The Materiality of the Middle

Volume 51, Issue 1 :: Annie Dixon

Rose window by Dixon Studio

Rose window by Dixon Studio for Central United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: Bruce Matthews

Places of worship are complex compositions containing a variety of physical elements, each with specific properties, functions, and symbolism. The tremendous range of material choices in design and decoration for a sacred space can be overwhelming. How on earth are priorities determined, budgets allocated, and materials selected for a space that reaches to the heavens?

The French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” Likewise, a place of worship is a physical construct that houses a spiritual environment. Keeping this duality in mind, building or renovation plans can be separated into layers that help define and refine the material options.

Layers of Sacred Space

The base layer of any building is its foundation and framework. These are hard materials with utilitarian qualities that provide structure and strength. They need not be beautiful so much as practical, as they are often hidden from view. If seen, their beauty tends to be in texture and tone rather than pattern or color; if hidden, they are the substructure that underpins the beauty of geometry and proportion.

The middle layer in a religious building is hard surface and tends to be shiny, bright, and often colorful, providing contrast to the flat, neutral surfaces of the structural layer. Here are stained-glass windows, statues, pedestals, mosaics, and metalware. Although not structural, these items are substantial and thus make a visual statement about permanence and value. Some objects may have a practical purpose, but their primary effect is to impart a sense of awe and to bestow a special, even excessive, beauty.

The top layer is softer, lighter in weight, lower in cost, repairable, and replaceable. It consists of the furnishings and finishes in the building: altars, pews, paint. It includes the fabrics of the religious life: linens, vestments, and upholstery. It is seasonal, moveable, or consumable: banners, plants, flowers, candles.

These three layers are intertwined within one physical space to create the form and support the function of worship and to imbue it with a spiritual atmosphere. By unbraiding the layers and breaking down their elements and roles, it becomes easier to envision a balanced whole, prioritize the budget, and to select appropriate materials for each category.

Base LayerMiddle LayerTop Layer
Categorystructureart, appointmentsfurnishings, linens
Life Spancenturiesgenerationsdays, weeks, months, years
Qualitystrong, durableworthy, nobleseasonal, moveable, consumable
Focusbackgroundfocal pointaccent
Responsibilityarchitect, engineerliturgical consultant, designersacristan, altar guild, volunteers
Sourcecontractor, construction workersartists, artisanscatalogs, local shops
Lead Timeyearsmonths, yearsimmediate, weeks, months
Cost$$$$$$$$ - $$
Fundingcapital campaign, mortgagefund drive, donationsoperating expenses
Materialstimber, block, brick, stone, steel, concreteglass, tile, metal, stone, wood, plasterwood, paint, fabric, carpet, plants, cut flowers
Gold-plated tabernacle

Gold-plated tabernacle for All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, Virginia, installed by Dixon Studio.

While each layer is integral to a beautiful worship space, only the middle layer is unique to religious buildings, as it is neither required nor expected in other building types. Indeed, commercial, institutional, and residential buildings are structural shells filled with furniture, fabrics, carpets, and plants, all of which serve only practical or decorative purposes; only religious buildings have a long tradition of stained glass, mosaics, statuary, and metalware, all of which serve a higher purpose.

The base layer is permanent and the top layer temporal. The middle layer is transcendent, with a vibrancy and impact that exceeds its size or square footage. Creating a shiny or colorful contrast to a backdrop of stone, block, or concrete requires only small dashes of tile, metal, or glass, which stand out from their surroundings. Mosaics and candlestands in the sanctuary dance with the flicker of nearby flames, as small stained glass windows glow like exquisite jewels in wide white expanses of walls and spill their colors onto the yard goods below. Wooden and plaster statuary, cathected with the emotions of the faithful, is transfigured to serve as ever‑present inspiration and consolation.

This is the memorable layer in the sacred space, as it is a rare arch or parament that lingers in the minds and hearts of visitors with the staying power of the color or the sparkle of middle layer materials. The ability to make a lasting impressing on the spirit is a reflection of the semi-permanent status this middle layer maintains in the physical worship space. While not structural, these materials may be adhered to the structure (such as mosaic), or site specific (such as stained glass), or simply heavy or expensive enough (such as metalware and statuary) that they will not be moved or removed without careful consideration or significant effort. Thus, these elements must possess the physical qualities to stay the test of time, and be executed with quality design and craftsmanship that will integrate with seasonal changes and evolving style trends.

Endurance of Material Presence

Statue of St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Statue of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Dixon Studio, installed at Catholic Church of St. Thérèse in Gloucester, Virginia, is part of the ‘middle layer.’

Traditional, tried and true materials speak of a rich history of faith practiced in Roman catacombs, beneath Byzantine domes, and surrounded by soaring heights of medieval cathedrals. Beauty and truth have become infused in the proven ability of tile, glass, and metal to endure for centuries along with the ministry they manifest. The gold-plated tabernacle harkens back to the Ark of the Covenant and wraps the promise of eternity in precious metal. The stained-glass window lets there be light and lets it bring every color of creation into the worship space. Marble statues embody the rock upon which the Church was built and smalti tiles symbolize the tiny but not insignificant part each soul plays in the great mosaic of faith that endures through the generations.

Form and pattern may vary through the ages and across cultures but the materials are dependably familiar in this layer of beauty. From Romanesque to Gothic, preindustrial to postmodern, noble materials are employed to create sanctuaries from the fleeting and the meaningless. Baroque and minimalist styles may go to different extremes but their practitioners go to the same esteemed materials to enhance a place of prayer.

Worthy, noble, and even precious materials are expensive and yet this layer is usually the easiest to fund, not only because a little goes a long way, but primarily because of its visibility, beauty, and longevity. Donors feel this is a stable, long-term investment, a legacy that will be seen and appreciated well beyond their lifetimes.

The materiality of the middle is impressive, enduring, and beautiful. Some of it serves a specific purpose in ritual or catechesis; some of it exists specifically for its beauty, to offer a glimpse of heaven. The materiality of the middle is emotive, inspiring, and transcendent; it is the layer in which the Holy Spirit resides.

The author is a liturgical consultant and project manager at Dixon Studio in Staunton, Virginia. She also serves on Faith & Form‘s editorial advisory board.

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