17. The Importance of Natural Light & Some Thoughts on Mystery

As the earth travels around the sun, the slant of the light changes. It also changes in temperature and intensity. This constant change of light over surfaces is what artists and architects call “the play of light.” It is is something we want in our churches, a gift from the Creator.

Churches traditionally have been built (whenever possible) facing east, ad orientum, towards Jerusalem and the rising sun, symbolic of Christ’s coming again in glory.

Natural light from the sun travels about 93 million miles to reach us. Containing within it all the colors of the spectrum, it also reveals the color in our world. It also reveals the sculptural qualities of objects, including arches and statues.

Light is not what we normally think of as one of the materials used in designing a church (such as marble, slate, porcelain, wood, paint, etc.) because it is not made of matter. Light is a form of energy, or electromagnetic radiation visible to the human eye. However, great architects and artists shape matter based on its relationship to light. So at the very least, we should observe the light as it plays in our churches before we make major decisions about design and materials.

There are aesthetic reasons to use natural light: the artificial “gymnasium” feel of some post-modern buildings has not been an aesthetic triumph.

There are also environmental reasons to use natural light: better stewardship of the earth.

There are economic reasons to use natural light: at the present, it is free of charge. No monthly bills from the Creator for using His light which illumines all things. (However, we have to design and pay for the larger windows, making sure they are energy efficient, suited to the climate, etc.)

There are health reasons: according to medical research, natural light may improve our vision, enhance our mood, relieve depression, and aid in restful sleep (at the end of the day), and has other benefits as well.

What should you do if your church was built with inadequate natural light? It may be worthwhile to consider adding windows, especially if yours is a contemporary or mid-century church with inadequate natural light.

What if engineering, design, or budget considerations do not allow you to let in more natural light?

Artificial lighting should be designed using the liturgical and aesthetic knowledge of the designer, the technical knowledge of a lighting engineer, and the needs of the priest and parishioners.

Consideration should be given to the design of the fixture itself, the number and placement of the fixtures, along with temperature and intensity of the light that they produce. The warmth or coolness of light has a dramatic impact on our sensations and moods, as dramatic as the difference between the warm light of a fireplace and the cold light of the high beams of a sports car. We want lighting that will illumine and enhance the liturgy and be conducive to prayer throughout the day. Artificial light may be used to highlight the Sanctuary, Tabernacle, Altar, the Stations of the Cross, statues of patron saints, and other areas of the church.

But there is another aspect to church lighting to consider.


We don’t want our churches to be difficult to navigate, unsafe, or scary. It is necessary to be concerned with safety. And we need to see our missalettes!

It may be argued that many of our church designs and renovations have neglected the element of mystery when designing with artificial lights. If we simply replace the old artificial lights with new artificial lights, we may have an environment that is sterile. Too much can be worse than too little.

In certain parts of the church, such as shrines, we would like to be able to light our candles in relative darkness, as we offer our prayers.

We would like to experience the mystery of the light against the darkness. To quote Saint John the Evangelist: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John, 1,4-5).”

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Light is radiance. In our post “What Makes a Church Beautiful?” we discussed radiance as one of the three things that makes a church beautiful.


16. The Importance of a Designer

An interview with Renzo D’Anselmi, Designer at Laudate Sacred Art

Many priests and parish renovation committees wonder why they should hire a church interior designer. This is a helpful interview for anyone embarking on this process.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Interviewer: Why should a parish pay for a designer for their church interior? What does a church interior designer offer?

The church is not a building constructed for this world alone. When we enter a church we are reminded of our final end which is union with God. We should have a sense or foreshadowing of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Part of the designer’s work involves achieving the sacred sense, which requires restoring beauty to the church interior. What gives a church its unique beauty? The qualities of radiance, unity and proportion. (See our article, “What Makes a Church Beautiful?“) A church interior designer helps you to develop a vision to restore beauty and translates the vision into a plan, both as physical drawings on paper but also – in conjunction with the project manager and finance committee – a plan and timeline for successfully executing the project within budget.

