The Tradition and Benefits of Festal Church Decorations

he German philosopher, Josef Pieper, speaks of the essence and importance of festivals in his work, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity -- a work in which he also addresses some of the problems with our approach to them (or lack thereof) in the modern age.  He speaks of how "the festive quality of a holiday depends on its being exceptional." That "a festival can arise only out of the foundation of a life whose ordinary shape is given by the working day."  In short, one particular aspect of festivals and festivity is how they stand in distinction from the ordinary and the day to day. This isn't to say that it is merely a day without labour; not at all -- a "bank holiday," for instance, can hardly be classed as a "festival." Festivals are rather very much tied to ritual in both origin and expression. They are also attached to the arts, not as festivity's cause of course, but as a derivative expression of it. In fact, Pieper comments that "a festival... without visible forms of celebration, without any kinds of art, cannot be imagined."  They are "a contribution, the adornment and medium of the festival." Further:
"...the invisible aspect of festivity, the praise of the world which lies at a festival's innermost core, can attain a physical form, can be made perceptible to the senses, only through the medium of the arts... the effect of festivity, the stepping out of time and the refreshment that penetrates to the depths of the soul, reaches the celebrant in the form of a message couched in the language of the arts."
While Pieper speaks here in a broad way, it seems to me that these principles surely apply within the liturgical-ecclesiastical sphere and we can properly speak of being "in tune with the liturgical world" and "a theory of liturgical festivity."  What do I mean?

There is a kind of "day to day" or "ordinary" if you will, within the liturgical sphere when compared against itself. This is manifest within the ceremonial, with its varying degrees of solemnity, within the liturgical texts, as seen in the addition of sequences on feasts for example, and within the liturgical calendar, with the addition of octaves and other manifestations pertinent to the liturgical seasons or particular feast day in question. It is also manifest through the liturgical arts, be it through the particular level of ornamentation of the vestments, through the liturgical colours prescribed, through the use of floral decorations and so on. It is this latter manifestation of the liturgical arts that is of particular interest to us here and I wish to focus on one manifestation in particular.

Elsewhere and at other times I have written on the great Roman liturgical tradition of hanging red festal banners for great feasts and events in the life of the Church. This is most often seen in Mediterranean countries like Italy and Malta. It is also seen in some of the churches of the Oratorians, notably the church of the London Oratory.

It is the Maltese, however, who are the modern day masters of this particular artistic tradition and it is from them that our current examples are taken.  To show the precise festal effect these banners have (not to mention other accoutrements such as antependia on the altar, reliquaries and portapalma, the more grandiose candlesticks, etc.) here are two examples from the same church; the first in its "ordinary" state, and the second, when 'robed" in its festal form:

Ordinary Arrangement

Festal Arrangement
One will note here not only the festal hangings, but also the addition of an antependium on the altar, additional silver candlesticks of great height and altar reliquaries. Flowers are also present but have yet to be arranged.

The impact is notable and needs little in the way of comment I think. One can imagine the profound impact this would have on the young and old alike, seeing their church so transformed. It naturally begs attention and questions for it speaks to the importance being attributed to the liturgical occasion at hand. It causes one to pause and to think and draws one into the festival at hand. It also speaks to a natural human impulse that we see outside of the liturgical context to ornament on occasions of particular importance, whether that means putting on one's finest dress or decorating one's streets and surroundings. This is the power of the tradition; it is not a forced, contrived or abstract set of principles. Tradition is invariably tied to our human nature and natural impulses.

Too often today there is no significant attempt made to distinguish churches on festal days from any other day of the liturgical year, either ceremonially or artistically. Granted, not all churches have the same resources readily at hand, but very often it is the knowledge of this tradition and the particular will to see it effected that is mainly lacking.

If solemnities and feast days are to be the teaching moments they could be and the festivals they can be, I can think of no better way than highlighting that fact than by traditions such as these.

Photo credits: Fr. Martin Borg

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