A Brief Explanation of the Layout and Symbolism in St. Charles Church
By Alfred A. Hubenig, OMI
Welcome to Saint Charles. We are delighted that you are taking the time to learn about this house of worship.
A church should not simply be another utilitarian building in which the faithful happen to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments. A church should be a faith statement. Indeed, in centuries past the church was the bible and catechism of the ordinary people. It’s walls and windows told them the Good News of who God is and who they were in God’s plan of salvation history. Many years ago it was my privilege to discover this in Paris where I studied church architecture and medieval art.
Thanks to those studies I can now walk into any of Europe’s classic Romanesque or Gothic churches and not just look at them, but actually read them, as people long ago must have done. The stained glass, for example, illustrated salvation history and illumined the heroic lives of the saints for people to imitate. The bottom band of stained glass, known as the signature of the window, connected the people’s present lives to the saints by depicting the everyday work of the guilds and societies that donated the window. There is a glowing example in the magnificent cathedral of Chartres, near Paris. On the left, near the back of the nave, is a window dedicated to the life of Saint Lubin. Lubin was an illiterate shepherd in the Middle Ages who, taught to read by a hermit, eventually entered a monastery. Later he became abbot and later still, bishop of the Chartres. The vintners and innkeepers of the city donated the window and in the signature band we see the annual cycle of the vine that ruled the vintners’ lives. Their labours culminate in the glory of the precious blood, when Saint Lubin, seen in the upper part of the window, holds the chalice of wine high at the consecration of the Mass. The walls of a medieval church, both inside and out, told the faithful of God’s faithfulness, of God’s promises in the Old Testament to never abandon his people, and of how God fulfilled those promises in the New Testament. Lastly, even the directional layout of the church was a reminder that we are a eucharistic people destined to be the body of Jesus in the present realm, as we await the joyful coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ to take us to the Eternal Realm. In it’s layout and art, Saint Charles has respected these traditions without slavishly imitating all the details.
What we did was express the spirit and the faith statement of Christian tradition in a contemporary way. With this general introduction, let us now examine the principal elements and the meaning of symbols in the art of Saint Charles Church.
Entrance Area and Worship Space
Saint Charles Church purposely does not have a narthex, or lobby area, at the entrance. The narthex may have lent itself to forming community in times past but today’s multiple eucharistic celebrations, coming on the heels of one another each Sunday, make the narthex a wasted space.
No one wants to remain in a church entranceway for very long lest they “disturb Father’s next Mass” – or interfere with those trying to get in for that Mass. The solution at Saint Charles is an airy entrance area just sufficient for greeters, and a large, relatively soundproof lobby off to the north. The lobby is connected to the entrance by an ambulatory that follows the curve of the nave’s back wall. In actual practice, the offset lobby has become a great “people place” where many parishioners congregate after Sunday Masses.
The ambulatory’s twelve windows feature the apostles in stained glass, beginning with Saint Peter and ending with Saint Paul. For a full explanation of each window.
One enters the church in the traditional manner, through Trinitarian doors – three equal doors that form one entrance. The immediate impression, because of the three transparent glass peaks in the entranceway, is one of soaring lightness and space.
The Baptismal Pool
As you pass through the doors into the Worship Space of the church, you immediately encounter the massive rock of the baptismal pool. The baptismal pool,placed at the entrance symbolizes our entry into Christian life by way of Baptism.
The Traditional Aspect
In the design of the church my objective was to meld the contemporary with almost two thousand years of church tradition. The baptismal pool is a case in point. The front part of the pool goes back to the earliest times of the Primitive Church. It is a replica of a third-to-fourth century Roman baptismal pool, even to the antique Travertine tiles and the geometric Roman borders within the pool. Traditionally, the cross under the water was an important feature. It reminded early Christians (as it should remind us) of what Paul wrote in chapter six of his letter to the Romans:
We who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Jesus was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might have newness of life.
