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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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

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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