Curating a Visual Liturgy
(This article was originally published in Worship Leader’s Nov/Dec 2012 issue. Subscribe today for more great articles like this one.)
When people ask, “What exactly is it that you do?” I jokingly reply “PowerPoint on steroids!” That usually gets a few laughs.
In all seriousness, one of my deepest passions is to lead visual worship alongside musical worship leaders and artists. Though projection technology may be relatively new, I am constantly reminded that visual worship is actually very old.
Have you ever heard of an illuminator? Illumination is a medieval art form that the ancient Church celebrated. In short, it involved an artist (illuminator) painting and drawing sacred symbols and beautiful imagery rich with aesthetic theology to adorn the Scriptures. This carried over into other forms of visually experienced beauty such as stained glass, architecture, frescoes, paintings that illuminated sacred spaces.
Illumination was considered the highest form of art. If you were an illuminator, you were the Bono of the early Church. Sadly, the introduction of modern technology, such as the printing press, led to its decrease in popularity, and mass production, efficiency, and a well-meaning, text-only approach to theology increased in the Church’s economy.
Over the centuries, the Western Protestant Church became a visual wasteland starved of beauty. But such is not the case today. We’ve seen a rise in visual creativity over the past few decades, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Music has mostly dominated this creative reformation, but a visual revival has been following closely behind.
Perhaps the spirit of illumination is returning to the darkened walls of our churches. And isn’t it ironic that technology (which was one of the culprits contributing to its destruction in centuries past) might aid in its recovery.
A Process of Illumination
A few months ago, I was reading about the recent St. John’s Bible project, a modern “work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.”
The artists’ creative process was described as visio divina, or “divine vision.” This is the slow, careful, visual meditation on God’s Word, thinking about imagery and metaphors that help you to see the Scriptures. It also relates to the practice of “praying through art.”
This has really challenged and inspired me when I illuminate a song or message with visual media. I find myself choosing fewer images to project, but the imagery I’m leaning into feels deeper and richer in theological meaning, even if in subtle, hidden ways.
Story and Atmosphere
When curating visuals, there are two things I can accomplish: tell a story and create an atmosphere. Most visuals do both, as story and atmosphere go hand-in-hand. But each image leans more heavily towards one or the other.
So I ask myself: does this image tell a story? Or is it simply creating an atmosphere in which the story will be told?” The idea of (visual) worship as narrative deeply excites me. After all, this is the original intent and purpose of the liturgy.
Visualizing the Songs
One method to curating visuals is illuminating on a song-by-song basis. To choose a strong image, ask:
- What color is this song?
- What imagery is described in the lyrics,
- Do I want to visualize it in a literal or abstract way?
- Can I use allegory or metaphor as a vehicle to propel the message of the song beyond its lyrics?
Sometimes I simply want to create a themed, immersive narrative that isn’t necessarily tied to a song but contains a common thread tying the liturgy together. Creation. Cathedrals and stained glass. Abstract motions. Stations of the Cross. Colors of the liturgical year. Choose imagery to wrap the worshiper in.
Sometimes the most powerful image is no image at all. Don’t feel obligated to project media for every single moment. Give everyone’s eyes a visual break, maybe for a song (especially if it’s stripped down and acoustic) or maybe for a season, like Lent. Don’t underestimate the power of darkness and silence …; it’s a vital part of our story.
I’ll close with this. Visuals can strengthen your liturgy just as much as songs or the sermon. As Richard Viladesau writes in Theology and the Arts, we need to develop visual forms with a “strong emphasis on theological meaning and at the same time attain a high level of beauty.” Why? Because “there is also a need for rich symbolic communication to bring people emotionally and intellectually into a mystery in which words are inadequate.”
Stephen Proctor is Son of the King. Illuminator. Visual Worship Curator. Neo-Liturgical VJ. Missionary of Beauty. Pilgrim on the Canterbury Trail. Adventure Seeker. Coffee Wanderer. Find out more at illuminate.us.