Saturday, June 30, 2007


Size does matter, as does orientation. Take for example Michael Angelo’s David. Notice the size of his hands; they are all together out of proportion to the rest of the statue. This is not an accident or due to lack of talent, but a point is being made, a tie in to his story. The artists wanted you to notice his hands.

If the artist knows what he is doing he will often distort perspective in order to make specific statements. You may have noticed in century’s old paintings an almost complete disregard for perspective. Sometimes this is intentional. Important people in the picture are presented much larger than others who, if this were a snapshot, should have been the exact same size. But the representations are manipulated to make a point about who is most important in the group.

Center and height denote importance and precedence also. Right tends to be better than left. Our word sinister comes from the Latin word for left, sinistir. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. The goats are placed on his left and the sheep on his right.

You can see this played out somewhat in the rear wall of the Sistine Chapel. Heaven is higher, hell is lower, Christ is located in the upper center. When we come to understand this it is of little wonder that so many people became upset (and still are) when the tabernacle is moved from the high, center spot of the large main alter to a side spot. We are messing with the symbolic system and few parishes did it well making inadvertent statements about the Eucharist.

Direction is also very important. (Remember that this symbolic language was developed in Europe so symbolically some of this might not make sense if you live south of the equator.) You don’t put your plants in a north window because we get the least amount of light from the north. It is the direction of cold and night. That is also the direction in which the barbarians lived earlier in the history of the Church.

South is the seat of light and warmth. That is where (for us in the northern hemisphere) where the equator is.

East is where the sun rises, the Son of the universe. It is holy.

West is the seat of darkness, the abode of demons and California. (I realize this is only funny for those living in the east. Sorry.) (Really.)

So Churches before Vatican II were often built facing east. If they were not, they were built facing what was deemed “liturgical east”. For the mass everyone, including the priest, faced east or the Son. The liturgy faced God, uniting them as a people before their God, the priest acting much the same fashion of Moses leading the people through the desert.

The New Testament Epistle was read from the south side of the altar bringing us the light and warmth of the Scriptures. The Gospel was read from the north side of the altar, symbolic of our desire to convert the barbarians.

The rear of the Church faces west, the furthest point away from the Son. The rose window in this wall let the last light of the day shine on the Gospel on the altar, bringing light to those who sit in darkness.

Most interesting however was that axis of many large ancient Churches fell upon the exact line upon which the sun travels on the feast day of the parish. By a clever method, two points would be established on the ground marking exactly where the sun rose and set on the day of the feast after the which the Church would be named. The center of the Church was then placed along this east/west line. So technically, if the name of a parish would ever be forgot, if one could figure out the day on which the sun traveled the spine of the roof, match that day to the Church calendar, the patron of the parish could be discovered.


Adoro said...

Wow. Whose hairbrained idea was it to ever forget about this symbolism? This is great stuff, and we are so poor, in this country, to have lost all this symbolism!

Anonymous said...

We haven't lost it.. God sent us Fr. V. to remind us.

Odysseus said...

-West is the seat of darkness, the abode of demons and California. (I realize this is only funny for those living in the east. Sorry.) (Really.)-

We in Arizona agree!

Fr. V said...

Adoro - We didn't learn it, then we couldn't pass it on, - and then we ended up in an iconaclastic period, manipulated into giving up our patrimony by those of a minimalist, untilitarian mindset that forgot both the etheral and that they were dealing not with art alone, but art that needed to help human beings relate to nature, the cosmos and the eternal - mix in that we have lost contact with nature as a society, all this made worse by a generation that would rather have cable than support art, and you get plain boxes that could pass for a church, Kmart, or gym. But I think things are changing. (Gads, that sounds bitter. I didn't mean it to.) (Okay, yes I did.)

Thanks C.O.

Adoro said...

Speaking as a lover of the arts...well, any bitterness on your part about it is completely justified.

Personally, I'm working with others to try to add art back to our parish. Apparently we used to have it and then the stoics and minimalists and the "art" deco freaks took over and turned it into a box to hold some stained glass and a few pews.

Hopefully things will improve before my 2 years of service are done. We can't change the arcitecture, but we sure can bring the art back.

Much of the argument I've heard against is has to do with "fire codes" and "ordinances". Hmm...I'm quite familiar with reading such documents, and I have measuring tape and the like. I have a feeling that some of their arguments are about to be disproven by the very legal documents they cite.

Jesus and Mary are coming back to the forefront and bare walls are going away if myself and people wiser and more artistic than myself have anything to do with it!

Too bad we can't turn our church in its axis, though....

Anonymous said...

I love it when you're bitter Father!

Anonymous said...

ROFL! Well, for sure, much of what Fr. V. tells us of here, I didn't know, and I am tickled to hear it all. Now I have to wonder what symbolism I missed in all the churches and cathedrals I've visited!

I grew up in an Italian-marble, oaken-pewed church which must've been even more beautiful before it was rebuilt after a fire, but I was married in a pink rug-and-teakwood skinny-pew church. And if I'd thought Killarney's and St. Colman's Cathedral were exquisite (oh-the-Pietas! oh-the-pipes oh-the-resting-rooms for bodies to lie in state overnight!), oh my goodness, those paled beside Our Lady of Victory basilica in/near Buffalo, NY. I could not take it all in.. each of the Stations there are life-sized and are of marble carved in one piece. On either side of the entrance, an angel-sized angel holds a bowl of holy water so large, I'm sure they have trouble keeping the kids from wading. The side altars alone -- Blessed Virgin Mary, Pieta, St. Joseph, etc. -- dwarf even main altars I've seen here or elsewhere in NY. I've seen the Papal umbrellas (not sure what they are called) and how impressive ALL of it was, but in OLV, there are some red marble pillars (and lots of gold) rising up from the main altar, and even tho' I can find Him in any church no matter how humble, I so nearly cried in thinking, "This magnificence befits Him." Churches are my "Disney World," so to speak. And may I just say that in all the wondrous cathedrals, the Tabernacle is in the main altar.

Thanks for teaching us of so much that we have missed or missed out on.


Mary Martha said...

"all this made worse by a generation that would rather have cable than support art"

I don't know that it's a generation that would rather have cable than support art so much as it's a generation that was raised to think that 'art' was on cable. Think about how often movies and 'good' tv is praised as 'art'.

Then consider the fact that it's a generation that was raised in the church while everything was being ripped out. As children they were told that statues, high alters, paintings etc. were no longer 'necessary' or 'good' and that they should decorate the church themselves with banners and the like. I know that is what I was taught.

I wouldn't blame most people who don't support art in the Church... they are only doing what they were taught. Now it's up to us who disagree to teach a different perspective.

Adoro said...

While we're on this have GOT to check out this link!

Catholic Church...or Coal Mine?

I found this through Et-Tu, Jen?, an awesome blog, a convert from atheism to Catholicism.

owenswain said...

I'll have to go with ~m2~ on this. Good post Fr.V.
O ::thrive luminousmiseries ||