Transfiguration Mosaic Symbolism

Ask a first-time visitor to Shadyside about the biggest surprise in our worship space, and the response likely will be our mosaic of the Transfigured Christ.  Many are taken with its sheer beauty.   Some think it unusual for a Presbyterian church.  A few express concern about an image of Christ in a church squarely in the Reformed tradition. These same would probably mention the prevalent use of explicit symbolism throughout the nave and chancel.

The use of symbols and images in worship is commended by their teaching (or, perhaps, reminding) value.  Those who express concern might do so because of the temptation to worship the image or symbol – idolatry in its rudimentary form.  The planners of the 1937 sanctuary remodeling showed confidence in the maturity of worshippers here to learn and be inspired, rather than to fall into adoration of objects.

Close inspection of German artist Rudolph Scheffler’s tilework reveals many instructive symbols.  Those at Shadyside who have studied the mosaic conclude that Christ is depicted at the Transfiguration.  An Ascendant Christ is not believed to be the subject, since there are no wounds of the Crucifixion seen on his hands and feet. The stunning beauty itself point to  the Transfiguration story, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”   The halo-like object is called a nimbus, traditionally indicating holiness.  This one has three rays within it, a tri-radiant nimbus, reserved exclusively for the Triune God.  In fact, within each ray of the nimbus, there is an oval surrounded by four circles. There is a reference to a jeweled nimbus in Church Symbolism by F R Weber and Ralph Adams Cram.  Like a jeweled crown, this represents the highest majesty and therefore is used only in connection with the Deity.  Having thus identified Jesus, Scheffler depicts his hands in the gesture of blessing.

The Gospel accounts tell of a surrounding cloud, from which the Father spoke.  In the mosaic, the cloud rolls back into ten “cloudlets,” recalling the Ten Commandments, the Law. Moses was at the Transfiguration, representing the Law.  If this reading is correct, by a principle of parallelism, we should find reference to the Prophets through Elijah, also present at the Transfiguration. A common symbol for Elijah is a red vestment, an allusion to his ascent to Heaven of a fiery chariot. Does Scheffler suggest Eliljah by giving a reddish cast to the cloak Jesus wears?

Twelve stars array around Jesus, a number with many associations (the apostles, the tribes of Israel, the Minor Prophets).  It can certainly symbolize the disciples, three of whom were with Jesus on the mountain.  Doubtless, this does not exhaust the mosaic’s symbolism.  The Byzantine inspiration of the mosaic is coherent with our architecture. Rome and Byzantium were primary influences on the Romanesque.

Perhaps the composition as a whole should remind us of two divine benedictions at the Transfiguration:  The Father’s loving instruction, “This is my Son, whom I love…Listen to him!” The Son’s pastoral encouragement, “Get up…Don’t be afraid.”

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Transfiguration Mosaic


Apse Mosaic depicting the Transfiguration – Shadyside Presbyterian Church

We know little about the artistic conception of Shadyside’s stunning mosaic of the Transfigured Christ. Rudolf Scheffler, a native German artist, designed the mosaic located in the church’s apse.  The apse was an addition to the chancel that was created from the space formerly occupied by the organ and offices.  This graceful termination was suggested by John Weber, Secretary of the University of  Pittsburgh, who was engaged to consult on the 1938 sanctuary remodeling.  Mr. Weber had done a study of European architecture in connection with the contemporaneous construction of Heinz Memorial Chapel.

Detail of Shadyside Mosaic

There has been some analysis of symbolism in the mosaic, although nothing has been discovered of Scheffler’s intent.  There is, however, ample and ancient precedent for subject, medium and location of this work of art.  Two sixth century Transfiguration mosaics still exist, apparently completed within decades of one another.

Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy

Photo Credit: Sacred Destinations  Some Rights Reserved

The earlier, at Sant’Apollinare in Classe the harbor town of Ravenna, Italy, is in the basilica consecrated in 549 A.D.  Here, the upper portion of the mosaic portrays the Transfiguration, while the lower portion honors Saint Apollinaris (ordained as bishop by Saint Peter, according to tradition).  The head of Christ is located at the juncture of a Latin Cross.  Moses and Elijah are portrayed and identified, while the Disciples (Peter, James and John) are represented by sheep.  Stars and clouds fill the apse, which is echoed by Scheffler’s scheme at Shadyside, as is the ample use of gold tiles.  The cross is studded with jewels as is the surrounding circle.  These typically recall the royalty of Christ.  Similar jewels are found at Shadyside, in the nimbus surrounding the head of Jesus.  The Italian mosaic symbolically includes many more details of the Transfiguration story than Scheffler’s design.

