Sight and Vision in Worship

What many people forget about the liturgy is that what we see is more powerful than what we hear. We know that a visual image is more powerful than hearing, but we seem to forget that when we come to church. Because vision is more powerful than hearing it is important to make an effort to make the church–and especially the sanctuary of the church beautiful and inspiring.

What often happens, nowdays, however, is that beauty is the last thing the church designer thinks of. Utilitarianism rules. So the main concern is, “where will everyone sit?” or “where will we put the sound system?” or “Do we have the air conditioning vents in the best place?” The utilitarianism extends to other questions as well. I heard of one well meaning church designer who said, “The main aim in designing the church is that it is warm and welcoming.” They ended up with soft lighting, pastel color schemes, comfortable pews and cozyness. Others have said, “The main thing is that the altar is seen by everyone.” Other times images are placed in the church for utilitarian reasons or to obey some rubric or tradition or some earnest desire for a particular devotion without any sense of unity, beauty or design to the church. So the church will be designed solely with sight lines for the altar in mind, or it will be cluttered up with lots of inappropriate but worthy images.

Most often modern church buildings are designed by architects with no history of the tradition. They build functional, cheap buildings which are easy to maintain, comfortable and with a suitable heating and sound system. Then they make it ‘look like a church’ by adding fake arches with two by fours and plasterboard. They design a church with the same mentality as they design an Italian restaurant. “Let’s build a place for people to sit with a kitchen attached and then make it look like a Tuscan villa–Mexican restaurant? We’ll make it look like a hacienda. You want Indian? What about a mini Taj Mahal. It’s all fake and Disney-esque. They build the church with the same mentality–”We got a functional box for you here. You want Romanesque? We can do that. A few fiberglass pillars and some plasterboard and hey, you got Romanesque. You want Gothic? We’ll make the arches pointed.” Instead of real, integrity of design and beauty that is deep within the whole structure you get a cosmetic effect. It’s sort of the botox and facelift school of architecture.

Instead the church should be designed with the big picture in mind. The beauty of the architecture should start with the first drawings and the inspirational look of the church should be integral to the whole design and construction. In designing the church interior, you ask, where is the eye drawn when one enters the church? It should be to the altar and the tabernacle beyond. Anything that is distracting should be removed, and all images and furniture in their design, color and size should be secondary to the altar. There should also be a vertical ‘attitude’ to the design of the church. The heart should lift with height and spaciousness in the design. The design should also be hierarchical. That is to say, the ancient three fold pattern of the Jewish temple should be incorporated–a place for the people, a place for the sacrifice and a place beyond which is the Holy of Holies. This helps to draw the individual up and away from himself and the people around him and focus his mind and heart on God.

There is much more that can be said about the visual in church design and decoration, but another principal that should be stressed is that nothing in the liturgy should draw attention to itself and away from the altar and the action of the sacrifice of the Mass. Choirs up front as performers? Nix. Worship leaders and lectors up front as soloists? Nix. Choir music that is so wonderful (or so awful) that it draws attention to itself? No. Servers who are so wonderful (or awful) that they draw attention? No. Vestments or liturgical innovations that are ‘creative’ or ‘sincere’ but draw attention to themselves? No. The visual in church should be subtle, understated and traditional. Stuff that is modern and ‘clever’ draws attention to itself and is unworthy. Remember Ogden Nash’s dictum, “Here is a good rule of thumb: too clever is dumb.”

Some will complain that this puts everything in the hands of the aesthete. Good taste and the enjoyment of fine and costly things in church also has to be subject to the worship of the Lord. It is possible to go to the other extreme and make the church so fussy and pretty and to spend so much money on making it look good that the real purpose of it all is also lost. All should be done modestly, with good taste and expenditure of solid, mid range good quality stuff. Materials and workmanship that are cheap and shoddy do not give glory to God, but likewise, materials and workmanship that are inordinately expensive and luxurious cause scandal. It is bad to have cheap felt banners, polyester vestments and tin cups for chalices, but it is also a ridiculous scandal when you learn that a Poor Clare monastery has a tabernacle encrusted with diamonds.

Balance is beauty and beauty is balance.

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  • Vaughn

    Fr. Longenecker,This is a very refreshing (and biblical) perspective on church architecture and design. As a Protestant (entering the Church this Easter!) for most of my life, I have heard all the arguments for why church buildings "aren't as important as the people, or the worship that happens there." There's usually a utilitarian logic, or some argument that investing a lot in the beauty of the church is some form of betrayal of the poor.But I have come to see the error in this thinking. For me, truth and goodness are somehow not complete unless they are also connected to beauty!I am so thankful that the LORD draws us to worship him, not simply by logical appeals or moral exhortations, but by a DISPLAY of his MAJESTY! "Taste and SEE that the Lord is good!"Vaughn Kohler

  • Suburbanbanshee

    If the music is really the most wonderful sacred music possible, it will blend right in with the wonder of the Eucharist. It's having a concert idea of performance, rather than offering the music to God as prayer and praise and making sure the music is sacred and liturgical, that makes music "stand out" in a bad way. People can tell whether you're singing to them or to God.

