Creating Liturgical Art: Ten Tips

October 24, 2008

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easter bannersVolunteers are a blessing, but before you rely on someone who likes to sew or dabble in carpentry to create art for your sacred space, be sure their work is professional. By definition, professional work is done by someone who is qualified due to specific training and study. Professional liturgical art is created by people who are doubly blessed, first by an artistic sensibility, and second, by a passion for and understanding of Church. While often we must seek and pay an artist from outside our parishes, members of our own community might have the same credentials and passions and should be sought out and invited to contribute.

According to the U.S. Bishops’ 1978 publication, Environment and Arts in Catholic Worship, a work of art “must be capable of bearing the weight of mystery, awe, reverence and wonder which liturgical action expresses, ….[and] clearly serve – and not interrupt – ritual action which has its own structure, rhythm and movement.” All liturgical art should be judged by these standards.

Once an artist is selected and design concepts communicated, the person or committee responsible for art & environment in the parish needs to ensure practical matters are attended to:

AltarSize and Style: It is amazing how pieces that appear huge on paper are dwarfed by the magnificence of our churches. A scale model is a step that should not be skipped. In the same vein, seeing the materials and overall style in the anticipated environment in the early stages will ensure compatibility with the church’s architecture and overall ambiance.

Quality and Appropriateness: When budgets are small, it is better to delay and fundraise than to incorporate into the space inappropriate, poor quality materials or workmanship. Good quality materials will last longer, drape more beautifully, and likely be more color-fast. Gaudy colors or amateur illustrations will distract rather than enhance.

Color: Of course, colors appropriate to the liturgical calendar are essential. In addition, an artist educated in color theory and value will understand how colors work together to create a harmonious effect.

Simplicity: We’ve all heard the adage “less is more.” This is particularly important in designing a liturgical environment that does not distract worshipers during liturgical celebrations.

Reasonably sized components: Keep in mind the storage and mobility of art pieces. A sculpture weighing over 200 pounds or a canvas exceeding what one person can carry needs a permanent installation site. Alternatively, consider whether a piece can be constructed of reasonably-sized components, so it can be moved and stored as needed.

Construction: Fabric art should be created using the best materials and stitching techniques. As examples: glue, used in lieu of sewing, may dry out and crack. Basting may fall apart. Non-color-fast paints will fade. While simple is good, pieces thrown together on a wing and a prayer will not last. The same is true for furnishings or 3D pieces. Be sure to consider how the piece will be used, the weight it must bear, and the need for mobility.

bannerInstallation considerations: Find someone in your parish with construction experience to help determine the best methods for installing art. Oftentimes, pieces must be affixed to brick, cinderblock, or other difficult materials. An expert will understand how to support the weight of a large piece to avoid damage both to the piece and the underlying structure. A good installation also includes a review of the lighting. Are spots needed? Should the lighting be more subdued? Visual barriers created by columns or other architectural details should be looked at from the seating across the space.

Storage options: Seasonal art needs a home during the “off-season.” Time spent upfront on organizing, labeling, and cleaning will be greatly appreciated same time next year. Setting up an inventory list and map of where items can be found are especially useful, since volunteers might come and go.

Functionality: Creativity notwithstanding, as pieces are considered for display, whether new or old, question the function they are intended to perform. Is the piece to inspire, excite, calm, or set a mood? Should it be striking or subtle? Should it be realistic or abstract? Always review the intended use to confirm that the art’s purpose remains valid.

easter glass componentsLife Span: Honoring past artists and volunteers is worthy, yet most liturgical art pieces have both a birth and a death. Tastes, styles, and parishioners’ needs may change. Fabrics fade and deteriorate with time. When new pieces are created, knowing that they will last only two, five, or even 20 years gives you the freedom later to move on.

It is easy to get carried away in the creative process, adding flourishes, more gold, and more flowers until we have so polluted the sacred space that people are distracted from concentrating on the significance of our liturgical rites. Using one or just a handful of significant pieces to signal a liturgical season or feast allows focus and clarity. In The Ministry of Liturgical Environment (2004), Joyce Zimmerman says “The liturgical environment should seek noble beauty rather than sumptuous display.” This guiding principle would well be emblazoned on the hearts of all our art and environment committee members.

Marilyn Dale is a liturgical artist and author of Energize Your Art Ministry (Lulu Press, 2007).  She also serves as chair of the Art & Environment team for St. Raphael Catholic Church, Naperville, Illinois.


Outside the Church Walls: Suggestions for Art & Environment

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