To Use or Not to Use? Mass Production v. Original Art for Use in Liturgy
January 03, 2008
The role of art in the life of the Church has always been considered an important aspect of the Church’s worship, for art has the power to draw the mind and heart to the mystery of God. Consequently, the Church has a rich history of supporting the arts, commissioning artisans to create works of fine quality to assist the faithful in prayer and devotion, to teach the faith, and to enrich our liturgical celebrations. Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Artists writes, “In order to communicate the message entrusted to us by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable” (no.12).
With such a rich artistic tradition, the questions must be asked are: What about items used in worship that are not made by an individual artist, but are mass-produced? Are they appropriate or not? Does the fact that an object which is mass-produced and commercially distributed automatically make it less preferable for use at liturgy than something that is an original? Is it possible for beautifully crafted mass-produced items to draw a person’s imagination into the realm of God? Given the culture of mass-production in which we live, is it a merely romantic notion to advocate that all objects used in the liturgy be handmade or artistically created?
The Focus Is on Quality and Appropriateness
The United States Bishops’ document, Built of Living Stones ("BLS"), established two criteria by which to judge worthy art: quality and appropriateness. Quality is determined by “the honesty and genuineness of the materials that are used, the nobility of the form embodied in them, the love and care that goes into the creation of a work of art, and the personal stamp of the artist whose special gift produces a harmonious whole, a well-crafted work.” (BLS, no. 147) Appropriateness is determined “by the work’s ability to bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder that the liturgical action expresses….” As parish communities discern the items used in their churches either for worship or for devotion, these criterion are essential for making good choices.
Obtaining beautifully handcrafted one-of-a-kind pieces is optimum for use in the liturgy and for the devotional life of the faithful. However, many times such pieces are out of the question for a variety of reasons. First, many parishes do not have knowledgeable staff or committees who feel they can offer the necessary direction for an artist to produce a desirable level of quality and appropriateness. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to find an artist who is capable of expressing the needs of a worship community through his or her art. Secondly, parishes often do not have the budget to commission original works of art. Finally, simply because a piece is commissioned does not necessarily ensure quality and appropriateness.
While works of art created by an individual artist are preferable, what if items that are beautifully designed for use in the liturgy are available commercially? Is it appropriate to use such items? Mass-production is not necessarily bad, when such production is carefully directed and monitored. Employing economies of scale to produce quantities of the same item does not necessarily lessen the individual worth of each item, particularly if the individual item was created by an artist with a particular liturgical need in mind. For example, if a communion cup that is outstanding in quality, function, and form is created commercially, does it diminish the artistic value of that cup, particularly if there is need for a large number of cups? If a Corpus for a crucifix is created out of noble wood but is partially carved by a machine, is it automatically inappropriate? Again, creation of such objects by an individual artist is preferable; however, cost, time, and availability might make it necessary to purchase such items that are commercially produced. These items should be inspired by artistic value and must meet the criteria of quality and appropriateness. It is important to bear in mind that "mass production" in this context is really "limited production," that is, limited to the number needed by the church community. We should not treat items for liturgical use as "widgets," producing thousands of pieces at a time.
As a whole, the liturgical supply industry along with many parish communities in the United States have been slow to respond to the ongoing call for a commitment to quality and appropriateness for items used in worship. The post-Vatican II muddle of homemade vestments, banners, and vessels was created by newly-empowered parish volunteers exhibiting great care and enthusiasm, but often with disastrous results. It is apparent though that a vision for art forms that are worthy “is integral to the Church at prayer because these objects and actions are ‘signs and symbols of the supernatural world’ and expressions of the divine presence.” (BLS, no. 146) The Church continues to hold in highest esteem the work of artisans who prayerfully, with informed liturgical understanding, create beautiful works of art for the people of God. Now included in the ranks of works of art may be the items produced for worship through liturgical arts companies who can assist parishes with the decision-making process and provide direction and resources for making choices of items used in church buildings and in liturgy.
Examples of Service to the Arts and the Liturgical Community
At the company I am intimately familiar with, Meyer-Vogelpohl, we assist worship communities by offering high quality and fine design in each and every element used in liturgy. We strive to find and offer items that express the voice and vision of today's Church, whether they be mass-produced or one-of-a-kind pieces. For example, the metal containers which store the blessed oil —even if they are beautiful antiques— does not allow the community to see the real symbol, which is the oil. Therefore, we developed several styles of hand blown, clear glass oil vessels that are displayed in church ambries, allowing the faithful to make visual connections with the sacramental life of the Church.
David Camele, a liturgical designer with thirty years experience, has participated in several collaborative efforts with our firm. He understands the needs of the worshiping community and therefore is able to design one-of-a-kind pieces, as well as objects for limited production. This collaboration has produced the MV Easter Vigil Fire Bowl, the MV Ceremonial Binders and Folders, the MV Ossuary, and the MV Sacramental Oil Burner, along with a host of other items. These items were designed solely for liturgical use and were not previously available.
Our involvement with the artistic community positions us as a link between the designer and the Church. We can facilitate the acquisition of original works of art, as well as accommodate those communities that strive to enhance their worship but choose not to commission custom designs.
Congregations must continue to augment their worship celebrations with items of beauty and liturgical effectiveness. Making well-informed choices is one of the greatest challenges that parishes face when building a new church or updating or adding to the liturgical art/items they already possess. First, they must assess their specific needs and desires and begin the process of locating and evaluating various sources of liturgical art and supplies. These sources may be artists with the skill and understanding to satisfy commissions for original work or distributors of "mass-produced" products. Careful attention to the quality and appropriateness of the item must be part of the discernment process. Is the item beautiful? Can it bear the weight of the mystery it represents? Is the item made of authentic materials (not plastic, polyester, vinyl, etc.)? Such a path of discernment by a congregation requires sensitivity to the arts, an understanding of the liturgy, and a commitment of resources. The end result of their deliberations will be a beautiful environment that reflects the awesome presence of God that worshiping communities deserve and must demand for their celebrations.
John C. Vogelpohl is president of Meyer-Vogelpohl Co., Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio.
The photos of the various Stations of the Cross, some of which are unique while others are an edition, were taken by Johan van Parys in the United States, France, and Italy.