Ceramics’ Sacred Power

Volume 51, Issue 1 :: Chad Martin

Decorative tiles by Henry Chapman Mercer in St. James Episcopal Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, circa 1916.

Decorative tiles by Henry Chapman Mercer in St. James Episcopal Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, circa 1916. Photo: Chad Martin

Like many historic sacred places around the world, the sanctuary of St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, inspires awe in visitors upon stepping inside and being surrounded by its soft lighting, warm earthy brick walls, luminous stained glass, and well-trod tile floors. When our staff team toured St. James recently, we took in the rich surroundings and were drawn by our guide for a closer look behind the altar.

We were delighted to find adorning the chancel walls an exceptional collection of decorative and illustrative ceramic tile by Henry Chapman Mercer, a leader in the arts and crafts movement of the early-20th century. These tile installations, dating from 1916, illustrate a series of biblical scenes, animals, and whimsical characters. While too small a scale to see clearly from the pews, they add a layer of color, whimsy, and religious iconography to the tapestry of images throughout the church. The Mercer tiles captured our attention, delight, and interest more than the Tiffany windows or any other feature of the space at St. James. They were the serendipitous treasure found on a daylong venture to several historical architectural gems.

This response, an apparently intuitive affinity for and familiarity with the material, is common for people who have the opportunity to interact with clay and ceramic objects. Novices and professional makers alike reflexively respond to clay with warmth and intimacy. How does the very substance of clay convey a sense of the holy? How do ceramic objects and architectural elements help create a sacred place?

Clay’s Sacred, Mysterious Dimensions

Sociologists of religion have long attempted to explain what makes an object or place sacred. In her deep study of religious spaces along one bustling urban corridor in Philadelphia, Katie Day outlines contrasting views succinctly:

Discussion of the sacred begins, and sometimes ends, with Mircea Eliade and Emile Durkheim, who differed on whether sacred meaning is inherent in an object or space (Eliade) or socially constructed (Durkheim). For both, the sacred is defined as distinct from that which is secular (or “profane”). Those who adopt Durkheim’s approach (social constructionists) argue that space is not inherently sacred but becomes so through the work of sacralization.(1)Katie Day, Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a city street, photographs by Edd Conboy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 30-31.

Mercer tiles in St. James Episcopal Church

Mercer tiles in St. James Episcopal Church are part of the building’s narrative fabric. Photo: Chad Martin

The latter viewpoint is reinforced by an understanding of ritual as transformative action, necessary for growth and social change among human communities. Tom Driver explains, saying “that ritual embodies the principle of growth or dynamic process through which a society transcends itself, praising, evaluating, rebuking, and re-molding life as it is presently lived.”(2)Tom F. Driver, Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 189.
Sacred space is constructed through communal experiences that are themselves about transformation. The heart of this article will suggest that.

Clay as a craft material has both inherent qualities that convey sacredness, as well as qualities constructed through interaction with the material that deepen how ceramic objects and architectural features foster a sense of the holy. Let us begin with what is inherent. Clay must not only be shaped, it must be transformed in order to become ceramic. This distinctive quality, if not completely unique, is at least quite unusual compared to other art media and craft materials. Whereas paint simply must dry to become permanent or wood is only cut or carved in a reductive process to reveal its beauty, clay must instead be chemically transformed into a new substance through the firing process in order to become lasting and functional. Prior to this change, no matter how long it has been out of the ground, and no matter how often it has been reworked or left to dry, the clay can be slaked back down to a muddy and formless state.

The transformation inherent in the ceramic process makes clay a material ripe for sacred meaning and purposes. Despite centuries of developing more refined, mechanized, and predictable methods for for this process, for many artists it remains reverent and mysterious. This sense of mystery and magic is so much a part of the process that for both ancient and modern ceramic artists the firing itself may be highly ritualized, complete with appeals to kiln gods: “mythological guardians that supposedly bring good luck to kiln firings.”(3)Martie Geiger-Ho, “Origins of Kiln Gods,” in Ceramics Monthly 61: 8 (October 2013), 26.

The plasticity and malleability of clay before it has been fired adds to this transformational quality. Its malleability lends itself to a very intimate relationship between the maker and the material. Clay is one of the few craft media able to be completely shaped by the maker’s bare hands without the aid of tools. While this intimacy is not inherently or universally special (and it is often mediated by many tools, from the most rudimentary to increasingly technologically sophisticated), clay artists across cultures experience the material in terms suggesting a sacred encounter. These subjective and constructive experiences add to the potency of the material for liturgical objects and sacred architecture.

