Friday, May 18, 2018

The Sanctuary’s Image

Detail of [soon to be installed] "Corpus"
Edward Riojas 2018.
(Our Savior Lutheran Church,
Pagosa Springs, Colo.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The church sanctuary is just that – a haven. It is a place in which the cares of the world hold little sway, and the blessings of the Lord come to us. The older I get, the more I understand the Psalmist when he wrote, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”

But sanctuaries differ visually from one another. Sometimes big differences aren’t all that intentional – being dictated by taste and architecture. At other times, however, there is strong intent that comes with denominational territory.

The next time you visit an Eastern Orthodox church, for example, see how many sculpted pieces you can find in the sanctuary. Chances are the church will be wonderfully elaborate, with plenty of paintings, but three-dimensional images will be very hard to come by.

The Second Council of Nicaea of 787 effectively eliminated sculpted pieces from Orthodox sanctuaries by re-instituting the veneration of icons. During the previous decades, the use of any religious image – sculpted or otherwise – followed the fickle winds of change buffeting between those who saw any sanctuary image as sacrilegious and those who viewed the same as sacrosanct. Depending on what opinion one held during the Iconoclastic Controversies, lives and livelihood were often forfeited.

Sculptures were ultimately relegated to obscurity in Orthodoxy because they could not convey in three dimensions what the two-dimensional icons were intended to do – namely, portray a “window into heaven” by means of strange perspective, peculiar imagery, and an unbending adherence to tradition. So much weight was given to icons that sculpture was deemed unnecessary, and custom eventually made them inconsequential.

The Roman Catholic church officially agreed with the cannons of the Second Council of Nicaea, but customs of the Western Church allowed sculpture to remain on a par with two-dimensional images. Rome also held a more moderate view on the East’s strict adherence to the traditions and veneration of icons.

Lutherans usually take a different tack on sanctuary imagery. Veneration is non-existent, excepting, perhaps, a few on the outer fringes of Lutheranism. Where artwork is present it is instead seen as a great teaching tool and a reminder of all that the Lord has done for us. The scarcity of artwork that may be evident in Lutheran churches is often due to budget constraints, lingering effects of Pietism, and long-running acceptance of artwork’s absence in the church, but it is not based on an iconoclastic view.

The Second Council of Nicaea also affected those in the Calvinist camp, but in a negative way. John Calvin rejected the cannons of the Council and reverted to the position of the iconoclasts. Viewing the images as “graven” and therefore sacrilegious, Calvin joined with fellow reformers Zwingli and Karlstadt in urging the removal of artwork from sanctuaries. Some sanctuaries were forcibly gutted by rioting rabble. Luther was most displeased by the antics. To this day, many church bodies with Calvinistic roots have very little, if any, artwork in their sanctuaries.

Strangely, the total cleansing of church sanctuaries has left Calvinistic denominations with a peculiar dilemma. In doing away with images that afford focus on and remembrance of our Lord, parishioners are forced to focus not on a cross or an image of our Savior, but on a preacher; a human, that is front and center. That, arguably, is a much greater sacrilege within the sanctuary.

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