Religious Art and Objects


In 2009, Washington National Cathedral completed the carving and installation of three limestone statues located above the sedilia[1].  The statues depict three people who were chosen for this honor because of the extraordinary manner in which their lives personified Christian virtues.  The three are John Donne, a 17th-century English poet and cleric in the Church of England; George Herbert, who also was a 17th-century English poet, orator and Anglican priest; and Howard Thurman, a 20th-century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader.

The statues were designed by Chas Fagan, a gifted American sculptor, who not only renders his subjects in incredibly realistic fashion, but also incorporates thoughtful symbolism into his designs that captures some compelling aspects of the person’s life.

For example, Mr. Fagan depicted Howard Thurman in his preaching robes to convey his commanding presence as a preacher and orator.  Dr. Thurman is standing, leaning forward in earnest on the balls of his feet toward the congregation, as though conveying an urgent message of great importance.  In researching the life of Dr. Thurman, Mr. Fagan learned that a mighty oak tree was an important symbol to Dr. Thurman, a manifestation of God’s strong and enduring presence over the course of his life.  Thus, Mr. Fagan designed the lower portion of Dr. Thurman’s robes to appear like the base of an oak tree, with its muscular roots extending deep into the earth below.

When the time arrived to consecrate the statues, the National Cathedral was fortunate that a number of Dr. Thurman’s family and friends were able to attend and take part in the service.  However, the stone brackets on which the statues permanently sit are positioned more than ten feet above the sanctuary floor.  Hence, people are unable to fully see and appreciate some of the statues’ finer details.  After the consecration, since the family was unable to see and enjoy the fine details of the statue, I invited them to my office for a face-to-face encounter with the full-size plaster model that guided the carving of the stone statue.  Immediately upon seeing the plaster model, the family reacted as if Dr. Thurman had returned from the dead for a visit!  Joy beamed from their faces as they approached the piece and looked closely into his eyes.  They gently stroked his head and patted his back.  They posed for multiple photos and lingered to reminisce over fond memories of Dr. Thurman.  There seemed to be a reluctance to leave, as if doing so would break the sacredness of the moment.  Truly, it was a moving family reunion of sorts.

As Cathedral Conservator, I was fortunate to participate in each distinct phase of this artistic project—from conceptualization, to design, fabrication, installation and ultimately, appreciation.  What I observed is that inherent in the process of any “successful” artistic project (and by “successful,” I mean that the final work of art serves to enrich and inspire the recipient—not necessarily all recipients, but a significant number) is the mysterious transference of spiritual enthusiasm from subject matter through the artist to the recipient, with each participant in this process having a significant role to play.

First of all, the subject matter, be it one or more individuals or a specific event, must have a compelling story to tell—a story that transformed the world in a positive fashion at a historic place in time, while also having the capacity to continue doing so as long as the story is conveyed in an effective manner.

The artist then must discern the essential characteristics of the subject matter and devise an artistic expression that conveys the characteristics to the recipient with clarity, strength and inspiration.  In theological terms, the artist conceives a method to incarnate the passions of the subject matter and through creative skill, make them tangible to others observing the work in the present moment.

Finally, the recipient must be a willing participant in the process and not simply a passive consumer.  He or she must exert an effort to understand the subject matter and appreciate the work of art to enjoy the benefits.  And the benefits can be enormous!

Imagine transcending the limits of time and space to experience life in an earlier age, then to realize the similarities we share in the present age with those in the past.  Historic figures come to life; the passions that inspired them can come alive in us, enriching not only our personal existence, but the manner in which we continue to live and interact with others.  Truly, good art is more than simply an inanimate object.  It has the power and potential to be a transformative, life-giving experience.


[1] Sedilia is the traditional name for a grouping of three seats built into the thickness of the south wall of the sanctuary, adjacent to the high altar.  The seats are intended for the clergy who are leading worship.

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Years ago, a good friend told me about an experience that transformed his life, a provocative experience that, once shared, also transformed my way of thinking and shaped the direction of my vocational life to this day.

When my friend was a young man—a recent graduate of architecture school—he visited the Pyramids of Giza for the first time.  He found the enormous, ancient structures so awe-inspiring, so breathtaking that suddenly he found himself thinking, “If this is the answer, what then was the question?” 

Now, I am both a historical architect and an Episcopal priest, and often encounter quite a few ancient and awe-inspiring structures on my own.  When I do, my friend’s enticing question comes to mind.  A case in point – consider the magnificent great portal at Vézelay Abbey – a 12th-century, Christian monastic place of worship in the Burgundy region of France.  What was the question that inspired such a concrete, extraordinary answer as this?

