Rereading the Stations of the Cross through Art

Art historian James Elkins, in his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, tells a story of a sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago titled 14 Stations of the Cross. Elkins teaches at the school and was interviewing students about their own religious-themed art. This Stations was “a large ceramic church, about two and a half feet high” covered with a “gray and white glaze [that] . . . dripped down like sugar frosting on an angel food cake.” Inside, the floor was pocked where the fourteen devotional tableaux of the traditional Stations had been torn away. The artist, an MFA candidate called Ria, explained she had “erased” her depictions of Jesus’ Passion, leaving only the clay structure that housed them. Elkins considered this, then gingerly suggested that, given the deletions, the work really wasn’t a representation of the Stations at all. It was, he observed, not unkindly, more a “large confectionary house, a sugarplum fairy’s house.”[1]

“ ‘Well, to me it’s the fourteen Stations,’ ” the young woman replied, hastening to explain that, though from a Catholic family, “ ‘I don’t believe in all that anymore—the robes, the priests. . . .’ ” So, Elkins queried, why work at all with a motif that represents one of the most solemn rituals of Lent? Ria struggled to articulate her conception. “ ‘There is just something about them, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I want the feeling, something about it … the real part.’ ”[2] One can almost see Elkins’ neutral, knowing nod on hearing this. Later, considering the sculptor and her work, he concludes, “She wasn’t trying to poke fun at anything, or show off her cynicism. She was looking for something in her parent’s religion that she could accept.”[3]

Ria’s tentative grasp of her work reveals the anxiety many young artists feel around religious themes. “Once upon a time,” Elkins writes, “—but really, in every place and every time—art was religious.”[4] We know, of course, this is no longer true. The Enlightenment, the Reformation, modernism, postmodernism—all played their part in estranging art from religion. This happened slowly at first, then, seemingly, all at once. Disillusioned by the Holocaust and Hiroshima, then secularized by the “project of modernism” the 1960s and ’70s, contemporary culture has evolved to a point where the “word religion … can no longer be coupled with the driving ideas of art.”[5] For artists seeking a place within the mainstream art world, this fact has left little latitude for their work to encounter the sacred.[6]

The anecdote about Ria points to another fact, however. Not only does religion occupy a strange place in contemporary art, contemporary art also has expanded the interpretation and application of traditional Christian forms beyond their original ecclesial contexts. This has been especially true of the Stations of the Cross. As an artistic motif, the Stations navigate between church and gallery by surrendering the traditional form while retaining the rich connotations of the underlying narrative. The reinterpretations traverse boundaries and expand upon the ritual’s numinous core.

From Traditional to Non-Traditional Readings

The origins of the Stations of the Cross trace back to the time of Constantine in fourth-century Jerusalem, where Christian pilgrims visited holy sites associated with Christ’s Passion. By the twelfth century, these and other sites formed a settled route of European pilgrimage, and in time the practice was established of walking the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrows,” observing significant points between Pilate’s court and Mount Calvary. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, reproductions of the Way were constructed in Europe at outdoor sites that themselves became pilgrimage destinations. Stations became common inside churches by the end of the seventeenth century, where their use was associated with the granting of indulgences (as they still are). The number and designation of the Stations followed local customs, ranging from as few as eleven to upwards to thirty-seven. It is not certain how the number or configuration we know today was fixed.[7]

For the faithful, walking the Stations of the Cross during Lent is a personal pilgrimage of reflection and penance. While the devotion need not include a pictorial component (all that is required is a wooden cross at each station), the familiar tableaux have come to define the practice. The visual drama of the stations, whether naturalistic or stylized, is meant to stimulate empathic participation in Christ’s suffering. In a sense, each of the fourteen representations functions as a kind of time machine—one looks not at but through them to the historical events of the Passion. Modern artists work to undo this illusion. Their art is always resolutely in the present; it demands a very different conceptual engagement, situating both the viewer and the Stations in a liminal space between ritual and motif.

In 1951, Matisse achieved just this shift with a Stations he produced for a chapel in the south of France. Seven years later, Barnett Newman took on the subject again with the first of fourteen canvases for his series The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, which was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. Countless artists have treated the subject since: elite names like sculptor Michael Kenny, painter Francesco Clemente, theater-artist Robert Wilson, and those unknown many like Ria, most of whom, it’s fair to say, out of aesthetic and cultural motives not related to the Stations’ original purpose. Some, like Wilson, neutralize the religiosity; others find in the Stations a secularly-safe way to engage the divine. The Stations of the Cross have evolved into a container for nearly any inquiry—formal, social, political, or metaphysical.