The paschal candle standing at the head of the pool signifies our newness of life in the Resurrection. For the Easter Vigil the paschal candle is taken up to the altar platform for the singing of the Exultet. Then, barefoot and vested in alb and stole, the celebrant goes down into the water of the pool. There he waits as, one by one, the catechumens, dressed in their everyday clothes, descend into the water for baptism. After rising from the waters the newly baptized go to vest in their new white garments and then come forward in procession to the altar to light their tapers from the paschal candle. Following the remainder of the baptism ritual, the celebrant confirms the newly initiated in the presence of the assembly.
The Contemporary and the Traditional Come Together in the Baptismal Pool
All the foregoing encompasses the traditional aspects of the baptismal pool. The other end of the pool – the end where a huge boulder sits on a bed of river pebbles – represents contemporary Alberta. The children from the parish’s six elementary schools brought the pebbles, while adult parishioners brought the boulder from Cadomin, near Hinton, at the foot of the Rockies. The base supporting the boulder is of sandblasted concrete set upon flamed mountain granite. The boulder was drilled locally so that the baptismal water would flow from it. But while the pebbles and boulder relate to contemporary Alberta, there is also a biblical connotation. We are reminded of the Book of Exodus where Moses strikes the rock of Horeb causing living water to flow from it. To emphasize the symbolism, there are no holy water fonts at the entrance. As people come into the assembly they touch the rock almost instinctively and sign themselves to renew their vows with the living waters of baptism. The Travertine tiles were imported from Mexico rather than Italy. Mexican Travertine has more vein cracks; when these are filled with epoxy they give tiles the appearance of being centuries old.
All the stone used in the church is of the same grey mountain granite, flamed. The flaming of granite is a specialized process wherein a misty spray of water and a blowtorch are played against one another over the surface of the stone. As a result the crystal patterns in the stone become markedly visible while the granite still retains it rough surface. The process, however, makes the granite very brittle and much harder to work. On the other hand, flaming gives the stone more character than course-cut stone, at the same time avoiding the high gloss usually associated with well patterned granite (polished stone would have clashed with the rough-hewn character of the church’s stone walls.)
The rock, moreover, signifies the primacy of Peter:
You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against you. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places; I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I am going to prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself so that where I am you also may be.
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
- Matthew (represented by the human form) presents the messianic teacher of God’s perfect holiness – the teacher who embodied that holiness in his own life and calls us to imitate it in ours, even to the point of loving our enemies.
- Mark (symbolized by the lion) shows us the truly human Jesus – Jesus the man who experienced all our emotions and endured the pressure of the crowd, yet dedicated himself totally to his Father’s mission by committing himself completely to everyone with whom he came into contact – to the point of exhaustion and an ignominious death.
- Luke (represented by the ox) gives us the compassionate Jesus who shows as the absolute goodness of our Father and calls us to imitate God’s love of the poor and suffering. Through him we see Jesus’ mother pondering in her heart all the events that revealed her son’s person as he directed his life toward the Father – and toward all humankind – from his coming until his death on the cross, his resurrection and his ascension.
- John (symbolized by the eagle) shares with us the awesome wisdom of Jesus. He brings us into the blinding presence of the Light of the world where we are thrilled by Jesus’ attractive personality and deeply moved by his assurances of being with us for all time and for all eternity.
- Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden – Despite disobeying their Creator, Adam and Eve were not destroyed. A fiery sword banishes them from the Garden of Eden, but the Lord would always be their protector and giver of life.
- Noah and his wife on the ark – The deluge waters subside. God promises, “I will establish my covenant with you and never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood.” As a sign of his promise he puts the rainbow in the skies. Abraham and Isaac. The Lord tests his servant Abraham by telling him to offer up his son, Isaac, in sacrifice. Abraham, who came from a culture where gods demanded human sacrifice, is about to comply when the Lord’s messenger stops him. Instead, Abraham sacrifices a ram caught in nearby brambles, and the Lord tells him through the messenger, “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. Saint Paul reminds us that all those who believe are the true children of Abraham.
- Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven – Isaac marries Rebekah and one day commands his son, Jacob, to leave Beersheba to find a wife. He was to go to Haran in the territory of Padan-Aram, to the family of his uncle Laban. On the way, Jacob sleeps with his head pillowed on a rock. He dreams of a stairway that reaches to the heavens. God’s messengers go up and down the stairway and God tells Jacob, “The land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. These shall be as plentiful as the dust of the earth, and through them you shall spread out east and west, north and south. In you, all the nations of the earth shall find blessing. Know that I am with you. Another instance of the Lord’s promise never to abandon his people – but this time the promise goes out clearly to “all the nations.”
