Traditional church liturgical art and design seem to be making a return after decades of taking a back seat to contemporary approaches.
Liturgical artist and designer Anja Longenecker is on a path “to re-establish the beauty of church interiors from before the Second Vatican Council, in order to evoke the awe, wonder and true adoration that is due to God and befitting for man.”
She has already accomplished major works in fulfilling this goal. Her story took a step forward when she studied art at Akademie fuer Bildende Kuenste (the Art Academy) in Munich, Germany, majoring in sculpture because her interest in liturgical art began years earlier.
“Growing up in a medieval town in Germany, with several beautiful Romanesque and Gothic churches surrounding me there, I was impressed with the wall paintings and statues in the churches from childhood on,” she explained.
Working in stone and wood, her studies in sculpture took her on route to several specialties in hands-on artistry. She began painting mural-style religious art on walls and then followed a medieval practice of painting on linen to emulate the time’s wall tapestries too expensive for most. In Germany, her work drew attention and gained her commissions from churches and monasteries.
“That took me more into liturgical art,” she said. Then came ornamentation and borders, with her work enhancing the liturgical murals and tapestry-like paintings, and with her sculpting background, she began restoring and painting statues. As “one thing grew out of another,” her work became “more and more church-oriented.”
Longenecker’s experience in designing and working with different mediums for church interiors eventually led to commissions to design an entire church interior, such as two major projects to transform a bare Lutheran church and a bare Baptist church into beautiful traditional Catholic churches for small congregations — St. Stephen the First Martyr Church in Sacramento, California, which had to be gutted and rebuilt, and Mater Misericordiae Church in Phoenix, Arizona.
“I was asked to come up with an overall design for those church interiors,” she told the Register.
Father Joseph Terra of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, then the pastor of Mater Misericordiae (PhoenixLatinMass.org), saw the benefit of having her work alone, rather than with a committee, because the overall design would be “the product of one hand,” resulting in “a beautifully united design.”
Longenecker described how, in these repurposed churches that began with a different denomination, “It is important to create an overall design that establishes everything Catholic.” She added, “In both instances, we began by emptying the interior space of all existing furnishings to get a better sense of the space and discern which architectural style best fit the building and what could be done to create a space in which to truly honor and worship God.”
With her lifelong love of medieval art, and having been surrounded by lots of Romanesque and Gothic churches growing up, Longenecker drafted an Old World classical design for Mater Misericordiae, starting with five Roman arches transfiguring the sanctuary. The largest frames the altar and a crucifix above the tabernacle, while slightly smaller side arches define the shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph.
Longenecker noted the statuary is full of repurposed statues from churches that she painted to fit in with the overall color scheme.
The backgrounds of the reredos and shrines are enhanced with a pattern of beautifully intricate repeating crosses and stylized flowers associated with Our Lady, as well as varying intricate patterns of liturgical symbols along the walls of the nave, the arches and ceiling. Marian symbols are highlighted with the fleur-de-lis motif.
Longenecker is a home-schooling mother, so her travel time is limited. Working from her own Zinclair Studios (Zinclair.com) in Clarksburg, California, she paints her original designs, and patterns and prints them digitally, and then the churches have a local painter transfer them to the walls. She would like to see “a renaissance of color and ornamentation in the form of wall paintings and borders that surround the churchgoer and point to the heart of the church, the tabernacle in the sanctuary, and at the same time envelop the churchgoer in a sense of safety and well-being.”
“In one way of another, Anja was responsible for the artistic work in the church,” said Father John Lyons of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the pastor of St. Stephen the First Martyr Church (SacFSSP.com).
The design is essentially German Gothic blended with a traditional English motif. For the Gothic wood high altar that came from a church in Wisconsin, Longenecker restored the statues of Sts. Stephen, Peter and Paul in the reredos and also those of Our Lady and St. Joseph in the spired shrines. Patterns containing fleur-de-lis also symbolically honor Our Lady.
On the ceiling above the enormous central crucifix, there is a beautiful painting of the Holy Spirit.
Here, as in Mater Misericordiae, Longenecker also designed the stained-glass windows to replace the clear glass. Among the saints and scenes depicted in Mater Misericordiae’s windows are Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael and the Angel of Fatima, while Father Lyons describes the ones at St. Stephen’s as representing different events in the life of Our Lord. For example, Jesus’ baptism by John is depicted in a medallion surrounded by colorful glass. Other windows include the Wedding at Cana, Jesus asleep in the boat and various mysteries of the Rosary, such as the Annunciation, Visitation and Dormition of Mary.
Father Lyons pointed out that among the liturgical art that was restored and painted by Longenecker are the Stations of the Cross and a large statue of Our Lady.
He described how stepping “into the church you really feel you’re stepping into a different world, a spiritual world. Almost everyone who comes and visits says: ‘This is so beautiful.’”
On a smaller scale, Longenecker has brought her artistry to the newly built Romanesque-style Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina (OLGreenville.com). The pastor is Father Dwight Longenecker, a Register columnist, who is also Anja’s brother-in-law.
“First of all, the committee did research other artists to do the work,” he said to indicate this was all part of a fair competition, with no nepotism involved. Obviously, the committee was impressed with her work and what she has accomplished in other churches.
Father Longenecker described how the century-old Stations of the Cross had been restored very badly, but working with interior designer Matthew Alderman, Anja completely refurbished them by choosing “a color pattern that harmonized with the decorations and color choices of the rest of the church.” She restored and repainted other statues in the church as well as its prominent 19th-century, hand-painted crucifix in the style of Tuscan painter Duccio.
Her original artwork covers the underside of the baldachin, with panels making up the starry dome that showcases the Holy Spirit hovering and four cherubim — one at each corner.
Father Longenecker emphasized the starry dome was designed with computer software that can replicate the night sky on any date in history. This depiction “was the night sky over Lepanto Oct. 7, 1571, which was the first feast of Our Lady of Victory,” he explained. The feast was renamed Our Lady of the Rosary — a connection the mural makes perfectly.
Anja Longenecker also sculpted the three-foot-tall statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. “We asked her to do an image of Our Lady of Walsingham in a Romanesque style, which is much more stylized and iconic than the more modern and naturalistic representation,” said Father Longenecker.
Her latest statue for the church depicts the martyr St. Charles Lwanga in a naturalistic style to emphasize his simplicity and purity.
As Anja says of the ultimate goal of her work: “The hope is that the beauty of a church interior does not distract the churchgoer, but leads him to a deeper contemplation of God.”
Mater Misericordiae’s pastor, Father Michael Passo of the Fraternal Order of St. Peter, sees this happening. “For the parishioners and the priests, it remind us this is the closest we are to heaven, so it’s very easy for the people to realize that truth when the sanctuary is adorned,” he said. “The more beautiful the church is, the further it helps us to believe in those invisible truths that Christ is present in the tabernacle and to the Divine Liturgy, which is going on in heaven. It leads you to the invisible mysteries when adorned in such a way as it is in Phoenix.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.