The Great Architect(ure)
There is more to great architecture than simply building a house on a firm foundation of rock rather than sinking sands. A great architect helps those who enter the edifice to use it in an appropriate way, a way in which they will find their lives enhanced simply walking in to the building. The building itself will tell a story through stone, glass, and metalwork, through the craft of the builders, painters, and sculptors in collaboration with the patron or patrons of the project for a specific purpose and to be used in a specific way. This collaboration produces an edifice that edifies. This specificity of purpose can most easily be seen in church architecture.
One needn’t be trained in art historical criticism, or have even taken a class in architecture to see the differences in an Orthodox, Roman, or Presbyterian church, let alone the warehouse-performance-space of a Non-Denominational mega-church. The doctrinal differences are evident upon entering the sanctuary, and sometimes even upon entering the narthex, or vestibule. The differences, however, between a Roman, Lutheran, or Anglican church may be as subtle in some ways as they are obvious in others. Something as simple as the placement of the baptismal font can be a denominational identifier. Surely you aren’t likely to see many statues of saints with rack upon rack of glimmering candles before them in a Lutheran church, but you may in an Anglican church, and you certainly will in a Roman church. Likewise, you aren’t likely to see a confessional tucked in to the corer of a Lutheran church, but you may find one in an Episcopal church, and it’s rather certain that there will be a closet in which you might confess your sins in a Roman church. These two examples not only show differences in architecture, but in doctrine, or dogmatic tradition. All three denominations believe in the Communion of Saints and the need for Confession and Absolution, but their understanding of just what these are and what they do are, in varying degree, different.
When it came time for my great grandfather, John Jenny, to build a new structure in which his congregation, the congregation of Saint Jacobi, might worship he understood just how important choosing the right architect and artists was for the job. Not only did they need to be master craftsmen but they needed to work in collaboration with Pastor Jenny to create a place in which confessional Lutheran doctrine was present in the very stones, wood, paint, and glass that went in to the building. The architect chosen was O. C. Uebling; the local paper reported the muralist as being Fred Rohrbach, but his true name was Franz.
A church opening was once worthy of being reported in the paper. Not only was it an important event in the religious life of the city, but a new building was worthy of criticism, and Saint Jacobi on Mitchell Street was, as reported, “one of the finest examples of church architecture in Milwaukee.” Its dedication was celebrated with an entire day of activities which included services and a concert with Uncle Herbert (Herbert Jenny) presiding at the organ, and Saint Jacobi’s Mixed Choir singing. Of course the Service of Dedication was presided over by Grandpa Jenny. There were several other services that day and evening in both German and English presided over by many of the local Lutheran clergymen. On the day of the dedication the building was said to present an “imposing appearance” in its French Gothic style of light stone with Tudor accents in the interior. The sanctuary was described as “a splendid type of what churchmen believe to be ideal for worship.” One of the sub-headings from the article states “Handsome Mural Paintings Blend With Costly Hand Carved Altar,” which was described:
…a magnificent altar bearing in full sized relief the figure of the savior, the hole being one piece of exquisite hand carving, the color scheme being gold and cream. Surrounding the altar, and apparently continuation of it, is a large painting of the opened heavens and a dove descending upon the carved image of the Christ, while angelic figures hover in the background. At each side of the chancel the clouds merge into two more splendid paintings., one representing Jericho with the river Jordan flowing through it, the other a view of Hebron, the oldest city of Palestine. On a scroll which winds in and about the whole alcove is contained the pater noster and the benediction.
I suspect the reporter was working from an artist’s proposal, or some sort of preliminary sketch at the time of the writing as the carved figure is of the Ascention, and not the Baptism of Christ as is implied in the written report. There is also a little confusion over the scroll: There was no scroll, no Benediction, and no Pater Noster. There was, however a placard held by two angels with the beginning of the Vater Unser rather than the Pater Noster. (After all, German is the true language of the Church and God.) Some months ago I wrote about my grandmother’s contribution to the building of Saint Jacobi, and the mural in particular. In the post called Church and Family, and how it was she who provided the model for the dove in the mural. I mention the pictures in my family archive stating:
The pictures are of the old Saint Jacobi, torn down in 1977 to make way for a strip mall and a McDonald’s franchise. The windows and other fixtures were sold. My cousin has one of the less elaborate windows. While looking for information regarding Saint Jacobi, and possibly a picture of Grandma’s dove I discovered that the altar and pulpit along with the pews were sold to Saint Marcus Lutheran Church; their site has a virtual tour that shows all of the remaining bits of Saint Jacobi in their “new” home. I’ve been told that the painting of the dove was somehow saved, but I’ve not been able to find any more information about it, not even a picture. None of the family pictures of Saint Jacobi show the dove that my grandmother told me so lovingly about.
Last month I anticipated this post with a preview in which I wrote about a former parishioner of Saint Jacobi: Pastor John Miller from Saint Andrew Evangelical Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. We’ve continued our correspondence and he continues to be a wealth of information. One of the many things that Pastor Miller has given me is a picture from his family archives of Grandma’s dove. The Picture is from about 1977; taken shortly before the demolition of the old Saint Jacobi, and it can be seen plainly that there have been changes made to Rohrbach’s mural. Gone are the rainbows; gone the Vater Unser; gone are the cities of Jericho and Hebron; gone is the river Jordan. The angels now hold a book with the names of the four Gospelers surrounding the Alpha and Omega.
