Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Chancel Images’

Thy Kingdom (is) Come

December 27th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

This altar is in a Lima, Peru church. I don’t recall which one. It may have been a side altar in the cathedral.

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(Click on the picture to see a clearer image)

I’ve been reading N. T. Wright’s How God Became King which argues that the Church (all the Christian denominations) has failed –to a certain extent– to emphasize what the four Gospels make perfectly clear, that the Kingdom is not something in the future but something already established. The Church has emphasized the concepts proclaimed in the great historical Creeds, the incarnation and atonement, but not the appearance of the Kingdom as addressed in the Gospels and as understood by the earliest Christians; the bookends of the Gospels have been preached but not the center of the Gospels.

I immediately think of the over-the-top traditional liturgical art of Spanish influenced churches. Realistic images in realistic narrative arrangements framed by abundance and lavish throne-room like environments. The contrast is particularly striking in altars where passion scenes and the crucifixion are presented: Utter failure presented as ultimate success. Evil has spent itself and the King rules!

The locals who use these churches and see these fantastic altars must have a heightened sense that the Kingdom has arrived and is present, that God is King over all no matter what other power rules.

The Church Building as Garden

February 16th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

This is the second in a series on the traditional meaning of Catholic Church architecture. The first is HERE.

Conjurer, if you will, the biblical image presented to us in Genesis 3:8: “…they heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day…”

The Garden of Eden “was not intended as a paradise for the human race, but as a pleasure park for God; the man tended it for God.”1 And, while the meaning of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which man was forbidden to eat, is disputed, what is not disputed is that by eating of the forbidden fruit man believed he could make the garden his own or, at least, become a co-owner of it, with God.

For his willful attempt to span the gulf between the creature and Creator on his own, man was ejected from God’s Garden, the entrance guarded against his return by an angel holding a flaming sword.

(click on pictures to see clearer images)

The interior of Solomon’s Temple was decorated in imitation of God’s “pleasure park” with cherubim, palm-trees, and open flowers, all overlaid with gold. (Picture Source)

The interior of Solomon’s Temple was decorated in imitation of God’s “pleasure park” with cherubim, palm-trees, and open flowers, all overlaid with gold. (Picture Source)

It my last post, I explored the idea of the church building as the Heavenly Temple. In this post I maintain that garden imagery has often been traditionally used in conjunction with the Temple arrangement. The connection goes back to the First Jerusalem Temple in which the walls were lined with cedar on which were carved figures of cherubim, palm-trees, and open flowers, all overlaid with gold. The two images converge: Temple and God’s “pleasure park”, God’s Garden.

In the Jerusalem Temple God was especially ‘present’ in the Holy of Holies and Sanctuary or Holy Room. The priests of the Temple walked around in the Temple as God walks around in His Garden. The High Priest, alone, entered the Holy of Holies. Adam and Eve and their offspring were banned from the garden and so the Israelites were kept outside the Jerusalem Temple, in the forecourts.

The apse end of San Clemente Basilica in Rome displays a profusion of vegetation, saints, and angels, a heavenly vision post Redemption. (right) Dominating the apse in San Clemente –in the center of the Garden -is the “tree of life”- the cross of Christ from which new life sprouts to fill the cosmos. (Pictures Source)

The apse end of San Clemente Basilica in Rome displays a profusion of vegetation, saints, and angels, a heavenly vision post Redemption. (right) Dominating the apse in San Clemente –in the center of the Garden -is the “tree of life”- the cross of Christ from which new life sprouts to fill the cosmos. (Pictures Source)

But, with the Incarnation, man has once again been granted admittance to the Garden. The Father, in sending the Son, has bridged the gulf between creature and Creator in the only direction possible –Creator to creature. God has invited us back into the Garden and even made us co-owners, inheritors with Christ. Man has been deified (sanctified) through the Incarnation.2 To make this theological point, the Christian church building has traditionally been decorated with garden imagery, sometimes profusely so. The priests of the Church walk around in the chancel as the Old Testament priests walked around in the Temple and Holy of Holies. The difference, of course, is that Adam is back in the Garden, inside the Temple. No longer outside, we are there with Christ, our Lord.

Natural forms are often interpreted in abstract patterns suggestive of the richness of the decorations in a throne room which begs analogy to the richness of life in God’s Garden. Our Lady of Victory/Saint Joseph Church in Rochester has beautiful stained glass windows edged with stylized open flowers. Geometric patterns fill the center field of the windows. (right) Detail of a window in Our Lady of Victory/Saint Joseph Church, Rochester, NY.

Natural forms are often interpreted in abstract patterns suggestive of the richness of the decorations in a throne room which begs analogy to the richness of life in God’s Garden. Our Lady of Victory/Saint Joseph Church in Rochester has beautiful stained glass windows edged with open flowers or vines. Geometric patterns fill the center field of the windows. (right) Detail of a window in Our Lady of Victory/Saint Joseph Church, Rochester, NY.

Often liturgical art reflects the garden theme by enmeshing saints, angels and symbols in vegetation and abstracted natural forms.

Often liturgical art reflects the garden theme by enmeshing saints, angels and symbols in vegetation and abstracted natural forms.

To decorate the church building in imitation of the Garden is to remind us of God’s boundless mercy and our deification in Christ our Lord. When we construct churches that look more like plain conference halls or auditoriums are we sufficiently predisposing worshipers to receive the graces offered us in the Sacrifice of the Mass? To be sure, the Mass is still efficacious but are we addressing ALL the senses in such bland environments. God saw that His creation was good; are we to judge that the representation of His work is not worthy or, worse yet, a distraction. Did not the Incarnation renew the entire cosmos?

