Accenting the Liturgical Rites: Thoughts on the Tasteful Arrangement of Flowers in Churches

Photo Credit: Michela Gobbi
There are two times during the liturgical year when my mind specifically turns to the matter of floral arrangement in our sanctuaries: Christmas and Easter.  This is hardly a surprise because those are the two times that most parishes in the Catholic world still make a point of practicing this wonderful tradition. This is rather a shame because it is a splendid tradition indeed; one that deserves broader currency.

Various feasts throughout the liturgical year would benefit from this outside of Christmas and Easter, even during the "green times," and especially those times of the year when local wildflowers could be used.  If I may be permitted a quick digression around this point: the practice of using local wildflowers not only makes this tradition affordable, there is also quite a positive symbolism to it I think. Something that was an everyday object in a field or by the roadside is suddenly repurposed from its humble station to become a festal ornament at the service of the liturgy; the ordinary becoming extraordinary so to speak. If that isn't a poignant symbol for the Christian life, I don't know what is. It also gives us new eyes to see the possibilities right around us for beautifying the sacred liturgy; it needn't be some far distant goal requiring extraordinary means. The gathering of these could even take the form of an apostolate in which parishioners, families especially, could enjoy participating in.

Indeed, on that front would be remiss to not also note that this practice could be of benefit outside of the liturgy proper and within the context of the domestic church, whether that mean placing flowers by an icon or some other such place. The spiritual life of the family should ideally be an echo of the liturgical life of the church and rooted in the same. This would be yet another means of doing just that, particularly if this practice could be rejuvenated within our parishes.

There is a second reason, however, that my mind turns to this question at these two times of the liturgical year. Unfortunately one of the common tendencies we see at Christmas and Easter is that quantity is often given priority over quality. Sanctuaries tend to become crowded with poinsettias and lilies; at times it can seem as though the altar is being pushed into the background, lost as it is in the swarms of flowers. This approach is one which I wish I could say was more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but the fact is precisely the opposite.

Now I want to be clear, that people and parishes seek to put out flowers at all is a good and worthy motive. I am glad they do it and they should be encouraged to do it. Like anything, however, taste has to be formulated and the art of liturgical flower arrangement has to be learned. As such, what I see here is not an opportunity to critique but rather an opportunity for us to continue to improve and refine.

What, then, should drive our considerations?

The first point that must be raised here is one of principle. Floral arrangements should accentuate the liturgical not dominate it. When too many flowers are used, the effect is often indeed of the latter. Altars become obscured and crowded. Ceremonial often becomes difficult as clergy and servers have to navigate around them. A little can go along way and a few well placed arrangements can be utilized to accentuate the altar and sanctuary rather than suffocate it.

The second consideration here is of the tradition. Potted flowers were not generally put on altars, gradines, etc. This is both practical, since it will mean that the altar and its linens will not  be soiled, and it is also a good aesthetic as potted flowers are rather clunky and bulky; cut flowers in vases, by contrast, are much more refined, finished and tasteful in their appearance.

Versus populum celebrations admittedly complicate this whole question since placement becomes an issue. Placing them on the altar is not really an option in this case (nor is it necessarily in alignment with the GIRM) and I would likewise recommend against the common practice of placing floral arrangement before such altars -- for here again I'd refer back to the principle above: the altar should not be obscured nor made the backdrop of something else. What to do in such instances then would depend upon the particular architecture and the possibilities presented in a given sanctuary when put within that versus populum context. In the case of ad orientem the situation tends to be much simpler, regardless of whether the altar is freestanding or not -- and the rubrics of the usus antiquior did not seem to prohibit flowers being on the mensa.

Bearing these things in mind, here are a few general guidelines and considerations that might be helpful in making those decisions.

Guidelines and Considerations

1. In instances where a church has its original high altar and/or its reredos still in place but it is not being used liturgically, I would recommend placing arrangements of cut flowers in vases there just as would have been done when the altar was being used.  This is particularly effective when that altar is in close proximity to the freestanding altar.  This not only gets around the issue of versus populum liturgies where flowers are concerned, it also has the positive effect of making the flowers the backdrop -- not the altar.

2. In terms of traditionally oriented liturgies and altars, cut flowers in tall vases (ideally matching ecclesiastical vases of brass, but short of that matching glass vases will also work) are certainly the way to go, remembering too that a little often goes a long way. There is no need to cramp the church with flowers or fill every conceivable space with them. Again: they are an accent. Use the number of candlesticks as your guide to the number of arrangements, placing the vases and flowers between the candlesticks. This will likely result in 2, 4 or 6 arrangements generally. My own advice is to take the number of candlesticks, less two, and that is what you are likely to end up with flower wise as a good general rule of thumb.  Exceptions will exist of course depending on things like gradines, the length of the altar and so on.

You will also notice here how the colours are very complimentary. See point 5 below.
3. The proportions of the altar and candlesticks should be considered. The flowers should seem neither too large nor too small such that they either dominate the altar and its other appointments or seem so small as to appear an afterthought.

Well proportioned
4. The symmetry of the arrangements is important. An equal number of arrangements, at equal height on either side of liturgical north and south seems to work the best. Four seems to work particularly well for most high altar arrangements. Two may also work, but with more difficulty, as you may need to compensate by making them larger arrangements.

Symmetrical. One third of the way up in height can also work very well in instances with very tall candles.

Two larger arrangements instead of four smaller, This works particularly well in a case like this where there is more than one gradine. 
I've quite often seen where one arrangement is placed in the middle, beneath or behind. the altar cross or some such thing. I'd encourage you to resist that urge. Having a single arrangement set up higher than all the rest ends up destroying the symmetry and looking rather out of place.

5. The colours of the liturgical vestments and also the colours within the sanctuary generally should likewise be considered. In my experience, floral arrangements typically work best when there is a strong co-relation or complementarity between the liturgical colours used in that church (i.e. for vestments, altar frontals, sanctuary design, etc.) and the colours within the floral arrangements. Complimentary colours can be very important to add some visual interest and to make the flowers stand out as a festal accent.

You needn't necessarily go all one colour for the flowers but it can work very nicely especially in churches where there is already a great deal of colour.

This is a good example of the use of complimentary colours. The peach colour flours work particularly nicely with the gold of the vestments and also the silver candlesticks.
As noted earlier on, how to approach this in terms of a versus populum liturgy is a bit more of a challenge, particularly if there is no traditionally oriented altar behind. While it may be more difficult to provide general guidelines in such instances given how tied it is to the individual particularities, I have no doubt that it can be done and that these principles can be found, in the most part, to apply in those instances as well. I would invite readers to send in photos of examples where you think this has been accomplished.

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