Detail of Heads, St. Apollinaris (Ravenna) & Christ (Pittsburgh)

Credit for photo on left: Sacred Destinations  Some Rights Reserved

Close examination of the details above shows Scheffler using techniques similar to the Byzantine mosaicist in depicting highlights and shadow. Both appear to have eyes of exaggerated size.  Both figures are outlined in a line of black tiles.  Both appear to be more than two-dimensional, yet somewhat flatter than a realistic portrayal.  It is interesting to note that mosaics from eras both earlier and later than the sixth century example exhibit a more three-dimensional appearance.  They also have such features as cast shadows, not seen in the Ravenna or Pittsburgh mosaics.  Scheffler seems to have carefully evoked the style of the early Byzantine era.

Church of the Virgin Monastery of St Catherine at Mt. Sinai

Photo Credit: Katapi Bible Resource Pages

Completed about 565 A.D., the Church of the Virgin at the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Egypt at  Mt.Sinai, has a mosaic depicting the same five persons.  Here, the complete figure of Christ is shown and the disciples take human form.   Again, gold is a predominant color in the composition.  Christ is surrounded by a blue mandorla and is depicted with a nimbus, both symbols of holiness.  The Transfiguration was the subject of an earlier (no longer extant) mosaic in  Constantinople.  An apse mosaic dating from 527 A.D. at Santi Cosma e Damiano in Rome is similar but depicts Christ’s Second Coming.

Monastery at Dafni, Greece

Photo Credit: Christian Frescoes and Icons Studio

The subject and medium continued to be joined in Christian art. An eleventh century example exists in a monastery at Dafni, Greece.  Similarities with the Ravenna mosaic are apparent.  Here Moses, Elijah and the disciples each are shown with a nimbus (without the tri-radiant feature that indicates Christ’s divinity).

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican

Photo Credit: St. Peter’s

In 1767, a mosaic reproduction of Raphael’s painting of the Transfiguration was completed in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Compared to its precedents, Shadyside’s mosaic is somewhat chaste, if such a description can be applied to a work so elegant.  However, the Byzantine roots of the Romanesque and its revival are well commemorated in this beloved feature of the church’s worship space.

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Four Liturgical Centers – The Table

This is one of a series of four posts on Shadyside’s liturgical furnishings.

The Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion.  The Eucharist.  The meaning and nature of this sacrament divided the Sixteenth Century Reformers from the Roman Catholic Church.  Further, understandings  of the Lord’s Supper varied enough among the Reformers to divide the movement into separate denominations.  It is no surprise, then, that the liturgical center associated with this sacrament is subject to so many interpretations.

An altar is used in Catholic liturgy and Christ’s sacrifice is central to their celebration of the sacrament. Protestants are uncomfortable with an act that appears to repeat the sacrifice.  Reformed belief holds that the sacrifice was made once for all at the Crucifixion.  Any repetition implies that it was insufficient.  A somewhat nuanced view of Catholic theology is that there was one sacrifice, but that the benefits are experienced by the faithful each time they participate in the Eucharist.

Roman Catholic Altar, St. Peter’s Catacombs, Salzburg, Germany – photo credit: Art History Images

Anglican Communion Table, St Michael’s Church, Irstead, Norfolk ,  England – photo credit: ChelmsfordBlue

Some sources indicate that Catholic doctrine characterizes the Eucharist as both sacrifice and meal. However, Pope Benedict XI rejected the Reformed singular focus on The Lord’s Supper. Writing as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), he claimed,

“…the Eucharist that Christians celebrate really cannot adequately be described by the term “meal”. True, the Lord established the new reality of Christian worship within the framework of a Jewish (Passover) meal, but it was precisely this new reality, not the meal as such, that he commanded us to repeat.”

For the Presbyterian view of the Communion Table and its use in the sacrament, we do well in turning to the Reverend Dr. John Dalles. He is Pastor of Wekiva Presbyterian Church (Longwood, FL), a prolific hymn writer, a student of worship and its setting, who has additional credentials as a trained architect.  A native of Pittsburgh, Dr. Dalles is also a long time friend of Shadyside  Church  .

