Geoff Manaugh’s , article, “Why Catholics Built Secret Astronomical Features Into Churches to Help Save Souls“, tells how church astronomers used European cathedrals to help track the seasons and thus accurately set the date for the celebration of Easter. In these cathedral’s marble floors are meridian lines which track the movement of the sun through the seasons. While speaking about this curiosity, Manaugh writes the sentence, “Beneath the pulpit, a planetarium.” That sentence caught my imagination.
The first church my wife and I attended as a married couple and which sent me to seminary and issued my first pastoral call has a planetarium in its sanctuary though it’s neither meridian lines nor a conventional sky theater.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem occupies the old Ardmore School which was completed in 1929 and built with Art Deco bas-reliefs. One of the school’s reliefs is located in the old gymnatorium above the stage. This relief’s representation of Roman gods in what is now a church sanctuary made worship a little odd. Thankfully they have never been removed. I have come to believe that these were not pagan throw-backs but actually more Christian in their arrangement and the story they tell. They are a picture of the medieval cosmos.
In the center of the relief is Sol (seen pictured above), riding his sun chariot. Why is Sol central? This was after all a school where wisdom and enlightenment took place. Flanked on either side of Sol are the other planets: to the right of Sol are Mercury (actually Castor and Pollux) on the end, and Luna crowning her father, Jove. To the left are Venus (bearing produce), with Saturn and Mars on her left. Either Saturn or Mars are kneeling and the other offering a ship — the vessel of trade and symbol of commerce. If it is Mars holding the ship, I believe he is offering commerce’s wealth (of which he was a patron) in deference to Sol’s superior riches. If it is Saturn kneeling, it seems to me that he is bowing to youthful Sol who embodies the opporutunity of the school’s students. In either case, Saturn (the greater infortune) and Mars (the lesser infortune) are in the least significant places on the end and to the left of Sol.
The bas-relief story portrayed the rightly ordered scholastic ambition for generations of school children in Ardmore. I find a serendipity in its presence very satisfying because now beneath this story sit a pulpit and congregation. The pastor proclaims the coming of the light who gives light to every man (John 1:9), and the congregants have come to hear of the one whom Malachi refers to as the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2).
Here’s a sonnet for the bas-relief which sits above the pulpit and the enchantment that takes place beneath it in the form of a minister’s prayer for himself and the light-bearing he needs and is there to do.
The nations gathered in this auditorium
Await the word which makes crooked right
Above this pulpit, a planetarium
Its centered Sun bearing freedom and light.
Your people await as dawn, from the word
Challenge and comfort, the good and true
The story of stories, sin’s sickness cured.
Your arrows, the hardest of hearts piercing through.
I stand midst your imagined creation,
Empty of all but regret and shame
How can I weave the spell’s incantation
When full of my own glory and fame?
O Sun of Righteousness, you turn common to gold
When with unveiled faces your glories behold.
I absolutely LOVE this. To think of the history behind this relief as well as our own history there at Redeemer…it makes me think of the incredible constellations that go on overhead every night without our hardly paying any attention to them. What wonders we behold when we look up and pay attention!!💗
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Walking in wonder ‘neath a field of stars…
I’ve been in many churches, Catholic and otherwise. Never heard about this, thank you
Glad to hear. I can’t help think we’ve lost something beautiful in our experience of the universe because of the discarding of an older way of viewing the world around us.