It would be difficult to find a contemporary Catholic church, built in the last 40 years that expresses the joyful celebration of our new life in God’s Garden. (Basilica of St Peter and St Paul, Prague, Czech Republic) (Picture Source)

It would be difficult to find a contemporary Catholic church, built in the last 40 years, that expresses the joyful celebration of our new life in God’s Garden. (Basilica of St Peter and St Paul, Prague, Czech Republic. Picture Source)

Here is a very early use of Garden imagery to represent the hope of Christians. Saint (Bishop) Apollinare leads into paradise the faithful (the sheep) that had been entrusted to him on earth. The saint and his flock are there because of the cross of Christ which is displayed above them in a golden sky, in a vision of the Transfiguration. (Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Italy; apse mosaic 6th

Here is a very early use of Garden imagery to represent the hope of Christians. Saint (Bishop) Apollinare leads into paradise the faithful (the sheep) that had been entrusted to him on earth. The saint and his flock are there because of the cross of Christ which is displayed above them in a golden sky, in a vision of the Transfiguration. (Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Italy; apse mosaic 6th)

Here we can see the four streams watering the Garden. The four streams of Genesis are often interpreted as a type for the four gospels refreshing and stimulating new life in the world of time. (Picture Source)

Here we can see the four streams watering the Garden, in this case at the bottom of the cross. The four streams of Genesis are often interpreted as a type for the four gospels refreshing and stimulating new life in the world of time. Basilica of San Clemente, Rome. Picture Source)

The ribs in this ceiling vault in the Cathedral of Bath, England, suggests the palm trees mentioned in the Garden of Eden and represented in Solomon’s Temple.

The ribs in this ceiling vault in the Abbey Church of Bath, England, suggest the palm trees mentioned in the Garden of Eden and represented in Solomon’s Temple.

A profusion of decoration and aversion to empty space suggests the abundance of life in the spirit; the fullness of life in Christ, in the Garden. Empty or plain space would suggest a lack of “life”. (From a church in Peru)

A profusion of decoration and aversion to empty space suggests the abundance of life in the spirit; the fullness of life in Christ, in the Garden. Empty or plain space would suggest a lack of “life”. (From a church in Peru)



1 Commentary to Genesis 2:8, Garden in the East, New American Bible, Revised Edition

2 The Redemption, of course, was accomplished in both the Incarnation and the Death and Resurrection of Christ. But in the Eastern Church the Incarnation (and Resurrection) is stressed while in the Western Church the Crucifixion has traditionally been emphasized. Deification is the term most used in the East to refer to Redeemed Man while Sanctification is the term most often utilized in the West.

The Church Building As The Heavenly Jerusalem

February 3rd, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

The earliest –and longest running- thematic program in church construction and decoration is the vision of the “Heavenly Jerusalem” as described in the Book of Revelation.1 Church buildings have most often been understood as symbolizing the biblical idea of a “walled city” where God dwelt in the Temple.

Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome

Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome

Without fail the earliest Christian basilicas were arranged longitudinally creating a sense of linear movement from the main entrance to the apse at the far end.2 There in the apse,3 in an image straight out of the Book of Revelation, we often find Christ enthroned, approached by processions of saints and sheep representing the faithful of the Church. The backgrounds to these images often consisted of shimmering gold mosaic tesserae. These basilica churches were sometimes  referred to as “houses of mystery” by the pagans for the exterior of the churches were usually plain brick affairs while the interiors were filled with glowing images of Christ, angels and saints rendered in brilliantly colorful mosaics suggestive of a heavenly, transfigured state.

I have mentioned before, in other posts, that Christian worship should be understood as a linear construct. As it is biblical it has an absolute beginning and an absolute end. Christianity understands itself as processional; the church is moving towards its Lord. The church is on a journey to be sure but it is not wandering aimlessly or going around in circles it is moving like an arrow to its heavenly goal.

Western churches should be constructed according to a linear and hierarchical plan. To be biblical it should convey a sense of an absolute end. As such the fundamental organizing principle is processional; the church is moving towards its Lord. The Church is on a journey to be sure but it is not wandering aimlessly or going around in circles it is moving like an arrow to its heavenly goal. We are in the walled city (the building) and we are moving toward the Temple (the Lord).

Oftentimes, the entry doors to churches announce to visitors that they are about to enter heaven. In the medieval period it was also made clear by the "Last Judgment" scene over the entrance that one had better prepare for when they would actually stand before the gates and seek admittance.

Oftentimes, the entry doors to churches announce to visitors that they are about to enter heaven. In the medieval period it was also made clear by the “Last Judgment” scene over the entrance that one had better prepare for when they would actually stand before the gates and seek admittance.

Church buildings through subsequent centuries continued the theme of the “walled city” in various ways. And, while the new Temple within the walled city was understood to be Jesus and the people of God gathered to Him, the arrangement of the church’s interior space and the church’s furnishings recalled the earthly Temple. Some spaces, as in the Jerusalem Temple, were more sacred than others, and were reserved for the clergy. The mystery suggested by the curtain of the old Temple was carried over into the Christian churches by the use of hung drapery or of veiling in various ways or circumstances.

Riddle curtains evoke biblical connotations and liturgically separate the altar from the rest of the church, suggesting its sacredness and mystery. Vesting the altar recalls the high priests vestments and reminds us that Christ , symbolized by the altar, is our High Priest.

Riddle curtains evoke biblical connotations and liturgically separate the altar from the rest of the church, suggesting its sacredness and mystery. Vesting the altar recalls the high priests vestments and reminds us that Christ, symbolized by the altar, is our High Priest. Picture Source

Even the clothing worn by the Christian clergy eventually was understood in reference to the vestments of the Temple priests. Roman street clothing which was originally worn by the Christian clergy took on spiritual meanings as Roman styles of daily dress fell out of popular style but were maintained by the clergy.4 Even so, in the third century, before the appearance of distinctive priestly vestments, Christian writers compared the clergy to the priests of the old Jerusalem Temple.

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Ciboria and baldachins symbolize the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The baldachin and the entire church are often profusely decorated in colorful imagery and rendered in precious metals or materials in order to simulate a heavenly city, a city beyond our imagination.

In the Book of Revealation we read of saints and angels around the Throne of God. The Church has often incarnated this vision in stone and paint around the earthly altar. Tabernacles are obvious references to the Holy of Holies and the presence of the Lord.