The Hebrew prophets and other writers of the Judeo-Christian scriptures saw clay and the work of potters as vivid imagery for ideas about God. Among several scriptural references, the anecdote in Jeremiah 18 is a fitting example of this metaphor: “Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Can I not do with you… just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” (Jeremiah 18: 6) While the prophet never claims the material itself, or even the object the potter is creating, is sacred, yet the material and the process vividly suggest sacred qualities to the prophet.

The most vivid way to see how ceramic art and architectural elements contribute to a sense of the holy is by noticing examples of contemporary ceramic artists creating objects designed for ritualized and liturgical purposes.(4)For the purposes of this brief article, the examples here have been limited to a few poignant North American artists and ceramic pieces. A full treatment of this topic would necessarily include examples from a much broader array of religious settings, cultural traditions, and artistic techniques. Hopefully the examples presented below suffice to illustrate the thesis presented here.


Ceramic communion set by Justin Rothshank

Ceramic communion set by Justin Rothshank uses images from the civil rights movement. Photo courtesy of the artist

Justin Rothshank

For the last decade Justin Rothshank has been among the most active ceramic artists in the North American context.(5)Rothshank was recognized as an “emerging artist” by Ceramics Monthly in 2007, marking the starting point of a prolific exhibition and publication record: “Emerging Artists 2007,” in Ceramics Monthly 55: 5 (May 2007), 43. See also https://rothshank.com/justins-work/publications/, accessed Feb. 6, 2018. His prolific body of work includes several examples of vessels created for ritualized and liturgical settings. His innovative work in decal application on a variety of surfaces adds layers of meaning and imagery to these vessels, often including political and religious images.

Recently the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, commissioned Rothshank to create a work in clay featuring images derived from photographs of the Civil Rights movement from the museum’s permanent collection. Rothshank opted to design a large-scale communion set with layered surfaces of photographic images.

Another set of ritualized objects are the funeral urns commissioned of Rothshank for the family of Michael Sharp, a United Nations peacebuilding specialist killed last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo.(6)Lauren Jefferson, “Alumnus Michael J. Sharp among confirmed dead in Democratic Republic of Congo,” at EMU.EDU (March 28, 2017). Online at: https://emu.edu/now/news/2017/03/alumnus-michael-j-sharp-among-confirmed-dead-democratic-republic-congo/. Accessed Feb. 6, 2018. Both the urns and the communion vessels combine fluid forms reflecting the plasticity of the material with vivid, photographic imagery layered onto the surfaces. The combination conveys subtle meaning inherent in the material itself as well as overt meaning presented in the images. The set of urns goes further with its wood-fired surface forged by the interplay of ash in the atmosphere of the kiln hinting at the familiar language of burial rites: “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”


One of the cups Michael J. Strand and Josh Zeis created with veteran families for ‘Project Unpack.’

One of the cups Michael J. Strand and Josh Zeis created with veteran families for ‘Project Unpack.’ Photo courtesy of the artists

Michael J. Strand

Michael J. Strand is another widely celebrated contemporary ceramic artist who intentionally designs projects where ceramic objects invite ritualized opportunities for human connection and community.(7)Joyce Lovelace, “The Village Potter,” in American Craft Magazine (April/May 2014). Available online at: https://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/village-potter. Accessed Feb. 8, 2018.
A recent project underscores the transformational experience intrinsic in the ceramic process. The Heirloom Cup Project, part of the larger, interdisciplinary Project Unpack: Telling Stories, Creating Community, Understanding the Legacies of War, features pieces collaboratively made by Strand and fellow artist Josh Zeis with military veterans. In this project the artists formed plain, wheel-thrown ceramic cups. Then they sat down with military veterans and their families to hear stories of their service. The veterans were also asked to bring personal items that were symbols of their military experiences. “These objects ranged from Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals to a bullet-ridden canteen that saved the life of a veteran during World War II.”(8)Michael J. Strand, unpublished note emailed to the author on Feb. 8, 2018.

While the cups were still “leather hard”—soft enough to add imprints, carvings, and other surface treatments—Strand and Zeis worked with each veteran to complete a one-of-a-kind cup to reflect their experience of military service by making physical impressions in the clay with the personal object. The cups were then finished with a uniform glaze. In a project exhibition each cup was displayed with a storage box laser cut with the veteran’s name and personal narrative.