“The Table (sometimes called The Communion Table or The Lord’s Table), is the place of the ministry of the Sacrament of The Lord’s Supper. The table symbolizes the ongoing spiritual presence and care that Christians receive from and in our Lord Jesus Christ.  The table is our reminder of the Lord’s Supper, which both commemorates the Last Supper and is a foreshadowing of the great heavenly banquet Jesus proclaims.  It is important to note that during the Reformation which brought about the Presbyterian denomination, the Reformers insisted that a simple table replace what had been the altar.  It was called the “Table of the Lord” to make the immediate connection with the table in the Last Supper, and to distinguish it from the concept of a sacrificial altar.  Because of its symbolism, the table is to be present even when it is not a communion Sunday, and even if the sanctuary is not being used for worship.”

Communion Table, Wekiva Presbyterian Church

“Our Communion Table at Wekiva Presbyterian Church is part of a redesigned Chancel, completed several years ago. All of the Chancel furniture is made of oak, based upon an organic design that incorporates variations on the cross in the supporting members.  The table, as well as the font and pulpit, were custom made by a  Central Florida artisan, and were the gift of church members Michael and Deborah Owen.  The choir rail and supplemental Chancel furniture (including the stands for the flowers as well as our Christ Candle) were made by our own members, to a design in keeping with the pulpit, font and table, by church member Bruce Rogers.  He completed these with a group of volunteer helpers (including my wife Judy).  The new Chancel area remains in keeping with the late 20th century architecture of the Sanctuary, yet has a stronger symbolic and artistic presence than what preceded it.”

Detail: Table, Wekiva Presbyterian Church, Cruciform pattern echoed in design

Part of the symbolism adopted by some Reformed churches was to use a liturgical center that looks like a table. This includes such attributes as construction of wood and an open design under the tabletop, so that it would be possible to be seated at the table.  (This distinguished it from an altar, which is typically stone and may contain relics in a closed space under the tabletop.)  The table’s location in the worship space was to be close to the congregation:  between the pulpit and the pews, like the table described by Dr. Dalles.

Until 1938, the table used at Shadyside Church conformed to these qualifications. In the sanctuary remodeling of that year, the present Communion Table was installed.  It is made of marble and is not open under the tabletop.  Visible at the front are four columns supporting the tabletop.  This gives the impression that, although closed, it is not a reliquary.  We find it in a semi-circular apse at the Eastern end of the chancel.  It would be hard to deny that Shadyside has a very “altar-y looking” Communion Table!

Communion Table, Shadyside Presbyterian Church

However, its use is emphatically as the Lord’s Table. The pastors assemble behind it, facing the congregation to break the bread and fill the cup.  A pastor offers the elements to all those assembled, often saying, “These are the gifts of God, for you, the people of God.”  The church’s elders (ordain laypersons) serve the bread and cup to the pastors (seated behind the Table) and the congregation in the pews.  This reinforces the sense that through this meal, they are in communion with the Risen Christ, with each other and with Christians of all time and every place.  All those receiving the elements are gathered around the table (somewhat more than symbolically) for the communal meal.

Like all of the liturgical furnishings at Shadyside, the Communion Table is carved with explicit Christian symbolism. On the central panel is a raised carving of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.  A banner signifies that through his crucifixion and resurrection, he has defeated death – a victory he shares with us through his invitation to commune with him.  This symbolism reminds us that the sacrament is more than a commemoration.  It is a means of grace that gives us evidence of our connection to Christ.

Detail: Shadyside Table, Agnus Dei

And so, we have examples of two ways expressing and symbolizing the sacrament: At Wekiva, a traditional open, wooden table, reinterpreted in fresh proportions and forms that are, at once, spare and elegant.  At Shadyside, a table of a design that recalls the ancient origins of the sacrament while facilitating Reformed practice which seeks to recover the ancient meanings of Communion.  A third example combines the simple, wooden table model with intentional expression of Christian symbolism.  Hampton Presbyterian Church is congregation in the North Hills of Pittsburgh,  PA.

Beginning in the Fall of 2008, the Rev. Dr. Ted Martin (Pastor) and Bill Haberlein (congregation member) began a labor of love constructing a communion table that would reflect the depth of God’s love for His people. Built into the table are several layers of symbolic representation and correlation to the sanctuary.

