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Sermons in Stone and Glass

The Secret Language of Churches and Cathedrals

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“A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it bearing within him the image of a Cathedral.”

- Antoine St. Exupery

I had the good fortune this year to spend Christmas in the Catholic center of Lisbon. The celebration of Christ’s birth, and the ancient rituals, stories, and traditions are different over there. I am not a particularly religious person. I was raised Episcopalian and studied in Shaker, Methodist, and Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning but as with the artworks I see in museums and galleries, I often feel I am missing out on the deeper meanings, the hidden undercurrents of the dialogue that went into the creation of these great churches and cathedrals.

I cannot help but feel a sense of awe when I enter a grand church or cathedral – particularly a Gothic one. The vast spaces and the height of the buildings draw you upwards so that even if you don’t believe in God, you are made aware of something much greater than you.  

Nowadays, we visit places of worship as tourists interested solely in their value as magnificent works of architecture and repositories of painting and sculpture. Yet I am touched emotionally by these buildings in a way I would like to understand more fully.
Over time the exteriors and interiors of churches have changed as the needs and practices of the clergy and parishioners have changed. The paintings, frescoes, statuary, and stained glass initially created to educate early Christian spiritual practitioners now provide subsequent generations with a treasure trove of beauty and sublime art. What remains reveals the deliberate thought and design of the Catholic interior life and the Catholic way of seeing the world.

My religious education and my courses in Art History did not prepare me to understand the history, purpose, and significance of each detail of church architecture, furnishings, locations, and placements. So I hope my curiosity will help us both to know more and better appreciate our visits to these beautiful sacred buildings.
To the largely illiterate medieval congregations, the symbols and icons of churches and cathedrals encoded familiar teachings, stories, and meanings from the bible. For worshippers, these were places of religious education and an awe-inspiring visual feast that satisfied both the senses and the soul. Every element of a great cathedral was built to teach parishioners about God and to draw them even deeper into the worship of Him. Each physical element has both a practical and a theological purpose.

It will be impossible to cover all of the aspects of meaning in the structure, the faith, and the history of catholicism in one article. It is another conversation altogether to consider the morality of the church in its actions over history. Today, I am going to give you a few pointers to notice in your tour of these structures in the hope that you will be able to interpret the holy buildings you visit differently.

A church refers to a building in which Christians practice their religion. A cathedral is a church that serves as the central church of a diocese, conference, or episcopate. “The Church” is the body of Christians who worship together and it describes a group of people, a community as much as it does the place of worship itself. 

The medieval mind saw everything as interrelated; it knew how parts and wholes relate. For all Christian traditions, the church building is the container for the holy spirit. The image and the church are the same. Mary housed Jesus in her womb, Mary is the personification of the Church. She was filled with grace by God, The church buildings are in the same way imbued with the holy spirit.

Let’s begin by looking for meaning from the outside in:

Looking up to God:
Steeples, spires, and domes advertise the church's presence reminding the faithful of where they should worship and their religious obligations.

In early times the church was usually the largest and its steeple was the tallest structure in the land. The large building cast the shadow of the church over the entire community. The shadow is one of protection, watching over the citizens, advertising the city's wealth, and its engineering prowess. The height and number of a city’s towers were a measure of its holiness, wealth, and strength, both morally and by implication, militarily. 

A dome represents the vault of heaven coming down to earth. Spires are aspirational structures that draw our attention toward the heavens and so to God. Spires and towers can also carry symbolic elements such as a cross, a weathervane (God’s presence in all directions), or a clock. Another function is to contain bells to announce the times of service, celebrations, and personal or civic occasions of importance.

The doors to a church are not just a physical entrance they also function spiritually as a part of the path toward redemption. The facade is a form of screen in front of the church and it prepares the worshipper for the message of the bible that will be experienced within. Bronze doors were favored for the impression of wealth and splendor.

Sculptural decorations vary in complexity, but regularly tell us about the church and especially its dedication as well as also hinting at the internal layout.

Facades frequently include images of the Last Judgment in which the faithful are shown entering the gates of paradise. A reminder not only to enter the church but to lead a righteous life when not there. 

Some buildings have a transitional space between the secular world where business contracts could be made in the sight of God, notices given, and where the visual space is compressed before opening out into the light of God’s truth inside the building.
Walls and Windows:
A church interior can vary from intimate to overwhelming, from subdued to exuberant, and from dark into light. Each in its own way is a different expression of holiness and spirituality.

