by Gretchen Roberts
Built upon the glorious anthem “Te Deum Laudamus,” Historic Trinity Lutheran Church in Detroit is an architectural embodiment of our Lutheran Christian heritage.
Before stepping foot into the sanctuary at Historic Trinity Lutheran Church in Detroit, Mich., one can seeand nearly feel and hearthe angels, cherubim and seraphim, apostles, prophets, martyrs and the holy Church throughout all the world crying aloud:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth! Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of Your glory. (LSB “Te Deum”)
Within and without the building, the whole of creation sings praises to God. Exterior walls of granite and Indiana limestone depict martyrs who selflessly defended the Christian faith. The bell tower is carved with figures of the church militant, from Gideon (Judges 7:8) to St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who fought to preserve the Trinitarian truth. Above the entrance, Aaron and Hur hold up Moses’ arms in prayer (Exodus 17), and a carving of a grapevine along the arched doorway recalls Jesus’ words in John 15:5: “I am the Vine; you are the branches . . . apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Inside, symbols of our Lord, Jesus Christ, dominate the sanctuary, from stained-glass crosses in the narthex doors reminding us that through Him we have access to the Father by one Spirit (Eph. 2:18) to the stunning gold-plated altar crucifix depicting Christ crucified for us.
Stained-glass windows designed by noted artist Henry Lee Willet flank the two sides of the sanctuary, portraying the apostles, prophets, Israelite kings and symbols of our faith like the three rings of the Trinity and the “helmet of salvation” (Eph. 6:17). The windows encourage study, reflection and contemplation, says the Rev. Dr. David Eberhard, pastor of Historic Trinity since 1981. “The glass is outstandingly pure. The colors are almost completely different as the sun moves through the building,” he says.
The sanctuary’s wood carvings, floor tiles, stone carvings and altar are a tapestry of symbolism of the Scriptures, our Christian faith and a visual history of the Church, but the rich imagery doesn’t stop there. The baptistry, pastor’s study and even meeting rooms invoke the “Te Deum Laudamus” theme.
In the pastor’s study, murals and windows depict pivotal moments in Reformation history like Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses, the Diet of Worms and Luther debating Zwingli at Marburg.
“Our faith is very much a verbal language, with words from Scripture, the catechism and our hymnal, but symbols are a complement to spoken and written words,” says Deaconess Pam Nielsen, author of Behold the Lamb: An Introduction to the Signs and Symbols of the Church (Concordia Publishing House, 2010). “Art can visually express the profound mystery of faith, pointing to our Savior.”
Symbols, images and pictures have always been important to the life of the Church, Eberhard says. “From day one, when people couldn’t read, they used graphics,” he points out. “You’ve heard a picture is worth a thousand words. Nike has a swoosh; Ford’s blue oval is instantly recognizable. Our Christian symbols tell a story and reinforce the proclaimed Word. They are a visual statement of who we are as God’s people.”
At Historic Trinity, fallen human beings are surrounded by an artful glimpse of the magnificence of the whole creation praising the Undivided Unity in an everlasting hymn. Our souls cannot help but sing Te Deum Laudamus . . . “We praise Thee, O God.”
> On the web Learn more about Historic Trinity and order booklets on its architecture and symbols at www.historictrinity.org.
About the author: Gretchen Roberts is a writer and a member of First Lutheran Church, Knoxville, Tenn.
Building a Liturgical Church
Any LCMS congregation looking to build a new sanctuary or renovate an existing one should visit Historic Trinity for inspiration, suggests LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison. (Go to www.youtube.com/user/MercyTubeWRHC to watch Dr. Harrison walk through and describe Historic Trinity.) But how could a contemporary congregation afford even a fraction of the artistry displayed in this 1931 space?
Craig Melde, a member of the architectural advisory committee for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund and an architect at Architexas in Dallas and Austin, says building a new church to that level of detail and craftsmanship is difficult today, even if money were no object.
“You can certainly employ good liturgical design that references a historic character, but to replicate the masonry, stained glass, woodworking and other craftsmanship is next to impossible. Those types of skilled craftsman are hard to find,” he says.
Still, Melde says a new church building can be beautifully liturgical if members focus on quality and design. “Classic churches have a few character-defining features: the vertical feeling of space that reaches toward the heavens, usually supplemented with a wonderful natural light via stained glass,” he says. “I would also focus on the quality of materials and on finding the right architect who understands how to represent your ministry in the building design.”