The primary wood is cherry, a domestic hardwood native to Western Pennsylvania. The particular wood of this table comes directly from the backyard of one of Bill’s friends.  The cherry will darken to a deep red hue reminding us all of the blood sacrifice that Jesus made upon the cross for our sakes.

Communion Table, Hampton Presbyterian Church

The tabletop is made of 10 boards; each board represents one of the Ten Commandments. The boards are fastened together with biscuit joiners.  The number used is as follows: 7, 5, 3, seven for the days of creation, five for the Pentateuch, three for the Trinity.  The shape of the top is an oval.  There is no head or foot to this table, because when we gather around the Lord’s Table, we are all one in Christ with equal stature.

Detail: Hampton Table, Trinity/Fish Symbols

Embedded as an inlay central to the tabletop is a traditional symbol of the Trinity: three interlocking circles.  The materials are hard maple (for the purity of Jesus Christ) and Walnut (a precious hardwood that distinguishes the symbol of the fish).  In Greek, the word for fish results when the acrostic “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” is spelled out.  This symbol, used during the time of Roman persecution, indicated the location of the church body. Here, it points to the people gathered in the sanctuary.

Detail: Hampton Table, Trinity/Fish Symbols, Tau & Chi Symbols

The legs of the table are designed to match the architectural structure of the cruck beams in the sanctuary. These beams recall the hull of a ship, long a symbol of the Church.  When viewed straight-on, the legs form an “X” or “Chi, the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. The pedestal that connects to the tabletop forms “T”; a reminder of the cross that Jesus hung upon to redeem us from sin.  At the bottom of the pedestal is a tear drop for the tears Jesus shed in the garden.  Each leg has pairs of buttons at the attachment point to the pedestal.  Two buttons represent the Law and the Prophets.  Jesus came to fulfill all that was written in the Law and the Prophets.

The designs here do not begin to exhaust the possibilities for the Lord’s Table in the Reformed tradition. The range would be even wider if we were to examine those denominations who see Communion as merely a remembrance or those, such as the Baptists, who do not consider it to be a sacrament.  The three Presbyterian tables here do show the same high regard for worship in Word and sacrament demonstrated by the Reverend Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, long time pastor of Shadyside Church.  He presided over the 1938 sanctuary remodeling that gave such a prominent place and exquisite execution to Shadyside’s Communion Table.  Five years earlier, he and the leaders of his church instituted Worldwide Communion Sunday.  Nearly eight decades later, it continues to be celebrated widely on the first Sunday in October.  The Hampton Presbyterian Table was first used in worship on World Communion Sunday, October 2, 2011.  Learn about The Pulpit.

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Four Liturgical Centers – The Font

This post is one of four covering the principal worship centers.  There is ample carved symbolism on Shadyside’s baptismal font. On a more fundamental level, the presence of a prominent baptismal font in the nave is, in itself, symbolic.  Few photographs of the church’s sanctuary from before 1937 exist.  The presence of a free-standing font or a bowl is not apparent in them.  A prominent, substantial font may signal the choice to place more emphasis on the sacraments, or perhaps, an urging to do so.

We know that Hugh Thomson Kerr held a high view of the sacraments. As Shadyside’s Pastor, he initiated “Worldwide Communion Sunday” in 1933 – shortly before the 1937 remodeling.  Shortly thereafter, his book “The Christian Sacraments” was published in 1944.  In it he makes this claim for the two sacraments observed in Protestant tradition.

God makes use of common things to manifest his grace to men…Before the Gospels were written, before the Epistles were penned, before the conversion of Paul or the gathering in of the Gentiles, the early Christians were celebrating the sacraments, and the testimony of history is to the fact that there has never been a week, perhaps not a day, since Pentecost that the sacraments have not witnessed to the Christian faith.