What follows is a consideration of four artists’ readings of the Stations. First, we will look more closely at the breakthroughs of Matisse and Newman, two seminal examples of the Stations from the twentieth century. In light of their influence, we will then turn to two artists working today: a New Zealand Catholic nun and painter for whom the Stations retain their religious importance, and a New York art photographer who found in the Via Crucis an expression of the sufferings outside his window.

Matisse: The Vence Chapel

Matisse’s commission in the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, illustrates the Stations’ expansiveness. In 1947, the painter was approached to design the chapel’s interior by one of the Dominican sisters for whom it was constructed. Matisse, in his 70s at the time, had met Sister Jacques-Marie years earlier when, as the twenty-one-year old Monique Bourgeous, she became his nurse and confidant, and later his model and student. His paternal affection for the nun convinced him to take on the project he would later call his masterpiece. Matisse designed everything in the chapel, from its glorious stained glass windows and portraits of St. Dominic and the Virgin and Child, to the altar, vestments, liturgical objects, even the confessional door.

The Stations [Fig. 1] occupy the chapel’s back wall in a grid-like composition on white ceramic tiles, six-and-a-half feet high by thirteen feet wide, containing three rows of drawings. One reads Matisse’s Stations from bottom to top, beginning in the lower left and tracing a course like an S. There is no outward journey the viewer must make in order to pass from one station to the next. The pilgrimage these Stations invite is entirely within the viewer.

View of the Nave, Stained Glass Side Window and Stations of the Cross in the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, 1948-51 (stained glass & ceramic tile)

Fig. 1: View of the Nave, Stained-Glass Side Window and Stations of the Cross in the Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France, 194851 (stained glass and ceramic tile), Matisse, Henri (1869-1954) / Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France / © 2015 Succession H. Matisse /DACS, London / Bridgeman Images*

In a letter to the priest in charge of the project, Matisse called the Stations “a great achievement for me,” yet allowed they would “dismay most people who see it”[8] for the simplicity of their depiction. “Simplicity” hardly captures the effect; “graffiti-like,”[9] is how one critic saw the stark, schematic figures Matisse created with a stick of charcoal on the end of a bamboo pole. Patricia Hampl described the pathos of the work as “pained, scratching its way to Golgotha.”[10] “The drawing is rough, very rough,” Matisse confirmed in his letter to the priest, “God held my hand.”[11]

I have long admired Matisse’s drawings, yet I admit that at first his Stations left me unsettled. I passed through three stages of discernment before I comprehended the work as the masterpiece I now believe it is. Initially, I considered the composition as a whole, surveying it like a map—establishing coordinates, reckoning the number system, identifying individual landmarks to anchor me in the scene. Then I looked critically at the separate depictions, debating whether Matisse’s drawings were the work of a genius or the marks of an old man. They reveal either the weakened capacity of a hand compromised by age, or the gestural freedom of a seasoned master. (I learned later that Matisse created a series of finely detailed preliminary drawings that he ultimately rejected.)  Finally, surveying the chapel overall, and observing the sublime balance of each detail between reverence and beauty, praise and surprise, all suspicions crumbled. I turned to the Stations a third time. Their deep compassion toward suffering drew me all the way in, opening my perception to the vastness that Matisse in his epistle described as the “great drama … interwoven around the Crucifixion, which has taken on a dreamlike dimension.” [12]

Newman: Lema Sabachthani

Barnett Newman achieved one of art’s most profound interpretations of the Passion with his The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani. Newman was part of that formidable generation of abstract painters who raised American art to international dominance after 1945, in the related styles of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting. His best-known canvases typically feature broad vertical bands broken by contrasting stripes or “zips” extending from top to bottom. Newman’s art makes frequent allusions to his Judaism and Jewish mysticism, roots that run deep even in the fourteen black and white minimalist paintings titled for the Christian Stations and evoking the most dramatic cry of the New Testament.

Stations of the Cross, in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, is made up of fourteen raw canvases, each six-and-a-half by five feet, painted with vertical passages of black or white paint and dark or light zips. The series’ monochrome starkness is at once unsettling and contemplative. Its subject, observed art historian Jane Dillenberger, is “the individual’s encounter with God.”[13] This encounter, Newman wrote in the catalogue for his 1966 Guggenheim exhibition, takes place with the last agonized words of Christ:

Lema Sabachthani—why? Why did you forsake me? . . . To what purpose? Why? . . . This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no complaint. . . . This overwhelming question . . . has been with us so long—since Jesus—since Abraham—since Adam—the original question.”[14]

Newman places the Station’s meaning in the cesura between Christ’s crucifixion and death, in an instant when God’s grace can no longer be assumed. By removing the Passion’s visual markers, the painter—like Elkins’s MFA sculptor—erases “the terrible walk” and replaces it with a meditation on the Stations themselves. “Can the Passion be expressed by a series of anecdotes, by fourteen sentimental illustrations?” Newman insisted in the catalogue. “Do not the stations tell of one event?”[15] As Matisse transformed the Stations from literal to expressive, so Newman remade them from a drama with fourteen scenes to a poem of fourteen lines, a sonnet of existential suffering.[16]