The purpose of walls is to enclose the church and support the roof. Early churches had thick walls. There is an inverse relationship between windows and walls. The larger the windows the smaller the space that is left between them. In early churches, windows tended to be small. One of the functions of the windows was to admit light to allow the congregation to see what was depicted on the walls.  

By the thirteenth century, the development of flying buttresses meant that the walls gradually dissolved from Gothic churches and some, from the inside at least, appeared to be almost entirely constructed of glass, filling the interior with an astonishing richness of color as well as transforming the atmosphere.

Stained glass can also be used to tell stories and convey messages. The windows in churches were not designed for the view beyond. They do not inspire us to look out onto the world but to look in on ourselves, and light the walls they surround us with God’s message.

Jesus is called “The Light of the World”. One reason for the inclusion of gold leaf on icons and altarpieces was to reflect the light from the candles with which churches were illuminated. It makes the churches brighter but also plays on the symbolism as if heaven is aglow and the light of God is shining out of the paintings to enlighten the congregation. In much the same way the light streaming through stained glass windows helps the congregants to be enlightened by the messages the windows contain.

A golden altar expresses the splendor of heaven. Church altars are extravagantly glorious and take the viewer far beyond our mundane existence. The lavish application of gold leaf and brilliant illumination excite both the body and soul with a visual exuberance designed to raise the spirits and inspire confidence in the truth the Church was expounding. 

I visited the church of Sao Francisco in Porto and was amazed to learn that over 300 kilos of gold were turned into the gold leaf that adorns every altar and corner of this fabulous church.
Stained Glass:
In the same way that Mary gave birth to Jesus, the Light of the World, and yet remains a virgin, light can pass through glass without altering the glass. When the glass is colored the symbolism deepens the light takes on the same color as the glass just as God had passed through Mary and took on her nature, humanity in the form of Jesus. 

The technique of stained glass developed slowly. Small sections of different colored glass are held together with strips of lead, which give the familiar bold black outlines 

As stained glass evolved so did the windows which contained it. Early churches tended to have single apertures whereas Gothic architecture allowed ever more complex forms. As the walls were pierced by ever larger holes a thin stone framework known as the tracery was inserted to hold the glass and to create patterns within the apertures. 
Beneath Your Feet:
Even if the floor is not the first part of the church you will notice it frequently includes elements of relevance. The dead have long been buried in churches and so the floor often includes tomb markers or slabs which could be lifted to allow access to burial vaults beneath the church. A church floor might include inlaid depictions of stories from the Bible and elaborate geometric patterns for processions that were part of early services.

In Memoriam:
Tomb monuments have three purposes. Mark a place of burial, or commemoration. To act as a reminder of the deceased person and to remind us of our death and the ensuing eternity in heaven or hell after the Day of Judgment, thus encouraging us to lead a good and holy life.

The sense of the floor as a ground plan of the universe gives rise to the more metaphorical forms of mapping including a maze or labyrinth as at Chartres. The maze represents the twisting, turning journey through life with God at its center and is often done by Christians on their knees as an act of penance.
Like domes ceilings can represent the vault of heaven. The main weight of a vaulted stone ceiling is supported by ribs, which act in the same way that arches can support areas of the wall. Where diagonal ribs meet there is a boss, which is the structural equivalent of a keystone in an arch and it supports the ribs leaning against it. 

Types of vaults are barrel, groin, rib, and fan. Byzantine engineers developed a system of brick vaulting using what were effectively hollow cylindrical tiles. Hollow meant lighter, thus reducing the load on the walls and allowing it to be covered in mosaic.

Sometimes the vaults are painted blue and decorated with gold stars. It is unusual for them to be flat or undecorated. 

The central passage of the church is called the nave. The word nave comes from the Latin navis, meaning ship, reminding us that the congregation is on a journey through life, during which the Church will protect and guide them in the same way that a ship protects its passengers on the stormy seas. Maritime associations run deep in Christianity. Jesus carried out much of his teaching around the Sea of Galilee and several apostles were fishermen.

Division of Space:
The most obvious way to divide the space in the church was with screens. Screens separate the chancel (sacred area) from the nave. Screens also separate various side chapels around the edge of the church. These chapels were often dedicated to specific saints or reserved for private devotion and were frequently separate from the nave.

The idea of having a crypt under a church derives from the practice of making holy sites by building churches on top of them. The body of a revered saint or their important relics were placed in a shrine in the crypt directly underneath the altar thus making the altar a holy site that had not previously existed. At the east end of the nave, there are often central steps going up to the pulpit and going down on either side into the crypt.