In the Book of Revelation we read of saints and angels around the Throne of God. The Church has often incarnated this vision in stone and paint surrounding the earthly altar with such images.  Tabernacles, of course, are obvious references to the Holy of Holies and the special presence of the Lord.

There are other decorative and symbolic themes in our Catholic tradition but the “Heavenly City” is fundamental. The others are related to it. Rich in meaning and reflective of our Jewish and biblical heritage, what a shame it is that we have jettisoned it in so many of our contemporary churches. But, it doesn’t take much to begin a recovery of the tradition. I’ve watched the Fellowship of Saint Alban, a very small congregation without anything material in stock, gradually and simply construct a vision of the “Heavenly Jerusalem” over the last few months.

Snapshot 1 (1-31-2013 7-08 PM)

(Fellowship of Saint Alban) The riddle curtains and vested altar and candle holders are set-up before, and taken down after, each Fellowship Mass in a church generously donated to the congregation for use on Sundays.


1 I will introduce the other themes in subsequent posts. The Eastern Churches developed a significantly different architectural and thematic program around the 6th century.

2 The fundamental organizing principal of early Christian church architecture and decoration is processional; a movement through time and space from an absolute beginning to an absolute end.

3 The arrangement varies. Sometimes the eschatological theme is also carried onto the triumphal arch that separated the nave from the more sacred part of the church in some churches.

4 Barbarian dress eventually supplanted Roman styles.

A Gem in Geneva – Part I

September 20th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Many of you are probably already familiar with St. Stephen’s Church in Geneva, NY and know of its beautiful sacred art. But, yesterday was my first visit there and I can encourage anyone who hasn’t been there to go.

(click on pictures to see clearer images)

Nina Somerset, Liturgical Artist

March 21st, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

From the New Liturgical Movement website.

by David Clayton


…The website of …  St Silas the Martyr, talks about a devout Christian who was a daily communicant (I can’t see any direct reference on the site, but I am guessing that this is a high Anglican church and not Catholic. The website for the church is here). It says that she trained as an art student in the Bournemouth (England) in the 1920s. I would describe her style as derived from the pre-Raphaelite and the Victorian neo-gothic movement.

These movements took their inspiration from the late gothic period, prior to the High Renaissance. I am not always enamoured with the art of this inspiration (although I do like the neo-gothic arthitecture very much). Pre-Raphaelite painting in particular is too…

…Nina Somerset’s art works, I feel because she is working so as to try to…

Read the entire article here

Savannah Georgia’s Cathedral Church

March 12th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Can you stand a peek at another cathedral?

(See a video that I made of the Cathedral, here.)

I was fortunate to visit the cathedral church of Savannah, Georgia (St. John the Baptist) a couple of weeks ago and was delighted with what I saw.

(click on photos to see larger images) 


The Cathedral has published a book that displays the art of the Cathedral and provides interesting historical background as well as religious definitions and explanations.2 I’ve reproduced several of the book’s photographs for this post.

Savannah Cathedral (3)

The first thing that struck me about the decorative program of this church appears high up in the clerestory, above the nave. The murals there led me to ask if there was a book available that would explain not only the personages in those murals but also the subjects and symbols that were in abundance throughout the rest of building. A beautiful book it is.

Those murals in the clerestory, along each side of the nave and on each side of the transept(s), depict a celestial procession of saints realistically portrayed against a regally patterned, flat, pinkish, wall paper-like, background. I immediately thought of the tapestry procession of saints in the controversial Los Angeles Cathedral.

Los Angeles Tapestries (4)



A celestial procession of saints as part of the decorative program of a church goes way back to the earliest Christian churches. The only surviving ‘house-church’ (ca. 243), at Dura Europos in Syria, shows a procession, in the baptistery, of the three women to the tomb of Christ.

Three women at the tomb. Dura Europos, Syria (243) (6)

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (7)

Probably the best known example is in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (561) in Ravenna, Italy where processions of saints line the clerestory walls of the nave (see a clip here). Processions of 22 virgins appear below the saints on one side of the nave and 26 martyrs, on the opposite side.

I don't think churches "in the round" work because they focus inward on the community too much and not enough on the Lord. But, I give this parish credit for including the saints above and around them. (Photo has been edited to emphasize the 'clerestory.') (8)

A program of saints hovering above the nave of a church is an excellent way to reinforce a congregation’s sense of the communion of saints (a ‘Catholic’ concept). The saints, as well as the congregation, are participating in the liturgy from heaven, represented by church imagery high up on the walls of the nave. In my opinion, the suggestion of timelessness (‘God’s time’) is an important goal for church architecture. It is impressively achieved in a traditionally arranged long nave which leads to -and ends at- the altar where a strong eschatological image is displayed behind/above the altar.
Psalm 84, the first in today’s morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours,  suggests that  processional imagery in the nave of a church is most approriate:
“My soul is longing and yearning,
is yearning for the courts of the Lord.”
“They walk with ever growing strength,
they will see the God of gods in Zion”
And, from Revelation 15:4 of today’s morning prayer:
“All peoples shall come and worship in your presence”
Liberals, progressives (or whatever the term should be) often invoke the image of journeying but it is interpreted in their ‘creative’ liturgies and church environments as ‘wandering.’ It never seems clear to me as to where they are journeying to, except inward toward the earthly confined community. In an environment like the Savannah Cathedral the journey is clearly to Zion and to the celestial celebration. The saints have successfully gone ahead of us -that’s why they are depicted in a higher register, above our heads. They encourage and help us by accompanying us; journeying, not wandering aimlessly.
Let’s also remember that Biblical history -salvation history- has an absolute beginning and an absolute end. Like an arrow it flies straight to the target from a definite starting point.

John points to the Lamb of God. Apse window. (9)

The Savannah Cathedral’s decorative program follows one type of Catholic tradition that emphasizes eschatological treatment of a scriptural scene; in this case, the Baptism of Christ and the story surrounding St. John the Baptist. It is in the nature of stained glass to transfigure even realistically rendered imagery into a vision of sanctification.  And so it is in the situation here: the saints of the murals in this Cathedral process toward the chancel (toward the altar of sacrifice and the table of the celestial banquet) in which are three luminous windows each proclaiming around the head of St. John “Behold, the Lamb of God”. (You recall, I hope, the image of the Agnus Dei -the Lamb of God– we saw in the chancel of the Washington Cathedral.)


