Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Revival and Traditional Creativity within the Liturgical Arts as part of a New Liturgical Movement

It seems to me that part of any “new liturgical movement” includes a concerted and conscientious effort on the part of liturgical patrons and artists to re-capture a high quality and vibrancy within the liturgical arts. It is a fact that is perhaps driven by necessity that so much of what we see in parishes today (even "traditional parishes") tends to be of the mass produced sort, or “lines" if you will -- whether it be vestments, statuary, sacred art, and so on. They represent similar styles and elements.

To some extent this has its place, for gone are the days of the monopoly of individual craftsmen which naturally drove a certain diversity. But that said, they still exist of course, even if in a much smaller number, and should be sought out and commissioned. Further, there are some larger manufacturers who make offerings that allow for a particularly high quality or custom form of liturgical art. They too should be sought out.

While the standard offerings are quite practical and can even be reasonbly dignified and pleasing -- and I am not suggesting they be utterly given up -- the down side is that our liturgical arts start to lose their savour by virtue of becoming commonplace. In the process they lose some of their wonder, uniqueness and power of liturgical enchantment.

Now I must be clear that what I am not intending to put forth here is a critique our traditional liturgical artists or companies. (In point of fact, most of the responsibility lay on those doing the commissioning.) What I am encouraging is that we look to extend ourselves beyond what is merely typical and reach more regularly and routinely for what is more atypical, unique and extraordinary in its quality and design. We should not fear to stray beyond the liturgical catalogue and back into the realm of commissions and custom work.

Let’s consider some possibilities in this regard.


It seems to me that one of the keys in extending ourselves in the area of vestment design is to be found in extending beyond the typical choices of fabric styles, colours, trims, cuts and so on.

There are a number of highly interesting fabrics again being made available today through companies like La Lame or Watts and Co. that borrow upon historic patterns – patterns which one does not readily see used, and which certainly aren’t offered as part of a standard line of ready-made vestments.

Watts and Co. of London, for example, have made available a number of reproduction fabrics from the gothic revival period. The fabrics are quite unique, and as for the cost, when one considers that a vestment should not be a discardable item, but something to be cared for and preserved throughout one’s priestly life and potentially beyond, it seems to me that going the extra effort for at least some of your personal or parish vestments is not only reasonable, but desireable.

Consider the use of the following fabrics in a vestment set, and consider how they stand out from what is more typical:

Pugin Fabrics:

Bodley Fabrics:

Using fabrics like these, combined with other excellent and complimentary elements, can end up in results as follows:

(Image from Watts and Co., London )

Evidently, the choice of fabric is crucial with regard to vestment design. But of course, subtler fabrics can also be used to great effect when combined with excellent, unique designs with well chosen colour and texture, or alongside other elements, such as tassles upon dalmatics and tunicles.

As well, we shouldn't be hesitant to move beyond the standard patterns that are offered. Often, both the gothic and baroque forms of vestments benefit when lengthened from the typical lengths they are cut according to standard catalogue issue -- which is, after all, intended for the widest possible audience, be they very short or very tall.

Case in point, in the gothic form, I am put to mind of the high Mass set designed and created by Dom Daniel Augustine Oppenheimer of the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem where the chasuble, dalmatic and tunicle are all longer than is typically seen, and quite regal:

Needless to say, the textiles and other ornaments mesh exactly with the other considerations we were just discussing above as well.

As I say, this use of length can be put to good effect in both baroque and renaissance styles of chasubles as well, and can further be combined with more ample cuts around the shoulders and other such variations.

(Image from Tridentinum. While it doesn't show the added length, it does show one of their designs with a rich fabric selection and also an interesting cut to shoulders of the vestment)

There was a time when it was also far more common for priests or parishes to commission their own vestments. Let us reclaim that tradition, and let us use the collective power of our parishes to furnish their sacristies in these ways, moving, as I say, beyond the confines of what is simply provided as the standard selections in liturgical catalogues.

Architectural Elements

Evidently, in the areas of metalwork, sculpture, painting, marblework and woodwork, these are areas that are bigger ticket items, but they are also areas that would be worth commissioning as a parish or on the part of individual benefactors.

One thing to consider is that commissioning art for a church needn’t mean decorating an entire church, but perhaps rather than purchasing that same plaster or resin statue of the Virgin, or that framed print of the Divine Mercy, one can investigate the various craftsmen who are still producing hand-carved and painted statuary (in the mediaeval tradition for example) of the patron saint of the Church. Perhaps one could consider commissioning a mural or framed piece of original devotional art that is central to the parish.

As was recently show-cased at the new Shrine in La Cross, Wisconsin, these artisans do still exist.

Altar Cards

While vestments, sculpture and devotional art might seem like the most obvious places to focus one's attention in reviving the liturgical arts, there is another element that shouldn't be overlooked: altar cards.

It strikes me that this is another area of opportunity in terms of reviving the liturgical arts. Evidently, this suggestion is more or less particular to the usus antiquior but the altar cards used on so many of our altars today tend to be of a few standard styles – unless one’s parish happens to have an historical set. In the process, they begin to be a little tired and cliché -- or at least fail to inspire in ways similar to what we have already discussed.

Here is an example of a nice, dignified, and fairly standard form of mass produced altar card as would be seen on many altars today.

Here too we should think creatively as patrons to liturgical artists -- and so too should our liturgical artists. Parishes should consider commissioning custom, original altar cards. One could still typeset the actual prayers on the cards themselves – as this is what we are used to reading today, rather than handscript – but as for the designs or ornamental capitals which surround those prayers, a parish could commission a proven liturgical artist to design a custom set of altar cards for their parish. This would also allow the parish to personalize the cards in a way meaningful or symbolic to them, perhaps incorporating local, diocesan or national patron saints into the designs.

The design possibilities are endless, from standard continental, mediaeval or renaissance illumination, to those more identifiably cultural, such as those inspired by Irish or Saxonic illuminated manuscripts, the gothic revival, oriental Catholic art or even possibly Art Deco where the architecture might warrant it. Everything within its proper context of course.

An example of a custom designed set:

(Hand Designed Altar cards by Nina Somerset for the parish of S. Silas, Kentish Town)

Liturgical artists themselves could endeavour to begin producing such templates, even for generic printing production, which would at least introduce some new designs into the liturgical mix.

One can see in the example above that this extends even to the very frames which hold the cards; something that should also not be overlooked.

Concluding Thoughts

These are really just intended as a few examples which are ultimately intended to get each of us, but particularly our liturgical artists, our benefactors and our parish priests, thinking about how the re-enchantment of the liturgy not only involves the ars celebrandi, sacred music, ad orientem, translations and the like, but further extends to the liturgical arts themselves.

Let us strive for excellence and dignity in everything that surrounds and penetrates the sacred liturgy.

If anyone has examples of this they would like to share from their own parish, or historically, please do so in the comments.

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