Tabernacle Design: The Creative Process in Making a Place for the Blessed Sacrament (Part 2)
August 28, 2008
The conclusion of Part 1 of this article suggested that, “The tabernacle is a sculptural entity that resonates from within. * * * 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?’” Some examples will help to illustrate the points made in Part 1.
On one project, my studio was commissioned to convert the player’s lounge at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City into a Blessed Sacrament chapel for the year 2000 Millennium Mass celebrated by the Diocese of Brooklyn/Queens. The program we developed was to create a monstrance that was in tune with the scale of the enormous room instead of placing a tabernacle in the room. The design solution was a sculptural monstrance suspended from the 40-foot tall ceiling in the middle of four central support columns.
The consecrated host was placed between two layers of glass in the center of the monstrance. The circular form surrounding it was made up of vertical metal strips that hung from the ceiling on invisible wires. The metal strips reflected light and color from the large windows that made up one entire wall. Four finials of frosted glass and gold leaf complete the cruciform within the circle. When people entered the room during this all-day event, they looked for a conventional tabernacle. Imagine their amazement when they looked up and saw the Blessed Sacrament suspended over their heads in a glorious monstrance larger than any they had ever seen.
Several other projects take their cue from a more historical perspective. In the twelfth century, the “sacrament house” was used for the place of reservation in many churches in northern Europe. These tower-like structures resembled cathedral spires and were used to both store the sacrament and allow for its exposition.
In St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, Maspeth, New York, the former apse became a much-needed sacristy with two new air conditioning units installed above it, so the original marble high altar had to be removed. The marble was beautifully carved but had already been modified after the 1985 Vatican II renovation, so we moved the remaining tower and canopy into the new chapel for the Blessed Sacrament. The original tabernacle was then cleverly suspended from the six support columns, creating a new tabernacle tower similar to the early sacrament houses. In this instance, the creative use of existing carved marble and intricate mosaic work was instrumental in saving this architectural heritage for future generations, while providing the parish with much needed space for sacristy and mechanical equipment.
A more contemporary version of the sacrament house was developed for the new St. Thomas More Church at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. The architect’s plan showed a distinct tower structure adjoining the main church to house the Blessed Sacrament chapel. The resulting tower shape, designed to hold the tabernacle and sanctuary lamp, took its cue from this architectural form. The effect on a person entering the chapel is uplifting. Another connection to the tower form in this particular church is that St. Thomas More, the titular of this church, lived his last days and was executed in the Tower of London.
The third project -- Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Whitehouse Station, New Jersey -- that recalls the early sacrament houses shows an example of how the lighting of the tabernacle becomes integral to the sculptural form. Lighting is an art and should be considered in conjunction with any design for church furnishings. In this instance, four small uplights are concealed in a metal ring at the base of the decorative crystal rods suspended from the ceiling over the tabernacle. The rods actually extend upwards into a golden canopy that is recessed into the ceiling. The effect of the light refracted through the crystal rods leaves decorative patterns of light on the ceiling that reflect around the room and onto the tabernacle, giving a mystical quality to the entire Blessed Sacrament chapel. The tabernacle and supporting plinth placed directly under this sculptural assemblage combine to form a floor to ceiling tower in the center of the room, which becomes a focal point for private devotion.
The above examples were all designs created for separate chapels within the church, but sometimes the only possible choice is to place the tabernacle in the sanctuary. In this instance, it is important to give the tabernacle a sense of “place,” but it is also important to consider a way to separate the tabernacle during Mass. The following examples show tabernacles that have been placed in the apse of an existing older church with the altar in front.
The architectural canopy designed for St. John Cantius Church in Brooklyn, New York, is simply two columns and a connecting arch with provision for a fabric “tent” roof over the tabernacle, forming a chapel within the sanctuary in a very simple way. The original tabernacle from the church had been a metal box with a decorative bronze door inserted into the old wooden altar. This tabernacle was restored and a new gilt surround was designed that includes door panels that close during Mass and open afterwards, revealing the tabernacle and allowing for it to be clearly visible from all parts of the church. The open doors are painted with icon images of Christ, Mary, and St. John Cantius, the titular saint.
Another example of the Blessed Sacrament chapel within the sanctuary is at St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church in Harlem, New York. The church, built by German immigrants in the late 1800s, is quite beautiful, but the parish design committee requested a design for the sanctuary that respected the African American heritage of the current congregation. Some research into African tribal art led to the idea of using the mandala from the Yoruba tribe, symbolizing “totality” as inspiration for the decoration on the front of the large door planels that are closed during Mass. The decoration is achieved with gold, silver, and copper leaf on wood, with the large central handles suggesting the tabernacle within. When the doors are opened, the tabernacle is clearly visible and accentuated. The door and side panels in this design are also double-hinged to expand into a small enclosed chapel for private and small group prayer. The tabernacle design reflects the Yoruba tribe motifs and is made of bronze, polished aluminum, polished ebony, granite and gold and silver leafed wood.
There are many beautiful examples of original and creative designs for tabernacles from the early pyx and sacrament houses to the later tabernacles built into the high altar and then the more contemporary tabernacles removed from the altar on plinth or throne. When considering a design for this most important liturgical element, it is vitally important to respect the journey the tabernacle has taken through the history of the liturgy and then to expound upon that knowledge to expand further the boundaries of creativity. Hopefully, we continue to look back and see the innovation and beauty that has been provided by our ancestors in faith and then be inspired to keep moving forward with evermore beautiful and functional designs.
Please note: All designs shown are owned and copyrighted by Renovata Studios, Inc.
Lawrence R. Hoy is a principal of Renovata Studios, Inc. in Port Chester, New York.
READ PART 1 of this 2-part article.