Traditional Site of Baptism of Jesus – River Jordon – photo credit Bob McCaffrey – Flickr

For a practice this old, it is not surprising that there have been variations in and controversy over the means of administration of baptism.  Christ’s own baptism took place in the flowing waters of the River Jordon.  There are those who hold that Christian baptism must be by immersion in flowing water.  There is evidence, however, that church leaders gave permission, if not encouragement, for other means.  In the Didache, a very early church document, we find:

…baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living [running} water. But if thou hast not living water then baptize in any other water; and if thou art not able in cold, in warm.  But if thou hast neither, pour water upon the head thrice…

Archeology site near Milan Early Baptismal Pool – Photo Credit: Holly Hayes – Flickr

There are so many disagreements as to location, method, qualification and meaning of baptism that we cannot even attempt to catalogue them here. As for the font, the earliest were large enough (pools, really)  for immersion of an adult.  Later, apparently, smaller fonts for immersion of infants were used.  These became very common by the 800s, when infant baptism became the widespread practice.  Fonts like Shadyside’s, a vessel permanently mounted on a pedestal, apparently came into common use in Medieval England.

12th Century Font – Winchester Cathedral – Photo Credit: Philocrates – Flickr

Many fonts are eight sided, a form to which Shadyside’s base conforms. There is a reference to eight being the symbol of new life:  Christ was resurrected on the “eighth day of Holy Week,” counting from Palm Sunday.  Baptism’s connection is to the cleansing from sin to a new life, associating the Christian with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.

St. John’s Episcopalian Church, Aberdeen Photo Credit: Nick in exsilio – Flickr Shows octagonal form, pedestal mount, stone carving and wooden cover as seen at Shadyside’s Font

Location for Shadyside Font adjacent to Pulpit, proposed by architect Wilson Eyre & McIlvaine in 1937

There are a number of placements for the baptismal font, in the various church traditions. For example, in the Anglican churches, the font is often located at the entrance to and within the nave – associating baptism with joining the church.  In Roman Catholic churches, baptism is sometimes (though not necessarily) a private ceremony.  The font may be placed in a side chapel or in the narthex.  In the Reformed tradition, baptism is a corporate act of the whole church.  This usually means the font is near the front of the sanctuary, in plain view of the congregation.  This is the case at Shadyside Church.  An early arrangement had the font near the Pulpit – but it was moved across the chancel, perhaps for balance.

While many Presbyterian churches use a font as simple as a small silver bowl, Shadyside’s Font is substantial in size and replete with carved symbolism. The modest bowl was adopted by the Puritans who considered an elaborate font “too Romish.”  Our Font was custom designed for Shadyside by Charles Marcus Osborn, during the sanctuary remodeling in 1938.  Below is a detail from the full size drawing made by Osborn to instruct the stone carver.  It is done in pencil on tracing paper (a thin, semi-transparent medium just a little heavier that tissue).  The church is fortunate that this and other fragile drawings by Osborn have been preserved.  The depiction uses a combination of measured, ruled lines and freehand treatment.

The wave-like pattern is a clear reference to the baptismal waters, even the waters of the Jordan where John baptized Christ. The shell motif is a common baptismal symbol for its use in pouring.  The descending dove refers to the Holy Spirit which came down upon Christ.

Carving detail for wood font cover.

A case could be made for placing the Font on the central axis of the church at the foot of the chancel stairs.  Its association with resurrection would complete the crucifixion symbol of the Cross on the Communion Table.  However, traditions and the objections of brides may make this no more than an interesting discussion point.  Learn about The Table.

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Four Liturgical Centers – The Lectern

Lectern at Shadyside Presbyterian Church

This post is one of four covering the principal worship centers.  The lectern, compared to the pulpit, font and communion table, sometimes seems to have a secondary status. This may be because its purpose is misunderstood and diluted.  From the lectern we receive the grace of hearing God’s Word read.  In many churches, much of worship (other than preaching and the sacraments) is conducted from the lectern.  This is fine, as long as we do not lose sight of the sacramental nature of four main worship components.

View of chancel at Shadyside Church – lectern toward right

In the Reformed tradition, our worship is in Word and Sacrament – as is true in some other traditions, as well. The Sacraments are the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.  We have, also, the Word proclaimed (preaching) and the Word read (scripture).  Since the Reformation, so much emphasis has been placed on preaching that scripture reading may be perceived as merely preliminary to proclamation.  There is, however, a distinct and inherent grace  imparted during the active hearing of the Word read.

A properly chaste lectern at Bower Hill Presbyterian Church

A high view of the importance of a lectern is neither universal nor a continuous element of  worship through Church history.  Today, many advocate a “table of the Word” from which scripture is both read and preached.  In 1964, the influential author on Protestant worship, James F. White wrote, “…why should the reading of the lessons be separated from the preaching of the Word?  Indeed, placing the Bible on a lectern apart from the pulpit suggests that the sources and authority of printed Word and preached Word are different.  Would it not be better to have the Word read from the same spot where it is expounded?”