Overlooking the altar, on each side, are the four evangelists participating from their box seats in the clerestory.

Transept window. (11)

The windows of the transept in St. John the Baptist are also quite beautiful and symmetrically programmed opposite each in the transept. In the north is depicted The Ascension of Our Lord and in the south, The Assumption of Mary. Both hopeful images for the successful completion of our journey. Below the transept windows are lancet windows of saints, the Christ Child, and the Holy Virgin.


There are Stations of the Cross, of course. These were made in Munich, Germany and installed in 1900. You can’t get to enjoy Easter without enduring Good Friday. Appropriately, these are located just slightly above eye level.


1 -by Bernie

2, 3, 9, 11 -Aviles, Suzanne, Art and Symbols of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, (2007) Diocese of Savannah, 222 Harris Street, Savannah, Georgia 31410. The book is available for $20 and includes photographs of nearly all the works in the church as well as a wealth of information both historical and religious.

7 Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Tango7174

4 Los Angeles Cathedral

Tapestry Saints

8 Anne Spenny (original photo has been altered) Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, Ohio

10, 11 -Bernie

Saint Matthew the Apostle Cathedral, Washington D.C.

March 6th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

I visited the cathedral church of Washington D.C. this past weekend –the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. Most my age probably remember this church from the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. The church was cleaned and restored in 2003 and the results are stunning. What was a fairly dark and somber interior is now restored to its original brilliance. The cleaned mosaics shimmer under the newly installed lighting.

(Click on images to see a larger size.)

One of America’s foremost muralists, Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848-1936), designed and executed the mosaics in the chancel, on the pendentives and in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. His assistant, Vincent Aderente (1880-1941), executed the painted murals which where designed by Blashfield.

View a short video clip I made.

The Cathedral beautifully expresses the environment of a Temple of Christian sacrifice. The eschatological nature of the Christian liturgy is clear: heaven and earth are united in timeless liturgy.  The imagery is magnificently rendered to express transfiguration –sanctification in Western terminology, deification in Eastern terms. This is how, I believe, a church interior should be decorated; with a clear expression of what the liturgy is all about and a suggestion of the beauty that awaits us. Many of our new churches -heretically in my opinion- express an aimless journey focused inward on ‘community’ instead of turning toward the Lord.

The chancel imagery is, appropriately, the most powerful in the Cathedral. Saint Matthew the Apostle is depicted seated in a 35 feet high mosaic behind the altar. An angel stands behind him enveloping Matthew with a scroll inscribed with the Saint’s name. The Evangelist holds a book with a passage from his gospel: “Jesus saw a man sitting in the custom house named Matthew and He said to him ‘Follow Me.’ And he arose and followed Him.” In the pediment below, two peacocks –symbols of immortality—drink from a cup from which rises the Chi Rho, the symbol for Christ.


Above Saint Matthew, a 49 feet wide and 25 feet high lunette mosaic includes eight angels and the Agnus Dei of the Book of Revelation –Jesus, the Lamb of God, resting on an altar. The circle in the middle of the altar represents eternity. On the right, the bottom angel holds the pillar of Christ’s flagellation; the second angel up holds the crown of thorns; and the third holds the legend IHS, the first three letters of ‘Jesus’ in Greek. On the left, the lowest angel holds the spear that pierced the side of Christ; the next angel holds the hammer and nails; and the third up from the bottom holds the wood of the cross. The angels closest to the Lamb hold trumpets and herald the Gospel. The imagery is strongly evocative of the Book of Revelation and the Catholic understanding of the sacrifice of Christ as ritually ‘made present’ on the altar below.

The Chapel of Saint Anthony of Padua provides an interesting contrast. Off the east side of the nave, the slightly more realistic mosaic is architecturally framed to create the illusion of a landscape outside that side of the building. An historical painted mural of saintly and eminent Americans is located above the entrance, at the back, and is designed in imitation of Raphael’s famous painting in the Vatican Palace of the School of Athens. On the opposite side from the Saint Anthony Chapel is the Chapel of Our Lady which contains three mosaics by Thomas S. La Farge which represent biblical passages referring to Our Lady and the genealogy of Jesus. Mary looks like she’s doing a tap dance the way she is posed in a sculpture by Gordon S. Kray. (It is beautifully sculpted but… it looks like a tap dancer at the end of her routine.)

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is outstanding. The Tabernacle is framed by a background illustrating the two disciples from the story of The Road to Emmaus at the moment when they recognized the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

Unfortunately, beautiful enriched imagery is usually considered superfluous or downright ‘politically’ incorrect in today’s Church. We have pretty much jettisoned thinking of Beauty as an attribute of God and an important ingredient in our ‘worship spaces.’ Minimalistic, simplistic, mundane and even ugly are in; uplifting, inspirational and hopeful are out.

Here is the parish website

The “Righteousness of the Plain”

October 3rd, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

1. Monastery of Kloster Eberbach, 1145-1160 and 1170-1186, Frankfurt

The phrase –“the righteousness of the plain”– is used by Robin M. Jensen in her 2004 book The Substance of Things Seen [1] to describe the view of many that art in worship marks the “beginning of a slide down into vanity, materialism, and –ultimately—idolatry.” God should be worshipped in simplicity and free of distracting “trappings.” Art is viewed by such folks as self-indulgent and, at the very least, an unnecessary expense. Better that the money be spent on meeting the basic needs of people, especially the poor. The Church should concentrate on good works rather than beautiful works.

Jensen points out that a text from Isaiah is often cited by holders of this view.

“When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bring offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:12-13. 16-17)

The “righteousness of the plain” view understands feelings and sensory experiences to be improper to religion. Religion should be a dispassionate activity. Art “awakens appetites” and “arouses passions” and can tempt people to sin.

