Church Art

Church Art

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One of the most striking developments in the twentieth century has been the emergence of a strong visual culture through the advances of Information and Communications Technology: CDs, DVDs, and PowerPoint.  The power of the visual image – a good image is worth a thousand words – is the object of much research within advertising, media and newspapers.

One of the primary ways of communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ prior to the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century was in and through visual art and music.  Indeed, the primary mode of catechesis in the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity was largely visual until the printing press.

One of the principal patrons in the development of visual art in the first millennium and right up to the time of the printing press was the Catholic Church.  A close connection exists between art and worship.

There has been a revival in the primacy of visual imagery within contemporary communications.  The power of the image should not be underestimated.  Good art activates the religious imagination.  Through the power of the image, we can move from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the visible to the invisible, and thereby recover the sacramental imagination of Catholicism.

The Religious Imagination can become ‘an epiphany of mystery’ (John Paul II, Letter to Artist, 1999, a.10).

The world “in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.  Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and … resists the erosion of time” (Paul VI, Message to Artists, 8 Dec. 1965).

Today we live in a world in which beauty is often more compelling for many than truth.  Religious art, through the power of imagination, is a vehicle of beauty.

In the course of refurbishing the Church of the Ascension in Balally in 2006, a considerable amount of effort was put into highlighting the importance of visual communication through:

The introduction of stained glass windows depicting the story of Creation as outlined in Chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis;
A bronze representation of the washing of the feet in front of the altar highlights the link between the Eucharist and the service of others as recounted in the Gospel of John Chapter 13;
A symbol of an ancient Torah scroll of Judaism on the lectern containing a verse from Psalm 40;
A tapestry behind the tabernacle depicting the Burning Bush from the book of Exodus Chapter 3;
An aumbry containing the sacred oils for Baptism, Confirmation and the Sacrament of the Sick.

Images tease the mind, open the imagination and help believers to penetrate the great theological mysteries of life and death, human experience and divine transcendence, God and history.  It is essential to establish a relationship between the viewer and the work of art.  Every human being brings his or her own subjective dispositions to a work of art, whether it is sacred or secular – but equally important, every viewer should be able to receive something from the work of art.  The discovery of beauty in art is a two-way process: being open to the work of art and being able to receive what the work of art has to offer.

Fr Dermot A. Lane

The story of  the burning bush is one of the most important narratives in the Hebrew Scriptures, because it is bound up with the Jewish experience of God. Moses, having fled from Egypt, is tending the flock of his father near Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai. Moses sees the strange phenomenon of a bush which is on fire, and yet the bush is not consumed by the flames.  Even more fascinating is the experience of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush, calling him by name: “Moses, Moses”.  Moses draws near and Yahweh replies: “Come no nearer … take off your shoes … the ground on which you stand is sacred” (Exodus 3:5 ).  This narrative of the burning bush is foundational to Jewish origins and identity. We in the West will ask: “What happened?”  In the East, the question is asked: “What did it mean?” If you take the narrative literally, then you may miss the point underlying the meaning and significance of the story of the burning bush. The burning bush is a part of God’s Creation, and Creation is the basic symbol of God’s presence to humanity, that is Creation is the sacrament of God to the world. If you cannot see God in Creation, that is if you cannot discern the footprints of God in the rhythm of nature and the cycle of life, you may not be able to see God in the history of Israel, in the history of Jesus, and in the history of the Christian church.

Poets down through the centuries have been fascinated by the Jewish story of the burning bush.  For example, Elizabeth Browning writes:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

In a somewhat similar manner, Gerald Manley Hopkins points out:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”

Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet, worrying about his faith, points out:

“The rain is falling on the burning bush
Where God appeared”

The story of the burning bush and its artistic representation in the Church of the Ascension raises the following questions:

  •  Is the bush still burning for me?
  • Am I drawn, like Moses, to the burning bush?
  • Am I fascinated by the wonders of God’s Creation?
  • Can I see the presence of God in the cycle of life and the rhythm of nature?
  • Can I connect the presence of God in the burning bush with the historical presence of God in Jesus Christ and the ongoing presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist?

“In the book of the scroll it is written I delight to do your will” (Ps. 40:7-8)

One of the most sacred objects of Jewish ritual is known as the TORAH SCROLL.

