtle, visual reminder of the intimate relationship between the Sacraments of Initiation.
Photo credit: Alan Ross of Hochlander Davis Photography, LLC in Washington, D.C.
Rev. Kevin B. Walsh is pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church, Arlington, Virginia. William H. Geier, AIA of Geier Brown Renfrow Architects, LLC in Alexandria, Virginia served as Principal in Charge on this project; and artist Julie Richey of Julie Richey Mosaics in Irving, Texas was the creator of the mosaics.