Horn and Michalek: Transformational journeys

Following Matisse and Newman, artists saw their task—and their opportunity—as one of remaking the Stations with each new iteration. I met Mary Horn, a painter and Dominican sister in Oamaru on the South Island of New Zealand, in 2010, not long after she had completed her own Stations of the Cross. [Fig. 2] She had been contemplating a set of Stations in the chapel beside her home, to replace traditional views painted a century earlier by four Dominican nuns. “I wondered what I would do in this new century to speak to people of our time,” she explained of her own work. “This series is simpler and more intimate and somehow speaks not just of the Jesus journey but our journeys, where we encounter many different deaths, and are supported by others, or have to endure alone what is happening in our life.”[17]

MaryHorn_VI-VII-700px[1]

Fig. 2: Mary Horn, Station VI: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus and Station VII: Jesus Falls the Second Time, from Stations of the Cross, 2010. Images courtesy of the artist.

Like Matisse, Horn simplified the figures in her Stations, stripping them of specificity to underscore their common humanity. The paintings, she avers, speak not only of the Passion but of the 9/11 attacks, that “unspeakable journey that affected us all,” and the suffering that has followed in the years since. “The ‘Way of the Cross’ speaks a hope for us all in the midst of such human-created devastation on so many levels,” she observed. For her, as an artist and a religious, painting is both a form of prayer and mission. “Does art change my idea of God? The short answer for me is yes —a new time requires different images.”[18]

The universality that Horn identifies does not need to be couched in religious terms. Yet the Stations are adaptable to many instances of suffering, particularly those of the individual struggling against authority. This was photographer David Michalek’s conception for his 2002 14 Stations. [Fig 3]  Michalek produced the series in collaboration with formerly homeless men and women affiliated with the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing (IAHH), a non-profit organization located at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Their Stations re-vision the motif as a narrative of deprivation and kindness, redemption and death, among the urban homeless.

Michalek Station 6-ScreenShot

Michalek Installation_Emmanuel Church, Boston-ScreenShot

Fig. 3: David Michalek, Station Six, from Fourteen Stations, 2002, and the series as installed in Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Boston. Images courtesy of the artist.

The work’s central trope, Michalek said in a recent interview, insists that the suffering of the Stations, “is not necessarily in some faraway place, but on your own street corner . . . . This led us to the idea that our Via Crucis would become emblematic not of one man’s walk, of one historical moment, but the walk of all humanity.”[19] Michalek worked with the AIHH members to conceive and reenact episodes from the Stations based on their stories of living on the street.

The artist, who was familiar with the Stations from his Catholic upbringing, used them as “starting points that could become metaphorically expansive.” As an example, Michalek cited Stations IV, V, and VI, in which Jesus meets his mother, then Simon of Cyrene, who helps carry the cross, and finally Veronica, who wipes his face. “These three encounters seemed similar and quite different,” Michalek said, prompting the group to design tableaus around the theme of Christian caritas. “The embrace of the mother is an encounter of unconditional love. Simon is an encounter of a friend who helps get you back on your feet. And Veronica is the example of loving kindness. We asked, ‘How can we fill in the themes with personal experience?’ and from there built the images.”[20]

The resulting tableaux reflected an ethos less of Old Master paintings than photojournalism and street photography. The large images, typically displayed in light boxes, have been shown at the Brooklyn Museum, Yale Divinity School, and other venues. They have also hung in churches, including the nave of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston, an installation that blurred the lines between exhibition and devotion. “The work can live very easily in a church, and people who know how to use the Stations can use these Stations,” said Michalek. “Yet if you come from a different faith tradition, it can still communicate a lot of the ideas essential to the original form without being tied to the dogma.”[21]

Conclusion

The art of Horn and Michalek, like that of Matisse, Newman, and even, in her way, the art student Ria, provide new readings of the Stations. They present various ways the devotion may be reinterpreted, recast, or repurposed; they offer sides of a crystal with as many facets as there are artists. In taking the Stations from familiar shores of tradition, do alternate interpretations undermine the ritual’s religious nature? An analogy from Thomas Aquinas may help answer the question. In reading scripture, Thomas argues, one goes beyond the text’s literal sense to its “spiritual senses,” meanings which flesh out the historical narrative with moral and spiritual implications. Alternative readings are salutary not for their sake alone, the theologian believed; they are a kind of excursion that brings the reader back to the literal word with deeper comprehension. T.S. Eliot expressed this same effect in Four Quartets, assuring us that

“…the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”[22]

Artists rouse us from assumptions and challenge expectations; their new readings increase the resonance of the Stations. Looking beyond the traditional Lenten ritual can lead us, paradoxically, closer to the Passion.