Interviewer: Haven’t liturgical designers wreaked havoc in Catholic churches, especially in the “wreck-o-vations” many of us have experienced?

Unfortunately, the Church has suffered through a craze of “Change for the Sake of Change” for the past fifty years. Some of this craze for change has been based on misunderstandings and well-intentioned calls for liturgical relevance. Therefore, it is important to find a designer who understands the history of church architecture and design and is not trying to be “original” per se. This requires both knowledge and humility.

Your designer should be able to incorporate necessary changes without violating the principles of ecclesiastical art and architecture. Your designer should be able to see new possibilities while respecting the traditions of the past 2000 years.

Interviewer: What about the painters or other crafts persons? Can’t they make the design decisions?

At Laudate Sacred Art, we work closely with painters and other crafts persons and value their insights and suggestions. Often they have just the solution for a problem at hand. However, painters and craft persons are usually experts in their own specific field. A church interior designer has the training and a broader perspective to see the unity of the work as a whole.

Interviewer: What if we have an historic church and don’t want a church interior designer coming in and making things “new” or “original”?

Your instinct to preserve your historic church is a good one. A church interior designer should respect and work carefully to preserve the existing patrimony of the church. We do not want to squander the beauty we have inherited! So much has already been lost. So it requires respect for the beauty that is present in the existing architecture and an understanding of the principles behind it.

Interviewer: If there is an artistic and tradition-loving parishioner with a good design sense, who will do it for free, wouldn’t they be able to design the church interior just as well?

An artistic or tradition-loving parishioner would be excellent to include in the parish renovation committee. However, this person should not take the place of the designer. It is tempting to think that because a person successfully designs a home interior and selects their own colors, furniture, etc. that he or she will be able to design or redesign a church interior. Although the church is the Domus Dei, or “House of God,” designing a church interior is different from designing a home, even a beautiful home.

Interviewer: Why can’t we just ask a parishioner who is also an architect?

Most architects understand the principles of designing a secular building. Unless they also understand the principles of ecclesiastical architecture and art, the church will end up looking and/or functioning like a secular or civic building and will not serve the liturgical or spiritual needs of the parish. The designer needs to understand the liturgical and ecclesiastical principles of church design within the tradition of sacred art and architecture.

Interviewer: What if you are stuck with an ugly modern or art brut church? Is there anything can be done short of tearing it down and rebuilding it?

I would want to see what its strengths are and what is there already that we can work with. This is how the Church meets people; she does not reject them because of their sins, rather she finds out if there is something there to work with. Not every modern church should be torn down and rebuilt. Sometimes it would, in fact, be better to tear it down and rebuild, but you cannot afford to do so and you still have a parish yearning to glorify God. You may not have the budget to rebuild or you may not have the permission of the bishop. How can we work with the structure and the situation? Sometimes the situation may require cosmetics, sometimes it may require major surgery. The ugly modern church may be well-constructed of solid materials and it may be part of local history. For more information, see our article, “What About Modernism?”

For an example of a modern asymmetrical church interior that was redesigned on a limited budget by Laudate Sacred Art, see “Church of Saint Margaret Mary.

Interviewer: What if the parish budget is severely stressed? How can any of this happen now, at what we hope is the end, or near end of a world-wide pandemic?

The history of the Catholic Church is filled with churches, shrines, and monuments built in thanksgiving for the end of a plague or for the intercession of saints. Many times people who survive the sickness will want to donate for this reason, or memorialize a loved one. This is a beautiful and venerable way to honor God, one (or more) of His saints and our beloved dead. It also shows everyone that death and destruction does not have the last word. See our article, “To Build in a Time of Plague” for more inspiring historical examples.

15. To Build in a Time of Plague

The Christian world is full of churches, chapels, and memorials thanking God for halting plagues and honoring the saints for their intercession. The stories are tremendous, as are the works themselves. It is salutary for us to learn about these plague churches built by our predecessors in the faith.