As Strand explains, “The importance of the cup lay in its ability to tell the story to future family generations. This was our vision for the project. It is an heirloom, meant to capture important and relevant family history.”(9)Strand. In this case, while not an overtly religious ritual, the project nonetheless shows the inherent meaning-making quality specific to clay as a plastic medium that can be shaped by novice hands and a venue for ritualized ways to reflect on life-changing personal experiences within the context of a shared community.

In the related Cupumenical project, Strand packaged a handmade cup, a camera, and a diary intended to create social bonds between four religious leaders. Over a period of a couple years, the box of items traveled between a Zen Buddhist priest, a Lutheran pastor, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim imam. Strand invited each leader to use the cup in a ritual setting of their faith. The leaders were asked to document their experiences in photographs and writing. As the cup traveled from ritual to ritual its shared use added new layers of meaning across faith traditions in the ritual events, for the participants, and in the object itself.


‘Cathedral Labyrinth’ by Nicholas Kripal

Nicholas Kripal’s large ceramic piece, ‘Cathedral Labyrinth’ fits seamlessly in the chancel of Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the artist

Nicholas Kripal

The use of clay as a material for sacred places and purposes is by no means limited to functional pottery. To note but one contemporary example, Nicholas Kripal, a long-time Philadelphia-based artist, often created site-specific, large-scale ceramic sculptures installed in sacred settings. Kripal’s quiet, weighty pieces fit almost seamlessly into their adoptive spaces and at the same time invite viewers to observe the space in new ways. They are timeless yet innovate beyond their often historic settings.


Human Touch, Holy Space

I returned recently to St. James in Lancaster to spend more time up close with the Mercer tile in the chancel there. It felt like a privileged moment, to stand in a sacred place typically reserved for the bishop, rector, or other leaders of the liturgy, and to observe these architectural features close enough to touch by hand. Being made of terracotta and matte glazes, the tiles are the fitting complement to the church’s exposed brick Romanesque interior. Being of such modest scale, they invite the viewer to come close, to touch, and to pay attention. And unpretentiously illustrating narrative scenes with a light-hearted, almost cartoon-like style, they are the balancing complement to the many more formal and ornate architectural features and liturgical objects throughout the church. This collection of Mercer tile installations pair human touch with holy space.

My experience of this sanctuary was transformed, deepened, and more joyful because of these intimate, handmade ceramic pieces. This intimacy and transformative quality is at the heart of what makes clay a ripe and fitting material for sacred places. And the disarming delight our team experienced upon discovering these pieces highlights why so many people across cultures have encountered a glimpse of the holy through clay and ceramic objects.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Katie Day, Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a city street, photographs by Edd Conboy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 30-31.
2. Tom F. Driver, Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 189.
3. Martie Geiger-Ho, “Origins of Kiln Gods,” in Ceramics Monthly 61: 8 (October 2013), 26.
4. For the purposes of this brief article, the examples here have been limited to a few poignant North American artists and ceramic pieces. A full treatment of this topic would necessarily include examples from a much broader array of religious settings, cultural traditions, and artistic techniques. Hopefully the examples presented below suffice to illustrate the thesis presented here.
5. Rothshank was recognized as an “emerging artist” by Ceramics Monthly in 2007, marking the starting point of a prolific exhibition and publication record: “Emerging Artists 2007,” in Ceramics Monthly 55: 5 (May 2007), 43. See also https://rothshank.com/justins-work/publications/, accessed Feb. 6, 2018.
6. Lauren Jefferson, “Alumnus Michael J. Sharp among confirmed dead in Democratic Republic of Congo,” at EMU.EDU (March 28, 2017). Online at: https://emu.edu/now/news/2017/03/alumnus-michael-j-sharp-among-confirmed-dead-democratic-republic-congo/. Accessed Feb. 6, 2018.
7. Joyce Lovelace, “The Village Potter,” in American Craft Magazine (April/May 2014). Available online at: https://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/village-potter. Accessed Feb. 8, 2018.
8. Michael J. Strand, unpublished note emailed to the author on Feb. 8, 2018.
9. Strand.

The author is Director of the National Fund at Partners for Sacred Places. Previously Associate Pastor at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster and the Ceramics Studio Coordinator at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Martin has written for such publications as Ceramics Monthly, Worship, and The Conrad Grebel Review.