 


Timothy D. Cahill is a cultural journalist and commentator. He was arts correspondent and photography critic for The Christian Science Monitor and a Fellow of the PEW National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. In 2008, he founded a nonprofit initiative to promote the engagement of contemporary art with values of compassion ethics, work that led him to deeper questions of aesthetics, philosophies of virtue, and theology. Prompted by these efforts, he enrolled at the ISM and Yale Divinity School to pursue a master’s degree in Religion and the Arts. He is a candidate for graduation in 2016.

FOOTNOTES

[1]   James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004), 34–35.

[2]   Ibid., 35.

[3]   Ibid., 77.

[4]   Ibid., 5.

[5]   Ibid., xi.

[6]   Needing to draw borders around the elusive term “fine art,” Elkins settles on the “institutional definition” of the art world, i.e., that work “exhibited in galleries in major cities, bought by museums of contemporary art, shown in biennales and the Documenta, and written about in periodicals such as Artforum, October, Flash Art,” etc., to which he adds work engendered by top MFA programs and prioritized by leading scholars in the history of art.

[7]   The traditional fourteen Stations depict scenes from the gospels and incidents from outside scripture (i.e., the three falls and the encounter with Veronica). Typically designated with roman numerals, the Stations are: I. Jesus is condemned to death; II. Jesus carries his cross; III. Jesus falls the first time; IV. Jesus meets his mother; V. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross; VI. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; VII. Jesus falls the second time; VIII. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem; IX. Jesus falls the third time; X. Jesus is stripped of his clothes; XI. Jesus is nailed to the cross; XII. Jesus dies; XIII. Jesus is taken down from the cross; XIV. Jesus is laid in the tomb. For a detailed history of the Stations, see the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.

[8]   “Matisse to Father Couturier, 27 February 1950,” in Henri Matisse, Marcel Billot, Michael Taylor (trans.), The Vence Chapel: The Archive of a Creation, (Milan: Skira Editore; Houston: Menil Foundation, 1999), 303.

[9]   Alastair Sooke, “How Henri Matisse created his masterpiece.

[10] Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006), 200.

[11]  Matisse, et al., 303.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Jane Dillenberger, Image and Spirit In Sacred and Secular Art (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 104.

[14]  Barnett Newman, Barnett Newman—The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1966), 9.

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  A fifteenth painting, Be II, was exhibited by Newman at the Guggenheim show and has been seen with the Stations of the Cross ever since. Containing a thin band of red along its left edge, it is both a contrast and a companion to the black and white Stations; scholars debate as to whether it should be considered part of the cycle or not. There are those who contend a fifteenth station should be added to the Via Crucis depicting Christ’s resurrection; the question of affinity between the proposed additional station and Newman’s Be II is also subject to interpretation.

[17]  Statement from personal correspondence with author, February 2015.

[18]  Ibid.

[19]  Interview with author, February 2015.

[20] Ibid.

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  From “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 19091962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 222.

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This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Recommended Citation: Cahill, Timothy. (2015) “Rereading the Stations of the Cross through Art,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 10. Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Rereading the Stations of the Cross through Art

*Reproduction, including downloading of Henri Matisse works, is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York.

On the Cover

 ISMRCOVER

Threnos (Lamentation), 1164, fresco in the Church of St. Panteleimon, Nerezi, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Photo © 2012 by Philip Truax (M.Div. ’13). Licensed for academic use only.


Cover design: Maura Gianakos, Yale Printing & Publishing Services

Acoustic Challenges in Worship-Space Design

Worship is a multisensory activity, employing sights, sounds, scents, and tastes that immerse individuals in both personal devotion and communal action. Particularly during sung and spoken parts of a service, the assembly actively participates together in prayer and praise. This shared experience of speech and song builds community and draws all into the closer presence of God and of each other. Song gives an added dimension and artistic rendition to texts. It has the capacity to connect worshipers not only with each other in the here and now, but also with others across time and space.

For song to happen during worship, a great company of individuals must contribute to the interaction. These include not only the worshipers and leaders joined together at the moment in a hymn, psalm, or canticle on any given Sunday. The great company also includes composers, text-writers and poets, printers, publishers and editors, instrumentalists, singers and directors, instrument makers and tuners. These and a host of others all have added their contribution, even from across decades, so that a hymn can be sung in the great “today” of the liturgy.

