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Virtues of Seasonal Decor  
Johan van Prys  

The Second Vatican Council's groundbreaking Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) states that "the church has not adopted any particular style of art as its very own but has admitted styles from every period, according to the proper genius and circumstances of peoples and the requirements of the many different rites in the church" (#123). Echoing this, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States wrote in Built of Living Stones (2000) that "there is no standard pattern for church art nor should art and architectural styles from one particular period be imposed arbitrarily on another community. Nonetheless, the patrimony of sacred art and architecture provides a standard by which a parish can judge the worthiness of contemporary forms and styles" (#147).

With these and similar writings, the Church admits that every age and people may rely on their own artistic styles to express their faith. However, we are asked to rely on the rich tradition of church art and architecture to guide us in these endeavors. This holds true for the building and renovation of churches, as well as for incorporating art into churches, and the creation of seasonal liturgical decor that "heightens the awareness or the festive, solemn, or penitential nature of these seasons" (Built of Living Stones, #123). Therefore, any liturgical decor needs to adhere to basic principles inherent in these traditions of the Church. Defining these principles is not always easy, but the following virtues can provide a basic criterion for creating liturgical decor that supports the integrity of the liturgy.

The virtue of claritas requires transparency and simplicity. The 2003 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#292) states that the "church d├ęcor should contribute toward the church's noble simplicity rather than ostentation." This kind of simplicity presumes a profound respect for the "dignity of the entire sacred space" and above all a concern with "the instruction of the faithful." In this way, liturgical decor illumines, inspires, and instructs those who celebrate the liturgy. This goal is not attained through overpowering the people with beauty and excess, but by inviting people into the liturgy with decor that is simple, transparent, and uncluttered. An abundant use of even "meaningful" symbols can obscure the liturgy, while transparency allows primary symbols to express themselves more fully.

The liturgy is supported by the expressive power of the symbols themselves, rather than through add-ons, novelties, or clever effects. The Easter chasuble communicates meaning through the design, material, and colors, rather than through applied words or slogans. Although we might think that secondary symbols enhance the chasuble, they can easily distract from it. A chasuble marks the office of the priest and adds to the liturgical season through its color without explaining it. The same holds true for banners and other textiles such as the altar cloth, which is simply a beautifully made cloth that covers the altar. They are not intended to explain the season or feast; they support it.

The virtue of consonantia presumes harmony and appropriateness. It requires that seasonal decor be in harmony with the liturgy and is appropriate to the worshipping assembly it serves. Each aspect should be in harmony with the whole. Is it in scale with the building? Does it obscure anything essential in the space? The baptismal font may be appropriately decorated with living plants and flowers, but they must be in scale, not preventing sight or access to the font.

The virtue of integritas relies on honesty and integrity. It assumes that the liturgical decor is honest and free from all pretense. Nothing that pretends to be other than what it is has a place in the liturgical celebration. This holds true for the architecture, art, and decor. Seasonal decor needs to be genuine in its material, form, and design. Anything that is fake or imitation should be avoided. That is why the liturgy requires real plants that need care - plants that live, die, bloom, and become dormant. Only genuine decor can serve a liturgy that is genuine and thus give birth to genuine Christians.

The virtue of fortitudo embodies strength. It requires the decor to bear the weight of the mystery of God's love for us as expressed in the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. If the liturgy celebrates this mystery and the seasonal decor supports this celebration, then nothing that is part of the decor can be whimsical, cute, or trendy. The liturgical decor communicates this paschal reality through profundity, gravitas, and an inner strength. When done well, the liturgical decor for the entire Easter season, with its lilies and spring flowers, its festive banners and textiles, will possess characteristics of these four virtues: transparency, harmony, integrity, and strength. This decor will then serve to enhance the Easter liturgies, and in turn support the worshipping assembly.

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609

Johan M. J. van Parys, PhD,
is Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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