The Art and Symbols of the Church

Reinforcing God’s Mighty Acts of Redemption

Stepping into the sanctuary at All Saints ushers you in to a world of vivid art and rich symbolism that centers on the mystery of the ages—the mystery of God made man. God himself has taken on flesh, become man in the fullness of time to live, die, and rise from the dead in real history to forgive our sins, make us new creatures in Christ, and restore us to unity with the Holy Trinity.  This is the hinge of history that changes everything. And all this he did for you.

Each time we gather here, we revel in this greatest reversal, we recount this truest story, we participate in this deepest reality: God the Son incarnate, God the Son crucified, God the Son risen from the dead. We tell it, we sing it, we hear it, we taste it, we see it. Christ’s redemptive victory of cradle, cross, and tomb becomes ours in Baptism, Word, and Supper. As we gather around font, pulpit, and altar, the rich artistic symbolism that surrounds us tells the story of our salvation and brings us further into its meaning. Our sanctuary tells this story through three primary pieces of art: the nativity, the crucifixion, the resurrection. These three pieces were designed in a collaborative project involving the people of All Saints Lutheran Church, the artist Edward Riojas, and the Italian art studio Demetz. Together, these three stunning statements of God’s grace to us in Christ tell a unified message that Christ was born, was crucified, and has risen from the dead. Below is a description to whet your appetite for what you’ll see in our sanctuary.

The Holy Nativity

Painting and Commentary by Edward Riojas

The oil-on-wood paintings of the nativity and resurrection were meant not merely to act as parentheses to a central crucifix, but to explain more fully Who this was that was once crucified. In essence, they confess that Jesus Christ is true Man and true God.

The left-hand panel depicts the Nativity of our Lord. Mary holds her heart in pondering the event and in foreshadowing the words of Simeon. Shepherds bow in adoration. Joseph looks out at the viewer. His gaze makes use of an old artistic device that “pulls” the viewer into the painting; it breaks the visual plane and includes us in this otherwise intimate and exclusive moment in time.

Traditionally, Joseph holds a burning candle to show that he literally carried the Light of the World. He is also traditionally depicted sleeping to show that he was given instructions through dreams. Unfortunately, he may be shown doing both (gasp!): Holding a burning candle while sleeping. I have avoided that pitfall, and have therefore kept him wide awake. The candle has been replaced with a lit lantern, and it was very intentional that the ironwork of the lantern was transformed into a conspicuous cross.

The light it gives far outshines even the star which eventually drew the magi to this King.

Following a more probable scenario, a stone manger rests firmly in the foreground of the left-hand painting. European depictions typically show a wooden manger, but lumber was a more precious commodity in Bible lands and was reserved for more noble uses.  In the Nativity, God became incarnate; there, He dwelt with us. But “the sign” given by the angels was a decidedly morbid one. The swaddling cloths and the stone manger pointed forward to an embalmed body in a sarcophagus, an all-too-soon burial, and a dead God.

The manger is inscribed with, “CHRISTUS REX” – “Christ the King,” and beneath that is “IHS,” an abbreviation for “Jesus,” which is prophetically circumscribed with a crown of thorns.

The Resurrection of our Lord

Painting and Commentary by Edward Riojas

In the right-hand painting, a similar visual device is depicted: An empty ossuary serves as a footrest for the resurrected Christ.

The God-Man was dead, but is never to be dead again. It was the practice in the Biblical world to first bury a body in a tomb, and then later transfer the decayed bones to a much smaller ossuary. Without having a corrupted body, there was hardly a point to the tomb, and certainly no point to using an ossuary for His skeletal remains.

The Resurrected Christ looks at us with a reassuring gaze. His head is surrounded by a tri-radiant nimbus to show that He is a Person of the Holy Trinity; that He is True God. Jesus holds a cross-emblazed banner, in traditional fashion, to show that He has proclaimed victory over Hell. The cross-crosslet also symbolizes evangelism in sending the message of the cross to the four corners of the world. The stone and the tomb are all in vain as the seal is broken in the background opposite the stone. The empty ossuary is inscribed with “CHRISTUS VICTOR” – “Christ the Victor,” under which is a “Chi-Rho,” an abbreviation for “Christ,” circumscribed with a victorious laurel wreath.

Satan is defeated and crushed under the foot of Christ, who is in a pose of victory with his hand extended in blessing. Satan is undone. Even his fangs lie at the foot of the ossuary.

And in case we may still wonder if this Hebrew Messiah gave His life for us undeserving goyim (gentiles), a special tree is planted in that blessed garden – one into which we have been grafted. The life of Jesus Christ, once given on a far different tree, now nourishes us, His adopted children.