Why Buildings Matter

A key element in giving life and vitality to song and to creating an environment that invites and encourages all to sing (even those who may be reticent) is the architectural-acoustical space that envelopes assembled worshipers. An architectural environment and its acoustical character can inhibit or encourage song. An environment that distributes sound energy evenly throughout a room and that has a reverberation period that blends sound energy and allows all participants to hear each other can inspire and magnify song. It opens up new dimensions of participation. An environment that obstructs, separates, and absorbs sound energy away from the assembly, on the other hand, can stifle, dampen, and deaden the song, even of those most inclined to enthusiastic participation.

The creative designs of architects and acousticians thus have the potential to make music and song an inspiring, community-building part of worship. The geometric form and size of a room, the location of furnishings, instruments, and people, and the interior finish materials (sound-absorbing, -reflecting, or -diffusing) all contribute to the success or failure of song-supportive acoustics. Long and tall “shoe-box”- shaped rooms with generous cubic-air volumes remain key ingredients in acoustic success [see Figure 1]. Round, conical, “fan,” pyramidal, and square geometric forms with limited air volumes are typically not conducive to good song and participatory acoustics. The placement of musical instruments, leaders, and assembly, so that sound can be projected directly and without obstruction to and from all, is also important to acoustic success. An appropriate ratio of sound-reflective and sound-diffusing materials in a room for a “live” reverberation is also necessary, as is the absence of intruding noise and acoustic anomalies. Given these many variables, the task of achieving a good architectural and acoustic design can be difficult. In addition, there are often societal and functional challenges to achieving a song-supportive worship space today.

Figure 1: Christ Presbyterian Church, Madison, Wisconsin

Example of a well-proportioned geometric form and air volume. Interior-finish surfaces are primarily reflective and diffusive of sound, with an approximate 2.0-second reverberation period that enables liturgical song. Ensembles that lead music in both traditional and contemporary styles sound originate on the long axis of the room.

View toward Chancel
View toward Chancel
View toward Traditional Music Gallery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Negotiating the Challenges

The first challenge may be the apparently reduced societal interest and aptitude for involvement in song. Communal singing, in either secular or sacred settings, is less frequent today than it was in our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Music is more often heard and observed than participated in. The public even seems to have difficulty singing “Happy Birthday” in tune! Music education is often one of the first victims of school budget cuts. Given these realities, it is essential that the church find ways to support and enhance the song of the faithful. The biblical directive to “sing unto the Lord” is clear, and the inspirational and community-building benefits of group singing and speech during worship are obvious. Communities that fail to support worship and song with commodious architectural and acoustic environments place the heritage and future of corporate worship at risk. Mary sang when her cousin Elizabeth greeted her as “blessed.” The angelic host sang at Jesus’ birth. The angels sing around the throne of heaven. The disciples sang a hymn before they went out. We must do likewise.

Another challenge is the current nature of congregational song itself. The standard and traditional hymn form, while very much alive and well, is not the only musical style used in worship by many congregations today. Gospel, spiritual, contemporary, jazz, ethnic, and call-and-response, are but a few of the musical forms used in worship — often by the same congregation in the same building and during the same service. The diversity of styles, instrumentation, and tempi represented in congregational song today become scientific and design challenges. Although the goal of facilitating musical participation by the assembly remains the same across the stylistic soundscape, the reality is that these musical types require different reverberation periods and settings for best rendition. Up-tempo and percussive music will need shorter reverberation periods, while melodic and organ-oriented hymnody is best with generous reverberation periods. Some instruments are “acoustic” and resonate with air, such as organ pipes, strings, woodwinds, and brass. Other instruments, such as electric guitars and keyboards, require electronic systems to create tone. Variable environments, with movable sound-reflective or sound-absorptive features that can shorten or lengthen the reverberation period in a room and shift the distribution and diffusion of sound, are helpful tools in meeting diverse musical and acoustic needs in a room [see Figure 2].

Figure 2: The Community Church of Vero Beach, Florida

Wall and ceiling treatments are primarily sound-reflective and sound-diffusing, so that the room is supportive of congregational song. Retractable draperies increase or decrease the reverberation period to tailor the room to different musical styles and occupancy rates. 

Acoustic Drapery Retracted
Acoustic Drapery Exposed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Negotiating the Challenges

Lack of understanding or appreciation and funding challenges can often work against supportive architectural and acoustic settings for worship. Attitudes such as “It doesn’t matter. Who can hear or appreciate good or bad acoustics anyway?” or “Good acoustics are for the Carnegie Hall crowd, not for us” or “It only needs to be ‘good enough for church’” all lead to less than noble or functional worship spaces. The fact is that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. The worship of the Lord should receive “first fruits.” Lost opportunities do matter and can be harmful by diminishing inspiration and not being inviting. The reactions and future choices of a visitor or “seeker” at worship can be significantly influenced either by dull and lifeless, or by vibrant and active liturgy and song. Long-term church members may not be able to verbalize their reactions to liturgical song, but dull or vibrant perceptions indeed have an effect. It may be easier to exclude these factors from building budgets because acoustics, music, and liturgical song are ephemeral, unlike bricks and mortar.