To begin with, Vézelay was a Benedictine/Cluniac monastery with roots extending back to the 8th century CE.  By the 11th century, the abbey claimed to have the relics of Mary Magdalene, whom tradition believes was a close friend of Jesus of Nazareth and the first person to witness Christ’s resurrection.  Tradition also describes her as one whom Christ “healed of evil spirits and infirmities” (Luke 8:2) and consequently is revered by many as the patron saint of the penitent.  As a result, large numbers of people made the pilgrimage to Vézelay and asked for Mary Magdalene’s blessing; so many, in fact, that construction began in 1096 on a large basilica to properly accommodate the holy relics and the large crowds visiting the site.

While Vézelay was a pilgrimage destination in its own right, it also served as a starting point for one of the most revered pilgrimages in medieval Europe – the Camino de Santiago.  Second only to Rome and Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain was the shrine of James the Greater, an apostle of Jesus, and for centuries, Christians from across Europe made the pilgrimage to this sacred place in large numbers.  One of four major routes through France to Santiago began in Vézelay.

Vézelay also played a prominent role in the life of western Christianity for more than three hundred years, as it hosted a number of important historical events.  In 1146, the Second Crusade to the Holy Land was launched from Vézelay with Bernard of Clairvaux preaching to the inspired crowds.  A short time later in 1166, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, while exiled in France, used the pulpit at Vézelay to issue a threat to excommunicate King Henry II of England and his advisors as part of their ongoing quarrel.  Then in 1190, King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England and King Philip II Augustus of France met at Vézelay and from here launched the Third Crusade to the Holy Land.  And in 1217, Francis of Assisi reportedly founded the first French community of the Friars Minor at Vézelay.  Clearly, as the great portal was being designed and carved around the year 1130, Vézelay had established itself as a significant, cosmopolitan, spiritual center in the context and culture of medieval Christian Europe that demanded its architecture be sufficiently sophisticated to reflect its role and prominence.

The great portal of Vézelay is located within the narthex of the basilica, the central portal of three that provide access into the nave.  Approaching the great portal for the first time, one immediately is struck by the sheer size of the composition – it is massive.  Its overall height is nearly 40 feet – as tall as a 4-story building – and its width approaches 30 feet.  The carved stonework is punctuated by two door openings, each nearly 20 feet high by 10 feet wide.  Directly above the door openings is an enormous, semi-circular, carved stone tympanum, which dominates the composition.  Yet in spite of being stone, the tympanum seems to levitate overhead, due in large measure to the energetic poses of the carved human figures.

Contrary to other Romanesque sculpture which often depicts human figures in flat and static poses, Vézelay’s figures are vibrant, brimming with energy and enthusiasm, invoking T.S. Eliot’s words, “It moves perpetually in its stillness.”  The central figure is Christ, majestically reaching more than 10 feet in height, in spite of his seated position.  He is enveloped by an almond-shaped mandorla – the traditional symbol representing a sacred moment transcending time and space.  Gathered around him are the twelve, life-sized apostles, with six on each side.  Shooting forth from the fingers of Christ’s outstretched arms and striking the head of each apostle are what seem to be beams of divine power, infusing the apostles with energy, solidarity and wisdom.  Despite being damaged from centuries of vandalism, the vitality emanating from the carvings still is obvious.  The full, interactive postures of each figure, along with the swirling pleats and patterns in the fabric of their robes all contribute to the exuberance of the scene.

Encircling above Christ and his apostles and in the horizontal lintel below are a series of small, carved vignettes depicting people whose lives are transformed by the Gospel message, as well as people in far-off lands who are yet to learn of Christ.  Some are interesting caricatures with giant ears and dog-like faces indicating that, at the time, there still existed civilizations largely unknown by and mysterious to western Europeans.

Surrounding all of these figures in the outer, semicircular band of stone molding called an archivolt are the signs of the zodiac and months of the year indicating that this theophany, this incident of divine intervention, was not simply a product of creative imagination, but actually took place on this earthly plane of human existence within the sphere of time and space. 

So then, what does it mean?

