At most of the parishes with which I have been associated I have created a document unlocking all of the symbolism contained in the parish, have taught a class, and usually given numerous tours helping people become more aware of the building they call their spiritual home. It almost always elicits and “I never saw that,” or a, “I never realized what that meant.”
Over the past five years of Adam’s Ale we have explored an incredible amount of Christian symbolism. We’ve also explored books and websites that I have recommended. But we never have really looked at how you might attempt this at your parish. So we will try that for a spell.
When starting out there are a couple of things that will make the process easier if you settle on them right away. The first is to get your clergy on board. Depending on the scope of your project you will have to spend a lot of time in your church (assuming it is not iconoclastic in nature) and you will need to do a certain amount of snooping – more likely in older church buildings where interesting symbolic pieces may be somewhat hidden.
The next thing you will want to decide is the scope of your project. Do you want to do just the windows? That is one thing. Do you want to do all the artwork? That is another. How about every last scrap of meaning you can drag out of a building, that is yet quite another. The first will be easy, the last may require finding blueprints and trying to locate companies and all kinds of research.
So let’s say that you are going for the whole enchilada. The first step is to try to save yourself some time by locating information that has already been accumulated for you. Often a parish directory has been produced and often there is a description of the windows or other art. Perhaps a pamphlet has been produced at a significant anniversary or at the consecration of the church.
Most parishes have an archives room or at least a good sized archives file cabinet. This is a good place to start looking. (Be very careful! Keep things neat and in order and be sure to return them so that you and your project can move forward without people becoming upset. These items can be difficult to replace and can be jealously guarded.) Scan or copy interesting articles and descriptions. You will most probably find that something is wrong in the descriptions, but they are an excellent beginning point.
It is a good idea to already begin separating your information into categories. “Windows, statuary, paintings, architecture, and such.” Names of artists and companies may serve you very well in the future so it is an excellent idea to have this information if available. Small pieces of history are also very good. “Made in Italy and shipped to the United States and 20 pieces. Assembled . . . etc.” While not directly part of your mission, it is none-the-less interesting to many people and rarely part of a comprehensive document. And again, dates, locations, and the like may serve your research later.