The “Torah Scroll” is the name given to the scroll that is used in the synagogue for the reading of the Torah (the Pentateuch) during liturgical services.  Such a scroll must be written by a specially trained scribe who is required to follow very strict rules when writing the text.

He must use only specially prepared parchment from the hide of a ritually ‘clean’ o ‘kosher’ animal, and he must write with a quill in black, durable ink.  He must employ a special script that is characterised by crown-like flourishes at the top of certain letters.

Everything about the Torah Scroll, the material on which it is written, the way in which it is written, its ornamentation and its untouchable character, are all calculated to stress its holiness and to create in the People a sense of reverence for it.

Note that the inscription on “The Torah Scroll” piece is from the Book of Psalms, verse 40

This  bronze representation of the washing of the feet, in front of the altar, highlights the link between the Eucharist and the service of others as recounted in the Gospel of John Chapter 13.


There is a new consciousness throughout society “that world peace is threatened, not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life” (John Paul II, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation, 1 January 1990).

Modern, industrial and scientific disregard for the integrity of creation is causing climate change and expressions of this can be found in the tsunami of 2004 and hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the U.S. in 2005.  John Paul II has pointed out that there is a profound sense in which it can be said that “the earth is ‘suffering’” and that this new awareness “is also shared by those who do not profess our faith in God” (1 January 1990).

One of the key resources for addressing this crisis is the story of Creation as found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  The biblical account of Creation, found in chapters One and Two in the book of Genesis, highlights the unity and integrity of the whole of Creation, as well as the responsibility of all human beings to care for the earth and to be in solidarity with Creation.  The biblical narrative of Creation is also an integral part of the Christian doctrine of the “New Creation” in Christ (2 Cor.5:17)


The introduction of twenty stained-glass windows depicting the biblical account of Creation into the Church of the Ascension is intended to capture some aspects of the wonder of God’s creation: emptiness, darkness, light, vegetation, life, and the uniqueness of the human form.

Surrounding the Church of the Ascension with the story of Creation reminds the worshipping community of the close relationship that exists between Creation and Liturgy in terms of giving praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of life. These “stations of creation” symbolise link that obtains between the celebration of the Eucharist and the exercise of ecological responsibility, and the unity that obtains between the dust of the earth (adamah) and the human (adam).

In the words of contemporary scientists, the Human is cosmic dust in a state of consciousness.  With this new (really old) consciousness there comes a call to care for and cultivate the integrity of God’s creation, the well- being of all human beings, and the good of society.

The introduction of these stained-glass windows on the theme of Creation into the Church of the Ascension is a theological statement about the urgency of respecting the integrity of God’s Creation and a raising of human consciousness to a new responsibility to care for the earth.

The twenty stained-glass windows are called “The Stations of Creation” in order to make a connection with “The Stations of the Cross”.  In this way, a clear link is established between the biblical account of Creation and the historical salvation of the world “in Christ”.

Stained Glass Windows

(Loose association rather than strict representation)

Left hand side from the door Right hand side from Door

1A.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth (Gen.1:1)

1B.  In the beginning the earth was a formless void (Gen.1:2)


2A. God said ‘Let there be light’ (Gen.1:3)


2B.  God separated the light from the darkness(Gen.1:4)

3A. Let the earth put forth vegetation (Gen. 1:11)


3B.  The earth brought forth plants yielding seed of every kind (Gen. 1:12)


4A. Let there be lights in the dome of the sky(Gen. 1:14)

4B .  Let there be lights to give light upon the earth(Gen. 1:15)

5A. Let the waters bring forth living creatures(Gen. 1:20)


5B.   God created every  creature with which the waters swarm (Gen. 1:21)

6A. Let birds multiply on the earth (Gen. 1:22)



6B.   Let birds fly above the earth (Gen. 1:20)



7A. Let us make humankind in our image (Gen. 1:29)


7B.  Male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:27)


8A . I have given you every plant yielding seed(Gen.1:29)


8B.   I have given you every tree with seed in its fruit(Gen. 1:29)


9A.  God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it (Gen.2: 3)


9B.   God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it(Gen. 2:3)


10A. God saw everything  He  made and it  was very good (Gen. 1:31)

10B. Everything He made was very good. (Gen. 1:31)

The Stations of the Cross were designed and created by the artist Sallie O’Sullivan especially for Balally Parish. They were made in 1982 at the request of the then Parish Priest, Fr. Randles, and have become an integral and unique part of the church.

