Originally created 11/29/03

Churches' entryways let worshippers know they're entering a sacred space



The 15th-century bronze doors on the Baptistry in Florence, Italy, are embellished with elaborate panels in relief telling the stories of biblical and religious figures.

Michelangelo called them the "Doors of Paradise."

They helped teach Christianity to "folks who couldn't read," said Alan Venable, an Augusta-area architect. But in a literate society, doors no longer need to tell stories.

About 100 years ago, traditional architecture was thought to be exhausted - people wanted novelty, "something different," said the Rev. Douglas Clark, the editor of The Southern Cross, published by the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, who has studied medieval art.

But 20th-century architecture has not worn well, and older styles are making a comeback, he said.

"It is not just copying an earlier style, but finding what is an appropriate style for our time," the Rev. Clark said. "There is freedom to experiment, but not all will be successful. It will be an adventure."

Large church doors open slowly. They cannot be hurried. They dwarf visitors, reminding them the building is no ordinary place.

Most church doors are "really very beautiful," Mr. Venable said. They are "not like an oversized house door. They are all original designs so that, when you go in, you know you are stepping into a sacred space."

When worshippers pass through the massive, dark-stained doors at First Presbyterian Church, completed in 1812, they enter a place of quiet. The 4-inch-thick doors shut out worldly distractions.

Builders for St. Thaddeus' Episcopal Church in Aiken, circa 1842, and Hephzibah United Methodist Church, circa 1853, enclosed their simple panels with heavy moldings. The doors on the Hephzibah church are 10 feet high.

Both entrances are painted white, as are those at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, consecrated in 1919, and Tabernacle Baptist Church, built in 1885. Tabernacle's doors were replaced in 1919 and St. Thaddeus' in the 1940s.

The doors on St. John United Methodist Church on Greene Street are thought to be original to the 1844 building. Beveled panels give them added dimension.

Greene Street has two churches with red doors, First Christian Church, circa 1875, and Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, completed in 1926. Resurrection's doors were replaced in 1998.

The red symbolizes blood, said Pastor Paulwyn Boliek, Church of the Resurrection's former pastor. It is "through Christ's blood that we enter into the church."

Red represents "the Passover lamb and also the blood of the martyrs," he said.

Red also makes an entrance "just pop right at you," Mr. Venable said. "With modern churches, you are going - 'where's the front?' The way you find that is with a big portico or architectural feature that leads you to the door."

Twin Romanesque arches frame the opening to the Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity, completed in 1863. Quatrefoils, also used in Gothic architecture, are centered over the oak doors.

Gothic elements, such as pointed arches, are common to many local churches, including Resurrection and the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, built in 1880. Good Shepherd's doors were replaced in 1981.

The origin of the pointed arch is open to speculation. Whether it came to Europe by way of the Byzantine Empire, the Crusaders or some other source, most experts agree it appeared in church architecture in the 1100s.

The pointed arch as a geometric form is half of the vesica piscis, an almond shape resulting from two overlapped circles. Vesica piscis - Latin for "fish bladder" - depicts a fish and so represents Christ in Christian art and architecture.

In John 10:9, Christ refers to himself when he says, "I am the gate. Whoever comes in by me will be saved; he will come in and go out and find pasture."

Good Shepherd is an example of Victorian Gothic, distinctive for patterns based on the number three in honor of the Trinity, said Mary Gail Nesbit, a member. "Victorians loved threes."

Contrasting bricks above Good Shepherd's entrance are arranged in groups of three. A trefoil or group of three acanthus leaves also tops the entrance.

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity was completed in the early 1920s. Its current metal doors are about 20 years old. The doors display a budded cross.

Some churches have stained or colored glass in the doors.

Coming into the four-door main entrance to Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Wrightsboro Road, built in 1986, people see the words "worship" and "preaching" flanking the doors. On the way out, the words "witness" and "service" are visible.

After worship and hearing the preaching, "we have become equipped to go beyond the doors," said the Rev. Clyde Hill Sr., Mount Calvary's pastor.

Across the street, the United House of Prayer for All People, built in 1995, also uses colored glass. The center doorway is red. Entrances to the right and left are blue.

The denomination's founder, Bishop C.M. "Sweet Daddy" Grace, painted the nails on his left hand red, white and blue in a show of patriotism.

The red and blue doors also express patriotism in the Augusta church and other United House churches which use the color scheme - "not all do," said Apostle Clarence Bailey, a congregational leader in Augusta.

Stained glass was installed in the Walton Way entrance to Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church as part of a recent renovation to the 1955 sanctuary.

The square insets display quatrefoils. The former doorway was solid, said Jim Davis, a member. "Stained glass opened it up."

Mount Calvary Baptist Church, 1260 Wrightsboro Road

United House of Prayer for All People, 1269 Wrightsboro Road

Tabernacle Baptist Church, 1223 Laney-Walker Blvd.

First Presbyterian Church, 642 Telfair St.

Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity, 720 Telfair St.

St. John United Methodist Church, 736 Greene St.

First Christian Church, 629 Greene St.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 605 Reynolds St.

Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, 953 Telfair St.

Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, 825 Greene St.

Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church, 2261 Walton Way

Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, 2248 Walton Way

Hephzibah United Methodist Church, 4431 Brothersville Road in Hephzibah

St. Thaddeus' Episcopal Church, 125 Pendleton St. S.W. in Aiken

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or virginia.norton@augustachronicle.com.