Sunday, January 17, 2010

Devotional Shrines and Adaptive Re-Use

I thought our readers might enjoy this little sketch I did about a year ago for the conversion of a large, cabinet-like house shrine of presumed Latin American Baroque vintage, owned by a clergyman in New York, into the reredos for a Lady Altar that would also include space for an existing statue of the Virgin in a niche immediately above the mensa. The altar table would have also been reused from an existing side-shrine, while the small Martin Travers-style cherubim on the riddel posts would have been adapted from items also in his private possession. The design was not an actual commission, but just an unsolicited sketch I did in an effort to pique interest, though it remains one of my favorite drawings. The pediment, niche and base portions of the piece, as well as the riddels and hangings, would have been new, with the central portion being essentially unchanged.

What a study like this shows is the potential for reusing and reconfiguring existing antiquities. So often renovations today consist of plunking down an existing side-altar without attempting to recondition it to its surroundings, whether drastically or subtly. Some of the most intriguing and satisfying architectural work lies in maneuvering around existing conditions, subtly shaping them rather than going in swinging, literally or figuratively. Another important point lies in the notion of consolidation. This sketch took several disparate objects already in the possession of the church and pulled them together into a unified, strong composition. Framing and hierarchy is especially important in such instances. It is not enough to just put a statue on a little pedestal or on a wall-bracket, without some sort of suitable surround to highlight it.

There is a difference between complexity and clutter, and while in this instance none of these items by themselves were clutter (actually the interior of the church in question is quite handsomely decorated), many other parishes tend to accumulate large quantities of devotional items that might be much stronger when placed in a logical relationship to one another.

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