Breaking the Dividing Wall
Peter J. Leithart
July 3, 2012
Category: Theology - Liturgical
At the beginning of her discussion of Christian architecture in the Renaissance and Reformation, Jeanne Kilde (Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture and Worship ) writes: “In the Renaissance period, the medieval notion of the church as the City of Heaven yielded to new ideas about church architecture and space—ideas engendered by the very humanism the medieval church had introduced. The most radical reorganization of space occurred in the liturgical areas and the spatial relationships between the clergy and laity. Whereas through the fourteenth century, churches separated clergy and laity into two distinctive, self-contained areas—the chancel and the nave—by the end of the sixteenth century . . . revolutionary new churches reorganized the sanctuary entirely, bringing together everyone in a single, unified space.”
One of the changes preceding the Reformation was the classically-inspired development of centralized as opposed to cruciform arrangements. Kilde comments on the effects on worship:
“A centrally planned space focuses attention on one thing: whatever occupies the center. In a martyrium, this was the sarcophagus. Worship, however, requires multiple foci: the altar, the processional nave, the pulpit. Moreover, a centrally planned space allows all users, whether lay or ordained, to approach the center, which acts, in Mircea Eliade’s language, as an axis mundi, a direct vertical and horizontal connection between the faithful and the divine. Christian worship, however, incorporated strong elements of hierarchy and privilege, distinctions between lay and ordained access to the divine, and these were not as readily designated spatially in the centralized plan as they were in the longitudinal plan. Not surprisingly, then, the use of centrally planned space for worship was for many church leaders unthinkable” (96).
She comments further (97-98): “Whereas the long naves of medieval churches and ancient basilicas had allowed for lengthy processions that underscored the power of the clergy, the new centralized spaces allowed for only short peregrinations, robbing clergy of an important means of demonstrating power and authority. The termination of processions was no longer in the distant chancel, as in the Gothic church; instead, it was in a sanctuary located in one arm (the East) of the Greek cross building. Here, too, the plan obfuscated earlier strategies for indicating clerical authority. In these centrally planned buildings, the sanctuary was distinguished from the space of the laity by the use of elevation, as clergy ascended several steps from the main floor to the altar. This arrangement brought the laity closer to the altar, encouraging greater participation on their part and suggesting their growing influence. Given the growth of lay involvement in churches, this spatial arrangement both contributed to and expressed an embryonic egalitarian movement. The faithful were grouped together in the single space as a ‘public,’ a self-aware group, not isolated in their own privatized devotions, struggling with the mysteries of the church, but participating together in worship.”
All these drawbacks and implications meant that “the use of centralized space remained atypical” during the fifteenth century.
The Reformation of course radically changed the character of Western worship, and with it the experience of the worshiper (113): “Imagine the experience of late-sixteenth-century adult lay Christians, moving from growing up attending masses that provided only glimpses of God in the Host (and actual communion with the Host only once a year) to attending services in which God actually spoke through a preacher. In this situation, God was understood as drawing much closer to worshippers, answering questions, explaining things that once were mysteries.” If for some the Reformation involved the stripping of the altars, for others it meant much more direct contact with God.
In the wake of this shift in liturgy came, of course, significant changes in architecture and the arrangement of church furnishings. In the Schlosskapelle at Torgau, designed by Nickel Gromann with Luther’s help, there was a new “emphasis placed upon the pulpit, in terms of both its location and its ornamentation.” The pulpit was not front and center, but high on the south wall. Kilde explains (114-115): “Here, the adage ‘form follows function’ is appropriate. Although preaching had been an important feature of Christianity prior to the Reformation, the pulpit had barely been conceived of as a liturgical center until then. Tertiary to the altar and sanctuary, it previously had usually been located on a pier at the transept. This location, however, often rendered it impossible for many of the congregants to hear the priest’s sermon or homily. Luther and his followers changed the location of the pulpit, moving it down the nave to a midway point as in Torgau. They also elevated it well above the heads of those on the main floor to make it readily visible from almost every point in the nave. To further attract worshippers’ attention to the pulpit, Protestant designers, including those of Torgau, decorated their pulpits with high-relief painted figures carved into the sides. Frequently, pulpit images offered distinctive lessons, following Luther’s belief that although images should not be worshipped, they can have a legitimate didactic or instructive purpose by enhancing believers’ understanding of Christianity and the life of Christ. In Torgau, the pulpit figures depict Jesus during teaching moments that overturn the usual course of events: as a boy in the Temple, with the woman taken in adultery, and driving the moneychangers out of the temple. The overall message was clear: the bold challenges to traditional Christian thinking wrought by Protestant reformers took their model from Christ himself, who bravely challenged religious authorities in his own time.”
Still, in Lutheran churches, there was “less of a single focus on the pulpit than a dual focus on it and the altar.” At Torgau (116), this meant that the table was “east end of the . . . chapel, elaborated with the visually interesting choir and organ pipes above, constituted a permanent visual reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, through which he atoned for the sins of humanity.” The effect was clear: “the new Lutheran churches of the Reformation actually had two focal points of relatively equal importance: the elevated pulpit halfway down the nave and the altar at the end of the nave.” Over the following centuries, Lutherans tried to work out this double focus in various architecture ways: “The development of the pulpit-altar or the kunzelaltar in the late seventeenth century was perhaps the most eloquent statement of the Lutheran view of the equal importance of Word and Communion, combining the two sites into a single piece of furniture in which the pulpit hovered directly above the altar” (117).
Though Reformed churches theoretically maintained a double-focused liturgy, architecturally they tended to reduce the prominence of the table/altar. Central to the Reformed conception was the emphasis on the table as a table, as a place where a meal would be served: “Because Calvinists understood the Eucharist as a communal sacrament of the Christian community, they reinterpreted the altar as not a place of sacrifice but a table for communion, a place for the Lord’s Supper. Followers of Calvin participated in the Lord’s Supper frequently; he recommended that they do so every time the community gathered. Thus the communion table was a fairly prominent feature in Calvinist churches, as least in the early years” (117).
Some Reformed churches followed the Torgau placement of the pulpit: “Like the German Lutherans, the Calvinists in Geneva, France, the Netherlands, and later Britain converted many existing Catholic churches to suit their own worship practices. Just as with the Lutherans, this meant moving the pulpit down to a center point on the south wall of the nave” (120). Reformed churches also ”made more significant changes to the chancel. Depending on how often the congregation celebrated the Lord’s Supper, the tables were either placed to a side or removed from the room entirely when not needed. By the eighteenth century, a new location for the table, beneath the pulpit [i.e., on the side wall], became relatively common.”
Increasing the prominence, and length, of sermons also led to the introduction or expansion of the use of pews. In the Catholic church, only the wealthy had pews, but Protestants provided benches so that people could sit for sermons. Kilde suggests that the introduction of pews turned “groups of worshipers into ‘congregations,’” replacing the “rather casual gathering of people” that had been typical earlier.
All in all, the Protestant arrangement, while highlighting the importance of worship and giving prominence to the minister as a mouthpiece of God, “assigned greater power and responsibility to each individual, which was articulated in congregations’ closer proximity to clergy. This was especially true during Communion services, which were celebrated at tables around which all communicants gathered. Nevertheless, during sermons, ministers hovered above their flock, a position that signaled the importance
and power of their words as, if not the precise language of God, certainly as close as the human voice could speak” (128).
Article printed from Peter J. Leithart: http://www.leithart.com
URL to article: http://www.leithart.com/2012/07/03/breaking-the-dividing-wall/
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