With that picture and the description from the news paper as well as Pastor Miller’s description I think I may be able to piece together a picture of just what Saint Jacobi may have looked like at its dedication.
I suspect that the changes in the mural, especially the Vater Unser, occurred during or shortly after The Great War. (World War I is the thing that my mother credits with the death of German being spoken at home; except when her parents didn’t want the children to know what was being discussed; which the children always did.) However, I do wonder why they removed the rainbows; they seem like such a clear reminder of God’s promises, of God’s Grace, and seems to fit rather nicely into the beautiful interpretation of the collaboration of pastor, architect, sculptor, and painter presented by Pastor Miller:
I think the entire concept of St. Jacobi and its artistic expression are a confession of your great-grandfather’s faith. The article states that the mural of Jericho and Hebron with the angels is apparently an extension of the altar statue of the ascending Christ. How true: he ascended as our victorious Lord who paid for our sins and opened heaven for us, through whom our prayers are heard (Vater unser…). He is preparing places for us in heaven. When he comes to us through his gospel by the Holy Spirit (dove), we have a sort of heaven on earth. This is what his Church is all about. This idea was carried out in a most unique way in the St. Jacobi window design: all the symbols in the windows, of the Sacraments, and his church in glory, and the Luther rose, etc. were set in CLOUDS. I have never seen this in any other church. I never understood why those symbols looked so strange with those white and grey blobs around them. Then I read the dedication article, and it all came together. When our Lord comes to us with his forgiveness and righteousness, we have a heaven on earth, and anticipate being with our ascended Lord in glory. I have to think that Pastor Jenny, whose ideas of church art and architecture were represented in the old church, had a lot to do with tying together all those ideas. How wonderful when art and architecture confess and glorify the Savior-God who gives us our gifts and abilities!
It seems that many people salvaged bits of the Old Saint Jacobi Various people have bits of organ paneling, metal work from the towers. As I’ve mentioned, my cousin Carol got one of the windows. (I’ve yet to find out if she still has it, or to get a picture.) Other windows found their way into a private collection in Boisie, Idaho. One of the families that salvaged the altar, pulpit and lectern eventually giving them to St. Marcus also gave Pastor Miller the cross from the top of the pulpit Schalldeckel. A brief visit to the Saint Marcus virtual tour to see the altar will confirm what Pastor Miller says: The people at Saint Marcus “did a fine job of restoring it. Jesus’ skin is a little darker now, with a little olive tint to him, and the cherubim around him are multi-racial–fitting for St. Marcus congregation.” This seems like a change that is meet and right to do. It feels in concord with a church that it truly catholic, truly evangelical. A new coat of polychrome to reflect the changing makeup of a congregation is an appropriate innovation as more and more Midwestern Lutherans find the need for a Hispanic Ministry, in an ever increasingly multicultural world.
The Devil is in the details, and it seems that Pastor Miller has been blessed to steward quite a few architectural details from Saint Jacobi’s second home including “part of one of the capitals from the columns.” He says that that it looks “like leaves sometimes, and like little demon” others. He’s come up with a beautiful way of looking at this saying: “–the devil is always around trying to mislead us.” However, when a pastor, congregation, or architect forget, or even ignore, the fact that Church is not theatre in the round, or even theatre behind a proscenium arch we are mislead away from the worship of God toward entertainment.
A congregation is not an audience nor an assembly gathered to be amused for an hour or so’s entertainment before brunch. When a celebrant at an altar with a raredos or an altar built against a wall turns ad populum, facing the congregation, rather than saying the prayers of institution facing the altar, ad orientum, attention is reflected back to the congregation rather than on the consecration of the elements. When a praise band, or even the organ and choir are placed in front of the altar the focus is taken away from worship and reflected back upon the congregation pandering to sentimentalism. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time with Anglo-Catholics, but the art and architecture really do dictate how a congregation worships, or at least how they should worship as a sort of “Lex orandi lex credendi,” or “As we pray so we believe.” The art and architecture identify just what the creed of that congregation is before they even start to recite the Nicean Creed in the Divine Liturgy. Grandpa Jenny’s collaborative efforts were simply the icing on a liturgical cake. The building that his congregation constructed to the glory of God was not innovative. The choir and organ were in the back of the church. That which was, and still is, important was front and center: the sacraments represented in the pulpit, font, and altar; a place where the Word of God may be preached in Law and Gospel, a font in which men of all ages may be made children of God, and an altar at which one may find the true presence of Christ in with and under the creatures of bread and wine.
The building on Mitchell Street may be just a memory, with bits of it’s former glory now glorifying the worship of other congregations, or spread across the country, or perhaps the globe, as keepsakes, but the congregation of Saint Jacobi is thriving in Greenfield, Wisconsin. The hymns sung by the congregation are supported and pushed forward as music wafts down from the choir loft in the back of the sanctuary. The font from the Mitchell Street church is still in use at the front of the sanctuary along with the newly built (1977) altar, and pulpit, and on the altar are the candelabrum that my great grandfather knew. The congregation continues to produce, and be a good shepherd, to faithful men and women, like Pastor Miller, confirming nearly thirty young adults in 2013. As sad as people may be that the old church is gone I can’t imagine a thing that would please either my great grandfather, or his father in law, Pastor Dammann, more than such an increase of the faithful.