Outside the Church Walls: Suggestions for Art & Environment

October 01, 2008


StatuePicture yourself approaching Disney World. Banners are flying for miles ahead, welcoming you. Your anticipation heightens before you’ve even reached the parking lot. Ahead lay the gates to the magic kingdom. You’re entering a different kind of time and space, where anything is possible. Mickeys and Minnies appear to your right and left, carved out of everyday bushes. Even adults can barely contain their excitement.

Many of us recreate this magic on our front lawns every Christmas. We put up plywood Santas and scenes of Mary and Joseph as they wait for baby Jesus to arrive. Trees throughout town are transformed into starlit skies, creating a magical adventure out of a drive across town.

Why then, do we keep the beauty, mystery and excitement of our sacred environments locked inside the church building, just for those who worship on Sunday? Outside our doors, we have the opportunity to create an atmosphere of welcoming and anticipation for those who choose to worship with us as well as those just passing by.

We have the opportunity to show the world what wonders lie inside. By placing art outside our doors, we expand our sacred space. Perhaps even more importantly, we invite people to approach and touch and become involved rather than admire or venerate from afar. A statue of Jesus placed to the side of the altar serves as an icon to reverence and aid a heartfelt prayer, but that same statue in an outdoor garden can be placed at ground level and be understood as one who walks with you. Gardens themselves become works of art and opportunities to participate in creation. They create experience when walked as labyrinths or used as meditation spaces.

mary statueIn a more contemporary setting, kinetic outdoor sculptures can symbolize the breath of God, moving freely in the breeze. Before we enter, they cause us to pause a moment and collect ourselves. Similarly, seasonal or event-specific banners suspended from light poles or flag poles add color and excitement to our approach. They announce to everyone who passes by that we are a resurrection people, alive in our faith. Treating our grounds as part of the church environment becomes a form of evangelization, enticing our neighbors to wonder what’s going on inside.

The history of the church is rich with icons and incense, murals and mosaics, and beautiful sculptures in metals and stones. Through outdoor liturgical art, we add visual stimulation, much as church bells have announced God’s presence and people in community for ages. We announce to everyone our celebration of times of joy or quiet spirituality by the colors and messages of our banners.

Authentic, Prayerful and Appropriate

While tied to the same principles of creating an appropriate worship space indoors, outdoor art requires an additional set of considerations.

Architectural compatibility: Just as a traditional statue of a Greek goddess sans arms would look hopelessly out of place in the front lawn of a colonial home, so might a Picasso-esque depiction of the Holy Family look on the grounds of a gothic cathedral, or a replica of the Pieta along the walk to a contemporary church.

Scale: As your concept comes to life, be certain to understand how it will look in its outdoor location. A scale drawing showing the new piece in its environment or a life-sized mock up -- even if that be 2 x 4’s held in place while others look on -- will help bring the concept to life.

Durability: An outdoor piece intended for even a short time must be able to weather the elements. While a seasonal banner will take less beating than a permanent sculpture, a thorough investigation of the durability of the material to be used is essential. Will fading be an issue? Can the material withstand sun, rain, wind, extremes of temperature? Will the piece be subject to vandalism? Can it be cleaned? Know the expected life and don’t expect that every piece needs to last forever.

Maintenance: Once installed, responsibility for ongoing attention to the art will ensure it continues to inspire. Tattered flags, splintered wooden benches, and weather-beaten statues will not create a sense of welcome.

Visibility: Good, well-placed lighting and landscape maintenance ensure the art continues to stand as an icon or worship aid.

Safety: Before you install outdoor art, consult with professionals about proper, secure installation. Most outdoor art is large and heavy, often installed in brick, stucco, or concrete. Considerations of wind and rain will dictate the kinds of brackets and hooks needed. When installing 3-D art, think about sharp edges or the tendency for small children to find places to climb.


Cost: Outdoor art need not be cost-prohibitive. When investigating statues and sculptures, inquire about the newer resin and hydrocal materials that can be colored and fashioned to mimic the marbles and stones of traditional pieces. Look to local sign companies to digitally print your artist’s design on fade and weather resistant materials.

Collaborate in Creation

Looking outside our four walls opens up the opportunity collaborate in God’s glorious creation. Our churches appear warmer and more human. An inspired piece can be the hand of God outstretched in welcome.

Photo credit: Marilyn Dale; photos taken at St. Raphael Catholic Church, Naperville, Illinois, USA.

Marilyn Dale is a liturgical artist and the chair of the art & environment team at St. Raphael Catholic Church, Naperville, Illinois, USA


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