The Second Vatican Council's groundbreaking Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) states that "the church has not
adopted any particular style of art as its very own but has
admitted styles from every period, according to the proper
genius and circumstances of peoples and the requirements of
the many different rites in the church" (#123). Echoing this, the
National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States
wrote in Built of Living Stones (2000) that "there is no standard
pattern for church art nor should art and architectural styles
from one particular period be imposed arbitrarily on another
community. Nonetheless, the patrimony of sacred art and
architecture provides a standard by which a parish can judge
the worthiness of contemporary forms and styles" (#147).
With these and similar writings, the Church admits that
every age and people may rely on their own artistic styles to
express their faith. However, we are asked to rely on the rich
tradition of church art and architecture to guide us in these
endeavors. This holds true for the building and renovation of
churches, as well as for incorporating art into churches, and
the creation of seasonal liturgical decor that "heightens the
awareness or the festive, solemn, or penitential nature of these
seasons" (Built of Living Stones, #123). Therefore, any liturgical
decor needs to adhere to basic principles inherent in these traditions
of the Church. Defining these principles is not always easy,
but the following virtues can provide a basic criterion for creating
liturgical decor that supports the integrity of the liturgy.
The virtue of claritas requires transparency and simplicity.
The 2003 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#292) states
that the "church décor should contribute toward the church's
noble simplicity rather than ostentation." This kind of simplicity
presumes a profound respect for the "dignity of the entire
sacred space" and above all a concern with "the instruction of
the faithful." In this way, liturgical decor illumines, inspires,
and instructs those who celebrate the liturgy. This goal is not
attained through overpowering the people with beauty and
excess, but by inviting people into the liturgy with decor that
is simple, transparent, and uncluttered. An abundant use of
even "meaningful" symbols can obscure the liturgy, while
transparency allows primary symbols to express themselves
The liturgy is supported by the expressive power of the
symbols themselves, rather than through add-ons, novelties, or
clever effects. The Easter chasuble communicates meaning through
the design, material, and colors, rather than through applied words
or slogans. Although we might think that secondary symbols
enhance the chasuble, they can easily distract from it. A chasuble
marks the office of the priest and adds to the liturgical
season through its color without explaining it. The same holds
true for banners and other textiles such as the altar cloth, which
is simply a beautifully made cloth that covers the altar. They are
not intended to explain the season or feast; they support it.
The virtue of consonantia presumes harmony and appropriateness.
It requires that seasonal decor be in harmony with the liturgy
and is appropriate to the worshipping assembly it serves. Each
aspect should be in harmony with the whole. Is it in scale with
the building? Does it obscure anything essential in the space?
The baptismal font may be appropriately decorated with living
plants and flowers, but they must be in scale, not preventing
sight or access to the font.
The virtue of integritas relies on honesty and integrity. It
assumes that the liturgical decor is honest and free from all
pretense. Nothing that pretends to be other than what it is has a
place in the liturgical celebration. This holds true for the architecture,
art, and decor.
Seasonal decor needs to be genuine in its material,
form, and design. Anything that is fake or imitation should be
avoided. That is why the liturgy requires real plants that need
care - plants that live, die, bloom, and become dormant. Only
genuine decor can serve a liturgy that is genuine and thus give
birth to genuine Christians.
The virtue of fortitudo embodies strength. It requires the decor
to bear the weight of the mystery of God's love for us as expressed
in the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. If the liturgy celebrates
this mystery and the seasonal decor supports this celebration,
then nothing that is part of the decor can be whimsical,
cute, or trendy. The liturgical decor communicates this paschal
reality through profundity, gravitas, and an inner strength.
When done well, the liturgical decor for the entire Easter
season, with its lilies and spring flowers, its festive banners and
textiles, will possess characteristics of these four virtues: transparency,
harmony, integrity, and strength. This decor will then
serve to enhance the Easter liturgies, and in turn support the
© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609
is Director of Liturgy and Sacred
Arts at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.