During the initial phases of the liturgical renewal of the 1960s and 70s, experts, pastors, liturgists, and even bishops alluded to dozens of hitherto unknown “liturgical principles” to justify their subjective opinions. The origin of the majority of these “principles” frequently was very obscure, and often vague. I remember “experts” telling us parish priests in meetings, in lectures, and in the ubiquitous “workshops” that too much decoration and too much color in a church was a distraction to the congregation, later called the assembly, drawing the people’s attention from the celebration of the Liturgy. Part of the task of the renovation of a church for the reformed liturgy therefore would require eliminating polychrome statues, paintings, and even simple floral decorations from floors, walls, arches, and ceilings. The experts further told us that this would “restore” our American Gothic or Romanesque revival structures to a pristine state similar to the original churches of Europe that served as their models. The elimination of color and decoration, begun by the Protestant reformers and continued by the French and other revolutionaries, would allow the “bones” of the building to show forth in their majesty. The result regularly was a bland and dull interior, sometimes in 50 shades of beige. There were many “authorities” who rejoiced in this result. Some celebrated that they had “restored” our churches to the original monochromatic style of the past. But they were wrong! There was no such thing! Those churches of the 9 th , 10 th , and later centuries were what I would call “riots of color.” Art historians have noted the remnants of the paint that covered every figure: human, animal, floral, and gargoyle. Clever “sound and light” shows have demonstrated the magnificent polychromatic effects so long gone.
But some folks continued to maintain that such a restoration today would lead to distraction of the faithful from the liturgy. I disagree. The beauty of bright and shining colors forms a splendid background to the liturgy, not a distraction. Color can inspire contemplation on the wildly colorful splendor of creation, far removed from the monochromatic, except in the Arctic and Antarctic. Skilled use of lighting can highlight this beauty as well.
Regarding creating a bright and multicolored church, we should apply the words of Saint John Paul II as he began his pontificate: “Do not be afraid!” For proof of our point, we can simply refer to and contemplate the beauty of the recent restoration of a chapel in the great pure Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris, or even the current refurbishment of the magnificent Gothic Revival Houses of Parliament in London.
Photo: Notre Dame, National Geographic