Obviously, the scale of the great portal is meant to impress and inspire all who see it.  Its immensity and imagery promise those who approach, that by passing through its doors, the space found on the other side will be extraordinary – incomparable in size and appearance, and the activities that take place there will be mystical and life-changing.  After all, the great portal is an entrance to sacred space and the medieval mind believed that each church is an earthly image of Heaven.  Yet in spite of its majestic and otherworldly appearance, the great portal does not seem threatening or discriminating.  In fact, it seems inviting, extending a warm welcome to those who come near.  It brings to mind the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Matthew 23:37)

Perhaps, another helpful interpretation can be drawn from a similar portal of the Medieval Period, albeit one found in an epic poem of world literature.  In the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri completed his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, and in it he describes the inscription carved above the entrance to Hell, which reads, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  While certainly Dante’s portal to Hell is the antithesis of Vézelay, it helps underline the intent for which the great portal was created.  Rather than words of warning and pending despair, the great portal of Vezelay offers encouragement and hope.  It was designed to awaken and arouse all those who see it: Be defiantly hopeful, all who enter here.  The love of God will make you strong!  Just as Christ, the Incarnation of God, transformed the lives of his apostles, the same transformation is available to you, if you pass through this portal and commit to living the Christian life.

For centuries, art historians have pondered the meaning of the great portal.  What are these magnificent carvings meant to represent?  What stories are they trying to tell?  Some believe the great portal represents the day of Pentecost, as described in the “Acts of the Apostles.”  Others suggest it depicts Christ’s mission to the apostles, as found in the Gospels, and was used to justify and inspire the crusades which were launched from Vézelay.  One argued the carvings serve as a defense of the addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed, when in 1098, the Western Church asserted that the Holy Spirit proceeds simultaneously from the Father and the Son, against which the Eastern Church vehemently disagreed and the split between the two churches widened.  In the end, these interpretations seem to focus primarily on the literal meaning of the carvings, rather than the purpose for which the great portal was created.

Good spiritual architecture encourages people to engage the mystery it encapsulates.  While the design of the great portal of Vezelay depicts an incident from the pages of Christian scripture, it also points to a divine reality that transcends time and history, but nevertheless exists in the present moment.  It reminds you and me that unseen forces larger than anything humanly possible are undergirding the existence of daily life and we are more than mere spectators.  In truth, we are participants in this epic drama as well.

So, what was the purpose of the great portal of Vezelay?  What was the question that inspired such a concrete, extraordinary answer as this?

Certainly, the great portal was meant to be more than simply a doorway.  The carvings were intended to serve a purpose beyond mere decoration.  Vézelay, because of its prominence and popularity, was positioned to influence a great many people from all ranks of medieval society and the great portal was created to encourage them to discover and deepen their commitment to Christ and his church.  Like an icon from the Orthodox tradition, the great portal is intended to be a means to the end, but not the end itself.  Its purpose is to draw people toward it and away from the profane, secular world; to usher them through a physical, mental and spiritual transformation; to adequately prepare them to enter the sacred space that lies ahead, and then direct their attention beyond the portal itself to the world of God beyond.

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During one visit to Canterbury Cathedral, I had the good fortune to tour the Cathedral Archives and see a number of fascinating and wonderful things.  At one point, the Cathedral Archivist hands me a document, made of parchment and obviously quite old.  The text is Latin and so, admitting my ignorance, I ask for a translation.  She proceeds to explain, in unassuming British fashion, that the document I now hold in my hands clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, and clearly establishes the superiority of the former over the latter.  The agreement is known as the “Accord of Winchester,” it dates from 1072 and the prominent signature at the bottom of the parchment is that of William the Conqueror!

“Oh, really?” I say, trying not to sound too-overly impressed.  Even though at the same time, my mind is racing to catch up with the reality of the object clutched in my bare hands, trying to fully comprehend the significance of this seemingly simple, one-page document.  Vague memories from church history class help me to remember that this is the agreement that ultimately led to the complete reform and reorganization of the English Church following William’s conquest, when Anglo-Saxon bishops were replaced with Norman bishops.  What’s more, it became the tipping point that put into motion the effort to rebuild every existing Anglo-Saxon cathedral in England in the subsequent Norman fashion.  Much of the architecture we enjoy today in the great medieval cathedrals of England was brought into existence because of this document.  Truly, this unpretentious piece of parchment caused a seismic shift not only in English history, but its aftershocks went on to impact the Anglican tradition as it spread its way around the globe.  It’s not every day I have the opportunity to touch such an ancient and extraordinary artifact of human history, and it was thrilling!

Ancient artifacts, such as the Accord of Winchester, have a transcendent quality about them.  Not only did they influence civilization at the time they were created, but continually do so.  Generations have highly regarded and carefully protected them, setting them apart as unique and special.  Their significance and ability to transcend the ages infuses them with a sense of immutability, they exude a force of character beyond that of the simple mundane.  They serve as reminders that we are part of a continuum much larger than ourselves.  They help us to see beyond the limitations of our individuality and finitude to inspire comfort, confidence and optimism.  They are a necessary elixir to those of us diminished by the fleeting, trivial nature of living in a “throw-away society,” expecting immediate gratification of our needs, and roiling in a constant state of change.  Rarely, do we find ourselves in the presence of such objects of eternal value.  But when we do, they shift the focus of attention away from our own selfish needs, raise our level of consciousness above the primal instincts of mere survival, and remind us of the priceless quality of life.  Thanks be to God!

