Rediscovering Ecclesiastical Symbology: The Search for the Ultimate Self

 

EverGreene Grace Church Restoration
The restored ceiling at Grace Church, Brooklyn

Throughout history, people have communicated meaning through symbols, especially regarding ecclesiastic images. At the recently renewed Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights, EverGreene designers and conservators worked to restore the historic decoration in the sanctuary and also its significance within the parochial canon.

A.W. Pugin , the 19th Century designer and architect, believed that Gothic design exemplified true Christian architecture. Grace Church, designed by Richard Upjohn in the Gothic Revivalist style, is an outstanding example: triumphant, pointed arches signify movement toward heaven; the central aisle guides visitors towards the altar (salvation); and intricate stained glass windows convey holy narratives. These are motifs and messages communicated through the stone and structure of Grace Church, but what sets this sacred site apart is the mindful interior ornament.

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Plate from Pugin’s "Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament"

Pugin, a leader of the Gothic Revivalist movement, saw the medieval era as a golden age when society’s values were heavily aligned with Christianity. He resurrected the Gothic style in reaction to the Industrial Revolution and humanist-based classicism and as a counterpoint to the emerging smoke stacks. The new reality created a labor class who were separated from design and trained in very specific, compartmentalized tasks. Gothic Revival cherished the human element intrinsic in designing and making; it valued craft and care. In addition, the Industrial Age valued efficiency and posited that ornamentation should be both functional and decorative. Pugin’s symbolic decoration recalled a time when God, man and nature were more intertwined.

Symbols communicate concepts that language cannot wholly articulate. Imagery has the power to resonate deeply within an individual, in a way that words cannot. A worshipper at Grace is able to see something familiar—a vine or star, for example—and relate that image directly to a sacred idea, such as the blood of Christ or heaven. It is believed that sacred iconography was originally used to communicate scripture and biblical ideas to the illiterate. But because of their ability to express the inexpressible, symbols continue to be didactic. They bridge the gap between the physical and spiritual self; in communicating lofty ideologies through recognizable cues, they bring one closer to the discovery of the ultimate self. When originally built, Grace Church, was located in the former Garden District, and was designed to represent the restored Garden of Eden. Its imagery directly links the church’s earthly surroundings to heaven. In renewing this 1866 decorative order, artists and conservators uncovered lost ornament and implemented historically-informed designs, to breathe new life into its heaven-on-earth experience.

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St. Ouen Cathedral, Rouen, France, begun in 1318 completed in the 15th century

Generally speaking, Gothic architecture emerged in France in the 12th Century. Compared to its predecessor, Romanesque architecture, which is heavy and characterized by small openings and simple curved arches, Gothic design emphasizes verticality and lightness with pointed arches and large expanses of glass. Gothic is reminiscent of a forest while Romanesque recalls a cave. Grace’s celestial ceiling, with more than a thousand stars, is seen through a canopy of wooden trusses and strapwork—a somewhat literal nod to the traditional woodland comparison. The eight-pointed star motif (in addition to the three-petaled lily and sprouting seed motif on the strapwork) was found in Pugin’s Ecclesiastical Ornament (1844). The number eight is sometimes revered as communicating new beginning or regeneration (for example, a week has seven days so the eighth day is a new beginning). When posited within celestial sky, it invites reflection upon life-after-death.

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Rendering of the medallions at Grace Church

Medallions accent the spandrels like brightly colored rose windows, which, in the Gothic vocabulary, represent the order of the universe and the notion that we are but many tiny parts within the much larger whole. Medallions at Grace most closely emulate the rose window at St. Ouen in Rouen, France with its intricate lattice work and six-petaled form. The numbers three and six are pronounced: six petals stem from three seeds; three trees unwind into six trees bisecting each petal, which in turn are decorated with three simple celestial forms. Three, in biblical numerology, represents the perfect union, the Holy Trinity, while the number six is the number of man (created on the sixth day). The interplay of three and six is a metaphorical depiction of the concept of church itself, where man gathers to praise the divine tri-union. The flower itself, derived from Pugin’s design of the American chrysosplenium flower represents spiritual growth, again harkening back to this enveloping idea of the church’s purpose.

EverGreene Grace Ornament Pugin

Design mock-up of the restored wall ornament at Grace Church (top) Rendering of the trellis wall pattern at Grace Church (bottom, left) Plate from Pugin’s “Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament” (bottom, right)

 

The spandrel border is decorated with a repeating vine and floral pattern—an Old Testament symbol of abundance and a New Testament metaphor for Christ and the communion ritual. Intersecting foliate patterns are common in ecclesiastical design and the frieze is studded with Tudor roses, framed by an arcade with pendant cruciform leaves and pointed finials. A rose devoid of thorns is often symbolic of the Virgin Mary, because never having never sinned, she is referred to as “the rose without thorns.

The trellis pattern on the walls features a pattern of sprouting seeds flowering into a Greek Cross symbolizing regeneration. The sprouting seed is directly from Pugin’s Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament. The seeds sprouting into crosses indicates new beginnings as the product of spiritual growth.

Iconography, unlike purely ornamental decoration, is meant to be timeless. Each visual element serves a purpose within the framework of the church. As individuals change and grow, their relationship to the images will, too.

At Grace, its stone foundation and wood skeleton keep it standing, but it is the imagery that signals its sacredness and reminds those who cross its threshold that they are part of a larger, timeless story.

EverGreene_Grace Before and After

Grace Church, Brooklyn, before (left) and after (right) restoration.