We recognize this viewpoint as representative of puritanical Protestantism. There are exceptions, to be sure, but we identify the view, in general, with Protestants. Catholics often describe a plain church as looking “protestant.”

But this passion for the plain has a tradition in Catholicism as well. For pretty much the same reasons, “Cistercian monastic architecture –under the influence especially of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)– was characterized by its simplicity and austerity. In contrast to the richly carved capitals and portals at other monasteries, Cistercian art was minimal, with almost no figurative carvings to distract the monks.” [2]

2. The "architecture of light" of Acey Abbey represents the pure style of Cistercian architecture, intended for the utilitarian purposes of liturgical celebration

Saint Bernard, in a letter to William of St. Thierry, writes:

“…the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the costly polishing, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper’s gaze and hinder his attention… The church is resplendent in her walls, beggarly in her poor; she clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked; the rich man’s eye is fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find their delight here, yet the needy find no relief.” [3]

3. 12th-century Cistercian

Bernard’s austere aesthetics and numerous rules eventually outlawed the use of paintings and other images in his monastic churches. His rules it must be remembered, were for monks who had withdrawn from the people, “we who left all the precious and beautiful things of the world for Christ’s sake.” Bernard, however, notes that bishops and their parishes have an excuse for expensive worship in “being debtors to the wise and the unwise, and unable to excite the devotion of carnal folk by spiritual things, do so by bodily adornments.” [4] Clearly, even in the case of non-monastic churches, Bernard disparaged use of liturgical art.

4. "Quietly Beautiful" Novy Dvur contemporary monastery in the Bohemia area of the Czech Republic. Photo by Ståle Eriksen

Although St. Bernard sees the use of images and decoration in worship as having the potential for descending into idolatry, he seems to object most to what he understands as the distracting aspect of decoration, and the contradiction between expensive worship and care for the poor.

I suppose someone should have asked Bernard if he found Jesus –the image of the invisible Father- “distracting?” The sacramental nature of liturgical images, based upon the theology of the Incarnation (affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea 787) [5], would seem to place St. Bernard’s thinking on the subject of the use of holy images in churches at odds with the teaching of the wider Church. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformers several centuries later echoed Bernard’s thoughts. [6]

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council we witnessed an onslaught of minimalism in the construction and renovation of churches that only recently, after forty years of iconoclastic thinking, seems to be running out of steam. The minimalist tendency had already been evident in the liturgical reform movement leading up to the Council. It gained momentum quickly after the Council mostly as a result of the interaction of the thinking of the Council with regards to active participation in the liturgy and the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s: rejection of authority and tradition, and the intensity of emotions over racial and social justice concerns.

Austere simplicity of church buildings is generally outside the mainstream of Catholic architectural tradition being relegated, for the most part, to monastic environments andl church architecture that became popular with liturgists of the second part of the 20th century. I do not mean to imply, of course, that austere simplicity cannot be beautiful or, even, Catholic. We have a strong tradition of monasticism in the Catholic Church and we formulated, after all, Western thought on social justice and effective care for the poor and marginalized. Rejection or at least abstension from sensual stimulation is within our tradition and as much a pathway to spiritual union with God as reflecting on beautiful art and music. I can’t go into the details of such spirituality here, only to point out that it is a ligitimate pathway that yeilds great fruit not only to monks but to a large segment, if not a majority, of Catholic faithful. I think that it would be difficult to find a page in “My Imitation of Christ” (by Thomas à Kempis) without word about letting go of this world and its sensual allures. Then, there is the example of the covering of statues and paintings during the last two weeks of Lent.  The Cistercian approach is a strong one in our tradition, if not a dominate one.

We each have our preferences, of course, but the vast majority of the Catholic faithful are not monks or nuns under a rule of austere simplicity and chastity. Diocesan churches, it seems to me should adhere to the thinking of the Second Council of Nicaea and employ images and decoration in churches –and not be cheap or stingy about it. The Second Vatican Council did not change the policy of images in churches; indeed, it stressed their importance.

It does not help that often art or “decoration” is viewed as not essential, as actually have a role to play in the liturgy. Since it is thought of as “frivolous”, it is usually one of the last things considered in a budget and only if money is left over.



[1] The Substance of Things Seen; Art, Faith, and the Christian Community, Robin M. Jensen, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004)  pp 79-80

[2]  Sacred Destinations

[3] Early Medieval Art 300-1150, Carcilia Davis-Weyer, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1986)  pp 168-69

[4] Early Medieval Art… 169

[5] “…the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.  … we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.”

[6] St. Bernard did hold some doctrines that the Protestant Reformers would later resurrect. His theology contains a mix of Protestant and Catholic doctrines. Calvin, for example, quotes Bernard several times to show the historical validity of “faith alone”, and his concept of justification was important to the Protestants. I don’t mean to imply by this that Bernard is not worthy to be a Doctor of the Church; that would be ridiculous. Only that his thinking could at times, on certain topics, seem to not obviously exemplify traditional Catholic teaching.

Picture Sources





5. and 6. Cistercian Abbeys, History and Architecture, Photos by Henri Gaud and Text by Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, (China, Könemann, 2006)


Another “Which one?” Post

September 28th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie
(click on the photos to see a larger image)
If you had no other choice, which one would you choose to worship at each week for the next year: A or B?
Can you state your reasons for us?
Picture Source
Cistercian Abbeys, History and Architecture, Photos by Henri Gaud and Text by Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, (China, Könemann, 2006)

“Sit on my right”

August 21st, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Psalm 110

The Lord’s revelation to my Master:
“Sit on my right:
your foes I will put beneath your feet.”

The Lord will wield from Zion
your scepter of power:
rule in the midst of all your foes.

A prince from the day of your birth
on the holy mountains;
from the womb before the dawn I begot you.

The Master standing at your right hand
will shatter kings in the day of his great wrath.

He shall drink from the stream by the wayside
and therefore he shall lift up his head.

Cathedral of Cefalù, Sicily, the apsidal mosaic: Christ Pantocrator.

