Friday, August 9, 2019

On The Walls Of An Old Church

In the sanctuary: Working on Matthew 11:28
(Photo courtesy of Rev. Seifferlein)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Lord provided a background of an evening thunderstorm rolling through Wisconsin farmland. I was perched on scaffolding in an old church sanctuary, mahlstick in hand, and staring Scripture in the face. It was a little bit of heaven.

I had come to Adell, Wisconsin, to work on-site at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. While I prefer to work in the studio, a select few projects demand that I travel. When recently asked to paint blocks of embellished Scripture on church walls, I took the opportunity to play the part of an itinerant artist – if only for a couple of days. I elected to sleep in the cavernous underbelly of the old church building so I could work late, rise early to do the same, be not too much of a bother to anyone, and then go home.

Living as an itinerant artist was more commonplace in the days of our great-great-grandparents. The decoration of fledgling Lutheran churches in America were sometimes jobbed out to artisans with skill enough to paint walls, create decorative trim, and embellish spaces with Bible verses. Often that was done in German. Always it was done by hand.

Getting a taste of the life of a travelling artist was pretty much limited to bedding down on a hard floor, climbing scaffolding, and working in the solitude of an empty sanctuary. My gracious hosts, the Rev. and Mrs. Seifferlein, had loaded the church kitchen with enough food for an army of artists, and a battery of electric fans kept the summer heat at bay. Itinerant artists of the day did without such luxuries.
In the Narthex: Completed excerpt from the Te Deum
(Photo taken by the artist)

I relished working long hours in the relative silence that was punctuated by children’s laughter somewhere outside, bells chiming out hymns at Matins, noon, and six, and the evening thunderstorm. That sort of wealth does not exist everywhere, and it is worth finding.

It is good, too, to appreciate things of long ago. When we did without internet; when things were slow, but deliberate; when convenience was rare, families gathered to hear the Word of God preached in all its purity and loveliness, and they did so in a building that was designed with the Lord in mind instead of praise bands and air-conditioned comfort.

While in Adell, I was offered a peek into the nuances of an old country church. I was shown were the two entrances once were – one for the men and one for the women. I was told that the recently-refinished floor had worn more on one side of the sanctuary – presumably from the hobnailed soles of men’s shoes. I was shown curious channels and holes carved into the window sills – features that drained condensation when frost began to melt on the window panes. I was shown the original bit of clear glass in an otherwise stained-glass window in the bell tower – a peep hole so an elder knew when to toll the bell at the arrival of the funeral hearse.

No old photos exist of the interior of the church. Like many churches, extensive remodeling of the sanctuary took place in the 1940s and 50s. That was when old altars and ornate altarpieces and "outdated" pulpits were all fair game. So, too, were sentimental, old photographs. I took great satisfaction, therefore, in knowing that what I came to do was in keeping with an earlier time, and knowing that some still appreciate the inherent beauty contained in passages of Scripture.

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