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Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Speaking of salutary, Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, is usually just called La Salute, which means “health.” The plague of 1631-1632 killed one third of the population of Venice, which makes our current pandemic look comparatively less severe. The plague suddenly ceased on November 21, 1631, the day Doge Contarini and Patriarch Tiepola made a vow to dedicate a church to the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Health and Protectress of the Republic of Venice. The architect, Baldassare Longhena, conceived of the church as a crown to honor Mary as Queen. The Venetian Senate decreed the building of the church, and every year on November 21, two bridges of boats are built across the Grand Canal. The Senate of Venice attends Mass along with many Venetians and pilgrims. The vast, octagonal church has two domes and two picturesque bell-towers behind the smaller dome. Built on a platform made of 1,200,000 wooden piles, it is constructed of bricks coated with marble dust. If you have been to Venice you will have seen it located on the Grand Canal, or you may have seen it in famous paintings by Canaletto, J.M.W. Turner or John Singer Sergeant. Its interior holds priceless religious masterpieces by Tintoretto and Titian.

Step closer
“Santa Maria della Salute” by John Singer Sargent, 1904

Salute is one of five plague churches in Venice. The stories of the other plague churches are equally fascinating. I will mention only a few details here.

The La Chiesa di San Giobbe (St. Job), built in 1462-1471 near the Jewish ghetto, is named after the Old Testament saint who was so patient in suffering. La Scuola e Chiesa di San Rocco (The School and Church of San Rocco), built in 1485-1550 and decorated by Tintoretto, is one of the five “Guilds of the Charitable Brethren.” This guild’s particular duty was charity toward plague victims. La Chiesa di San Sebastiano (The Church of Saint Sebastian), built in 1506-1518 and decorated by Veronese, contains artwork depicting plague symbolism from the Bible such as the Pool of Bethesda. La Chiesa del Redentatore (The Church of the Redeemer) designed by Palladio and built after the plague of 1575. As with the Salute, a Doge and a Patriarch of the city made a vow to build a church if the plague would cease. It did, so they commissioned the great architect Andrea Palladio to design it on the island of Giaddecca, across the Grand Canal.

Church of the Redeemer, Venice

Venice was subject to the ravages of the plagues of Europe because it was the center of trade for the Eastern Mediterranean and the caravan routes of Asia. But European cities such as Cologne (whose name refers to perfumed waters thought to ward off the plague!), Munich, Bingen, Oberammergau, Vienna, and other cities have churches, chapels, monuments, memorials, and artworks thanking God for halting plagues and imploring the intercession of the saints.

So let us pray to the saints in Heaven for their intercession in this our time of plague that we might not to fall into the despondency, despair, or confusion. Let us makes vows as the Doges and Patriarchs of Venice did, to to build or beautify our churches, even if on a smaller scale. Like them, let us ask the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession, and God, who makes good come out of evil, will surely answer our prayers.

Sculpture in Santa Maria della Salute’s high altar, depicting the City of Venice (figure of young woman on the left) asking Our Lady to banish the plague (figure of old woman running away on right)

For more information on the plagues of Europe, and the plague churches, see The Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine: Avery, Harold (February 1966). “Plague churches, monuments and memorials”Proc. R. Soc. Med59 (2): 110–116. PMC 1900794PMID 5906745

14. Why So Much..Measuring?

An interview with Renzo D’Anselmi, Designer at Laudate Sacred Art

Alwaies measure manie, before you cut anie.
 ~ John Florio, Second Frutes (1591)

Interviewer: Why do you spend time measuring before you begin your sketches? 

In order to redesign or renovate a church, we need to understand the hand and the mind that made the building. What is the geometry of this church? What are the mathematics of it? It is like learning the secret of the building, but a secret in plain sight. We have to measure in order to find it out.

Interviewer: But aren’t you looking to make changes and do something creative with the space?