A common current practice is that of “value engineering” a design after a project price quotation is received. To lower project costs, under a “value engineering” plan, apparently unnecessary features are skimmed away from a design. The thick and dense gypsum board walls that reinforce low-frequency sound energy, the hard-surface flooring that aids in reverberation, and the lined HVAC ducts that suppress background noise might be replaced with lower-cost thin walls, carpeted floors, and hard ducts. The result is a room that has poor musical presence, suppresses liturgical song, and magnifies unwanted noise. While realistic budgets are essential, so is the need for a worship environment that meets its functional goals.

Inappropriate reliance on technology can also create challenges to congregational song. A worship space might be viewed mistakenly as only a lecture and concert hall, where the single acoustic goal is to deliver electronically reinforced speech and music to the “audience” in the “auditorium.” Extensive systems can be designed and installed to accomplish high-energy sound projection. To be sure, the speech of sermon, lessons, prayers, and instrumental and vocal music must be well presented to worshipers. Often forgotten in this approach, however, is the fact that the congregation’s interaction in liturgy and song is fundamental to worship and community. The members of the assembly must hear each other well and not be only recipients of spoken and sung presentations [see Figure 3]. Further, the assembly must not be overwhelmed by excessive amounts of “lead” sound during their participation. While electronic room-reverberation simulation technologies have been invented, these systems cannot replace the truthful sounds of human voices traveling, blending, and reinforcing each other in the life-giving air of a reverberant architectural space. More speakers and microphones cannot supplant human interaction and participation.

Figure 3: Harvey Brown Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Kentucky (second photo by Eric Wolfram)

Reverberation period was too low and singing diminished before renovations; carpeted flooring and soft-wood ceiling materials absorbed sound energy even though the geometric form and air volume were good. The building redesign with hard-surface flooring and sound-reflective ceiling treatments increased the reverberation period to be song-supportive. Pews are now canted to draw worshipers together.

Before
After

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Practices

What are the architectural and acoustic factors that enable and enhance the song of God’s people at worship? Important ingredients, in appropriate proportion and relationship, include:

  • A generous cubic air volume
  • An enhancing and enveloping geometric building form
  • Good proximity and location of worshipers, leaders, musicians, instruments, and furnishings
  • An appropriate ratio of sound-reflective and sound-diffusive interior finish materials and surfaces
  • The control and absence of interrupting noise and acoustic anomalies
  • Appropriate use of electronic technologies
  • A means and methodology of accommodating differing musical styles and forms within the same room
  • Realistic project goals and budgets
  • A keen appreciation of corporate worship, prayer, praise and song as a prized heritage, present gift, and future investment for a community.

Whatever the size of a worship space or the stylistic music leanings of a faith community, there is a fundamental biblical and liturgical need for worshipers to participate together in song. The architectural and acoustical design details that facilitate this participation are what distinguish a worship space from other places of public assembly. In the worship space the assembled faithful are not just receivers and observers of speech and music; they are active participants in sung and spoken liturgy. It is therefore a high priority to design a worship environment that has the capacity to support and encourage the singing of all. Recognition of this priority, and careful attention to the acoustic-design factors described above, can result in functional, elegant, innovative, and inspirational environments that encourage faith communities to worship with songs of prayer and praise.

 


Scott R. Riedel is president of Scott R. Riedel & Associates, Ltd., an acoustics and organ design consultation firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (www.riedelassociates.com), specializing in sacred space projects nationwide. He has served as Organist-Choirmaster for Lutheran and Episcopal parishes, and taught the course, “Science of Acoustics,” at Columbia College in Chicago. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Architecture and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. His memberships and/or leadership positions include the American Guild of Organists, Royal School of Church Music, British Institute of Organ Studies, Acoustical Society of America, and American Institute of Architects.
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This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Except where noted, all photos by Scott Riedel.

Recommended Citation: Riedel, Scott R. (2014) “Acoustic Challenges in Worship Space Design,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 16.
Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu/

View article as a PDF: Acoustic Challenges in Worship Space Design

Song Whose Beauty Deepens Prayer

This article is abbreviated and emended from Thomas Troeger, “Afterword,” in Song that Blesses Earth: Hymn Texts, Carols and Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).*


When and how does a hymn text deepen a community’s prayer? When not and why? We do not answer these questions in a vacuum but from a consciousness that has been shaped by a multitude of different forces. Theological convictions, literary tastes, cultural biases, the music of language as we have absorbed it throughout our lives, the impact of new knowledge and ways of understanding the world, the vividness of our imaginations, the song that has nurtured our faith, and the ethos of our home worshiping communities — all these and more shape the critical sensibilities with which we respond to hymn texts. In some of these realms we may share substantial common ground, but in others the landscape of our hearts will have very different contours and features.

