Where do we place liturgical art?

Opportunities for using liturgical art in the sanctuary abound. Consider the following options:

The Altar is the focal point of a church, and thus is the most important furnishing. It is a reminder of Old Testament sacrifice and the table of the Lord's Supper. You might be surprised what an artist could do to highlight this symbolism. It is always elevated above the rest of the church, and may be either fixed against the wall or freestanding.

Altarpieces are a Northern Renaissance tradition that can communicate many messages. An altarpiece can be painted or sculpted, and occupies the space above or behind the altar. A triptych (Greek, "threefold") has two doors that open and close with images on the inside and outside. This arrangement provides several "frames" for artwork. It also allows for the artwork to change with the church year. Another way to refresh images is to have a set of seasonal paintings that slide into the frame.

The Baptismal Font is a wonderful example of liturgical art. It serves a function as a water vessel in baptismal rites, but it also reminds members of their own baptisms. It is a natural fixture of worship, and in the hands of an artist it can communicate essential truths in a variety of materials, including stone, wood, copper, glass, ceramic, cement, or steel. Sometimes the very location of a baptismal font has meaning. When placed at the entrance to a sanctuary, walking past it serves as a reminder of one's own baptism through which we enter into God's presence. This charges the very space that we pass through with meaning.

The Pulpit/Ambo is historically the place from which the gospel lesson is read and the sermon delivered, and it is often imbued with appropriate symbolism. (A pulpit is always paired with a lectern; if there is only one reading stand, it is called an ambo.) In very old churches, the pulpit sometimes took the form of a chalice, indicating the sacramental nature of the gospel. It was often elevated, both for accoustical purposes, and out of reverence for the Word. The pulpit may be made of many different materials, and often matches the baptismal font in style.

The Cross is often a secondary focal point of the sanctuary. An empty cross has become common in American Lutheran churches, but a crucifix (a cross with the body of Christ, called a corpus) is also used by Lutherans. The figure of the ascended Christ (called the Christus rex) is sometimes attached to the cross to significy his victory over the grave, and may be substituted for the corpus during Easter. Wood is the obvious choice for fashioning a cross, but a variety of other materials also offer potential. Sometimes the "empty cross" is taken literally and formed in the negative space of a window.

The Processional Cross has enjoyed wide use in Lutheran churches since the Reformation, and presents an opportunity for visibly marking festivals and celebrations. It is traditionally attached to a staff and carried into the church at the front of an ecclesiastical procession, then placed on a stand near the altar.

Communion Ware presents another opportunity to express our beliefs regarding the Lord's Supper. The chalice and paten (plate for holding the host) may be made of precious metals to show reverence for the true body and blood of Christ, or they may be made of simple materials (such as ceramic) to reflect Christ's humility and suffering.

A Paschal Candle (also called the "Easter candle" or "Christ candle") is a large white candle adorned with a cross that represents the presence of Christ with his people. It reminds us that Christ is the Light of the World, and brings to mind the resurrection. It is traditionally lit during the Easter vigil, and remains lit throughout the season of Easter (and sometimes through Pentecost). It may also be lit during festival services, baptisms, and funerals, and may be processed into the church with the processional cross.

Paraments and Vesture visually reflect the changing seasons of the church year, and may be a wonderful place to display Christian symbolism. The vesture of the historical Christian church has been in use for well over a millennium, and outwardly reflects reverence in the presence of Christ. Consider commissioning one-of-a-kind paraments, stoles, or chasubles.

Stained Glass Windows have taught church-goers since the Middle Ages. Gothic architects designed their churches to allow as much light in as possible. The light itself symbolized the presence of God. These jewels in the church still transform the space with light, and can illustrate the truths of scripture.

Banners have become a good way for temporary themes to be displayed. They provide a means to focus our thoughts on heavenly themes. They are relatively easy to store and install. Just as with other aspects of worship, reserve only the best materials, and employ experienced artists and craftsmen. Poor craftsmanship detracts from the message.

Although liturgical artwork is a good thing, more is not always better. Quality should be stressed over quantity. Every rennovation or addition should bear in mind the aesthetic of the whole; avoid clutter, seek unity. Above all, work to make a space more conducive to worship. Remember that the focus of Christian worship is Christ (sacramental) rather than us (sacrificial).1

Alternative Locations

While most of this website is focused on artwork for the worship service, sacred artwork need not be placed only in the sanctuary. Here are a few alternatives:

  • A statue in the landscaping
  • A mosaic on an exterior wall
  • A series of works in the narthex or a hallway
  • Bulletins and service folders
  • A mural in the fellowship hall
  • A mosaic on the floor of the narthex
  • Scripture verses sandblasted into the sidewalk
  • Banners on the street lamps
  • A rotating gallery of liturgical exhibits
  • An illustrated devotional book

1. For this reason it is not advisable to put up plaques and memorials to donors.

Illustrations are courtesy of The C.R. Gibson Company, published in: Klein, Patricia S. Worship Without Words: The Signs and Symbols of our Faith. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2000.