On Holy Ground: Scripture in the Art and Architecture of Catholic Churches

Our church buildings and their furnishings hold the key to understanding the role that Scripture plays in the life of the church.

crucifix hanging high above the altar in arundel cathedral
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“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord God of Hosts.” Psalm 84

Catholics are often accused of not knowing Scripture well enough, but our buildings are founded on many biblical texts, and many of our historic buildings hold the key to understanding the role that Scripture plays in the life of the church. Our church buildings are not just random places where we go to hear the word of God, they are deeply imbued with it – we need not look very hard to discover this truth.

In many places in Scripture, we find references to sacred spaces and the call to holy ground. God tells Moses to take off his sandals as an act of respect for the place in which He dwells (Exodus 3:5). Much later, in the New Testament, Christ throws over tables in the temple (Matthew 12:12, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:12-25) chastising the money lenders for misusing the house of his father.

“It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’
But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
Matthew 21:12 (quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11)

In any Catholic church – whether considered a hidden architectural gem or not – we can begin to understand the role of Scripture in the form and function of these buildings at the heart of our communities. We know that our church spaces are holy places and set aside for sacred use, and the beauty of the artworks in our buildings also help us to engage with Scripture at a deeper level.

References to living and baptismal waters abound in Scripture, from the waters of creation in Genesis, to Christ’s own baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan (Matthew 3:13). The obvious place where this Scripture is lived out sacramentally in our churches is in the font. In many ancient churches – and in some modern ones – the font or baptistry was created as an octagon – referring to the teaching of the church fathers that Christ’s resurrection gave us the eight days of creation (St Augustine of Hippo Letter 55: 17) – an example can be seen in Westminster Cathedral. Through baptism, we enter into the church, into the perpetual resurrection, where all creation gives glory to God. Once we begin to see our church buildings in this way, we can understand the imagery that surrounds them more dynamically.

The elaborately painted Blessed Sacrament Chapel at Nottingham Cathedral © CBCEW/Alex Ramsay Photography.

The Tabernacle, for reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, is from the Latin Tabernaculum, translated in Scripture as ‘tent’ or ‘dwelling place’. We find the Tent of Meeting in various points in the book of Exodus (25-26, 33:7-11), and the word also appears in Revelation 21:3. The Scriptural reference here is hugely significant – the Tent of Meeting is God’s dwelling space amongst His chosen people. The Tabernacle and Sanctuary lamp, the priestly vestments and sacred duties are mentioned in great detail since the Tabernacle was where they kept the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the 10 Commandments. And the lamp was to burn always as a symbol of God’s faithful presence. We have replaced the Ark with Christ as our new covenant with God. We have replaced the seven-branched candlestick (Menorah) with 6 candles and a crucifix in the centre, and we still keep a lamp or candle burning near the Tabernacle. For Catholics, Jesus remains faithfully present in the communion hosts we keep in our Tabernacles today – not as a symbol but truly present – so if a church is empty, we know that we are not alone – God is still with us 2,000 years later.
Examples of Tabernacles range from the elaborate and magnificent A.W.N. Pugin Blessed Sacrament Chapel in Nottingham Cathedral – to more modern but no less beautiful examples in 20th-century buildings, such as in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral
© CBCEW/Alex Ramsay Photography

Scripture appears in many of the artworks that adorn our churches. We see Scriptural texts engraved into fonts, walls, floors, altars, and stained glass windows, as well as on tombs, tapestries, banners, paintings, statues and sculptures. Lecturns are carved with eagles to hold the Bible in because each gospel writer became associated with a symbol of their theology devised first by St Irenaeus and then revised by St Jerome. John was represented as an eagle because his gospel has a vision of Jesus that is as far reaching as an eagle’s sight and flight.

When we enter a church, we bless ourselves with Holy Water, the practice of which originated partly because of hygiene and partly from the Book of Numbers 5:17, ‘where the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel.’ We make the sign of the cross at the Gospel so that God’s words may be in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts which is mentioned in Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:18-21 and 30:14.
The practice of Genuflection as we enter a church and before the Blessed Sacrament comes from various Bible texts:
Solomon bowed down in 2 Chronicles as the Temple was being dedicated to God.
Daniel used to bow down 3 times a day in prayer.
Jesus himself bowed down in Luke 22 in the agony in the garden.
Stephen, Peter and Paul all bowed down in prayer.
In Philippians 2 we are encouraged – “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.”
All these gestures with our bodies help us to engage with the space around us and revere its holiness whenever we visit for worship and prayer.

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse,
and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. Isaiah 11:1

In our Lady of Fatima in Harlow, Essex – a Grade II listed church built in the late 1960s (now desperately in need of repair to its striking central spire), you find yourself surrounded by jewel-like Dalle de Vere stained glass. There are many references to the word of God here, and the windows depict the scenes from the Gospels and the life of Mary. The Tree of Jesse is resplendent in colour and which dazzles in the sunshine – reminding us of our roots in the lineage of Christ and of our buildings and worship steeped in Scriptural narrative.

Jesse Tree Window – Our Lady of Fatima, Harlow © CBCEW/Alex Ramsay Photography

At St John the Baptist in Rochdale (Grade II*, built in 1927, mosaics added 1932-33), we find a majestic Byzantine-style tribute to the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The vast mosaics inside the church show a range of scenes; Christ is shown in glory – referencing the heavenly throne room of Daniel 7, in Isaiah 6 and in the Revelation of John. The mosaics also depict the life of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, showing the baptism of Christ as described in all three synoptic gospels, and the moment when John the Baptist meets his cruel fate, beheaded by Herod Antipas at the cruel request of Herodias instructing her daughter Salome in Matthew 14 and Mark 6.

Mosaics at St John the Baptist, Rochdale © CBCEW/Alex Ramsay Photography

At the church of The English Martyrs, Wallasey – F. X. Verlade’s striking post-war interpretation of the Romanesque style, the high altar is backed by a reredos showing Christ and the apostles at the Last Supper. While we might all be familiar with this key Scriptural event, contemplation of this unique artwork provides spiritual nourishment to see this sacred text with new eyes and hearts.  

Detail of altar and reredos at the English Martyrs, Wallasey © CBCEW/Alex Ramsay Photography

The examples given here are only a fraction of the rich and often unknown artworks that adorn our churches using Scripture as their narrative.  I am sure that if we took the time to understand them more clearly and to see them as routes into prayer, our faith would benefit enormously. Indeed, a better understanding of our shared heritage may help to encourage more people to worship in and visit our buildings and aid the evangelisation of our communities.

Josephine Warren is Historic Churches Advisor for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.