Treasures and sacred spaces

Cathedrals, churches and chapels of all sizes are home to an extraordinary range of artworks and objects which have a significance for a person, community or the nation. They may be simple or richly decorated, but they are all places which offer us beauty, peace, and a chance to step back from our  everyday lives. Beauty or heritage may be what first attracted you to go into a building, or which enriched your time there, and that is an important part of their purpose.

'I did not think it would be this beautiful or this big!'

'I just love this cathedral, and always enjoy coming here. I'm more in tune with my place in the universe afterwards.'

A view of Durham Cathedral against a pink/orange sunset with trees in the foreground..
A view of Durham Cathedral.

Living spaces

You can find links to help you explore the art and architecture of churches and cathedrals on our Resources page. They are not just art galleries or museums however: the buildings and everything in them is part of the story of that place and community and shows people expressing their faith and their ongoing relationship with God.

Some of these, such as the twelfth-century stained glass windows in the Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral or the tenth-century cross fragments at Lythe in North Yorkshire, are very old and speak of the long history of faith in that place. Others, like the font by William Pye in Salisbury Cathedral or the pink neon words “I Felt You and I Knew You Loved Me” by Tracey Emin in Liverpool cathedral, are very modern, reminding us that these are living places of witness, constantly changing to meet new needs and provoking new creative responses.

The 'light of the world' painting by Holman Hunt with lit candles in the foreground.
Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral
The 'Light of the World' painting by Holman Hunt.

Some, like Holman Hunt’s painting ‘Light of the World’ are internationally famous, even though the location of the original (in this case St Paul’s Cathedral in London) is less well-known. What they all have in common is that the craftspeople who created them did (and do) their best work, even if (like the gargoyles on York Minster’s tower) they cannot easily be seen, because it was done for the glory of God and would be there years after the life of the maker.

‘I was struck by the awe-inspiring atmosphere, the fact that people believe so strongly they build places like this.’

Churches as storybooks

Any church is a storybook of the people it serves, a space which is special, and spans a different timeline from our everyday lives. Its architecture and contents (often paid for by local people) reflect the style of worship practised when it was built, made or altered.

Some of the stories they contain can be difficult and uncomfortable: a memorial may commemorate a person or event we would not celebrate today, or a beautiful piece of art may have been made by someone who committed serious crimes. It is important to acknowledge the realities of the past and to be truthful. Churches and cathedrals can then be safe places to explore our feelings about difficult topics and attitudes.

Art in churches

Many churches and cathedrals contain objects and artworks which are very valuable. It is sometimes questioned why these are not sold to raise money for charity. Often these objects are important parts of the history and story of the place, given as memorials or made to be used in worship and to add to its beauty as an act of devotion.

A sculpture holding water reflects a stained glass window in a church.
The font at Salisbury Cathedral.

Sometimes they serve as attractions in their own right, bringing much more in donations than their sale would realise. Most are regularly if not permanently publicly accessible to whoever walks through the door, visible in the surroundings which help them make sense.

Often their ‘value’ would be significantly damaged if they were removed from their historic context. Disposal therefore requires very careful consideration as once lost it is very difficult to restore an object to its original story. It’s important to remember that the giving of many of these items was about helping people connect with a space, its purpose and meaning, and that is of value too.

Works of art and historic objects can be a helpful point of focus in a space. They can draw you into a scene, connect with your senses, or sharpen your focus onto tiny details which allow you to screen out the distractions around you and find a point of calm. You may find layers of meaning which resonate with you in an image, or find the tactile nature of medieval carved stone connects you with that deep history which can help you find balance and perspective.

'Expected something good - got something great!'