Tabernacle Design: The Creative Process in Making a Place for the Blessed Sacrament (Part 1)
August 28, 2008
How does one describe the design evolution of a beautiful yet functional object such as the tabernacle and the chapel in which it is situated? The creative process can be equal parts concept and artistic vision mixed with some very real parameters that govern design decisions. An abbreviated definition for “creation” in my tattered 1976 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary is 1: “The act of bringing into the world an ordered existence” and 2: “The act of making, inventing or producing, c: an original work of art”. There is also the definition for “creative evolution,” which I actually prefer in this instance: “Evolution that is a creative product of a vital force rather than a naturalistically explicable process.” Sometimes an inspired design just comes out of the blue, and we stand back in wonderment about how it happened and where the inspiration came from.
Some of the parameters for the tabernacle design are based on the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2003) and some on aesthetics and the emotional response of the faithful who will use it and pray before it. In most cases, the placement and design of a tabernacle is ultimately approved by the local ordinary (GIRM, no. 315), but that is the culmination of a design process that can involve many other voices.
Locating the tabernacle in the church building is logically the first step in the design process. The revised GIRM suggests placing the tabernacle either in a separate chapel in the church or in the sanctuary, as long as it is clearly visible to the faithful. Determining this location helps to inspire thought on the aesthetic and practical development of the tabernacle design and its setting. If the tabernacle is in a separate chapel, it will be integrated into that space and respond to the aesthetics and flow of the chapel space. If it is in the sanctuary, the U.S. Bishops suggest in “Built of Living Stones” that it “does not draw the attention of the faithful away from the eucharistic celebration”(79) and if the “tabernacle is located directly behind the altar, consideration should be given to using distance, lighting or some other architectural device that separates the tabernacle and reservation area during Mass, but allows the tabernacle to be fully visible to the entire worship area when the eucharistic liturgy is not being celebrated.”(80)
In the 1200s, the tabernacle for securing the reserved eucharist began to evolve from a pyx suspended over the altar or in a sacristy cupboard into a safe box permanently located in the church and locked with a key. The current directives for construction of the tabernacle are not much different than those early “sacrament houses,” requiring the tabernacle to be “immovable, made of solid and opaque material, and locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is avoided as much as possible” (GIRM, no.314).
The 1976 document of the U.S. Bishops, “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship,” suggests, in addition to the above, that the tabernacle be “dignified and properly ornamented” and makes reference to EACW notation #20 - Quality is perceived only by contemplation, by standing back from things and really trying to see them, trying to let them speak to the beholder. Cultural habit has conditioned the contemporary person to look at things in a more pragmatic way: “What is it worth?” “What will it do?” Contemplation sees the hand stamp of the artist, the honesty and care that went into an object’s making, the pleasing form and color and texture. Quality means love and care in the making of something, honesty and genuineness with any materials used, and the artist’s special gift in producing a harmonious whole, a well-crafted work.
The great masterpieces of Christian religious art and architecture come to mind when thinking of inspired designs for the church: San Vitale, Ravenna, Beta Giorgis, Ethiopia, Chartres Cathedral, Il Duomo in Milan, St. Peter’s Basilica, Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamps. Other religious cultures have equally spectacular examples of art and architecture such as the Great Pyramids at Gizeh, the Acropolis of Athens, Kandarya Mahadeva in India, Horyuji Temple in Japan and The Mosque of the Shah in Isfahan.
These are all amazing examples of religious design built for the singular purpose of worship but consider for a moment that we are not designing for a religious purpose, that the tabernacle is not a functioning safe box for the precious reserved eucharist but a piece of art whose sole purpose is to delight the eye and evoke a sense of awe and appreciation within the viewer. Perhaps this is the key for “thinking outside of the box” to arrive at a place where we do not ask, “what is it?” but instead contemplate and see. See the light and shadow. See the juxtaposition of forms. Feel the emotion generated by the unique expression of the artist.
The experience of sculpture is unique because of its complexity. It is an exercise in light, color, structure and form with few boundaries. It is hugely emotional. Look carefully at Michelangelo’s David and one sees the ultimate example of a work of art dedicated to towering, pent-up passion as opposed to the calm ideal beauty sought by the creators of earlier works of sculpture. Contemporary masters of sculpture such as Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, David Smith, and Martin Puryear have pushed the boundaries of three-dimensional art to higher and higher forms of expression that confound our expectations and break new emotional ground for every person who sees their art. Their work is purely evocative, simple, and powerful at the same time.
Compare the importance of these feelings to both the artist and the viewer with the concept of the “real presence” placed within the tabernacle, and one begins to see the benefit of seeking from within one’s soul for the means to express a fitting setting for the Blessed Sacrament. The tabernacle is a sculptural entity that resonates from within. It does not have to conform to the pre-determined notions many of us have of what a tabernacle should look like. As an artist/designer, one has to ask the question, “How do we “think outside the box” when there is so much tradition to consider? How do we move forward......... break new ground.... answer the questions about who and what we are and still respect the past?”
Part 2 of this article will focus on various projects involving the design of a tabernacle and/or Blessed Sacrament chapel in order to illustrate concepts discussed in Part 1.
Lawrence R. Hoy is a principal of Renovata Studios, Inc. in Port Chester, New York.
Photos: Tabernacle tower at St. Mary's Cathedral in Killarney, Ireland.
Photo credit: Pádraig McIntyre.
READ PART 2 of this 2-part article.