Like catacombs, crypts were deemed suitable as burial places because they were at a lower level. However, people came to favor entombment in a crypt because they liked to be buried near the bodies of saints. Since the saints were already in God’s presence they put the newly deceased closer to God.

The elaborate patterning of the floors suggests that in early churches there would not have been any form of permanent seating. Congregants would process throughout the church and sit on the floor or benches against the wall. 

After the Reformation pews for the congregation became standard. The new emphasis on the spoken word rather than ritual, most notably the semon, meant that seating would aid concentration. Pews were often boxed off and allocated to families according to their status and with the highest status closest to the pulpit. Rent was often charged on the box pews and because each pew belonged to a specific family it was possible to tell if anyone was not in church.

The Word of God:
Preaching is fundamental to Christianity. It was the basis of Jesus’ practice.

Pulpit: the sermon is preached from the pulpit, which is raised to provide the congregation with a better view. In a large church, the pulpit may be located halfway down the nave enabling more of the congregation to hear the preacher. Notice the symbolic figures echoing the importance of the words in this Pulpit in Notre Dame.

Lectern: a standing desk on which the bible is placed. Lecterns often include an eagle, the symbol of John the Evangelist whose gospel opens with an overt reference to Jesus and the Word of God. Lecterns are generally located near the altar and are commonly used in smaller gatherings.

Closer to God:
Access to the “holiest of holies” is limited in many religions, and the altar in a church has often been restricted to the priesthood or church elders. The sanctuary - the holy area around the altar is within the chancel or the presbytery; an area restricted behind a screen or lattice.

If the nave represents Earth, the chancel is an image of heaven and as such tends to be elaborate allowing a symbolic glimpse of heaven during our earthly existence. The sanctity of the chancel means that is physically higher and more frequently gilded and highly decorated.

The Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal has a chancel made of wood closest to the ground and level by level rises, becoming lighter and more detailed and more gilded as it approaches the heavenly blue ceiling apse.

Inside the Chancel are the Sedilia - seats for the priest, the deacon, and the sub-deacon to use during mass and the Choir stalls - the choir would sit in the chancel and sing the services.

Sacred Music - singing has formed part of the tradition of Christian worship from the earliest days. Music is valued because it can so clearly express human emotion and also because the sung voice can communicate more clearly and easily than the spoken voice in certain acoustics. Most churches include an elaborate organ - usually close to the choir 
Altar - Roman Catholic Churches have significantly more features than most other churches. Sometimes the altar is given greater prominence by being enclosed with a canopy of ciborium. For Roman Catholics the sacrificial nature of the mass is highly important, hence the term altar. To this day every Roman Catholic Altar is supposed to contain the relic of a saint.

(In Protestant churches where the sacrament is celebrated as holy communion or the Lord’s Supper, it takes place on a communion table, which may resemble any other table.) 

The Host: Roman Catholics believe that the consecrated host (The bread or wafer used during the mass) is the actual body of Christ (Corpus Christi) and because this is often kept in the church or reserved even when there is no mass in progress, the faithful cross themselves with holy water and genuflect or kneel as signs of respect on entering the physical presence of God. The host is often reserved in a tabernacle or Monstrance on the High Altar with candles lit to emphasize its presence. 

The Wine representing the blood of Christ is served in a chalice and the host is served on a plate called a Paten. Both are washed in a special basin called a piscina at the end of each service. 

Displayed near the altar will be a Processional Cross - A cross is regularly carried in procession in front of the priest as well as a
censer - incense burner

Both Protestants and Roman Catholics share the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. While Protestants sometimes practice penance the practice of confession is Roman Catholic. Confessionals include an enclosed space for the priest and a more or less an external area on which the penitent kneels.

The Water of Life:
Font: Baptism represents entry into the life of the church. Purification of the soul and new beginning. Most baptismal fonts are located in a separate building or adjoining the main church as recent converts were not supposed to enter the church until they had been baptized. With the development of infant baptism from the ninth century, the growth in baptism by sprinkling, and fonts became smaller and were moved inside. Appearance can vary, though most are circular or octagonal representing the 8th day, the day after the endless cycle of seven-day weeks reaches its conclusion with the day of judgment.  

When entering a Roman Catholic church it is traditional to cross yourself with water that has been blessed and for this purpose, there are normally holy water stoups just inside the doors. The vessels used during mass were ritually washed and this was done in a piscina, effectively a small basin near the altar.
Different Devotions:

The features thus far have been common to most Christian churches but by no means all. 

Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) are Christians but they do not believe in any sacraments or rituals, nor do they have any clergy because all people are considered equal and any person in a Quaker meeting can be moved to minister by the holy spirit. As a result, a Friends’ meeting house is a simple, calm, and uncluttered space with no signs of faith.

The Stations of the Cross. This phenomenon is a relatively recent one. In earlier times pilgrims would travel to the holy land to visit all of the places associated with Christ’s Passion. Gradually this journey took on a more set route with a specific number of sites to visit and became known as the Via Dolorosa or the Way of the Cross. By setting up symbolic references to each site, which can be paintings, sculptures, or simply crosses marked with a number inside a church, believers could make miniature pilgrimages as a sign of their devotion. The number and order of stations have varied over time and are now established as 14.  
  1. Jesus is condemned to death

  2. Jesus is given the cross

  3. Jesus falls for the first time

  4. Jesus meets his mother

  5. Simon of Cyrene is made to carry the Cross

  6. Veronica wipes Jesus’s face

  7. Jesus falls for the second time

  8. He meets the women of Jerusalem

  9. Jesus falls for the third time

  10. Jesus is stripped of his garments

  11. The Crucifixion

  12. Jesus dies on the Cross

  13. His body is taken down from the Cross

  14. His body is laid out in the tomb

Veneration of Images:
Christianity is unlike the other two major monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam in that it has accepted visual representation in its places of worship. This is actually in contravention of the second commandment as recorded by Moses, which states “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything”. (Exodus 20:4) 

The Roman Catholic Church has always justified the use of imagery, whether paintings, sculpture, or stained glass - because they can be understood even by the illiterate and are often described in church writings as “the Bible of the poor”. It was thought people would understand the stories far more clearly by seeing them than they would by listening to them being read. However, not all branches of Christianity agree with the use of visual representation and there has been more than one outbreak of iconoclasm (The destruction of images) notably in Byzantium and later as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

The church father John of Damascus argued: "God's taking on human form sanctified the human image, noting that the humanity of Christ formed an image of God; therefore, artists could use human images to depict the incarnate Word as well as human saints."[9]

It was important to the authors of the New Testament to show that Jesus was the awaited Messiah, whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament. The stories told from the Old Testament in Christian churches are shown as a model for something in the New Testament. With even Adam and Eve giving us a start and Jesus and Mary giving us a second chance to get things right.
One God in Three Persons:
Christianity, like Judaism before it, is a monotheistic religion with one God. However, Christians believe that Jesus is not only the Messiah prophesied in Jewish scripture but also the son of God. According to a fundamental doctrine of Christianity, although there is one God he exists in three persons - the Holy Trinity - God is triune, God is the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. Generally, Jesus is shown as a bearded young man with a halo God as an older man with a beard, and the Holy Spirit is most often shown in the form of a dove flying over their heads.

Symbols for Jesus: 
  • The Lamb, (the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world (John 1:29) The sheep became a model for the Christian soul in need of guidance and protection.

  • The Good Shepherd,

  • The Fish (The apostles Peter and Andrew were fishermen and the first two letters of Jesus' name spell out icthus, the Greek word for fish.)

  • The Vine: At the last supper Jesus took wine and gave it to the apostles saying “This is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sin” (Matthew 26:28) The vine is like the Cross with Jesus, as the fruit of the vine hanging from it.  

  • Chi/Ro The Chi Rho is a Christian symbol for “Christ” written by superimposing the two Greek letters “Chi (X)” and “Rho (P)” which are the first two letters in Greek of the name of “CHRist.” In the first hundred years of the faith, it was a secret sign for Christians to identify themselves to each other and was used in catacomb art from the c. 150’s through the 350’s AD.

Mary; Mother of God
The Virgin Mary, like Jesus, is depicted more often than God the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Bible says relatively little about her other than that she came from Nazareth and was betrothed to Joseph. For Protestants, the little biblical evidence makes Mary worthy of respect but little more. Many Protestants consider the attitude of Roman and Orthodox Catholics toward Mary as tantamount to idolatry and images of the Virgin were particularly singled out for destruction during the Reformation.

Glorious images of the Virgin abound in every church and museum so I wanted to learn more about her story. To theologians, if Mary was accepted as the Mother of God then there would be double assurance that Jesus was God. It is as the Mother of God that Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics consider Mary to be due a higher form of reverence than the other saints. Being the Mother of God she is also seen as the mother of us all and is often depicted as the Madonna of Mercy protecting her people under her cloak.

