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Sanctuary Art

We are blessed to worship in a space that helps us focus, and that speaks to us through art and through the symbols of the Christian tradition.

Cross, altar table, ambo (pulpit), and baptismal font ~ were designed and created by Ernst Schwidder, Christian Artist and Liturgical Consultant / Designer. Schwidder provided the following explanation for the dedication service of our current building in October 1988.

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Symbols and Theology

In the planning and furnishing of the new sanctuary for our Saviour Lutheran Church there has been a concerted effort to emphasize certain concepts and symbols associated with Lutheranism.  This has been done so that the building reflects both our particular tradition as well as our best understanding of where the church is at in our time.

There are rather specific doctrines and symbols connected with the Lutheran movement. Although Lutherans have not always expressed these very well, and have tended to vacillate from one point of view to the other, recent liturgical renewal as well as an increased interest in theology as it pertains to liturgy, has resulted in an enhanced awareness of what we are about. In the 1950’s and into the 60’s, churches were built in great numbers. In part because of logistical concerns, but also as a result of theological vagueness and the loss of many of our liturgical traditions, these churches were bland — a product of cookie cutter designing. The result was a “protestant” look more suitable for those traditions associated with Knox and Calvin than to Luther and the rich Catholic tradition that is part of our heritage. To many people today, that 50’s model seems to represent what is appropriate, with perhaps few changes as a result of the recent renewal. The most conspicuous change has been the reintroduction of a free-standing table-type altar. Of course, this really should not be new to Lutherans. however, few are aware of the following quotation:
“In the true mass, however, of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, (against the wall), and the priest should always face the people as Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper. But let that await its own time.” That was written by Martin Luther in the preface to his German Mass and Order of Service of 1526.

There are other rather specific concerns as well. Basically there are two primary concepts that can be used as a criteria for evaluating the plan and furnishings of a Lutheran church. One is the priesthood of all believers and the other is that public worship evolve around the word and sacraments.

With reference to the first concept, the priesthood of all believers, this suggests that there should be no separation between nave and chancel — there should be ease of access — the chancel should be an integral part of the whole space and not a “sanctus sanctorium”. Other aspects of this would be to have such an arrangement that would allow the involvement of many people in the public ceremonies of the church, not only as presiding ministers but in other ways, not the least of which is a full participation in the Holy Meal.

In regard to the second, that the idea of worship evolves around the word and sacraments, I must say that in this we have been very inconsistent. There has been a good deal of talk about the theological and biblical basis of this approach but it is often ignored, particularly in its expression in the art and architecture of the church. Basically what this suggests is that there are three focal points; the place where the word is proclaimed and places where the baptismal bath is administered and the Holy Meal is distributed. Nothing should distract the worshipper from those centers of liturgical action. So it is in this sanctuary, although there might indeed be other secondary foci particularly of a temporary nature.

A primary focus is that of the baptismal font. Its form and particularly its size reminds us of the importance of this sacrament. Although not commonly practiced among Lutherans, it is large enough for infant immersion … or at least using generous amounts of water so it it truly becomes a “washing” of regeneration.

People have worshipped our God in a variety of ways down through the centuries. From the beginning altars have been raised and people have gathered around them offering their praise and their sacrifices. Those ancient times are recalled here as on one of the piers of the altar are carved tongues of flame reminding us of the fiery offerings of the Old testament. The New Testament is referenced as well for us on the altar of the cross. It is this sacrifice we remember as we gather around the altar to celebrate that life giving act and thereby participating in the body and blood of a Living Lord.
Another focus of the Lutheran liturgy is the pulpit. The proclamation of God’s word is also a primary concern and this item of furnishing attempts to reflect that importance. The symbol here also has a reference to fire as it recalls the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses on Mt. Horeb. This symbol reminds us that indeed God is manifest in many ways. More then simply a reference to an incident in the Old Testament, it points prophetically to that sacrifice on the tree of the cross which like the olden bush was not consumed. It is here that “we preach Christ crucified” but also the One who was resurrected from the dead.

As the people of God we mark our places of worship with signs and symbols of our faith. There is no concept, no idea, no doctrine more profound and more central to the Christian faith than that sacrificial act on Mt. Calvary. It is through this giving of self that we are redeemed and reconciled to Almighty God. Thus this death becomes the ultimate symbol of life. As the redeemed people of God we are called to life through the death of our “self”. As the gospel writers quote our Lord

“he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it”. (Matthew 10: 38,39)

Such symbols are not popular with the “me” generation for they remind us of our true calling in a very graphic way which is hard to ignore or allow for a softer interpretation. However, this is not a grotesque rendering of that terrible incident. Although fiery forms are used here also, to amplify the idea of the relationship of the Old testament sacrifices to that of the offering of Christ, they suggest something more. The forms that weave in, over, and around the figure allude to life; the energy that emanates from the cross that energizes our being in Him. The fiery sacrifice on Mt. Calvary becomes “the Light of the world”. The cross is in the form of a working triptych with hinged panels which may be closed as appropriate to the occasion. On the other side is also carved a cross but one shown as the “tree of Life” with leaves of new growth firmly attached to its stem. So whether the triptych is open or closed, this dichotomy, this paradox of life and death is clearly in view.

Ernst Schwidder
Liturgical Consultant / Designer
October 1988

For further reading: The Development of Liturgical Artist Ernst Schwidder