Friday, November 21, 2008

A Simple Renovation, Camas, Washington

St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Camas, Washington, recently transformed their sanctuary with a little paint and some new statues. The transformative power of these relatively inexpensive changes, properly deployed, is hard to exaggerate.

The original interior was dark and rather dated, with the crucifix rather lost amid all the woodwork, and the pastel-colored banners rather anemic in this context. The effect was muddled, without a focus, and, due to the somber hues, appeared somewhat claustrophobic.

As outlined in their webpage, the project was undertaken incrementally, with color and new statuary added gradually over a period of months. There are several things worth pointing out there. There is the use of the simple but effective and very traditional star-pattern on the vaulting, as well as the use of light colors to give a new sense of spaciousness to the small sanctuary, as well as an intelligent use of contrasts to highlight important objects such as the tabernacle and crucifix. The adoption of a mellower shade of beige rather than a colder white is also rather intelligent. The use of patterning in the borders around the cross and the side-shrines also serve to disperse what otherwise might appear rather large, rather crude areas of bold color. Such details also serve to draw attention to the various focii of the composition--the statues on either hand, and the central cross, with less ornament on the periphery.

I would, however, like to make some constructive criticism which I hope will not be taken amiss. The clever use of color, the simple execution but comprehensive scope of the project, and the well-thought-out composition are worthy of praise, but there is always room for discussion and critique among friends, otherwise we would never develop and grow. First, I think a simple dado or painted base panel in a different color (perhaps the solid, darker color of the borders) would help improve the new side-shrines, which appear to float somewhat anomalously. Second, I am concerned that the otherwise rather fine tapestries of the saints at the bottom of sanctuary wall are misplaced. They are very bold, lively and iconographic, but they are a little too low to the ground to serve as a focus, and also tend to blend in confusingly with the server's chairs and even the ministers at a concelebrated mass, which is rather distracting.

The presence of forward-facing server chairs is probably inevitable due to the small space--I am very glad to see the celebrant's sedile is properly turned facing liturgical north along one wall, a simple change which every parish in America ought to consider--but, combined with the saints, as well as the credence-tables on either side holding three candles each, the effect is a bit busy. I would advise moving the credence tables elsewhere and placing the six candles on the altar of sacrifice itself (removing the two smaller candles), and place the "overflow" server's seats in the corners, turned inwards. This is a more traditional and generally tidier arrangement, which is to be preferred in general when organizing church furnishings. The saints tapestries are handsome, but could be placed elsewhere in the church. Some sort of dado or base is necessary (as you can see below, without it, the interior looks a bit empty), and perhaps replacing the tapestries with painted blocks in that same shade of blue, but broken up with a diaper pattern not unlike the backgrounds in the side-shrines, would help keep the composition grounded and a little less cluttered. Centering floral arrangements or placing them on a base of some sort below the side-shrines would also help as well, with just a difference of about six inches.

That being said, congratulations to the parish for this intelligent and cleverly-thought-out renovation, and I hope our readers can derive much good from such an example.

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