It is easy to take the contextual forces that shape our values and standards for granted, especially if we have grown up singing hymns from a particular book. There is something finished and solid about a hymnal, as though its contents were a collection of fixed pieces, as immoveable as the skeletal structure of fossils. The resistance that new hymns and new hymnals encounter in many churches gives witness to this misperception of what in fact is a spirited history, often reflecting, as Eric Routley points out, the theological turbulence that has marked the church’s story:

Periods when somebody somewhere is tearing up the turf and asking questions and organizing rebellions and reconstructing disciplines produce hymns: when the steam goes out of such movements, or they become part of an expanded main stream, hymn writing goes on in a more tranquil way, but never for very long. Another colour is added to the picture by another ‘movement,’ and that movement brings new hymns and new kinds of hymn into the repertory.[1]

Routley’s insight about the dynamic character of hymnody illuminates our contemporary situation. We live in a period when many people in many places are “tearing up the turf and asking questions and organizing rebellions and reconstructing disciplines.” David Mahan states the challenge in broad but succinct terms: “How can the Church revitalize its speech in such manner that its own language regains a foothold in the discourses of the public square and, indeed, in the imagination of late-modern audiences, such that the gospel once more becomes intelligible as well as compelling to them?”[2] Mahan raises the question while examining the work of three poets who strive to achieve an idiom that bears fruitful witness to the gospel now, but it applies with equal force to hymn writers. Mahan describes how daunting the task is, quoting Geoffrey Hill’s vivid phrase, “the acoustical din that surrounds us all,”[3] and acknowledging in his own words: “So vast and so demanding are the challenges now facing the witnessing Church in its late-modern contexts that all variety of resources of language and of the imaginative intelligence should be marshaled for this decidedly public enterprise we call theology.”[4]

Summoning the “resources of language and of the imaginative intelligence” to break through “the acoustical din,” hymn writers might choose to use exclusively the idiom of the world as we know it now — its societal fragmentation, its cultural diversity and conflict, its cosmological vastness. Or hymnists might assume the coherence of the faith-world that fed earlier generations of poets, cultivating the vineyard of images and understandings that have sustained the church’s song through the centuries. Or the hymn writer might combine them both, drawing upon our global and scientific vision to expand the perimeters of tradition, and using tradition as a source of wisdom and revelation that deepen the meaning of our contemporary life. It is this latter, integrative approach that I have chosen. My desire to fuse tradition and innovation manifests itself in the three major criteria by which I judge my own work as well as that of others: musicality, structure and meaning, theological depth. I believe these to be the qualities that make for song whose beauty deepens prayer.

Although the music of language and the music of song and instrumental performance are not identical, they are related. What Seamus Heaney hopes for his poetry would resonate with the aspiration of many composers. Heaney writes that his “effort is to repose in the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds.”[5] A rigidly theological mind may find this too esthetic for the writing of hymns, asking: does not right doctrine and clear theological thought take precedence over “a musically satisfying order of sounds?” The question assumes an over-simplified understanding of how theology is manifest through the confluence of language, singing, and instrumental accompaniment when hymns are used in worship. I can illustrate this with an e-mail exchange that preceded my writing a hymn for a church’s anniversary celebration. The congregation wanted a new text that could be sung to a traditional setting, but they were still trying to settle on what the setting would be. Both of the e-mails were written by the pastor prior to my beginning work on the poem, and although she included helpful history and news about the congregation that would influence my creation of the text, I find it revealing how she discusses the musical sound that she has in her head for the church’s anniversary hymn:

I am drawn to the grand tunes but, after hearing a little more about our story, you may have other suggestions. Grosser Gott, wir loben dich is another strong tune that is only used once in the Presbyterian Hymnal. Depending upon how it is played, it seems to me it can be placed in a number of positions in worship. Andy [the church musician] and I will play through some possibilities on Monday.

The pastor demonstrates an awareness of the complex interrelationship between language and music: she acknowledges that, once I learn about the congregation’s story, it may touch off a different sound in my head. She later wrote me again after she and the musician had chosen the setting to which they wanted me to compose their anniversary hymn text:

The one we decided upon is Grosser Gott, wir loben dich. It does not necessarily fit the hymn placement after the sermon, although no hymn can be ruled out, but it serves well as an opening and closing hymn. I realize that it is a fairly grand setting — but it will fit well into our space and we have the organ to support it. In addition, on our Anniversary Sunday we will have timpani, violin (and one more instrument which I don’t remember) — all Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra players — with which to introduce the hymn.