- Moses beside the altar of sacrifice – Despite all the disobedience and murmuring of his people, God makes a covenant with them. So, Moses sets up an altar and places twelve columns around it to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. He pours out half the blood of the sacrifice on the altar. With the rest of the blood he sprinkles the assembled people, sealing them in a contract with God and telling them, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.”
- The Mosaic of the Lamb – “Holy, Holy, Holy” – This quiet, meditative chapel is also meant to be a link with the Eastern Church. Since mosaic is one of the main mediums in Byzantine art, I designed and executed a modern rendition of the Lamb of God for the wall behind the tabernacle, using that ancient medium. The glass and porcelain tesserae that make up the mosaic were imported from Mexico. The work itself took me about four months of nights in the rectory basement.
- The Virgin of Tenderness – The mosaic of the Lamb of God is modern, but to complete our link with tradition, there are also copies of two well-known Eastern icons in the chapel. One hangs on the left wall – Our Lady of Tenderness, also known as “The Virgin of Vladimir.” It is a 12 th century icon, the artistic jewel of the Comenian period of Byzantine art. Mary’s face is elongated, the nose long and thin, the lips tiny, the eyes unnaturally large. There is an ethereal yet human warmth to her face as her hand is raised toward her son in a sign of veneration. The Mother offers us her Lord. She has been told he is destined to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and that a sword would pierce her own heart. There is no sentimentalism here; her calm look – a look of celestial majesty – reflects the mother’s silent suffering as she presents Jesus to all of us.
- Rublev’s Trinity – Above the exit as we leave the chapel we see Rublev’s famous “Trinity,” painted in 1425. Andrei Rublev, the most illustrious iconographer of the Eastern Church in the 15th century, has been called “the painter of angels.” This icon, his masterpiece, reflects his deeply spiritual character. Rublev’s world is set in eternal joy where the mellow grace of youth animates the beings of his creation. This icon is angelic and luminous; it has a rhythmic flow and purity of line; its modeling is free of shadows. The Fathers of the Church saw in the three angels, who visited Abraham and Sarah at Hebron to announce the birth of Isaac, a symbol in the Old Testament of the Blessed Trinity. In Rublev’s icon, their similarity is meant to depict the equality of the three Divine Persons in communal glory. Their triplicity shows their difference: they subsist without confusion – one God, yet three separate persons. In the unity of God there is an internal communion. Rublev seeks to depict this by accenting gestures and colours that symbolically express the circular movement operating at the heart of the Divine Unity. An exchange of being takes place mysteriously between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- First Station: The Last Supper – Now as they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to his disciples. “Take it and eat,” he said, “This is my body.” Then he took a cup and when he had returned thanks he gave it to them. “Drink, from this, all of you,” he said, “for this is my blood, the blood of the new covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28)
- Second Station: The Garden of Gethsemane – Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane and said to his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there to pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with him. And sadness came over him, and great distress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death. Wait here and keep awake with me.” And going on a little further, he fell on his face and prayed. “My Father,” he said, “if it is possible, let this cup pass by me. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not 1, would have it.” (Matthew 26: 36-39)
- Third Station: Jesus before the Sanhedrin – The high priest then stood up before the whole assembly and put this question to Jesus… “What is this evidence these men bring against you?” But Jesus was silent and made no answer at all. The high priest put a second question to him: “Are you the Christ,” he said, “the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his robes. “What need of witnesses have we now?” he said. “You heard the blasphemy. What is your finding?” And they all gave their verdict: he deserved to die. (Mark 14: 60-64)
- Fourth Station: Jesus before Pilate – So Pilate went back to the Praetorium and called Jesus to him. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others spoken to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Jesus replied, “Mine is not a realm of this world, if my realm were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered. But my realm is not of this kind.” “So you are a king then?” said Pilate. “It is you who say it,” answered Jesus. “Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” (John 18:33-37)
- Fifth Station: Jesus is Whipped and Crowned – Pilate then had Jesus taken away and scourged; and after this, the soldiers twisted some thorns into a crown and put it on his head, and dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him and saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. (John 19: 1-3)
- Sixth Station: Jesus Carries the Cross – They then took charge of Jesus, and carrying his own cross, he went out of the city to the place of the Skull, or as it was called in Hebrew, Golgotha… (John 19: 17)
