Page 8, 3rd March 1967

3rd March 1967
Page 8
Page 8, 3rd March 1967 — Sacred art and spirit of humility

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People: Bryan Little
Locations: Coventry, Liverpool


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Sacred art and spirit of humility

By Bryan Little

THE pastoral message and interest of a church by no means end with its architectural design. or with the constructional effectiveness of its main fabric. Many churches of little interest as structures are redeemed. for many of their worshippers and for those who visit them as "church-trotters". by the design and artistic quality of their apparatus of worship and often of their tombs and monuments: memorials transferred from their predecessors are the only pleasing features of many of the numerous Victorian churches of the Anglican Communion.

With any new church, one's final judgment only comes when one weighs up the merits (or otherwise) of the furnishings transferred from any earlier building or specially made for the new House of God. If everything is new there is a very real need, at all events for the basic essentials at first put in. for sympathy between the architect and those who design and make such items as sanctuary fittings, statues, glass. the font, the benches, and the Stations of the Cross.

In the furnishing of a new church and its adornment with its non-structural works of sacred art, there can he two approaches, Those responsible can opt for the basic minimum, and for an almost Cistercian austerity and sparseness. or on a wider scale for an Adam-like co-ordination of architectural style and decorative scheme.

Alternatively one can leave it, as in most churches which came down from. say, Romanesque times to the Baroque era, for each generation to add its quota in its own favoured idiom: in such churches one's hope must be that successive additions are the works of genuinely inspired artists and not "repository" productions.

* *

One thus arrives at the feeling of "glorious muddle" which has, in the past. made fine mediaeval churches just as notable for Baroque altars and pulpits as for their Gothic structure. and which has meant that they can also contain such "contemporary" attractions as glass from designs by Chagall or Piper. or tapestries and paintings on which Sutherland or Lurcat have worked.

Whatever the policy there are certain things—altars and their fitments. a font, a statue or two. benches. and vestments -which are needed, from the very start in any new Catholic church. Their relationship to the structure (of which some of them may form an integral part). their precise siting if they are movable, and their detailed design must come into the early dialogue between clients and designers.

If possible. the architects themselves must design these early fittings, or if they prefer not to do this on their own they must keep close contact. in their own client-artist dialogue. with those chosen to make the designs and have them carried out. It is up to the main clients, in other words the clergy and their lay advisers. to see that all this happens. and to make sure that no really important items are commissioned and made behind the main designers' backs and without their full knowledge.

Both sides must also bear in mind, with a certain spirit of

humility, that sacred art should never be too subjective, meaning little or nothing to any but the individuals who are its creators. Abstraction, and interpretation according to one's own subjective approach, may be reasonable enough in some windows such as those at Coventry and in the new Cathedral at Liverpool. But in the fittings of particular chapels or shrines, and in the main sanctuary, obvious theological relevamx, and the inspiration of well directed devotion, must be paramount.

A statue which recognisably represents Our Lady will be better for its purpose than an abstract which may, or may not, evoke the notion of motherhood. Sacred art has little place for the designer who does not care if the message of his work is only clear to himself.

If modern artists fail to put over the religious message 01

what they are asked to design for new or reordered churches it is to these other, less aesthetic efforts that people will turn

When a new church has to be built and fitted out it is better, as at Leyland, if the priest and his chosen team of architects and artists have a clear field. In the new church at Leyland none of its poor or mediocre fittings were brought over from the church which had served Leyland's Catholics foe some 110 years. The results were highly gladdening.

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