Tuesday, October 27, 2009

St. Joseph, North Vernon, Indiana

I recently received before-and-after photos of a parish in Indiana that recently undertook a renovation. It is always impressive what a coat of paint and some new furnishings can do. Unlike many similar renovations, it is interesting to note that the parish did not fall into the temptation to clutter up the interior with liturgical odds and ends, and while the sanctuary features what appears to be a repurposed 19th century high altar, some effort was made to make sure it did not overwhealm the actual freestanding altar of sacrifice. In addition, it has been raised one step up from the floor of the sanctuary, another seldom-seen improvement. The stencilling and color is neither so subdued as to be pointless, nor so colorful as to be distracting, and some effort has been made to break up the large planes of color with patterns and borders, and for the paintwork to respond to the architecture and furnishings. I appreciate also the relatively low-key side-altars(or, I suppose, to be more correct, altarini), which manage to be prominent, but subordinate to the principal altar and reredos. Compare this with the previous, rather overwrought interior, shown below, and the contrast is quite remarkable.

This would not be a Matthew Alderman posting without a few caveats, though. The use of a reredos with a detached altar poses a number of problems in principle, though on the whole it has been handled fairly well here. The sanctuary is quite small, and I wonder if a more liturgically successful result would have been achieved with a hanging tester or a somewhat unobtrusive baldachin rather than trying to fit both a large reredos and freestanding altar into this shallow space. It would have been good if the existing round window had been incorporated into the design as well. It would also be good if the chairs could be replaced with benches, or a sedilia and stools for the servers. Also, I am somewhat troubled by the placement of the Sacred Heart statue in a subordinate position to the image of the Virgin in and around the altar; this may be nitpicking, but such things can contribute to a lack of theological clarity down the line.

That being said, they have achieved a lot with comparatively little, and the result is harmonious and possessed of a greater sense of clarity and hierarchy than many similar projects that I have seen in recent years. Congratulations.

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