Copyright © Edward Riojas
It is one thing to take potshots at ill-conceived sanctuaries and wax nostalgic over churches that have long since been demolished. It is quite another to make sensible artistic suggestions for churches that were never blessed with liturgical art or comeliness in the first place.
My two previous posts have pointed out some winners and losers in Christendom, and its’ time for me to give some practical advice for those who might have a vague interest in doing something – anything – to visually improve the sanctuary. Some pastors know exactly what they want when seeking out my talents. Others are more reserved and prefer suggestions. There is no right or wrong way to approach a liturgical artist, so I try to listen as much as possible to what is – and what isn’t – said.
Among the things that have strong influence on any art project are the building’s architecture, permanent accoutrements, and, yes, mundane things like thermostats, heating vents, and light switches. There can be no forcing a Renaissance fresco into a place where it doesn’t belong. Neither should a cutting-edge, artsy-fartsy piece be installed in a sanctuary with Gothic tracery. The best compliment I can receive is that the finished piece looks as if it was always there; that it was meant to be there.
To give some concrete ideas of what can be done, I've gathered a few photos of bland sanctuaries. I’ve tried to steer clear of Lutheran churches, so some of the sanctuaries have major issues even before artistic considerations can be made. You’ll just have to ignore those things, and try to imagine the blue shapes being filled with Riojas originals...
A chancel area with Romanesque arches and not much adornment easily lends itself to possibilities. Flanking pieces on either side of a central window or altarpiece can be filled with angels and/or favorite saints. If hymn boards are not commanding the walls immediately outside of the chancel, artwork can be hung there in different configurations. Often the Font is placed to the right of the chancel opening, making an obvious spot for a Baptismal-themed piece and providing good reason to remove that annoying projection screen.
The sanctuary front isn’t the only place where art might be added. Traditionally, angels are placed near the rear exit of the church as a reminder of heavenly protection beyond the Divine Service. In similar manner, areas between windows can sometimes accommodate artwork, echoing architecture and enhancing theological themes.
Of course, you are probably very blessed if your church has Romanesque features. Mod-squad churches come with their own set of problems – and possibilities. Once you rip out that hideous purple carpet, pull down those chandeliers, and get over the stigma of being labeled San Liberace of the Hills, perhaps a commission for liturgical art is in order. Following architectural lines can help ease artwork into odd spaces and make it work. This is one case in which I might stick my neck out and suggest ridding the chancel wall of the three crosses, which are too-widely spaced and symbolically weak. (In my book, a trio of crosses doesn’t confess much, and the visual weight falls on the two malefactors instead of the One Who died for all.)
Timing is everything. Before Mr. Twinklebothom plunks down serious cash for projection screens in all the obvious places, consider something tastefully simple like a nice section of Scripture painted directly on the wall. It won’t detract from the goofy architecture and it will certainly look like the architect planned it that way. And, if you’re quick about it, you can even consider a small piece on either side – one to go with the Baptismal Font, and one to go with the table you’ll need to hold the unconsecrated bread and wine. Plus, you’ll have the perfect reason to throw that praise band junk to the curb.