Consider the number of factors that went into this decision: the tonal character of the music (“a fairly grand setting”), the flow of the liturgy (“the hymn placement” in the service), the church’s nave where it would be sung (“it will fit well into our space”), and the varied instrumental accompaniment (“the organ to support it” and members of the Symphony Orchestra “to introduce the hymn”). All of this preceded the writing of the text, and all of it rumbled around in my heart — “grand” musical sound, architectonic space, organ, timpani and violin — as I worked to create a hymn that opens:

Every planet, star and stone,

every atom charged and spinning,

every cell of blood and bone

trace to you, God, their beginning.

To exist in time and space

is itself a gift of grace.

After several drafts, I chose this opening stanza because the simple words, the ring of the rhymes, and the rhythm of the poetry produce to my ear the kind of “grand” sound that the pastor described in her e-mails. To quote Seamus Heaney again, I found in it “the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds” as well as theology I could offer with conviction.

I consistently raise two questions about a hymn’s structure and meaning, the second major category of my critical criteria: Does the hymn take us somewhere, gathering momentum from stanza to stanza? Is there immediately accessible meaning that will stand up to repeated singing and deeper reflection over time?

Although I find singing cyclic congregational song, for example, music of the Taizé community, prayerful and moving, I am drawn as a hymnpoet to creating sequential hymns. Sequential hymns put forth an argument or narrative line or poetic conceit that progresses from stanza to stanza.[6] I strive for a sense of development whose meaning is comprehensible upon first singing, yet rich enough to bear repetition and to produce new insights upon closer reading. In the words of Christian Wiman, I hope to attain “a surface clarity without sacrificing depth or complexity.”[7]

Because Christ teaches that the Spirit will guide us “into all the truth” (John 16:13a), theology can never be satisfied by confining itself to the Bible. We have to ask: Where is the Spirit leading us now? What reveals the Spirit? What blocks the Spirit? These are questions of theological depth, my third criterion for judging hymn texts. Edwin Muir helps me understand why such depth is an essential antidote to the distortions of our technologically obsessed culture. Over fifty years ago he traced the malaise of our culture to its “lopsided development”:

Something in the apparent progression [of ever-expanding human knowledge] has not progressed; for myself I would call it the imagination which would have made us able to use for purely human purposes all that applied science offers us. A lopsided development, whether of the body or the mind, is a diseased development, and is bound to lead to strange and unpredictable results…. What we are troubled by is the sense that science has run on far ahead of us, and that we are without the wisdom to use for our good the enormous power which it drops in passing into our hands.[8]

The “lopsided development” includes a neglect of theological depth, of what has been variously called through the centuries: mystery, wonder, spirit, God, the holy, the transcendent, the numinous. Writing new hymns in an era of “lopsided development” seems a modest effort at correcting its distortions. Nevertheless, it is a witness to the resurrection, to the way God disrupts the suffocating assumption that human thought and accomplishment define the boundaries of reality. The risen Christ, then, is the ultimate source of song that deepens prayer:

The risen Christ disturbed

far more than earth and stone.

Christ crumbled certainties inferred

from all that’s fixed and known:

the “facts” that we’ve defined —

that life is pulse and breath,

that wisdom is a heart resigned

to finitude and death.

 

Christ opens to surprise

the truth we presupposed:

accepted thought that calcifies

and views the world as closed.

Divine vitalities

from God’s deep heart and core

rise up with Christ as energies,

alive forevermore.

 

Refreshing, buoyant streams,

they lift our mind and heart

to look beyond our plots and schemes

to where God’s visions start:

inside an empty tomb

where dawn dispels the night

and earth becomes the holy womb

of newborn life and light.[9]

 


 

Thomas H. Troeger studied to become a flutist, but under the impact of a great preacher, he decided to prepare for the ministry. A pastor for seven years, he then began teaching homiletics, hymnody, and liturgics. His scholarship has focused on the role of the imagination in preaching and worship, and his creative work includes hymns and lyric poems. He is the Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Erik Routley, Christian Hymns Observed: When in Our Music God Is Glorified (Princeton, NJ: Prestige Publications, 1982), p. 6.

[2] David C. Mahan, An Unexpected Light: Theology and Witness in the Poetry and Thought of Charles Williams, Michael O’Siadhail, and Geoffery Hill (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2009), p. 210.

[3] Mahan, p. 164

[4] Mahan, p. 221.

[5] Seamus Heaney, Crediting Poetry (Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland: The Gallery Press, 1995), p. 28.

[6] For a very helpful discussion of the difference between cyclic and sequential congregational song see C. Michael Hawn, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), pp. 224–240.

[7] Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2007), p. 203.

[8] Edwin Muir, The Estate of Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 85.

[9] Troeger, Song that Blesses Earth.

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