At St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Trumbull, Connecticut, a new marble and bronze tabernacle was placed on center, a carved limestone and marble retablo was added, and a new freestanding marble altar with a bronze reliquary grille holds a relic of the church’s patroness. Photo credits: Before, Duncan G. Stroik, architect. After, Francis Dzikowski

Shadows of the Heavenly Sanctuary

Tips for bringing sacred beauty to our churches

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“Since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us” (Heb 10:19-20). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews uses salvation history to illuminate the New Covenant instituted by Christ, whose sacrifice on the cross fulfills the imperfect worship of the Old Covenant, which had foreshadowed and prepared the way for the new. It can help us understand aspects of the worship that we participate in now — and how the design of churches should relate to that worship.

Looking back to ancient Israel, the Book of Exodus recounts the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After 400 years of slavery, God chooses Moses to lead the people across the Red Sea and toward the Promised Land. On the way, they spend 40 years wandering in the desert. In this interim period, the Lord reveals his law to Moses in the Ten Commandments, only for Moses to immediately find the people worshipping a false idol, the golden calf. They have been taken out of physical slavery, but they are still enslaved by the worship of false gods. To free the people from this interior slavery, the Lord reveals the rituals of worship that should be offered to him, the one true God.

First, the Ark of Covenant is built according to the dimensions and materials prescribed by God. The ark holds the sacred objects of the Israelites: the miraculous manna from heaven, the staff of Aaron the high priest, and the tablets with the Ten Commandments. Next, a tabernacle, or tent of meeting, was erected to shelter the Ark of the Covenant and to give the priests a place to offer sacrifice.

A renovation of the sanctuary of St. Augustine Cathedral in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The tabernacle was returned from a side chapel to be on the central axis again and a new raised freestanding marble altar and baldacchino were added. A new marble ambo and new cathedra for the bishop were also added. Photo credits: Before and after, Duncan G. Stroik, architect

Later in the history of the Israelites, we again see God directing a building project — the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a permanent version of the desert tents with an inner sanctuary known as the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Rich materials and decoration were used.

These sections of the Old Testament reveal that the Lord is not indifferent about the details of worship and show us that getting the design of the place of worship right has a great impact on how that worship is carried out and the effect it has on participants. The sacred objects in Israel were treated with reverence because they were holy, and also to teach the people that these objects were worthy of reverence.

In this age of the New Covenant, the design of Christian churches is rooted in the same principles — giving prominence to what is holy and communicating reverence and transcendence through architecture. Styles have changed and developed over time and even been varied by region in the Church’s 2,000-year history, but the great tradition shows a continuity of the elements and arrangement of a church. There is a consistent focus on beauty and using the highest quality artwork and materials.

Some priests in the United States today are fortunate to have churches that are within this great tradition, many built by poor immigrant communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A great number of priests, however, find themselves in churches that are less than traditional and less than beautiful. What are these pastors to do? On a rare occasion, he may have the budget of King Solomon and be able to carry out an extensive renovation — or even replacement — of the church. But for those who cannot, can he at least make modest improvements? What should the priorities be for a partial renovation? I believe that this is possible and offer a few suggestions here.


Tabernacle Beautification

First, consider the layout of the sanctuary. It is meant to emphasize the most sacred objects within the church — the tabernacle and altar — by placing them on the central axis. If either the altar or the tabernacle is not in the center, moving them there should be a priority. If the materials or design of the altar and tabernacle are not worthy of a church, these should be the first items to consider replacing.

The tabernacle is the new Ark of the Covenant. It contains the holy Eucharist, the physical presence of the Lord that was foreshadowed by the sacred objects of the Israelites. In America, tabernacles have traditionally been constructed of some type of bronze, especially the doors.

However, in many Renaissance churches, the tabernacle is a small marble doorway placed on the wall, while in many Baroque churches there is a tradition of integrating it as one part of the marble altar. There are examples in Europe of beautiful tabernacles made of natural or painted wood, gold and silver, sometimes with inlaid precious jewels. In general, a tabernacle should be in keeping with the design of the altar, but this does not prevent it from being more ornate than other elements in the church. As one of the smallest liturgical elements in the church, it can be argued that the tabernacle deserves particular emphasis, articulation and the finest materials.


‘New Church, New Altar’

bookThe dedication of a new church or altar is a rare event that few Catholic faithful and clergy are privileged to experience. When it happens, people have questions about the history, spirituality and practical aspects of this amazing liturgy. This is where Father Paul Turner’s book New Church, New Altar: A Commentary on the Order of Dedication of a Church and an Altar (Liturgical Press, $24.95) will help parish leadership celebrate this rite with greater understanding.

The book covers the elements of the Roman Pontifical: laying the foundation stone, dedicating a church already in use, dedicating a new altar inside an older church, blessing a church to be used as a chapel or oratory, blessing an altar for a similar purpose, and blessing a chalice and paten.


New Altar

Adobe Stock

One way of thinking about the church, theologically as well as architecturally, is to begin with the church’s raison d’être, the holy altar, and allow the building to grow out from there. If we design a material altar that adequately portrays its meaning in our faith, and then allow the rest of the church to harmonize with the altar, we may be able to return the sense of the sacred to our modern churches.

The altar should be constructed with the finest materials possible and have a most elegant and beautiful design. The use of fine bronze or cast iron, beautifully carved wood or various stones may all be appropriate. In all cases, the Church has a long-standing preference for stone, especially for the mensa, or top. Pope St. Sylvester I (r. 314-35), who was the patron of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, is said to be the first to have made stone altars obligatory.