Picture Source

What are appropriate images for the chancel areas of Catholic churches? I have explored that question in a number of posts (see “Chancel Images” under archives; also, “Catholic Images?”). There are several possiblities that I think are proper for today’s world. There are many more if we survey all of the history of Christian liturgical art, but let me suggest one that we couldn’t go wrong with that comes to mind when I recite Psalm 110, which is sung/prayed at Vespers every Sunday.

Below is a quote concering Psalm 110 that I like from Praying the Psalms: A Commentary by Stanley L. Jaki.

“Those not tuned to the great lessons of apologetics about Christ might take a lesson or two about Him from art history. …Far more than anyone He inspired the greatest masterpieces, such as the mosaics of Christ the Pantokrator (the Almighty Ruler of the universe) in Romanesque basilicas. Few are fortunate to see the huge image of Christ gazing down from the apse of the Norman cathedral in Cefalu, Sicily, as the Sunday vespers are being chanted.  …Future began with Him and all future belongs to Him.  …There is no ‘Common Era’ except the one in communion with Him.

“Nor is there a cosmos without Him in whom God created everything. The Lord’s words to David’s Master should resound in our ears as crossing through the entire cosmos, which today looms incomparably larger in its countless galaxies than a cosmic tent covered with a firmament. In a truly cosmic sense, Christ is the Alpha and Omega, comparable with whom the gigantic cosmos looks puny indeed, to say nothing of a ‘fundamental particle’ called omega, which, like other such particles, is anything but fundamental.”

Interior of Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily.

Picture Source

Supplement as of 10:45 PM August 21: A reader has sent us a link to a polyphonic setting of this psalm, as sung at Solemn Vespers at St. Anne Church this past May. Enjoy!

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.


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

**Heavenly Participants picture source

Images in the Chancel! (Part 3)

August 13th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie
Continued from Part 1, Part 2
(Click on pictures to see larger, clearer images)

"Basilica of Sant'Apollinare", Classe (Ravenna), Italy; early 6th c.

The genius of the traditional basilica architectural setting for the Mass in the Western or Catholic tradition is its ability to draw us forward to the chancel and altar. Like a magnet, the architectural lines and forms of the Roman basilica compel us to move up the nave toward the apse at the other end of the hall where the perspective lines of the columns, arches, coffers and mosaic patterns of the floor seem to vanish into infinity; no “journeying”, no detours, no wandering, no uncertainty. All life, it seems, is drawn to that point. It is irresistible. Unquestionably, the whole arrangement suggests an attraction, a movement toward something that promises a reward when you get there.

At the point where the perspective lines converge stands the altar of redemptive sacrifice and table of the celestial banquet, which begins here on earth. Both entail the promise of eternal happiness given us in Christ Jesus.

Often the promise is symbolized with a large image or grouping of images behind and/or over the altar.

This is the case in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Ravenna), Italy. The church (early 6th c.) is of the Roman basilica type I described above. The visual pull is straight to the apse end of the space where a sparkling mosaic suggests the promise of eternal happiness. The apse mosaic presents us with a spiritual vision of two merged events meant to encourage us on to our goal of eternal life with Christ. (“Eye has not seen…”)

"The Transfiguration", apse mosaic, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare*

A large bejeweled cross inscribed on a circular blue field populated with gold stars catches our attention first. A closer look reveals a bust of Christ at the crossing of the arms of the cross. It has a Latin inscription at its base reading SALVS MVNDI, “Salvation of the World” and a Greek inscription at the top: IX?YC, meaning “fish” in Greek and an anagram of the names of Christ: Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” The cross here is a symbol of Jesus Christ. Above the cross we see a golden sky representing a sunrise. In the sky are flanking figures of Moses and Elijah seemingly conversing with the cross. Below, a luscious green garden is filled with a variety of trees, plants, rocks, and birds. In the center of the garden is an image of Sant’Apollinare, once Bishop of Classe, to whom the church is dedicated and whose remains lie beneath the altar. The flock of Bishop Apollinare is represented by the 12 lambs processing toward him. Also in the garden, looking at the cross in wonderment, are 3 lambs representing the apostles Peter, James and John.

There’s more to look at around the apse walls and the surrounding arch but let’s leave it at this.

What is represented, of course, is the Transfiguration of our Lord (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). This view –experience– granted to the 3 apostles (given the horror of the passion that was to come) reassured them of Christ’s eternal glorification. The cross is presented as constructed of precious jewels. This glorified cross of Christ’s passion and death is a symbol of the Transfigured Christ, Himself.1 The scene represents the promise of glorification that is given to those who, at Mass, join their sacrifices to that of Jesus Christ. Those who partake of the sacred Body and Blood of the Eucharist, confected on the altar below the apse mosaic, become what they eat and are promised the same glorification suggested in the mosaic.

"Saint Apollinaris", detail from apse mosaic, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare

Christ’s promised salvation is available to us in His Church where we are nourished and fed through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The bishop is the symbol of unity of that Church. “Wherever the Bishop appears, there let the multitude of the people be; just as where Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic church.”2 In the mosaic, the Church of Classe follows its bishop, Saint Apollinare, into the garden (paradise) of eternal happiness with Christ.  The saintly bishop, now in paradise, raises his arms in prayer to Christ in behalf of his flock just as the priest, acting in persona Christi, raises his arms in prayer to the Father during the Mass.

Holding out the Christian promise of salvation and eternal happiness is especially appropriate in today’s world in which mankind’s belief in its own power to create happiness without reference to God has failed miserably. The Sant’Apollinare mosaic, created centuries ago and under different societal and cultural circumstances, still offers us hope today. I am not suggesting we copy this mosaic but rather that we look to creating images for our sanctuaries that hold out the same Christian hope, that illustrate the same promise.

The history of the imagery of the Transfiguration, in our Catholic and Orthodox traditions, is just one place where we could turn to for inspiration as we prepare to once again populate our chancel areas with figurative imagery.