  • Babs

    Our first church was too tiny for the congregation, so it was decided to build a new church, but keep the old as a "gathering space." The old church: inspiring in its beauty (with the exception of a 1970s style tabernacle – but it was upfront). Hand-painted designs, gold filigree. Stone floor. The new church: wide expanses of bare walls – all the trim and very soaring walls, white. Seasonal decorations: artsy-craftsy. Also, the old church is being allowed to fall into some disrepair. Beauty – in music, in liturgy, in design, in fragrance, inspires and attracts. Things don't have to be fancy or expensive. Music needn't be elaborate. Just done with thought and care.

  • Mike Cliffson

    Repeating myself, sorry Fr if it's repeated on your com-box:Saint or not, like his work in Barcelona etc or not,( I do) like the Sagrada Familia or not,(not sure) would that architects in general and ecclesiastical ones in particular followed Gaudi in having an allnight vigil to Our Lady before any project: the results would necessarily be better, at the very least.

  • Wine in the Water

    One of the interesting things is that those buildings are only cheap to maintain for a while. Then they reach the end of their intended 30-year lifespan (often after only about 20 years) and become rather expensive and sometimes even impossible to maintain, sometimes even necessitating replacement. This is just another way that many contemporary architects have no grounding in the tradition. They are used to designing buildings that are essentially disposable, with 20- to 30-year lifespans, and have little notion how to design a building that should last 100 years before it even breaks a sweat.One of the big reasons that so many of those churches look so Disney is because they are applied. But the Gothic style is predicated on Gothic spacial arrangement, the Baroque style is predicated on Baroque spacial arrangement, and so on and so on. If you want to really build in a style, that style will determine many design elements, and architects have to give up their most prized possession: "artistic freedom" (my training is architecture, I'm very familiar). If you want successful Gothic, you are going to have to do certain things in the design that you might not like. But most architects trained in the current educational system don't even know this, much less are willing to do it.

  • Wine in the Water

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  • RMT

    In a lot of architecture schools (like the one I am going to), you mention a Gothic arch or any other traditional element for a contemporary building and you get sneers. Because there are other, more efficient, ways to span the distance necessary for weight distribution, many architects consider the vault or arch something outdated and unnecessary. Some may even go so far as to call it a lie, because it is not expressive of a modern structure.That is why the churches today seem so fake, even when there is an attempt to give a nod to tradition. The traditional elements are an applique over a steel structure–an afterthought to the functional elements of the building. Plus, elements like that will not get your name plastered all over Dwell magazine.Other times, the architect is trying too hard to make the building relevant to modern times–and it becomes dated as soon as the foundation is laid.

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    MERCY'let us take heed; for mercy is like a rainbowe, which God set in the clouds to remember mankinde; it shines here as long as it is not hindered; but we must never look for it after it is night, and it shines not in the other world; if we refuse mercy here, we shall have justice for eternity'-Revd. Jeremy TaylorChaplain to the martyr King Charles I of Scotland and England XXVIII Sermons, A.D. 1651, p.354.Interesting that in Western Church decoration before the waves of iconoclasm which washed over the Church: Christ Pantocrator was, largely in the West, seated not on a throne but a rainbow. Several churches in Spain and the far reaches of Norway still attest to this fact, and Fr. Les Bundy Emeritis of Regius Univ, Denver has produced some fascinating work on the subject- as well as having seen these churches!!! Also one tiny Chantry Chapel somewhere in the mists of the Cambridgeshire fens still completely frescoed on the interior dedicated to:St Michael the Archangel{yo, get thee back to Geneva Satan EDeo]

  • Sal


  • Sal

    Our E.F. community was recently raised to parochial status and we were allowed to purchase a property of our own.The buildings had previously been a Korean Baptist church and the renovation and furnishing of the interior of the church took almost a year.We think the result is tasteful and beautiful. Our three altars, baptismal font, baptistry doors and Stations are all recycled from other older churches. Other than the figures on the Mary and Joseph altars, the only other statue is an Infant Jesus of Prague. This has special significance for us as it was a gift from the Discalced Carmelites who hosted our community for nineteen years.In short, our sanctuary looks just like a holy card, and it is hard to look elsewhere.

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    yohere is a brilliant sermon on this topic:Fr. Jerome CwinklinskiNavy Chaplain to the Marineson the 'Triumph of Orthodoxy'which includes beauty in a real sense 'What's New' section at top of page

  • Wm

    Sal, just where is your church? Love to see pictures of it.–William

  • Renata

    It is not scandalous to give God the best. To say that his chalices and vestments should be mid grade is still the utilitarian protestant influence in you Father…sorry but it's true. The poor clare's gave God the best they could offer and He deserves it. If you followed your statement to it's natural utilitarian conclusion we should sell all of the art in the vatican and give the money to the poor…but then we would have no art and still would have the poor. I am liking your blog less and less lately.

  • Sal

    William,Sorry, didn't see this: we are in Irving, Texas and the name of the parish is Mater Dei.We were in a recent FSSP newsletter, as our priests are from that order, but I don't think we put any photos on our website.I'll try to take some and put them on my seldom-updated blog.

  • Sal

    From the F.S.S.P site: one of the sanctuary.