Plastering the Sanctuary



The worship experience at Shadyside Presbyterian is influenced by those objects we see:  the carved limestone of the walls, pulpit, lectern and font, the brilliant stained glass, the stunning mosaic, the warmth of the wooden pews and coffered ceiling.  More subtle, yet no less important, is the influence of the shape of the worship space itself.  In fact “worship volume” may be a more descriptive term.

When confronted with an overview of the shape of the total volume, we may be surprised.  This is because we experience it from within and we perceive only a small portion of the volume at any instant.  Even by looking left, right, up and down, we take in less than fifteen per cent of the volume from most observation points.

So that we may get a sense of the worship volume, let’s try a thought experiment.  First, take hold of the pyramid shaped roof of the tower and slide it open.  Then, take a giant pitcher and fill up the inside of the church with plaster of Paris.  Once it has hardened, take down the walls of the building (mark each stone, so you can properly replace it.  You are left with the odd shaped plaster cast shown below.  Sketch on the main windows to help keep things oriented.

We may first be surprised by the height of the central tower compared to the transepts.  This soaring space, capped with banded windows, is crucial in encouraging an upward awareness.  This vertical sense is unusual in Romanesque churches (as compared to Gothic, where it is a signature feature).


View from Southwest

The general form of the south transept is not surprising, however, the worship space immediately adjacent to the entrance may be (here, extending to the left).  The notch is the location of the narthex, transitional from outside to worship.  In the upper half of the arch is the gallery (or balcony), which affords the opportunity to observe worship comprehensively.  Some believe, however, that this location feels somewhat isolated.  The scale of the space is quite intimate.

A similar intimate almost secluded space is just beneath the gallery.  Here the sense of isolation is not perceived and full worship participation is facilitate.  And from here, the soaring nave is appreciated.

Some people prefer seats in the transepts.  Closeness to the chancel and other worshippers allows full participation, while the lower ceiling makes the scale of the space more human.  In addition the low sprung arches seem to offer a comforting embrace.


View from Southeast

The full impact of the tower is felt in the central nave.  The verticality is emphasized since there is no narrowing effect, as with a vaulted ceiling.  One purpose of such a volume is to impart a sense of smallness of the worshipper in the presence of God.   An awareness of the vertical is accomplished by allowing light to enter high in the volume without impinging directly on the floor of the nave.   However, because the ceiling and windows are directly above, one's attention is not drawn upwards and away from the chancel.

There are a number of ways to experience the worship volume at Shadyside Church.  While each location has its own character, the tall, cubical central nave influences them all.

(Don't forget to remove the plaster cast and carefully replace the walls and roof.)