1 Jeweled crosses are believed to have been in imitation of a large bejeweled cross Emperor Constantine the Great had erected atop the hill of Golgotha in Jerusalem in the 4th century.

2St. Ignatius of Antioch, c. 111 AD, Letter to the Smyrneans 8


Drama in the Chancel!

August 11th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

"Calvary and Our Lady of Sorrows" photo by Stephen, O. Cist.

I came upon this picture by Stephen, a Cistercian monk, on his blog, SUB TUUM. It’s a photo of a side chapel in the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Anges (Our Lady of the Angels) in Collioure, France, just north of the border with Spain. Notice the curtain to the right of the sculptural scene of the crucifixion, above the altar. It looks to be a real, functioning curtain meant to be pulled shut and opened. This three-dimensional crucifixion scene appears as a motionless  drama -presented on a stage -a “tableau vivant.” The feeling is heightened by the fact that Mary wears actual clothing.

The chapel reminded me of another, more famous, side chapel that presents a theater-like environment, The Cornaro Chapel, in the left transept of the Church of S. Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

"Cornaro Chapel" and detail by Bernini, Church of S. Maria della Vittoria, Rome

The scene over the altar there is of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa di Avila by Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). The ecstatic moment of Theresa is viewed from flanking theater balconies by Bernini’s sculpted cardinals and doges of the Cornaro family. Natural light descends upon the angel and St. Theresa from a real window hidden behind the crowning entablature/pediment.

Protection of the Mother of God Church

August 4th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

A reader who commented here on the last post I made on “Images in the Chancel !”posted a link to a very fine Russian Orthodox Church in Brighton, Protection of the Mother of God Church. I think this is the same congregation that was on East Avenue for a long time (?). I hope you visit its website and take a look at the photo section, especially the work of the monk iconographers completing the decoration of the interior of the church (in the left hand margin of the Homepage, click on the “Iconography Project Continues” picture). I have not yet been in this church but it looks beautiful from the pictures. I’ve posted here some pictures from its website.

The Orthodox –and our Eastern Rite Catholics– can help us recover a sense of the sacred in our church buildings by modeling for us the importance of images to Christian worship.

Interior of "Protection of the "Mother of God Church" Russian Orthodox Church, Rochester

Labeled according to our previous "Images in the CHancel !" post

Exterior of "Protection of the Mother of the God Church"

Iconographers recently at work.

Images in the Chancel ! (Part 2)

July 31st, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie
Previously: Part 1

"Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit", Mt. Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY

This is a local Greek Orthodox Church that is actually a renovated Baptist Church. The Eastern Churches (Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic) are serious when it comes to the use of images in the chancel -or bema– area. As I have mentioned before, the Eastern Churches have a canon of liturgical decoration that is nearly always followed. We Roman (or Latin Rite) Catholics do not have any such canon.

Let’s start our survey of appropriate images for use in the chancel area with this Greek Orthodox example. This gives us a peek at the basic canon used by the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches.

The iconostasis screen is the wall of icons  that symbolizes the point at which heaven and earth meet; a boundary of sorts between heaven and earth. The central doors are called the Royal Doors (or Holy Doors or Beautiful Gates). The Annunciation is usually depicted on them but sometimes it is the four evangelists, or both. The first icon to the right of the doors is always a representation of Christ. It is in front of this icon that confessions are heard. The icon to the left of the doors is always of the Theotokos. Filling out the iconostasis to the right and left are St. John the Baptist next, after Christ, and then patron saints or other saints important to the local Church.  There are two other doors in the screen, one on each side, called deacon doors (or the north and south doors). Deacon Saints Stephen and Lawrence or Archangels Michael and Gabriel are usually depicted on those doors.

Above the central door is displayed the Mystical Supper icon and above that an icon (the Deesis) with Christ in the center, Mary on the left and St. John the Baptist on the right. Both point to Christ. To either side of the Mystical Supper are depicted the twelve Feasts of the Liturgical year.

If the doors are open you will see an icon of the crucifixion (in some churches) on the wall to the far side of the altar (all Eastern Rite Churches utilize free-standing square/cubic altars). Finally, high on the back wall, or in the half dome ceiling if there is an apse, you can usually see a large image of the Virgin of the Sign (or Virgin Platytera); this image calls to mind the Incarnation and Mary’s role as intercessor. Sometimes the image is of Christ Pantokrator (Almighty Ruler of the Universe or Christ in Majesty as it is depicted in Eastern Rite Catholic churches).

If there are other tiers on the screen they will depict the patriarchs, prophets and apostles.

That is a very basic description of the distribution of images in the Eastern canon of Liturgical imagery. Why those images are situated where there are is, of course, very important and quite interesting but, alas, there is no room here to get into all that. Maybe we can do that in the future in separate short posts. I just wanted to give anyone not familiar with the Eastern canon a quick look at who, and what, goes where.

Some Local Websites:

Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, Mt. Hope Avenue, Rochester. Greek Fest 2010 is August 26 – 28 at the church location. They have tours and explanations of the church during the festival days.

St. Josaphat’s Ukranian Catholic Church , Ridge Road, Irondequoit. This site has a ton of pictures of parish life. Among them are many pictures of the interior of the church showing the chancel or bema area during Liturgical celebrations. Unfortunately I couldn’t capture any of them to show you here. They will have tours of the church during the Ukranian Festival 2010 August 12 – 15.

Images in the Chancel ! (A Good Example)

July 26th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously here

Chancel of St. Paul’s Church, Bergen, Norway*

Crucifix, Altar Frontal, Ambo and Lectern Frontals

by Iconographer Solrunn Nes

Here is an example of what I think is a good use of imagery in a contemporary chancel. The images are employed in such a way as to be unavoidably a part of the Liturgy for they help define the sacredness of the space. They also extend the experience of the Liturgy in time to both before and after the Mass.

