Friday, February 24, 2012


There is another aspect of symbolism that may be built right into your building. Well, actually, it IS your building. For some of you there will be a wealth of symbolism, for others, none at all.

Particularly for older well thought out buildings there will be all kinds of symbols hidden in brick and mortar. The very direction that your building faces may be significant. Before Vatican II it was stipulated that churches be built on an east-west axis. Churches that were not built thusly received permission to be built otherwise but the Mass was said to be facing “liturgical east” as opposed to actually facing east. This was because the priest faced the same way as the people – toward God – toward the east, the east symbolizing Christ with the rising of the sun (Son.) The rose window in a west wall then was said to allow the last rays of the sun, which was setting in the west, to fall on the words of the Gospel which would be on the altar, which, in the extraordinary form, would be open facing the people.

Notice that if you have pillars, far more often than not there are twelve of them no matter the size of the building. Twelve represents not only the twelve tribes of Israel but also the twelve apostles. It is a number that means “the whole Church.” The twelve pillars then represent the whole Church gathered at every Mass.

Colors may mean something. For example, one church no longer in the hands of our diocese had their twelve pillars made of different colors of marble representing all the different people of the world. Another parish (who has since changed their color scheme) once had an interior done in red, white, and blue (sounds garish, I know, but it was actually done quite tastefully.) This tied in the colors of the flag of the nation that this nationality parish represented as well as the colors of the flag of the United States.

Once again there is a danger here of seeing symbols where they do not exist and missing them where they do. For example, there was one parish that I though the architect had purposefully put crosses on the doors by the design of the windows. “Pure coincidence,” he replied. (And they wouldn’t have worked that well as symbols anyway.) On the other hand, common doors can be full of symbols. While attending on class on set designing for the theater the professor told us to be careful of the type of doors we design into a set. “For example,” he told us, “never use this common door on the set that takes place in a Jewish neighborhood.” The door is one you might find in your house with one vertical board running down the center and two cross beams, the bottom one being quite a bit wider that than the other two. The vertical and one of the cross beams make the Cross. The wide cross beam is the open Bible.

More modern churches may have other symbols. One may be in the shape of a boat to represent the bark of Peter (or the Church) or, as in one case in our diocese, it was designed to look like a dove or the Holy Spirit. Once again, access to archives helps tremendously in these endeavors.


Matt W said...

Designed to look like the Holy Spirit? I can just imagine. Shudder.

Fr. V said...


You would need an ultralight to get to Mass and really good imagination.

The Wild Optimist said...

Enjoyed this post! I will never look at my front door the same way again ;-)