The words and artwork above the doors of a church are intended to guide churchgoers as they move through the doorway, or portal, from the outdoor worldly world into sacred space. At Saint Francis de Sales, that direction has long been hidden – and not just because it has been covered by scaffolding!
The message above the central door to our church is visible in photographs, but long misrepresented in writing. In almost every description of the church, since the beginning, only the first half of the inscribed verse is quoted: “My eyes will be open and my ears attentive.” Winding around a scene (carved by sculptor Adolfo de Nesti) usually described as “the Madonna and Christ Child” — an active toddler — this might easily be understood as a reminder to churchgoers of proper behavior as you enter the church: be still, be quiet; observe the magnificent decorations and the pageantry; listen carefully to the readings and the sermon.
This is only a partial quote, however. The actual phrase engraved above our doors is 2 Chronicles 7:15 “My eyes shall be open and my ears attentive to the prayer of him that shall pray in this house,” which puts a different spin on things: these are the words that God the Father, spoke to Solomon at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, built to house the Ark of the Covenant. The verse in the Bible continues “For I have chosen, and have sanctified this place, that my name may be there for ever, and my eyes and my heart may remain there perpetually.” So instead of telling us how to behave in church, our church is likened to the fabled Holy Temple of King Solomon! This is reinforced in the image framed by the verse, which is not just the “Madonna and Christ Child,” but Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional French doorway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin…the Virgin being symbolic of the Church as well as being the Bride of Christ.”
The association is not incidental. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that “A door is an obvious symbol of the way to salvation through the church, and for this reason the main door is usually directly opposite the altar.” In our church, the pose of the toddler Christ above the portal is echoed in the crucifixion mosaic above the altar and the doorway inscription theme continues up in the sanctuary, with two phrases threaded around the top of the walls. The first is from the 26th Psalm in which David – patriarch of Jesus’ lineage — says “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth.” (note the Mary monogram above the words “beauty of thy house!”) The other quote, from Genesis 28:16, is part of what Jacob said upon awakening from his dream about angels climbing a ladder to heaven: “Indeed, the Lord is in this place” — in the Bible, the verse continues “and I knew it not….This is no other but the house of God and the gate of heaven.”
Studying inscriptions in churches, and especially the words inscribed above ancient European church portals, Calvin B. Kendall noted that historically, “Inscriptions articulated the hopes and fears of monks and worshippers, spoke for them and to them, and in some cases may have functioned as talismans against lurking demons.” In 1911, our doorway inscription boldly identified our church as a holy place and acclaimed the benefits of prayer in that uncertain age leading up to the First World War.
For many years now, the front of our church has been wreathed in scaffolding that has concealed the portal decorations and offered a different message and symbolism. Scaffolding is human-built structure that provides support while keeping people safe. It’s also an emblem of “work in progress,” a very apt description of our parish! And, perhaps, there’s a warning: over time, is it possible to become so conditioned to rigid human framework, that we are in danger of letting it overwhelm the spiritual message of God’s love?