Sacramental Imagery

The kinds of imagery you see in a church, particularly in the sanctuary, gives you a real feel for what the congregation thinks is important. Sometimes the imagery all follows a similar theme that sort of ties everything together.

Historic Trinity, for example, incorporates everything into a “Vine and Branches” motif that helps create a sense of unity in the church throughout time and connects it to its source, Christ. Other churches might focus on their name as a way to unify things. A St. John’s Lutheran Church might emphasize the themes St. John uses in his Gospel, epistles, or Revelation.

Usually, but not always, the sacraments poke their heads in to at least make an appearance. How they appear is, of course, always of interest. Obviously the baptismal font itself and the communion rail are pretty standard fixtures in a sanctuary and are directly related to the sacraments. Sometimes you see the font or a shell depicted elsewhere in artwork in the sanctuary. Sometimes you’ll see wheat and grapes or a cup placed here or there. If there is any sacramental imagery anywhere, usually that will be the extent of it.

Designing the sanctuary is no mean feat, both in terms of architecture and artwork. Finding the harmonious balances and symmetry, conveying the mysteries of God while also attending to the practical needs of worship isn’t as straightforward as you might think. If you’ve read some of my previous stuff, you’ve seen how you can “speak” in many different ways through placement, design, and decoration.

That said, when the sacraments do make an appearance in the art and architecture of the sanctuary, it is usually only in those few simplistic ways that tell us very little about what the sacraments are all about. The physical elements of the sacraments are depicted, but the meaning behind them rarely finds its way into the visual presentation.

Baptismal Triptych by Edward Riojas

Ed Riojas’s work for Immanuel Lutheran Church in Hankinson, ND, broadens the scope of the sacrament and draws on the text from Luther’s Flood Prayer and shows how that the Flood and the Crossing of the Red Sea inform our understanding of the sacrament. It would be hard to display everything there is to say about baptism in a few panels such as this, but at least it goes beyond a simple font or shell.

Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic churches have a major piece of Communion symbolism built in, in the form of the iconostasis.

Iconostasis of St. Michael’s Byzantine Catholic Church, Pittston, PA.

The iconostasis serves a similar function to the communion rail, in that it separates the chancel, where the altar is, from the rest of the sanctuary. However, the iconostasis is meant to convey a sense of the separation of heaven and earth. “Heaven” lies behind the doors, where the altar is and the Body and Blood of Christ. “Earth” is shown by the depictions of the various saints of the church throughout time. When it is time to celebrate the sacrament, the doors open and heaven and earth come together, both occupy the same place at the same time. The angels and archangels and all the host of heaven are there to laud and magnify His glorious name together with us.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, there is quite a bit you can say about baptism just with the baptismal font. Anything a church does to help display the richness of the sacraments becomes a constant visual reminder of the place of the sacraments in the life of the church and tells us the sacraments are still living and active through the power of God’s Word. In that sense, as Riojas shows, expressing the work of the sacraments is expressing the life of Christ and teaching us about how He continues to be active among His people.

In what ways do you see the sacraments displayed in your sanctuary, either in art or architecture? What does that tell you about the purpose and power of the sacraments?

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