The stations are extremely unique as they were made using a supplementary weft technique. It is not a tapestry weave although warp and weft both show on the face. The imagery is constructed into the weave on the face of the woven cloth.

Acid super Milling Dyes were used to create the wonderful colours, while the yarns were mothproofed with Mitin F.F during dyeing to protect them.

At the time it was not thought that this technique was ever used for the Stations of the Cross.


“We adore You o Christ and praise you,
because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.”

Christ Ascending

Image of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, is a gift from the Carmelites, Gort Mhuire, in the Parish of Balally.

Sculptor: Domhnall O Murchada (June 1985)









Madonna Carving for the Church of the Ascension of the Lord, Balally

Background ideas
. Mary, Mother of the Church
. The Virgin in Prayer, in the Magnificat “proclaims the glory of the Lord” in the name of the Church
. At the feast of Cana, she obtains an effect of grace, confirming our faith
. At Pentecost, (Acts 1:14) the young church joins in “continuous prayer together with …. Mary, the Mother of Jesus”.
. Like the Virgin in prayer, the Church presents to the Father the needs of her children, “praises the Lord unceasingly and intercedes for the salvation of the world” (Vatican II SC 83, AAS 1964 p. 21).
. “Mary is above all the example of that worship that consists of making one’s life an offering to God” (Marialis Cultus Part One, Section 11, 21).

The Visual Expression of Mary in Prayer with the Peoples of God.
To express visually “Mary’s mission in the mystery of the Church” we think of Church as the Family of God, the People of God – symbolised by the family, father, mother and children – protecting them under her outstretched cloak. The cloak itself has always been a symbol of protection. In speaking Irish, we are accustomed to the expression Brat Mhuire umat (May Mary’s cloak be around you). In medieval Europe, the idea of Mary’s protective Motherhood was expressed by many artists, in particular by the French artist Anguerrand Charonton (c.1410-1461)< by the great Italian painter Piero della Francesca (1410/20-1492) and by the Italian sculptor Bartolomneo Buon (1374-c.1467) whose Madonna with protective cloak outspread was known as the Madonna della Misericordia – Our Lady of Mercy – the Caring Madonna.

The “woman whose action helped to strengthen the apostolic community’s faith in Christ (Jn.2:1-12) and whose maternal role was extended and became universal on Calvary (Marialis Cultus Part II, Section 2,37)” is here shown leading Christians to commit themselves to a life in conformity with God’s will.

Mary prays for us and with us.
Such an idea could not be cut at random from a block of granite. The design had to be carefully thought out and planned as a series of ordered shapes. In other representations, Mary has been shown much larger than the figures beneath her cloak, but here at Balally she is kept in scale with the other figures, a more modern approach. But a suggestion of her traditional crown has been retained, as in Our Lady of Dublin and Our Lady of Knock. Here too she is accompanied by adoring angels, suggested in age-old fashion as winged heads. These cherub heads have an important bearing on the design, filling the top cornere and keeping the sense of a simple rectangle. The proportions of this rectangle, which are as 5 is to 8 (the harmonious division of a line of 13 units), is sometimes called the golden mean or the divine proportion. It was frequently used in medieval and in early Irish Christian art and architecture. The cloak of the Madinna on either side of her head is extended to give a 3:8 cross proportion and the arms of Mary hold the falling cloak in an arc constructed on the proportion of 10 units to 8.

The other elements of the design –the group of mother, father and children occupy a square from which the basic divine proportion of the carving is derived.

This preoccupation with the abstract, near-geometric basis of the design may seem strange today, in a world of much free emotional expression in the arts. But such a preoccupation underlies the art of Byzantium – the icons, for example – and Early Christian Europe.

I have tried to retain an iconic quality in this image and have refrained from any sort of photographic representation of details in the figures. I have tried to stress the unchanging elements in the religious images.

I pray that it may help the families of Balally to see Mary as the first Christian, protecting them and leading us all to Christ.

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