Imaging Advent: An artist describes her process of creating a parament

The worship committee asked me to create a parament to hang in the sanctuary for the season of Advent. They wanted something that would enhance worship—that would help the congregation pause, reflect, wonder, and look during this season of anticipation and hope. I have made art for years and have occasionally had the opportunity to contribute my work to the church. But the request started me thinking again about the whole purpose of art in worship, both its pastoral and prophetic uses.

Used in a pastoral way, liturgical works such as paraments celebrate the particular strengths of a congregation, show God's Word to the people, and encourage them in trials. Like prophets, paraments can help broaden a congregation's view of God's calling to "do Justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with ... God" (Mic. 6:8).

Art provides worshipers with something concrete, "in the flesh," to think about. It gives form to abstract ideas and provides insights not accessible by words alone. I begin planning for a new parament by asking what it is supposed to do. What must this parament do to "work" in a particular place, bringing a particular message with aesthetic integrity, using materials with physical limitations?

In planning liturgical art, an artist has to consider site, aesthetics, theme, and technique.

Site

Sitting in the sanctuary, I absorb the details of color, materials, and building style, as well as general feelings about the space. I think about questions like these: Where is the piece to be located? Do viewers glimpse the piece in passing or do they view the work for a long time? What size or placement is best? What can the worshiper in the back pew see? What effect will changing light conditions have? Is the piece to be in position permanently or rotated with other works? Will the property committee allow holes to be drilled into the masonry? What activities have to be accommodated in this space? This information about the site contributes to a work with aesthetic value.

Aesthetics

Liturgical art must provide an aesthetic experience if it is to be successful. Aesthetic experience is received by the senses, a complement to the rational and verbal part of worship. Aesthetics is perception of the beautiful. "Truth is beauty" reminds us that beauty belongs naturally to God as Creator and Maker of "all things bright and beautiful." Art can enable a worshiper to perceive God's truth.

Theme

Oddly enough, in this area where congregations (through their pastors or worship committees) might logically have the most effective input, I find a curious silence. Many churches are at a loss about what they want paraments to say. Usually they'll mention a desire to brighten or decorate the sanctuary, but seldom do they mention more about theme than stating that they'd like something for a particular season. Perhaps this lack of further direction comes from not knowing how the artistic process works.

A minister or worship committee need not speak in artistic language or images or give out solutions to the problem of what the parament should look like. But they do need to pose a problem in verbal terms for the artist. These people can articulate what they want to emphasize about baptism or Advent or pull some thoughts from the congregation's vision statement.

• Ministers and other worship leaders can explain the focus of a church year season, or give the theological background behind a biblical passage.

• Church historians can help the artist understand how Christian iconography was used historically to present Christ to the world.

• Art historians can provide a wealth of examples of how earlier artists used images to convey a particular thought. The artist must then take this verbal information and translate it into visual imagery.

In addition to talking to such key people about theme, I often read passages of Scripture, consult the church lectionary, reflect on past sermons, and leaf through art books and books on Christian symbols, jotting down notes and ideas. For instance, while looking through Scripture passages for Advent, I note some of the literary figures that might be transformed into visual imagery: light in darkness, desert, blossoms, royal references, trumpet calls. At the same time, I try to pull out some of the major themes of Advent: preparation, Christ's coming, Christ's second coming, assurance of God's presence, deliverance from captivity. As I review traditional church symbols, they sometimes trigger new reflections on the meaning of relevant Scripture.

Once gathered, all my unconnected information and impressions—this time about Advent—need to be sorted, reduced, and joined into a coherent whole. Structuring a piece involves a variety of activities: sometimes I sketch and arrange elements of a possible design in one- to two-inch drawings (made small so I can work very quickly and thus keep up with my thinking); other times I might try to check cross-references of the scriptural passages that run through my mind; I try to see connections between symbols and themes, themes and color. Sometimes I just sit and stare, my thoughts flitting from one thing to another—one moment humming lines from Handel's Messiah, another time remembering the colors I saw in the Wyoming desert, and then thinking about how to "make straight in the desert."

Technique

Putting together a liturgical piece is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The parts of the puzzle have to match in more than one way. It isn't enough just to have two pieces of exactly matching lavender-blue sky, even if the clouds line up; the pieces must also fit together structurally. Similarly, a design problem cannot be solved through purely intellectual, purely aesthetic, purely pragmatic, or purely theological approaches. All methods must be used. All aspects must fit together. As I worked on the Advent parament, I chose the Jesse Tree as my focus. I began by checking how the image was used historically by various artists. In Chartres Cathedral's stained-glass window, the tree is tall, narrow, and composed of regular, recurring, layered branches of stylized foliage culminating in a depiction of the Madonna and Christ Child at the top. Jesse himself lies at the bottom of the window, patiently supporting the towering tree that has sprung from his loins.

I wondered how I could convert this image for a twentieth-century Protestant service. How could I combine the Jesse Tree with other Advent symbols to form a coherent message? What forms can be successfully appliqued without puckers to represent a tree? Can these forms simultaneously convey the idea of successive generations in order to show God's faithfulness—and fit in the narrow vertical space available?

Sometimes I put spiritual questions on hold while I try to coax two layers of satin sandwiching a layer of interfacing to be turned inside out and lie reasonably flat on a velvet scrap prototype.

Eventually, as the major ideas and forms coalesce, the process becomes more purely an aesthetic labor. Now shapes and sizes are refined ever more precisely and their positions adjusted repeatedly as I draft larger drawings with more detail and make patterns.

Occasionally in this revision other scriptural or symbolic connections fall into place and so enrich the piece. Preliminary decisions about colors merge as the design progresses. Three factors determine color choice: the liturgical color for the season (e.g., blue for Advent), the symbolic meaning of a color (e.g., red for martyrdom or sacrifice), and the harmony between one part of the parament with another or with the environment. 1 leave final color decisions until I purchase fabric and can reconcile my color ideas with fabric availability.

Communication

As construction work nears completion, I begin to consider how to present the new parament to the congregation. My work usually combines several images and symbols. The meaning is rather complex, deliberately, to provide continuing interest to worshipers week after week. Because many of today's congregations are not acquainted with symbolic images, I would feel uncomfortable about putting up the pieces without some verbal explanation.

This need for written explication became abundantly clear when a student journalist previewed a piece I had just completed. He proceeded to lay out for me what he figured it was all about. "My" Tau cross became his fork in the road of life, "my" messianic rose became his blooming for Jesus. He had never heard of Advent, and it was downhill from there.

Communicating the message clearly is important in the worship setting, even though it may be taken to heart in different ways and at different levels of appreciation and understanding. Organists and liturgists cue the congregation so it can respond appropriately. Artists can give cues, too. If I've put Old Testament allusions into a parament, parishioners should see Old Testament allusions.

The written accompaniment can take the form of a flyer or bulletin insert, or perhaps a church newsletter article. The written explanation relates symbols to the theme and to each other. Scripture passages are included so that worshipers can use them for worship preparation.

Congregational members will respond to the parament in different ways. A complex work allows for many levels of participation. Thoughtful worshipers will make connections between ideas by reflecting on the symbols. Some will relate the images to personal experiences or find new meaning in familiar biblical texts. Even the younger among us may point to a parament and whisper, "blue is the color for getting ready" or sit quietly and see the way to Bethlehem.

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Excerpt

IN A WORD

Parament: From the Latin parare, the term parament at one time referred to all the physical preparations for the mass and the items used in the mass, including liturgical vessels. Its meaning then became narrowed to the vestments and cloths used during worship. Today the term generally describes only textile hangings, usually adorned with Christian symbols, for pulpit and altar or table.