It is vitally important to respect the reality of the existing structure and to seek as much as possible to preserve what is already good in it. The only way to do this is to measure what is already there, both the original design and the changes that have accrued over time, some good and some not-so-good. When I measure, I discover what already is, and understand it well, before making more changes.

Interviewer: What practical advantage does a knowledge of the geometry or mathematics of a church give the designer?

It allows me to understand the proportions of the building, both the individual parts to the whole, and the relationships between the parts. As a result, I will not impose disproportionate forms, which would lead to a hodgepodge or “pastiche.” I discover what needs to be added or subtracted. Measuring on site also allows me to time to ponder important liturgical aspects of the design, since it is where the sacred liturgy actually takes place.

Interviewer: When everyone is excited about new ideas, renditions, drawings, and improvements to an existing church, could you briefly summarize why is it so important to spend time measuring?

Measuring allows the liturgical designer to make an integrated, thoughtful, and beautiful design for the renovation or restoration.

Interviewer: In some ways you sound like the mysterious figure in Ezekiel, “with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand” (Ezekiel 40).  Are there any other historical precedents for measuring?

There is the Renaissance architect Bramante, who measured all the ancient buildings of Rome, Naples and Tivoli, before starting his own masterpieces. And of course, there is the favorite proverb of tailors and carpenters: “Measure twice, cut once!”

June 2019 Posted by Karen D’Anselmi

13. The Stations of the Cross ~ A Short Meditation for Lent

Jesus Takes Up His Cross, Our Lady of Peace Church, Stratford, CT

        When we enter any Catholic Church, we immediately focus our gaze on the end of our journey: Our Lord at the altar, and His victory over death. The architecture emphasizes the journey to the sanctuary, a journey we make in union with all the faithful across time and space. It is our common hope to enter the eternal banquet of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

        Before His  victory over death was accomplished, Our Lord made this journey carrying the wood on which He would be crucified. The Stations of the Cross illustrate the stages of Christ’s journey on the walls on either side of the nave. They are worthy of meditation along our life journey both as individuals and as a community.

        Depicting fourteen images from the day of His crucifixion, the Stations begin with his condemnation to death by Pilate and end with his entombment. In Latin they are called the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) or the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering). The tradition of following along the Via Crucis, meditating upon each station, began in Jerusalem and may have been started by Our Blessed Mother herself.

        Promoted by the Franciscan Friars, the stations were popularized throughout Christian lands in the 15th century because they allowed the faithful to make a mini-pilgrimage to Jerusalem within their own local churches, since it was difficult and often dangerous to visit the Holy Land

Case study: Our Lady of Peace Church, Stratford, CT:

        In Our Lady of Peace Church, the stations are austere in style to match the style of the Normandy-inspired church. Like the large wooden crucifix hanging in the sanctuary, the stations are hand-carved from oak. The Stations of the Cross may be made of other materials such as plaster or stone, but here, in Our Lady of Peace Church, their “native” material, wood, is used: the material Jesus Himself carried, and upon which he died. The renovation of Our Lady of Peace Church involved bringing these original Stations of the Cross back to life by cleaning, protecting, and embellishing them.

Jesus Falls for the Third Time, Our Lady of Peace Church, Stratford, CT

        The cross on Christ’s halo is painted with red pigment symbolizing His Passion, and the blood He shed for our sins. The halo is gilded in 23 K gold leaf, a precious metal that never tarnishes, representing Heaven, our desired destination.

Station IV with Blessed Mother
Jesus Meets His Sorrowful Mother, Our Lady of Peace Church, Stratford, CT

        Meditation upon the Stations of the Cross is an integral part of our Lenten journey with Christ, who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”  Making the journey to Jerusalem in spirit, we accompany Our Lord while reflecting upon and responding to, His tremendous love for us.

Note: We are indebted to Margaret Visser’s excellent book, The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church. [New York: North Point Press (a division of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 2000].