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In the fall of 2011, I was privileged to lead a group of parishioners from my church on a pilgrimage to a number of Virginia’s colonial churches.  One of our stops was at Grace Episcopal Church in Yorktown, a parish founded in 1697.  While we were there our host told us about their Eucharistic silver that dates from that same period in time.  She informed us that rather than putting their precious silver on display in some glass case—like a museum exhibit, they instead prefer to use it as it originally was intended—for worship every Sunday.  She told us that each time she holds that beautiful, 17th century chalice in her hands and receives the communion wine, she is so moved by the thought of the people and the history the chalice symbolizes that she wants to turn and look out the windows of the church toward the cemetery, where so many members of the congregation are buried, and just say “thank you.”

Truly, her heartfelt gratitude is so stirring and delightful, yet, at the same time, uncommon.  It illustrates an aspect fundamental to the Christian tradition that we often forget—the abiding presence of the Communion of Saints.

The fact is: you and I are not alone.  We are part of a great continuum of believers that reaches back in time to a point we cannot even imagine and extends infinitely into a future we cannot foresee.  A passage from the Book of Revelation describes it as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” [Rev. 7:9]  It is a massive cloud of witnesses—witnesses to the redeeming, life-giving love of God: people seen and unseen, known and unknown, present in this life as well as in the life beyond.  Encircling us in love, enveloping us in prayer, empowering us by their presence, the saints of God support us all the day long, year in and year out, as we struggle to lead meaningful and righteous lives.

Unfortunately, it has fallen out of fashion to believe in the abiding presence of our spiritual kinfolk; a casualty of western, rational thinking.  Yet as Christians, we continue to profess with our mouths to believe that the dead do not simply cease to exist, that there is life after death, and that in the next life, the faithfully-departed do congregate as a communion of saints and actively exist.  But are we just giving lip-service to a quaint, romantic notion leftover from a silly, out-of-date, superstitious period of our history?

I argue that, contrary to what the popular culture would have us believe, we are not ignorant, overly-sentimental or superstitious, but, in fact, are very much enlightened to live with the conviction that these fundamental tenets of the Christian faith are true.  That instead, it is primitive and narrow-minded to believe that life consists solely of what occurs in this material world.  That unless something can be confirmed by scientific analysis, it cannot exist.  That the ego should be the dominant, guiding force in in all our actions and the world should revolve solely around our needs.  These are the marks of the misinformed, the misguided, and the deceived.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus teaches an alternative way of engaging the world.  Through wisdom of the Beatitudes, our Lord offers us freedom from a life of self-centeredness and suffocation.  He points us toward a larger purpose.  He helps us to see that you and I can be part of a larger reality that extends beyond the limitations of our ego.  That our lives can be interwoven with the lives of others in an epic endeavor so much larger than ourselves.  That you and I are necessary and vital participants in God’s redemption of all creation.  That by actively engaging life, we will make a real difference in the betterment of this world.  To know this, to believe this inspires great comfort, it is empowering and motivating—a reason, a real purpose for living.  Truly, this is enlightenment, it is good news! [Matt. 5:1-12]

The second key point I want to make regarding the gratitude of our Yorktown host concerns the silver chalice itself.  There is an old saying about Episcopalians, that for us, “matter matters.”  In other words, we believe that God is capable of working through material things to achieve our salvation, which is why we have such high regard for the sacraments of baptism and Holy Eucharist.  This high regard extends to other tangible things as well, such as chalices, Bibles, stained glass windows and even church buildings.  We see these things as concrete, real-life manifestations of God’s love for us, our love for God, our regard for family, friends and neighbors, and our devotion to the Church.

Like the good folks in Yorktown, most Episcopalians are blessed with a rich material inheritance—a fabulous, historic place of worship that proclaims a long-standing and powerful ministry to the communities in which we live.  A beautiful church, built with natural materials, shaped by human hands, and offered to the glory of God.  It makes real the notion of the Communion of Saints.  All around are reminders—names and dates, tablets and plaques, the dead interred in the Columbarium—reminders of our spiritual ancestors who came before us and helped raise these churches up out of the earth.  The ministry of these saints forms the very foundation on which these sacred spaces are built.  Every time we gather for worship, the saints surround us.  Surely, these are places where generations of faithful Christians have come to know God, to experience God’s love and to share that love with others.  The very walls of our churches are saturated with prayer.