A Table of the Word of Ambo in a Roman Catholic Church

There is no indication whether the Primitive Church set aside a place to read scripture in worship.  We do know that some early house churches had a “bishop’s chair,” and that Jewish custom was to stand to read scripture and to sit to teach from it.  Apparently, the lectern shares a common origin with the pulpit:  the ambo.  The ambo was a raised platform extended from the chancel into the nave.  Its roots were in Roman civic buildings, where the ambo was used to expound upon a point of view.

Ambo extending from chancel in an early basilica church

A clearly distinct lectern came into use in the middle ages, particularly in churches intended for use by monastic orders. Worship in such places took place chiefly within the chancel.  The portion of the chancel at liturgical West (toward the church entrance), called the choir, was occupied by  “minor clergy.”  On the chancel centerline in the choir, a lectern served to read the scripture lessons.

St. John’s Chapel Chichester, Sussex, England

After the Reformation, many experiments with the shape and arrangement of the worship space were tried. In some cases, such an emphasis was placed on preaching and the pulpit that the lectern was omitted.  Meetinghouses sometimes made a finer functional distinction and employed the so-called “triple decker.”  A hierarchy of elevation placed the pulpit at the top, a lectern in the middle for reading scripture and a desk on the bottom for conducting other worship elements.

During the nineteenth century, the Cambridge-Camden Society called for a return to medieval architecture and worship. The use of a lectern was one aspect they advocated.  This was favored also in the “second wave” Gothic Revival, led by Ralph Adams Cram.  In his book “Church Building,” he instructs:

“When the pulpit stands on the Gospel side of the church, as should always be the case, the lectern is usually placed in a corresponding position on the Epistle side; but a usage that is now being restored is the placing of the lectern in the middle of the space between the rows of choir stalls…In many ways this position is more convenient and dignified than any other.”

The Gospel and Epistle sides are the left and right, respectively, as the congregation faces the chancel. Never reticent, Cram proscribes and prescribes the form of the altar:

“There is no possible reason why it should be in the form of an eagle;…The realistic bird with natural feathers is, of course, bad art…The triangular lecterns, such as we find all over Europe, are not only convenient, but uniquely beautiful; and we can only hope that their use may be restored.”

Cram’s recommendation for the lectern on the Epistle side became nearly a standard of church architecture in Protestant churches through at least the first half of the twentieth century. As the auditorium worship space regained ascendance, especially in Evangelical churches, the lectern (and eventually the pulpit) disappeared.

Triangular lectern of the type Cram recommends – Calvary Episcopal

Cram was meticulous in his use of Christian symbolism.  The ample symbolic carving on Shadyside’s lectern is the design of his former employee, Charles Marcus Osborne.  The reading desk is supported by the four winged creatures representing the Gospel writers.  The pedestal is formed by three intertwined columns, symbolic of the Trinity.  Between the columns we find the rose and thistle, emblematic of Christ and humanity.  On the reading desk a book is carved:  the Bible, God’s Word.  The legend “Lux In Tenebris” means light in the darkness.

In this church, where the Word proclaimed, the Word read and the Word made visible in the sacraments are crucial in worship, the lectern is substantial, meaningful and beautiful; as is the Word.  Learn about The Font.

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Four Liturgical Centers – The Pulpit

This is one in a series of posts on the four main liturgical furnishings at Shadyside: the pulpit, the table, the lectern and the font.

In the 1937-38 sanctuary remodel at Shadyside Church, the symbolic role of the pulpit underwent major change. In 1890 the original liturgical focus of the auditorium-sanctuary was the combination of two liturgical centers:  a central pulpit on a raised platform, on axis with the communion table located at the foot of the platform.  In the remodel, each retained their importance while moving to different focal centers.

In moving to the north side of the chancel, the pulpit became more substantial in size, reaffirming the high place of preaching in the church, while emphasizing the distinct and complementary roles of Word and Sacrament in Christian worship. Tradition has it that the north location symbolizes the protection of the Word Proclaimed against medieval barbarians.