St. John Chrysostom writes that “this altar is an object of wonder: by nature it is stone, but it is made holy when it receives the body of Christ.” It is this mensa, which is anointed at the time of dedication, much like Christ’s body was anointed before his death. Because it is a holy object, we also incense the altar. Just as the altar represents Christ, the stone material represents “Christ the rock” and “the stone the builders rejected / has become the cornerstone” (Ps 118:22).

One of the best ways to return prominence to the altar is to raise it on steps, make it at least one-eighth the width of the nave, and cover it with a baldacchino, or tester, as was employed in the early Christian basilicas.


In all of the early Christian basilicas, starting with St. John Lateran in Rome, the freestanding altar was set within a baldacchino, or ciborium, normally four columns and beams that define an aedicule, or holy place. The baldacchino becomes an extension — horizontally and vertically — into the space of the church, helping to enlarge the presence of the altar visually, as well as delimiting an altar precinct.

BALDACCHINOUsually, Corinthian columns hold a type of canopy, recalling the tent, or tabernacle, that sheltered the Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness. It is interesting that the term for baldacchino in Europe is “ciborium,” which is the same name given to the holy vessel in which the consecrated Hosts are placed and reserved within the tabernacle. One way to understand the baldacchino is as the architectural embodiment of the epiclesis of the Mass. Thus we have the altar, which is Christ, with a baldacchino that symbolizes the Holy Spirit and the Father in heaven. This is often articulated by images of the Holy Spirit on the ceiling of the baldacchino.

The hanging or cantilevered tester, usually a canopy without columns, can also mark the altar precinct within the sanctuary. The tester or baldacchino creates a shrine within the church, becoming an extension of the altar and the tabernacle.

After the placement of the altar and tabernacle, the placement of the other liturgical-sacramental elements follows. They should, like the altar and tabernacle, be designed using the finest materials possible, and in most instances they should be given a specifically defined area within the body of the church. Traditionally, the ambo is raised to highlight the significance of the Liturgy of the Word and give it visual and aural prominence.

The altar rail — one of the most misunderstood elements in American churches — is an integral part of most sanctuaries in Rome. The rail helps to create a clear threshold at the sanctuary. Just as partially closed doors make us curious about what is behind them, a partially veiled sanctuary gives us a sense of the mystery of the sacrifice of the Mass. Creating a threshold at the sanctuary gives the believer all the more reason to want to reverence the altar and tabernacle. If these elements of definition are used in the sanctuary, both believers and agnostics understand that it is a holy place.


saintReturning to the central axis, the space on the back wall above the altar and tabernacle can hold the most prominent image in the church. Traditionally, this is often an image of the saint for whom the church is named. The death and resurrection of Christ, seen in the cross and the altar, are also reflected in the life of his holy saints, who are intercessors for the living.

The complexity and richness of the Faith can be expressed in the images and architectural elements that frame the altarpiece and set off the altar. Thus the purpose of the design of the sanctuary and its iconography is not a simple one. But if designed well, like a good book or a symphony, one will be able to gaze on it day after day and continually find new relationships and meanings. In this way, our sanctuaries can continually nourish our senses and our faith.


Traverse city
A renovation of the sanctuary of the Carmelite Monastery of the Infant Jesus of Prague in Traverse City, Michigan. A new marble tabernacle and freestanding altar were added. A new wood altar rail and column screen give the sanctuary a dignified threshold. Photo credits: Before (left), Duncan G. Stroik, architect. After (right), Dietrich Floeter

Devotional Images

culpture of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus and the angels
Ancient sculpture of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus and the angels. AdobeStock

The church building is designed for the liturgy, which is the summit and the font of our life. But it should also accommodate and support private or group devotion, which springs from the liturgy and leads back to it. To support devotion, chapels or devotional shrines should be integrated with, and distinguished from, the nave by being given their own place such as in niches, side walls or separate chapels. However, it is not really in harmony with the altar and sanctuary to relegate images of the saints to the least noticeable areas of the church (such as the rear) or to place them only in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, as is often done with modern churches and renovations of historic ones.

Devotional images, including shrines to the Mother of God or the saints, and the Stations of the Cross, surround us with material images of the invisible reality — the Communion of Saints and the truths of the Faith. Just as Mary always points us toward her son — “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5) — so these images of devotion point us toward their liturgical consummation: Christ’s Eucharistic sacrifice exemplified in the altar and tabernacle. They help prepare us for, and remind us of, the centrality of the liturgy in the lives of the saints and in our lives.

Prioritizing the layout of the sanctuary, the beauty of the tabernacle and altar, and making sure to have devotional images in the church are steps that will go a long way to order the worship within the church to the glory of God and the sanctification of his people.

DUNCAN G. STROIK is an American architect, professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and founding editor of the Sacred Architecture Journal.


‘Our Church, Our Altar’

bookFather Paul Turner weaves a summary of biblical texts, the liturgy and reflection questions to help parish planning teams understand the meaning of “church” in his new book Our Church, Our Altar: A People’s Guide to the Dedication of a Church and Its Anniversary (Liturgical Press, $17.95). The book offers catechesis for several occasions, including the laying of a cornerstone, the blessing of a chapel and the blessing of a chalice and paten. One chapter is dedicated to the blessing of an altar. The book will help prepare you for each anniversary and dedication of your parish church. It serves as a good resource for individuals or parish communities.




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