A virtuous quality that all saints share is that they do not draw attention to themselves, but instead point and direct all attention toward God.  The same can be said for our places of worship.  They point to something greater, more enduring and gratifying, more valuable, more precious than anything of this earth.

And that is the reason that silver chalice was created in the 17th century and the same reason our churches were built over the years since then.  They were created by our forebears, the saints who precede us in our common spiritual journey, to help us know God.  In fact, the primary intention of church properties is to provide a myriad of opportunities for all who come to them to bump into God and fall deeper in love.  It is said that sacred space is not so much about space where something is done, as it is about space where Someone is encountered—with, of course, that Someone being God. 

The Communion of Saints are incredibly generous to us.  We receive an inheritance beyond measure.  Words fail to convey the magnitude of how wonderful, how thoughtful, how life-giving their gift of God’s love to us is—all except those used by the docent in Yorktown, which are, “thank you!”

The question is, “Will future generations be able to say the same about us?”

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Beauty is essential to life.  Just as air, water, food and shelter are fundamental to our survival; it is beauty that lifts us up out of mere primordial existence to a higher quality of life.  It infuses our souls with purpose, passion and inspiration.  It is not a luxury.  Every human being is entitled to the benefits it brings—not just the well-to-do and the overly-intellectual.  Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”[1]  He is not talking about you and me having more air, all the food and water we can eat and drink, or larger houses.  He is talking about quality of life and beauty is the means by which this transfiguration often is brought about.

Anglicans firmly subscribe to this notion.  We pursue beauty in all aspects of life.  It defines our character.  One only has to look at the rich heritage of Anglican Church buildings or thumb through a book, such as A Treasury of Anglican Art,[2] to sample some of the most beautiful, spiritually-uplifting examples of Christian architecture and art in the world.

But why is this?  Why do Anglicans and, by extension, Episcopalians hold beauty in such high regard?

John Westerhoff, in his book, A People Called Episcopalians, writes, “Anglicans have made beauty the doorway into truth and goodness.  We have a strong respect for and belief in the beauty of holiness and righteousness.  Money spent on beauty…is justified insofar as it is our way of revealing and advocating truth and goodness.  Our churches are intended to be works of art and we make every effort to ensure that the arts used in our churches are of high quality.”[3]  In other words, for Anglicans—when one is in the presence of beauty, one also is in the presence of the Divine.

Certainly, there are Christians who approach worship by emphasizing truth and goodness, but pay little heed to beauty.  They focus on the word of God—both written and spoken—as the primary means by which to know God.  They appeal to the rational mind, thinking a right understanding of God’s word will bring right behavior, which is a perfectly reasonable, acceptable and time-tested approach to Christian worship.

However, another approach to Christian worship is to reach for the imagination and the heart, in addition to the rational mind.  And the means by which the imagination and heart are stirred most effectively is by the five senses.  The goal of this type of worship is to encourage an attitude of mystery and awe before the presence of God, evoking devotion, admiration and thanksgiving; and, in doing so, inspiring right behavior as a result.

To stimulate the senses, we historically make use of the arts—the visual arts and the performing arts.  The arts convey profound and timeless truths in imaginative and relevant ways—deeper theology than mere words.  As one stated, “The Word was not made flesh in order to be turned back into word again.  Art makes incarnate the Word of God.”  The beauty of art encourages our imagination to take precedence over the rational side of the brain, which, more often than not, tends to control the vast majority of life.  It induces stirrings of the ineffable and numinous that reside deep within us.

Finally, Episcopalians are a sacramental people.  We believe the Transcendent is made know to us through material things.  From God, there flows a continuous stream of Divine Love, making itself available to all through the material, most specifically through the person of Christ Jesus, as well as through the waters of Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  In a broader sense, all creation is a manifestation of its Creator—God’s handiwork is visible in every directions.  Therefore, the spiritual cannot be separated from the physical.  As a result, architecture and the arts are sacramental to us.  We look to architecture and the arts to support our worship, education, evangelization and mission.  For us, God’s presence and actions are mediated most powerfully through our places of worship.  For Episcopalians, orthodoxy is right worship, rather than right belief.  To put it another way, it is through the beauty of sacred space that makes it easy to fall in love with God.

[1] John 10:10

[2] A Treasury of Anglican Art, James B. Simpson and George H. Eatman (New York: Rizzoli, 2002).

[3] A People Called Episcopalians, John H. Westerhoff (Atlanta: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 1998) 23.

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