Colloquially called the “preacher snuffer”, the structure above the pulpit is more conventionally known as a sounding board. Before the twentieth century, sounding boards were to reflect the preacher’s voice to improve acoustics.  At Shadyside, its role is visual, helping define and emphasize the space set apart for proclaiming God’s Word.  Preaching only from the pulpit acknowledges the risk of calling personal attention to the preacher rather than the proclamation.  Many ministers today are willing to take that risk in an effort to preach more intimately.  At Shadyside, both the spirit and the architecture discourage such forays.

Pulpit  – Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh

Admittedly, it is not only a modern practice. Hugh Thomson Kerr, Shadyside’s fifth pastor, notes (in his book Preaching in the Early Church) that in the fourth century, John Chrysostom “…spoke often from the ambo or pulpit, but frequently came down to the reader’s desk among the people.”  This was not to get attention for himself, but to get attention at all.  Dr. Kerr points out, “It was not easy to preach in those days.  People were restless and the congregation seemed always on the move…Some left before or in the midst of the sermon.  Some gossiped at the back of the of the church…”  Surely, this was not a problem for Dr. Kerr, who doubtless had considerable influence on the design of Shadyside’s pulpit, installed during his pastorate.

The detailing of the pulpit was just as carefully designed as the size, shape and location. Carved symbols in the limestone “barrel” and wooden sounding board speak of the many ways our lives can be lived in Christ.

James F. White, the prolific writer on architecture for worship claims, “…the whole story of the incarnation is that of God entering history in the person of a man. And that incarnation continues every time the preacher goes into the pulpit and his words become the vehicle of God’s Eternal Word.  The sermon becomes a means by which God’s saving power is made contemporary to every hearer.  In this sense the pulpit has a very sacred function.  It is not a stand provided for a bit of oratory but veritably the throne of the Word of God.”  (From Protestant Worship and Church Architecture)

St. James Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

If we trace back the Christian use of a pulpit for preaching the Word, we do not make it back to the time of Christ. Indeed, in the case of Jesus, we find in Luke 4:

As was his custom, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. When he stood up to read, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to tell the good news to the poor.  He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set oppressed people free, and to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled, as you’ve heard it read aloud.”

In Jewish custom, one stood to read the scriptures, and sat to teach from them. Certainly, teaching and preaching are not synonymous.  In this case, however, since Jesus is the Word of God, we may assume that his teaching was, in fact, proclamation of the Word.  In fact, the scripture he reads and claims to embody speaks of an anointing to proclamation, “…to tell the good news…to announce release to the prisoners…to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The Old Testament book of Nehemiah says that the priest, Ezra, “…stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose,” according to the King James Version. This is not likely a structure arranged for a single speaker, as we commonly picture a pulpit, because thirteen others stood beside Ezra.  Other translations describe the structure as a platform or podium.

“So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”  Was this preaching?  The reaction of the people indicates it was, for they wept, and later rejoiced when Ezra and Nehemiah declared to them “neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Some four hundred years later, though, Jesus sat to explicate the scriptures. This custom seems to have carried into the earliest structures that were used (occasionally or exclusively) for Christian worship:  homes.   These homes typically had a seat of honor at a table, a natural place from which a Disciple, apostle or prophet would preach.

As congregations grew, a model for their churches was the basilica. It was a Roman civic building with a raised platform at one end of a long room. Upon the platform, a seat of authority (e.g., for a judge) was chosen by churches as an appropriate location for preaching.  It became the cathedra, the bishop’s chair.  The Roman basilica sometimes had one or more extension of the platform into the long room.  Advocates of an issue spoke from these places, called ambos.  Christians adopted the ambo for reading of scripture.  This practice may have grown out of the Jewish use of a bimah (raised platform) for scripture reading in the synagogues and in the Women’s Court of the Temple.  Later, perhaps as a practical acoustical consideration, the ambo was also used for preaching.

Pulpit – S. Apollinare Nuovo, Raven, Italy 6th C, courtesy S J McDonough

In the earliest churches, separate rooms were used for the various components of worship.  At first, catechumens and later the laity were excluded from the room (the chancel or choir) in which the priests celebrated the mass.   The ambo platform in the nave (where the congregation worshiped) became elevated for visibility and hearing the preacher.  Perhaps as a matter of safety, eventually a railing enclosed the platform.  Pulpits became progressively elevated, not only for the benefit of those on the nave floor, but for those in the galleries.