Posted 2019 by Karen D’Anselmi

12. Start Small

On Pentecost the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to found the Church. On that day, over three thousand were baptized: an impressive increase for Day One. However, in terms of architecture, you could argue that the Church was born in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is small.  Most good, even great, things start that way.  Here we find the newborn Jesus. A few animals, a few visitors.  Under a simple structure to protect a small family.

All great saints started small.  Their great projects started small. In the case of St. Francis, the tiny Portiuncula chapel was the third church that he restored after receiving his mandate from Christ: “Rebuild My Church.”  Here he came to understand his vocation more clearly in 1209, and to found the Order of Friars Minor. The basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli was built over the Portiuncula in 1679.

Portiuncula, inside Santa Maria degli Angeli Church, Assisi, Italy

At the Portiuncula, which was and is the center of the Franciscan Order, Saint Francis gathered his friars in Chapters (general meetings) each year, to discuss the Rule, to rediscover their fervor and then set off again to proclaim the Gospel.  Millions have visited this tiny chapel to receive the Portiuncula indulgence (or have traveled to receive the indulgence at designated affiliates) and many copies of this tiny church have been built throughout the world.

portiuncola at Franciscan
Portiuncola at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Steubenville, Ohio

A few centuries later another tiny church was built in the city of Rome. On the spot where St. Peter was crucified, in the outer cloister of a much larger church, stands a tiny chapel called “the Tempietto,” or little temple.

tempietto by Bramante
Bramante’s Tempietto, Rome, Italy


Commissioned by King Ferdinand of Spain, it was built around 1510 by Donato Bramante, a visionary who took his inspiration from ancient buildings such as the Temple of Vesta and the Roman Pantheon.  This tiny church has a hemispherical, concrete dome on the top and perfectly spaced niches and pilasters on the main body. A ring of doric style columns completes the outside. Contemporary critics such as Georgio Vasari considered it one of Bramante’s masterpieces, and it became an inspiration for the “rebirth” of architecture in the Renaissance and beyond.

The Tempietto has an intimacy in scale, yet it dares to be a House of God.  It has a mini-grandeur within the wild grandeur of the universe.  Large buildings, in order to feel intimate, need to have human scale. Small buildings, by contrast, dare to do big things, and point towards infinity with the humility of their proportions.

One of our favorite projects at Laudate Sacred Art is Our Lady of the Way Chapel in Hyde Park, New York.  This historic wayside chapel is presently being restored using funds raised by a small but dedicated congregation consisting of Catholic students at the Culinary Institute of America and friends of the chapel.  The more grandiose buildings of the rest of the former Jesuit Seminary now house an internationally famous cooking school, but the chapel is still administered by the Archdiocese of New York. Smaller than most living rooms and seating about twenty- four congregants, it is a gem of sacred architecture and a model for the “small church” movement of our times.

Our Lady of the Way Chapel outside view
Our Lady of the Way Chapel, Hyde Park, New York

The final point of this short article, is “Do not be afraid to start small.”  Do not be afraid to stay small. For even great architects, no project is too small.  For all architects, designers, lovers of architecture and design, and anyone who wants to experience the Divine, small is beautiful.  Small is Bethlehem.

Nativity Walnut Shell - 203-3-137


7. What is Scale, Anyway?

We notice it when it is missing.

We lament that a church “lacks scale.” But what does it mean?  What is the difference between a church that has scale and one that does not? In architecture, scale refers to the relative size of architectural parts as compared with the whole or as compared with the human figure.  The human aspect is key.  When you, the lowly “human figure,” enter a church (or any building) that lacks scale, you feel disconnected, disoriented, lost or anonymous. Dehumanized.

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6. Critique by Making ~ Michelangelo

Embed from Getty Images

It is all too easy to be an armchair critic. I know. I am presently sitting in an armchair.

We are surrounded by ugliness and distress. It is easy to become resentful and attack, (from the armchair of course) all that is ugly.

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