- Seventh Station: Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus – They led him out to crucify him. They enlisted a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, who was coming in from the country. (Mark 15:21)
- Eighth Station: The Women of Jerusalem – Large numbers of people followed him; women, too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and your children.” (Luke 23: 27-28)
- Ninth Station: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross – When they reached the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, and two criminals also, one on the right, the other on the left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 33-34)
- Tenth Station: The Good Thief – One of the criminals hanging there abused him. “Are you not the Christ?” he said. “Save yourself and us as well.” But the other spoke up and rebuked him. “Have you no fear of God at all?” he said. “You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it; we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus,” he said, “remember me when you come into the realm.” “Indeed, I promise you,” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
- Eleventh Station: Mary and John at the Foot of the Cross – Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, this is your son.” Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother.” And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home. (John 19: 25-27)
- Twelfth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross – It was now about the sixth hour and, with the sun eclipsed, a darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. The veil of the temple was torn right down the middle; and when Jesus had cried out in a loud voice, he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” With these words he breathed his last. (Luke 23: 44-46)
- Thirteenth Station: Jesus is Buried – Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus – though a secret one for fear of the Jews – asked Pilate to let him remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave permission, so they came and took it away. Nicodemus came as well – the same one who had first come to Jesus at nighttime – and he brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes… They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, following the Jewish burial customs. At the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in this garden a new tomb. Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, they laid Jesus there. (John 19: 38-42)
- Fourteenth Station: Jesus Rises from the Dead – It was very early on the first day of the week, and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb And came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she said, “and we do not know where they have put him.” So Peter set out with the other disciple to go to the tomb. They ran together, but the other disciple, running faster than Peter, reached the tomb first. He bent down and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground but did not go in. Simon Peter, who was following, now came up, went right into the tomb, saw the linen cloths on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in. He saw and believed. Until that moment they had failed to understand the teachings of scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (John 10: 1-9)
- The fourteenth station is unique. Normally, one would expect to see a resurrected Christ predominate, but the sculptor, Bruno Stasiak, praying and meditating with his wife, Alicia (who died of cancer soon after) took another tack. He puts the viewer in the place of the angel inside the tomb. We, like the angel, look past the pallet with its empty shrouds to the astounded women at the entrance, where the stone in partially rolled away. Like the angels, we see the utter surprise and shock on the women’s faces as they look into the empty tomb, and we are reminded that it was the women of the gospel who first received the news of the Savior’s resurrection. They were the ones who were sent to announce the Good News. When we look beyond the women we see the back of Jesus as he walks on the path. Mary Magdalene would mistake Jesus for the gardener, only recognizing him when he pronounced her name, “Mary.”
An Explanation of the Stained Glass Windows In The Ambulatory
In designing the windows of the twelve apostles at the eve of the New Millennium, I tried, in a contemporary way, to go back a millennium, to follow the inspiration of early Romanesque church art with its origins in Byzantine iconography. Figures in that genre are always serene, despite suffering and martyrdom, seemingly surrounded by the Spirit’s aura. Early Romanesque art tended also focus the on the head and hands, something I also incorporated in these windows. And finally in early church art, a figure was usually depicted. with his or her “trophy ” – the often contradictory sign of the person’s victory. Thus, the, ignominious cross is always seen as Christ’s “trophy” – the sign of his victory over sin and death and of his obedience to the Father.
The instruments of the saints’ martyrdom or of their profession of Jesus Christ were also depicted as their “victory trophies ” – the keys of Peter, the transverse cross of Andrew, the cup of James, the eagle of John, the winged person of Matthew’, the skin of Bartholomew, the saw of Simon, etc. You find them all, and more, in these windows.
Moreover, since a church is meant to be not only a house of worship but a faith statement and an instrument of catechesis.