Transforming a Cinder-Block Sanctuary: Proclaiming the Gospel in wood, metal, and stone

A few years ago when entering the Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Ottawa, Ontario (for a Psalter Hymnal workshop), I was immediately struck by the artwork on the walls. It reminded me of the Roman Catholic tradition of depicting up to fourteen visual meditations on the suffering of Christ (see p. 16). After a few inquiries, I discovered that artist Johannes Veenstra, a member of that congregation, had picked up on that tradition and created the fourteen panels that are placed along the side walls of the sanctuary. On appropriate feast days, two of the panels are moved from the sides to the front of the church for special emphasis. The diagram shows the ordinary placement of the panels. ERB


In ancient Christian art, the dove is the symbol of purity and peace. It is also by far the most common representation of the Holy Spirit. This symbolism first appears in the story of the baptism of Christ (John 1:32). A flame, or tongues of fire, may be used to represent the power of the Holy Spirit and is a particularly apt symbol for Pentecost (Act 2:1-4).

The background is birchwood-stained black walnut. The designs were executed in aluminum and brass. The dove and flames consist of marble dust on masonite, painted with enamels.


Although sometimes Elijah's chariot of fire is employed as a symbol for the Ascension, this subject is usually pictured realistically (Luke 24:50-51).

The background is a composition of gesso and plaster of paris troweled on and then painted with oil paint. The figure is carved and polychromed in a matte finish. The face was intentionally left neutral (no features) so that the viewer may superimpose her/his vision of Christ, thereby taking an active part in the creative process.

The Resurrection
Christ Is Risen! Alleluia!

The resurrection is the keystone in the arch of Christianity. Without it everything else crumbles. The representation of life over death is symbolized through the light of the resurrection pushing back the darkness of sin and death (Matt. 28:1-10).

The background is carved and polychromed wood; the chi rho is a painted jute applique. (Chi rho are the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ, spelled XpiOtOs and pronounced Christos. This ancient Christian symbol is over sixteen centuries old.)

The Crucifixion

The symbolic representation of this event is in the form of passion symbols and is based on the crucifixion account in John 19. Crown of thorns—a crown of mockery, symbol of humiliation and suffering. Latin cross— the actual form of the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Spear and sponge—articles used at the crucifixion. INRI—the Latin words Iesus Nazerenus Rex ludaerom or Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, the inscription that Pilate had placed over the cross of Christ.

The background is black linen, and the designs were executed in three sizes of aluminum nails. The crown of thorns is made of copper.

Agnus Dei

The symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God stems from the saying of John the Baptist (John 1:29). The Lamb shown standing and holding the cross-emblazoned banner (Agnus Dei) symbolizes Christ's resurrection and victory over death.

The background is white oak. The design is carved and painted in oil paints, with the fleece of the Iamb textured with marble dust and gesso. The cross is solid brass.

Advent—Christinas— Epiphany

Advent begins with the heralding of Christ's first coming and is represented symbolically by the candles. Then comes Christmas, a season of great joy marked by such Scripture passages as Isaiah 9:6 and Luke 2:14. It is represented symbolically by the straw-filled manger and stones of the stable walls. The five-pointed star of Bethlehem symbolizes the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The white and gold colors used in this panel are significant—they symbolize the purity and kingship of Christ.

The background is made of ceramic tiles imported from Spain. The design is carved and polychromed wood.


The symbols here are a monogram of the first two letters, chi (c) and rho (p), of the Greek word for Christ. Ears of grain symbolize the bread of life (Mark 14:22), and bunches of grapes are a symbol of the blood of Christ. When shown together, they signify the bread and wine of the Holy Communion (Matt. 26:26-28).

The background is white linen, and the designs were executed in brass, copper, and aluminum.

The Great Commission

These two panels were inspired by Matthew 28:19 and Revelation 5:9. The paintings of people in national dress represent the many nations around the world. The carvings of the Bible and the loaves and fishes are based on Mark 6:30-44 and symbolize the spiritual food for all people contained in the Bible.

The carving of the cross is symbolic of the death and resurrection of Christ. The heraldic form of a fountain is a symbol of Christ based on Zechariah 13:1 and is symbolic of the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ as signified in baptism. The church window is symbolic of the church universal (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

The background is painted in a matte finish. The figures are painted on blocks of birch, oak, and bass-wood—all with a natural finish—of various sizes and thickness. The carvings of the cross, fountain, and church window are polychromed bass-wood. The carvings of the Bible and the loaves and fishes are in pine.


In Christian art, the presence of God is frequently indicated by a hand issuing from a cloud. Here the hand is shown in the sign of the blessing of God. The hand is the most ancient symbol of the first person in the Godhead. The early Christians, like the Hebrews, refrained from representing God in human form. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, and the fish represents Christ. The fish is one of the earliest symbols for Jesus. The first letters of the five Greek words for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, spell the Greek word for fish. The young plant represents the individual being baptized into a new life.

The background is blue linen. The hand, dove, plant, and fish are carved out of white pine. The three-rayed nimbus, waves, and rays are made of brass.

The Ship and the Ark

In the story of Noah, all living creatures found refuge from the flood in the ark. To Christians the ship became an early symbol for the church. In early representations, the ship of the church is merely a floating chest, but the image, however simple, remains one of salvation. The main body of a church is still called the nave from the Latin word for ship. In this work, the mast and yardarm form a simple cross above the ship that stands for the church of Christ afloat on the troubled seas of life, carrying the faithful to salvation under the sign of the cross.

Ark: This panel is executed in red clay with the design inlaid in white clay, with each tile handfired.

Ship: The background is northern red oak, and the design is poly-chromed wood.

The Gospel Writers

The idea here is to show the integration of the Old and New Testaments through the cross. The burning bush is a symbol of Moses, representing the Old Testament; the living creatures (Rev. 4:6-7) symbolize the four gospel writers, representing the New Testament.

Matthew is represented by the divine man because his gospel teaches us about the human nature of Christ. Mark is represented by a winged lion because his gospel informs us of the royal dignity of Christ. Luke is represented by a winged ox because his gospel deals with the sacrificial aspects of Christ's life. John, the messenger of the Word of God, is represented by the eagle, suggesting the soaring loftiness of his writings.

The background is white oak. The symbols are carved in Vermont black slate, with the raised designs highly polished. And the connecting material is aluminum.

The Rooster

The rooster is inseparably linked with Peter's denial of Jesus and his subsequent re-pentance. It is thus an emblem of the passion and later of penance. Its piercing call at dawn scattered the fears of the night and made the bird an appropriate choice for weathervanes on church towers and steeples. Here, like faithful preachers, they are ever watchful, turning to meet sinners with warning and argument (1 Pet. 3:15).

The background is ceramic tile. The rooster is executed in white ceramic clay, fired and bronzed.

Johannes Veenstra is a retired warden in the federal prison system of Canada, a freelance artist, and a book binder.


Reformed Worship 42 © December 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.