Protestant Sacred Space

Protestant Sacred Space April 4, 2017

Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, edited by Will Coster and Andrew Spicer, aims to fill a gap in accounts of early modern Europe. Despite intense attention to sacred space among anthropologists, scholars of comparative religion, historians, and sociologists, few studies of early modern Europe have paid attention to the subject. The contributors to this volume study the phenomenon of sacred space among Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed, in Germany, Geneva, Scotland, England, France.

Bridget Heal looks at “sacred image and sacred space in Lutheran Germany.” Luther himself thought church buildings were dispensable and “contemned the traditional consecration rituals that had set sacred space apart from profane (41). “Papist” rituals “aped” Mosiac institutions that no longer had a place in the church. What consecrated a place was not sprinklings and anointings but the word of God rightly preached (42).

In some places in Lutheran Germany, consecration rituals survived but “purified by the removal of superstitious, pre-reformation elements such as the use of aspergillum.” When Lutheran city authorities condemned the presence of pigs, fish, and meat in the church, Heal says that their “primary concern was with disruption rather than defilement” (44).

Lutherans didn’t indulge in iconoclasm as readily as the Reformed, and so their churches remained intact, retaining many of the accoutrements of medieval sacred space—including tabernacles for the reserved Host, rood screens, and triptychs. Yet “while furnishings remained there were important transformations in the ways in which ecclesiastical space was used” (54). Pastors railed against the attempt to gain favor or protection through pilgrimages or donations. In Nuremberg, “altarpieces were probably still opened and closed in a cycle that reflected the liturgical seasons and the purified calendar of the saints’ feast days. But the practices that had, during the pre-Reformation period, served to honor certain images and indicate their significance as loci of sacred power were discontinued: altarpieces and statues were no longer illuminated by numerous lamps and candles; statues were no longer adorned” (55). Corpus Christi processions stopped.

All that can leave the impression that the Reformation, especially in the Reformed wing, simply “desacralized” the world, and completely eliminated any conception of sacred space. Christian Grosse’s chapter on “liturgical sacrality” in Geneva shows that this is too simple a conclusion. He describes the liturgical conversion not as desacralization but as an effort to “rearrange the formal ‘presence of the sacred in the world’” (61).

He observes in a footnote that no one has fully studied how the language of holiness, sanctity, purity, and pollution were used by Reformed writers (61, fn 3) but he ventures a summary of Calvin’s understanding. He argues that “holiness is considered more in relation to time than to place.” Grosse links this to the plain aesthetic of Calvinist church buildings: “the whitewashed Genevan temples clearly reflect a Calvinist conception of communication with the holy; instead of being mediatised [sic] by material reality, it is inscribed in time, like a process of elevation and sanctification” (75). Jesus is no longer present in this world, but the “virtue” of Christ is diffused, which “animates a process of sanctification” (63). The Christian himself is holy, and the gathered church is holy. “The sacred is present in the world” through sanctified human beings (63).

Calvin strictly reserved the language of holiness to people. Church buildings are not “real dwelling places of God” and are not places of “secret holiness.” Geneva had its “temples” but they were functional, not sanctified spaces (64). Yet, because buildings are used for the gathering of saints, other Reformed statements and writers reasoned, they could be considered holy spaces in an extended sense. The Helvetic Confession claimed that “places dedicated to God and to his worship are not profane, but holy because God’s word and the use of holy things to which they are devoted” (65). This is still a “utility” based understanding of church buildings, but some Reformed theologians are willing to use the language of sanctity and consecrate to describe places “dedicated, or rather assigned, to some holy or sacred purpose” (quote from Agostino Mainardo, 65). Strictly, the action of the holy people is holy; but places where that action commonly takes place are holy in an extended sense.

Grosse notes one unsettling detail about Geneva’s temples. Reformed churches often did away with rood screens, and abolished the barriers between nave and choir that spatialized the hierarchical ordering of the church. All the saints are in the same liturgical space. But in the 1540s, Saint-Pierre in Geneva introduced a new seating arrangement, with civil leadings taking “the stalls that rose in tiers above the floor of the former choir” and the ministers and elders seated behind the pulpit. Seats for people under discipline were placed near the pulpit. The arrangement was “a response to the supervisory requirements” of Geneva, and “enabled the congregation to be placed under the surveillance of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, while conferring on the latter a certain prestige.” Grosse sees the arrangement as fulfilling two ideals, on the one hand depicting a “temporal society divided into social categories” and on the other a “spiritual society, united in a relation of equality with the divine” (78–9).

I wonder if Genevans got the message. Or whether they came to view the hierarchy of Geneva’s polity to be as sacred and inviolable as the old cleric-lay distinction had been. New magistrate is but old priest writ large?

Browse Our Archives