Theologians realized that Mary had to have been free of sin even though this was not possible before the resurrection. Therefore she must have been cleansed of sin through a special dispensation of God, or was never sinful in the first place. Their metaphor was that Mary was like the beautiful glass windows where the light of God pours through leaving the glass clear, pure, and unchanged. Two particular concepts emerged from this idea. Mary was conceived with sin but was freed of it in her mother’s womb, and Mary was conceived without a stain or mark of sin, (The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception). The doctrine of Immaculate Conception became church dogma, (meaning it is not open to question) Other ideas followed, If Mary was free of original sin, she would not have grown old and she should still be alive. Non-biblical texts tell us that initially Mary’s soul was taken up to heaven by Jesus and Mary, alive but with no soul, effectively went to sleep. When depicted this is called the Dormition of the Virgin, The apostles then decided to bury Mary’s body, which was subsequently carried up to heaven by the angels (The Assumption of the Virgin) where it was reunited with her soul before her coronation as the Queen of Heaven.  

The Prophets are biblical in origin - all of them are contained in the Old Testament except John the Baptist who baptized people in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. There are four major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and twelve minor ones whose writings make up the last twelve books of the Old Testament. These characters are depicted in ways that emphasize their relevance to Christ and Christian belief. They can be identified by their appearance and the symbols or attributes which accompany them.  

The word saint means “holy”. It is understood that saints can intercede for both the living and the dead, thus prayers are offered to them and pilgrimages were and are undertaken to where their remains are housed. The early disciples were all considered saints as a result of their first-hand experience of Christ. Anyone dying as a result of their belief in God - a martyr - is considered to have immediately entered heaven and therefore automatically becomes a saint. The number of saints represented in religious art is enormous and they can be recognized either by their dress or by specific symbols or attributes which are associated with them. The number of saints is not fixed. The Church does not make saints it recognizes them.  

Angels and Demons:
Angels and demons are god’s agents and messengers, existing in a state of grace. Unlike mankind, they were not subject to temptation and have not fallen. Lucifer said to be the most beautiful of the angels was the exception; because of his ambition, he was thrown out of heaven. Archangels are the prime messengers of God, and they are the most familiar. Only three have a definable character. St Michael is depicted vanquishing the devil and he chases Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. He also has a pair of scales to weigh souls at the last Judgment. Gabriel is God’s most important messenger. He is shown with a staff of office which in the Annunciation was transformed into a lily, as a sign of Mary’s purity. The third is Raphael, who is associated with healing. Raphael is usually depicted walking alongside Tobias, a man he healed, who is carrying a fish.  

Devils, demons and gargoyles serve as reminders that the devil is everywhere, waiting to trip us up and tempt us to sin.

Sacred Geometry:
One of the aims of artists and architects was to re-create the perfection God intended and one way of doing this was through the perfection of geometry and the power of mathematics. Musical harmony is created by a certain combination of numbers. If a string on a musical instrument plays one note, a string of half the length will play the same note, but an octave higher. Architects loved to use these mathematical ratios to create a sense of harmony in their churches.

One of the most frequent harmonies was the number seven broken into 3 and 4 corresponding to the Holy Trinity and the Four Gospels, the seven days of the week, etc.  

Pattern - represents the fundamental templates for life in this universe. Various geometric shapes, patterns, and proportions have been deemed sacred, thought to hold evidence of the divine creator of the universe as unity, balance, interconnection, prosperity, and eternity. Notice the many places where a pattern is used for its symbolic meaning.

The circle continues without break or angle so is considered to be perfect, and therefore a symbol of eternity and heaven. The circle can be used to represent Mary’s purity and unbroken virginity. The circle represents eternity and that death is endless.  

Another common shape for baptisteries or the baptismal fonts is the octagon, An octagon represents the eighth day, the first day after the repeating cycle of seven; a day that will go on forever in heaven. It is also a transitional form between a square (earth) and a circle (eternity). If a circle represents heaven and the square represents earth, domes on square bases can be seen as images of heaven on earth. 
I hope these insights will enhance your enjoyment of the churches you visit in your travels. I found it helpful to understand more about the history, purpose, and meaning of the Roman Catholic churches I visited last month. I hope you will also have the opportunity to make a pilgrimage where you can appreciate them with new eyes. 

My mentorship, guidance, and advice are available to you for creating new possibilities for your art in 2024. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

 I welcome the opportunity for conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight



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