Cleansing Fire

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Images in the Chancel! A Suggested Makeover

October 20th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

(Click on photos for larger images)

Current chancel, Church of the Good Shepherd in Henrietta. (Photo by Bernie Dick)

Pat and I were members of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Henrietta for many years. There were, and still are, many fine people there, several of whom are good friends and people we admire.

The sanctuary of Good Shepherd actually is housed in a space not designed to be a space. The church was to be built later. It was never built and the school it is attached to is now closed. I doubt an actual church will ever be constructed. The sanctuary we will be looking at in this post is actually called the Chapel as the original Good Shepherd Church (now too small) sits on another part of the property.

The chancel of the present sanctuary has always had a somewhat temporary look to it. The furnishings are of simply styled wood. I suppose you would describe them as fairly basic and functional. I see that a realistic crucifix has been attached to the back wall of the chancel. That’s more imagery than they had when we were members of the parish. The Tabernacle is, in a sense, one of the most hidden in the diocese, a simple wood box that blends-in with the back wall.

Church of the Good Shepherd suggested makeover. (Photoshop'd by Bernie Dick)

I think it’s time for my friends at Good Shepherd to acknowledge that the present sanctuary is probably going to be the permanent one and so should begin to strengthen the sense of the sacramental nature of the space. Let’s replace the Tabernacle with a precious metal one, center it in the chancel on a marble or stone base/reservation altar. Then, let’s tackle that incredibly impoverished back wall. Any number of things could enhance the wall. What I suggest in the second picture is just one rather spontaneous solution: a horizontal ban or frieze of saints carved in high relief but recessed (perhaps 9 to 10 inches) into the wall rather than protruding out from the wall (actually, the wall would probably have to be rebuilt 9 – 10 inches out over the sculpture to create the recessed space for the images). A horizontal treatment on the wall seems necessary as the ceiling of the sanctuary is very low over the pews but very high over the chancel and altar. It’s very strange, visually. I think the horizontal sculptures would play to that lower space and create a more intimate and warmer feeling.

A row of saints or crowd of saints is a design motif that has been part of the repertoire of traditional church architecture. It is employed most notably in the chancels and portals/doorways of churches. The arrangement reminds us of the communion of saints which encourages us. They, too, stand around the altar at the mystical supper of the Lamb.

In such designs it is traditional to include images of the patron saints of the local church and diocese. The crucifix or crucifixion scene occupies the center space with the images of saints appearing to be in procession toward it. Procession, or symmetrical arrangement, is basic to Catholic liturgical iconography. If a crucifix is affixed or seated atop the Tabernacle then an image of the patron saint of the church or of Christ or of Mary might occupy the central space in the artwork. In this case, an image of the Good Shepherd could perhaps be placed in the center and the crucifix placed on the altar in the style promoted by Pope Benedict XVI.

Sacrament Chapel in a church in Porto, Portugal. A frieze or wall of saints behind the altar or as part of a reredos is a common approach to chancel art. (Photo by Bernie Dick)

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Source, see below*)

The Heavenly Participants. (Picture source**)

Wouldn’t this sculpture idea be expensive?

Well, it wouldn’t be cheap. But including liturgical art should be a big part of our budgetary plans. Eastern Orthodox congregations in the United States are, generally, small compared to Good Shepherd and yet their churches are filled with original icons of high quality. Good Shepherd parish has the School for American Craftsmen of RIT right in its own backyard, plus Rochester has a very large population of talented artists including many sculptors. Why not run a competition with entrants submitting a sample saint for judging along with an estimate to do the whole job? Winner gets the commission. Second, third and fourth place get a monetary award. It’s a great way to evangelize artists.

This is just one idea. Perhaps you have an idea. Can you do a little Photoshop? Email me your creations. Just copy the first picture above and paste it in your program. Photoshop it and send the results to me. If you “renovate” the chancel of a different church send me a ‘before’ as well as ‘after’ picture. If you don’t do photo editing just send me your ideas or descriptions and I will try to create it for you.

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* Picture source for Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis. Author: Chris Light (talk)

**Heavenly Participants picture source

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