The crucifix dominates the chancel and is the most important decoration in the whole church. There are a variety of different Christological teachings expressed in different styles of crosses. This one represents just one type. The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that the style and the teaching should be inspired from tradition and orthodox doctrine and not be the artist’s personal vision. I won’t go into the particular Christology of this crucifix as my intention is merely to give an example of what I consider to be a chancel that gives a prominent role to imagery. Do notice, however, that brilliant colors are employed to contrast with the neutral colors of the chancel walls, thus emphasizing the cross. The complexity of the shape of the cross also invites attention compared to the simplicity of the surrounding forms.

"Altar Frontal" by Solrunn Nes*

The colors of the altar frontal echo the colors and style of the crucifix and the subject draws from traditional imagery. Again, I won’t go into the particular Christology depicted here except to mention that represented is the traditional Majestas Domini or Christ in Majesty/Glory image flanked by images of Peter on the left, and Paul on the right. Altar frontals are an excellent place to introduce imagery into the chancel (much better than banners!) especially if your current environment is a theater-in-the-round arrangement. All sides of the altar can display images.

The smaller images on the fronts of the ambo and lectern are by the same artist and repeat the colors and style of the crucifix and altar frontal.

The stained glass windows are an inherited feature of the building as well as the sculptures. The tabernacle echoes the shape of the windows.

This does not appear to have been a terribly expensive renovation and probably could serve as a reasonable model even for our own St. Paul’s Church in Webster –not the particulars, of course, but the general principles.

I hope you agree that this creates a fitting feeling of sacred space in which to enact the most sacred ritual of the Mass.


The images for this post were scanned from:

*The Mystical Language of Icons by Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004) pp 104 and 108. Email: and Website: I think this is a terrific book! You’ve probably noticed that this isn’t the first time I’ve cited it. The icons illustrated in the book are nearly all hers and beautiful. Equally great, however, are her prayerful reflections and explanations. St. Paul’s, Bergen is her home parish.

Images in the Chancel ! (Part 1)

July 23rd, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Rochester, NY before (left) and after (right) renovation. There is now a large organ filling the space of the old chancel's back wall.

You have probably caught on from my posts and comments that I am more than a little concerned that new and renovated churches in our diocese fail to make an essential use of images in the chancel area.  I use the word “essential” because the use of imagery by the Church is understood doctrinally in relation to the Incarnation, the central dogma of the Christian faith. Images are essential to the Liturgy because the Incarnation is central to our Faith and we pray as we believe, and believe as we pray. 

In the Incarnation, he who is invisible made himself visible and did so in a specific, individual, historical person –Jesus of Nazareth. An icon or picture/sculpture of Christ is, therefore, an “image of the image” of God. Further, all those “alive in Christ” are deified, as the Eastern Orthodox say. Mary and the saints (and all faithful Christians) share in the life of Christ –who is the True Image of the Father. The veneration given to icons of Mary and the saints is therefore appropriate as the humanity depicted is that deified by the Incarnation and Redemption. The veneration of icons/images passes to Christ and through Him to the Father. 

Chancel of Sacred Heart Cathedral before renovation***

Failure to display and venerate images of Christ, Mary and the saints because they are viewed as distractions to the action of the Eucharist is heresy, plain and simple. Such an attitude flies in the face of the Truth of the Incarnation. Images are an important part of the “action.” As God became localized in a particular man so, too, Jesus becomes localized in the appearances of the bread and wine upon the altar. That is basic Catholic doctrine. 

The banning of holy images from the chancel is heretical in that proponents of such a ban claim, broadly, that everything is sacred and that the sacred cannot be marked off and presented separately; cannot be localized concretely.* Chancel images help us identify a space as sacred and therefore, according to this theology, have to go, in the case of renovations, and must be excluded, in the case of new churches. That is contrary to Catholic teaching. This is why, governed by the new theory, newer churches and renovated older ones stress functionality over sacredness. It is evident in the modern liturgists’  insistence on the Eucharist as a verb, not a noun; they emphasize the action of the ritual over the material substance of the Body and Blood.** In their view the action makes the space sacred. Once the action is over, the space is no longer sacred. It can be used therefore for concerts (like Rochester’s renovated cathedral), mimes, and presentations of any secular or profane nature. Even the chancel space itself has, for the most part disappeared. The boundary lines, the chancel/communion rails that defined the sacred space are long gone. The ciboria or canopies over altars -a long standing requirement- have faded away for the same reason: they designated  sacred space. They were symbolic of the Old Testament archetype of the Presence of God in the Jerusalem Temple. It is also why the tabernacle has been removed to an out-of-the-way location.

So too, images have been banned because they are tangible, concrete reminders of our belief in the Eucharist as a noun (as well as a verb).

St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church, Irvin California****

Images in the chancel area have an important secondary purpose, as well. While helping us to participate at Mass, they also extend the experience of the Mysteries to the times outside the ceremonial time itself: before Mass and after. Chancel images help us to appreciate the historical and eternal implications of the Eucharist. For the time being, we could simply refer to this purpose as didactic. Images teach or instruct and help us to internalize our experiences so as to embed them in our individual and collective memory. 

With disastrous results we have seen just how effective most renovations and new construction has been in promoting heretical thinking. The churches are emptying. There is nothing there that can’t be had with better delivery in the secular culture, like sitting around a campfire with friends, sharing smores, singing songs, and telling stories.

In subsequent posts on this subject (the use of images in the chancel) I’ll try, in my clumsy way, to be more specific as to what images have been traditionally used to adorn the sacred space of the chancel. 

*Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century by Romano Amerio, Translated by Fr. John P. Parsons, (Kansas City, Sarto House, 1996) pp 647-50

**I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that announced from the pulpit. Somewhat related: I remember from a “St. Bernard’s on the Road” session at the Church of the Transfiguration in Penfield, a highly placed diocsesan priest official suggested that perhaps the bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ only if the people attending were conscious that it was the Body and Blood of Christ. The analogy was made to people in an elevator: Were the other people really present if you weren’t fully conscious of them being there? They were to those who were conscious of their presence, but not to you. (Huh?) I guess this is “doing” theology.

***Image source: httpmp-dulcimer.comcategorymiscellanyphotospage3



Book Suggestion: 

Three Treatises On The Divine Images by St. John of Damascus, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003)