The Importance Of Decoration

Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, MA.

One must wonder why in an age of rapid advancement are our churches so barren and plain. Our culture has been stripped of its decoration leaving even places of worship whitewashed and uninspiring. In the ‘60s and ‘70s much of church design was either painted over in existing structures or completely disregarded in new construction. About 15 years ago, a growing revival and untapped curiosity led many to discover what lay beneath the white wash and what could be done to beautify the modern architectural structures. John Canning & Company wanted to develop a division of the company to meet this specific demand and Canning Liturgical Arts grew out of this greater need for beautification in churches across America.

In an article for National Catholic Register and later published in The Traditionalist Magazine, Trent Beattie highlights this revival in ecclesiastical culture. The title of the article speaks volumes for its contents, “Bringing God’s Designs Back to Life in America’s Churches.” Beattie’s article interviews David Riccio, principal at Canning Liturgical Arts, on this renewed interest in classical art and architecture. Riccio explains that much of Canning’s work “is usually about addition rather than subtraction” however to tread carefully as to not pursue “opulence for opulence’s sake.” Decoration must compliment the architecture without destroying the unity of the object decorated. In our modern day it is important to remember that beauty is not abstract rather mathematical in perfection with its chief forms being order and symmetry. The unity between architecture and decoration is most successful and inspiring when the two complement each other.

Cathedral of St. Patrick, Norwich, CT: Before
Cathedral of St. Patrick, Norwich, CT: After

Preserving the connection between architecture and decoration is vital to the integrity and tradition of Faith. That which is beautiful is true and that which is true must be beautiful therefore through a pure expression of beauty the faithful may find a visual connection with the Divine. “The concept of beauty occurs when all parts work together in harmony so that no one part draws unjust attention to itself” (Aristotle, Metaphysics: Book 13). The complexity of beauty reaches beyond what is simply pleasing to the eye and demands all parts to function as one, in seamless harmony: the architecture with the design, color, lighting, etc. When architecture and design function together in in fitness, proportion, and harmony the effect on the beholder results in an absence of want and repose of the mind, the visual senses are satisfied.

Owen Jones, a talented architect, designer and pioneer in color theory in the nineteenth century, lists in his book The Grammar of Ornament 37 propositions that provide a guide to architecture and design. His first proposition has been Canning’s guiding philosophy to this day, “the Decorative Arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, Architecture.” Canning Liturgical Arts strives to preserve the integrity and splendor of sacred spaces. Just as Beattie’s article explains, the sheer fact of a revival of beauty in our society gives hope for the future generations. We believe an integral part of our mission is to share our knowledge and passion for beauty with America so that the youth now and to come can experience the kind of beauty found in the unity between architecture and decoration that leaves the individual speechless.

When David Riccio started working at John Canning Studios in Cheshire, Connecticut, 20 years ago, he could expect one or two church projects per year. The bulk of the studio’s work was carried out at secular sites such as theaters, libraries and state capitols. Around 15 years ago, however, the number of church projects began to grow, necessitating a special division at Canning. Riccio now heads that division — called Canning Liturgical Arts — and he works on 20 or more ecclesiastical projects per year.

Some projects are simply a matter of cleaning and painting already existing churches, but most are more extensive. They involve the delicate uncovering and restoration of hidden or neglected artwork, such as sanctuary murals. Other, even more extensive projects involve the designing and installation of new artwork in old or new church buildings.

A stellar example of this last type of project for Canning is the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Renowned architect Duncan Stroik designed the main structure of the building, which began construction in 2004. Riccios headed Canning’s involvement, beginning in 2007 and ending in 2008, with the completion of the shrine.

Artwork in the shrine includes paintings, sculptures and mosaics, all related in some way to the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Juan Diego in the 1500s. Riccio even said that his studio went to the trouble of asking an observatory about the exact constellation in the sky at the time of the apparition that resulted in the miraculous image still present in Mexico today.

Riccio explained: “We wanted the stars on the shrine’s dome to correspond to what was in the sky when the apparition occurred, since the image of Our Lady includes stars. It’s a beautiful dome that fits in well with the theme of the shrine. However, it’s not the most ornate dome. It does its job — no more and no less.”

That idea of just proportion is something people might not expect from an interior designer on large projects Yet Riccio is not interested in adding layer upon layer of ornamentation in pursuit of “opulence for opulence’s sake.” He said this distracts from sacred artwork’s purpose, which is to point beyond itself to Christ.

Riccio believes that even though the tendency in the 1960s and ’70s was to underdo church design, it is possible to overdo it. However, his work now nearly always involves bringing out beauty by uncovering and restoring what’s already there or by introducing it in renovations or after the construction of new churches. He said that Canning’s work “is usually about addition rather than subtraction.”

Some people might be concerned about the subtraction from their bank accounts as a result of embarking on a beautification project. However, Riccio who earned a business degree from nearby Quinnipiac College before joining Canning in an apprenticeship role, allays their fears. One clarification he provides is that beautiful churches usually cost no more than mediocre or ugly ones.

“Mediocre or bad church designs can cost just as much as good ones, and the durability is not usually there, so you can easily end up paying even more over the years for a mediocre or bad design than a good one,” Riccio said.

Another clarification that allays economic concerns is that truly beautiful designs inspire people to find the money necessary to make the project happen. Riccio has found that when presented with colorful depictions of proposed artwork that brings the Catholic faith to life, parishes are impressed enough to raise money quickly.

“If the design is not that striking, there’s no motivation to contribute, because it’s a just a lateral move rather than a move upward — and that upward focus is what people really want. When the glory of God is reflected in a proposal, people have a reason to move to action,” Riccio stated, quoting Dante Alighieri’s assertion that “beauty awakens the soul to act.”