The Crucifixion of Our Lord

Carving by Demetz Studio

In the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians, St. Paul writes the following:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preachto save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1. Cor. 1:18-15)

The witness of the New Testament is clear. The cross was a site of scorn and shame, weakness and pain. Yet it is precisely here where God acts in a great reversal. The upside-down, paradoxical, and jarring event of the cross is the coronation of a new King whose name is Jesus. Christ crucified is the power of God to salvation and his resurrection from the dead vindicates his reign as the crucified one who still carries in his body the wounds of victory. The symbol of death and torture is transformed into the ultimate symbol of victory and the fullest expression of God’s embodied love for humanity. Thus, we can say with Paul, “for I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) and that “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” (Gal. 3:1).

This hand-carved crucifix from Demetz Studio in Italy, executed in Lindenwood and oil-painted by hand, provides a stunning and arresting depiction of Christ’s great love and atoning sacrifice for us, which is placed right above the altar, from which Christ’s blood is given into our bodies. The unique features of his body, arms, and hands all are vivid and symbolic representations of Scriptural descriptions of what Christ endured, which inspires meditation on Christ’s great work for us.

Surely, He has born our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.  But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.Psalm 22:14

They have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones.Psalm 22:16-17

He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.John 19:30

Christ’s sufferings are deep and real—and that is most comforting. And so, we honor, celebrate, and bow before our King who was born, suffered, died, and rose again, as we are made one with him, united to him in our baptism, strengthened with Word and Supper, until life everlasting, Amen.

Gathering Around the Font

We begin our services from the font with confession and absolution, as die and rise to new life again. The font is placed at the entrance to the nave to symbolize our baptismal entrance into Christ’s body where we were birthed through the water and the word into union with Christ. (Ephesian 5:26, Romans 6:1-5).

The eight sides of the font symbolize the eight souls saved on Noah’s Ark that foreshadowed how baptism brings you safely through the waters into the holy ark of the Church (I Peter 3:20-21). The number eight also symbolizes the eighth day, or the day after the creation week, which begins the new creation in Christ (Galatians 6:15). The eighth day was also the day of Old Testament circumcision, which foreshadows baptism (Colossians 2:11-12), and was the day that Jesus was circumcised and named in the temple (Luke 2:21).

The paschal candle/Christ candle symbolizes Christ as light of the world in the midst of his people (John 8:12). It is lit during the Easter season and on baptisms and always is the largest candle in the worship space.

The processional cross: Symbolizes Jesus’ real presence in the Divine Service to serve his people through Word and Sacrament. Christ leads us into worship where he serves us and he leads us out into the world where we serve our neighbor.

Hearing the Word

The Lectern: God’s Word is read to his people. Shaped like the bow of a ship symbolizing the Ark of the Church. In black carved lettering is the Hebrew word barasheet, meaning “in the beginning” (Genesis 1), which shows the importance of God speaking to his people from the beginning, and the power of God’s Word in creating the world and in creating faith.

The Pulpit: Christ’s forgiveness is proclaimed by ordained ministers who speak in the stead of Christ (John 20:23). Its octagonal shape connects to the font from which Christ’s forgiveness flows. The black carved lettering is the Greek word logos, meaning “the Word” which connects back to Genesis and identifies Jesus as the Eternal, living word of God (John 1). From the pulpit the living Word of Christ still speaks to his people. This Divine Logos, is the mystery of the ages, in which reason and beauty, logic and story, word and flesh, spirit and matter all meet in the person of Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Man.

The Four Evangelists Carvings: The “the good news” (evangelion in Greek) delivered by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is still delivered from the pulpit. Each evangelist is remembered for their unique focus and is represented by the following symbols, which originate from the four living creatures (Ezekiel 1; Revelation 4). Carvings by Rev. Kent R. Schaaf.

  • Winged Man: Matthew starts with genealogy from Abraham representing Jesus’ Incarnation and humanity.
  • Lion: Mark starts with John the Baptist preaching like a roaring lion, and so too Mark boldly proclaims Jesus.
  • Bull: Luke starts with Zacharias sacrificing in the temple and present most clearly Christ as sacrifice.
  • Eagle: John starts with an eternal overview of Christ in lofty words, thus the eagle, the highest figure of the sky.

Flowing from the Altar

All eyes are drawn to the central focus and climax of the Divine Service—the place where we drink from the cup of salvation and receive its benefits (Psalm 116:12-13). Here we find echoes of the altar of sacrifice where Christ has been sacrificed once and for all for the sins of the world and now offers us his body and blood (Hebrews 10:10). The altar is shaped as a casket, but is empty symbolizing the risen Christ who takes away the sting of death (I Corinthians 15:55).

The altar includes two candles, which symbolize the two natures of Christ, divine and human, which both were necessary for salvation to be accomplished (I Timothy 3:16). It is from the altar where the full Christ, both God and Man comes to his people (I Corinthians 10:16). When lit they symbolize that the Eucharist will be distributed in the service.