What Makes A Sacred Space?

These new murals & decoration designed and painted by EverGreene for St. Paul the Apostle in Westerville, OH portrays a representation of the Heavenly Crucifixion, the Holy City of Jerusalem, communion of new and old world saints, and the perfected garden.

At EverGreene, we are constantly seeking out meaning and historical context behind the interiors we work on in order to make more informed decisions. President Jeff Greene recently was honored to be a guest speaker at the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL where he spoke about what makes a sacred space. As a decorator, painter, and traveler, Jeff has always sought out the meaning of the sacred across cultures, and this has been both a professional and personal life’s pursuit. What follows below are some ideas extrapolated from his talk of how he searches for the meaning behind sacred spaces and interiors.

Buildings are vessels. They are containers into which we put certain things to ascribe their meaning. An office is a vessel for productivity and work. A home is a vessel for relaxation, comfort, and escape. A sacred space may come in many forms and can be a place in nature, a site of reflection, or a man-made structure. These structures evoke contemplation and reflection, and can act as physical representations of heaven or a non-worldly, intangible realm. These environments can inspire awe, sometimes by their monumentality, other times by their profusion of information that stimulates the senses and can fill us with emotion. Some spaces cause you to turn inwards, and others can excite us with pattern, texture, color, and light.

This is a replica of the Dura Europos wall EverGreene created for a permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. 

Despite the vast differences in cultures, between the east and west, the ancient and modern, man has been intent on creating the feeling of the sacred through artistic pursuits in a variety of media. This artwork can bridge the gap between the physical and the ineffable.

Successful attempts to capture the sacred in a man-made structure have certain universal principles that, when employed in a harmonious way, contribute to the experience of sometimes powerful feelings and emotions. Factors such as the quality of the craftsmanship and materials can often be appreciated by all and do not rely on cultural understanding to communicate the craftsman’s dedication to the pursuit of excellence, perfection, or godliness. Factors such as historical context, on the other hand, can also conduct emotion. EverGreene recently worked on a project for the Discovery Center’s traveling exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We were contracted to recreate a portion of the Western Wall from the Second Temple in Jerusalem, also known as the Wailing Wall. Though it is only a humble stone wall, the historical significance and context contributes to a powerful feeling that has been understood by many across different cultures and religions. Its namesake even comes from the biological result of the powerful emotion many experience there. What is it about experiencing this wall creates such a profound effect on the soul?

 

EverGreene sculpted and painted this replica of the Wailing Wall as well as an ossuary replica for the Discovery Center’s traveling exhibition for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Outside of religious or historical significance, physical factors such as the size of the space, colors, forms, textures, and values have the ability to not only inspire emotions such as self reflection, humility, awe, empowerment, or fear, but can also psychologically affect how we perceive abstract concepts. “[There is] a relationship between the perceived height of a ceiling and cognition. High ceilings promote abstract thinking and creativity. Low ceilings promote concrete and detail-oriented thinking.”[i] For example a ceiling in an operating room can enhance the performance of the doctors, while a high ceiling in a church or temple can encourage the human mind to pursue concepts such as paradise or spirituality. This phenomenon, called the Cathedral Effect, is a symptom of the human brain at work to contextualize the self in relation to its surroundings.

EverGreene restored the original decorative paint scheme of the magnificent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, New York whose dark interior illuminated by stained glass evokes a sense of mystery and solemnity.

Beyond evoking emotions that we may not fully understand, sacred spaces can contain layers of meaning. When the designer, artist, or craftsman imbues significance into the elements they create, they leave discovery up to the viewer. We can learn to perceive more through a sensitivity to our surroundings. By learning to see more we can develop an intellectual understanding of the formalistic principles of design: balance, rhythm, proportion, pattern, contrast, movement, emphasis, and unity.

 

The creation of the sacred does not limit itself to traditional buildings with historical significance. The Rothko Chapel in Houston is regarded by many as being a place of spiritual discovery and contemplation, even though it is a relatively modern building with no connection to any one organized religion.

“The Rothko Chapel is oriented toward the sacred and yet it imposes no traditional environment. It offers a place where a common orientation could be found – an orientation towards God, named or unnamed, an orientation towards the highest aspirations of Man and the most intimate calls of the conscience.” -Dominique de Menil

Read more about the Rothko Chapel here.

There are no step by step instructions on how to create a sacred space.  (There is a reason the book “Making a Space Sacred in 10 Easy Steps” doesn’t exist.)  We learn through careful observation of our surroundings and experiences, and no two people will have the same understanding of those experiences. Understanding what it is that we sense in these spaces can help us relate these environments to one another. Much like man’s search for the higher power, there are many different ways mankind has attempted emulating the spiritual with the physical; despite consistent themes and similar results, the process of creation itself is also intangible.

For some examples of Sacred Spaces we’ve been a part of in the past, click here.


[i] Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Berverly, MA: Rockport, 2010. Print.  P.38