Church of St. Stephen & St. Tathan, Caerwent, Wales, 16th C

According to Richard Kieckherer, “Around the twelfth century, the relatively small ambo can sometimes be distinguished from the more massive and often elaborately carved pulpit…Pulpits became more common in the thirteenth and following centuries, when preaching was increasingly important…” (Theology in Stone)  The pulpit placement was sometimes a significant distance from the chancel.  If the church included side aisles, the pulpit might mount on one of the columns.  Seating was not provided in church naves before the fourteenth century, so the congregation was free to move to the appropriate liturgical center.  When pews came into use, columns often obstructed line of sight to the pulpit and chancel.

St. Mary’s Church, Whitby, North Yorkshire, England, 1778

As the pulpit increasingly became the architectural focus in churches, other liturgical functions migrated to it. “Triple Decker” pulpits, had a reading desk below the preaching position to conduct other parts of worship, and a clerk’s table below the desk.  In many meetinghouse churches, the baptismal font became a bowl that appeared on a shelf of the pulpit, only when that sacrament was celebrated.  In some cases, even the communion table became a mere extension of the pulpit.

This unifying trend was countered by Christopher Wren’s seventeenth century London churches.  He designed for visibility and hearing of the laity but the pulpit, font and altar table each reclaimed distinct locations.  This was not nearly enough for the nineteenth century English Ecclesiologists, who demanded a return to medieval worship and architecture.  For their adherents, worship reverted to a pattern of clergy in the chancel, congregation in the nave, separated by a screen.  The pulpit usually was located at the division between the rooms.

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City

For the past 150 years, churches have chosen from among all the preaching positions described here, except the bishop’s seat. For a time, Protestant churches, where preaching became the nearly exclusive focus of worship, had their pastors speak from what is accurately described as a stage.  In some cases, a massive central pulpit was installed.  In others, the pulpit shrank to lectern size and in some cases became merely a stand to hold the minister’s notes.  By the late twentieth century, contemporary worship came to be led from what literally is a stage.  The last vestige of the pulpit, the note stand disappeared into the teleprompter.  Perhaps it would be not unfamiliar to Ezra, who preached from a platform, seemingly without notes.

However, in the face of these changes, formal, reverential, Reformed worship never died out and in fact is enjoying renewed appreciation. At Shadyside, where honoring God through excellence in this form of liturgy is the tradition, the pulpit – beloved of pastors and parishioners alike – seems the best and only place from which to preach Jesus Christ, the Word of God.  Learn about The Lectern.

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Architecture Tour Part 3 – The 21st Century

For several years the theme of Shadyside Church’s ministry was “Building Community” within the congregation, in Pittsburgh and in the world. In 2009, after years of prayer and planning, the church started construction to make its home more welcoming, a warmer place to gather with better facilities for learning and serving.  Renovations were complete in the Fall of 2010.

A recognizable entrance on Amberson Avenue invites visitors on weekdays.

The cloister courtyard within the new entrance has been transformed into a warm gathering space for fellowship, The Sharp Atrium. The exterior of the sanctuary apse makes an intriguing architectural feature.

The Chapel interior has a lovely new finish, consistent with its Romanesque Revival roots and the pews have been replaced with movable seating to add versatility to the space.

A new stairwell allows direct access to the Parish Hall from the Atrium & Sanctuary – in the process re-establishing an axis of circulation used by horse-drawn carriages arriving at the porte-cochere in the cloister.

The wainscoting and exquisite stone trim were unusual features when the Parish Hall doubled as a basketball court. The gym floor was refinished, new lighting a coffered ceiling and fireplace were added to make this a comfortable space for larger gatherings.

At the north end of the Parish Hall a stage was converted to the Hulme Room for meetings and classes. The windows duplicate those which formerly only lit the stage.

Other renovated spaces are used for Sunday School, the Nursery, Youth along with the Parlor and staff offices.

All of the renovations are within the existing footprint of the historic structure, so the familiar building continues to be an integral part of its neighborhood.

Blessed with this wonderful home by the foresight and generosity of preceding generations, the present congregation is looking ahead to make the renovations a gift to future Shadysiders and those they serve. And, while the architecture is precious and beloved, worship of the Triune Living God is central to everything at Shadyside Church.

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