High Mass as Experience Design—The Art of Everyday Life

Part of an ongoing series of work — The Art of Everyday Life — with Stella Malfilâtre. Documentary can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/172442158


Art and religion have always been intimately linked — as, prior to galleries and museums, fine art’s main purpose was to provide an aesthetic route into spirituality, often using symbolism and iconography to communicate beyond language. But in contemporary society, there is a definite parallel between art and religion in terms of engagement (or, more accurately lack of). Both subjects have an innate ability to switch people on or off immediately, and at a societal level there are mental barriers to accessing both topics, preventing many people from learning more.

Situated just away from the bustling Oxford Street is All Saints — an Anglican church which epitomises this style of worship. Built between 1850 and 1859 by William Butterfield, this Gothic Revival building is a space of unexpected spiritual reflection amongst throngs of shoppers.

Every Sunday morning, the High Mass service attempts to connect its parish with God through a overwhelmingly sensory experience — simultaneously engaging sight, sound and smell in a heady religious mix. The service, based around the Eucharist (communion), sees form and matter intertwine — as as the material (bread and wine) are combined with ritualistic verbal and psychical actions.

Image © Stella Mafilâtre

Every Sunday morning, the High Mass service attempts to connect its parish with God through a overwhelmingly sensory experience — simultaneously engaging sight, sound and smell in a heady religious mix. The service, based around the Eucharist (communion), sees form and matter intertwine — as as the material (bread and wine) are combined with ritualistic verbal and psychical actions.

Although opposed by many types of Christian worship, song and music plays a huge role in the Anglican services, and All Saints don’t take this element lightly. Mass features hymns and chanted prayer, as well as employing the skills of a professional choir and a colossal four keyboard organ. The acoustics of the building were designed with this in mind; Rachmaninov even composed music specifically for the church. During the procession of the Gospel, sound is combined with smell as plumes of fragrant smoke fill the aisle — although apparently ‘nothing divides people like incense’.

Stained glass windows at All Saints—image © Stella Mafilâtre

Even without witnessing High Mass in progress, the architecture hints at the kind of service that you can expect. The establishment of the Anglican church paralleled neatly with the Gothic Revival — a movement based on integrity of craftsmanship, material and bringing the liturgical significance of architect of the medieval period to the Victorian period.

Despite the style being renowned for it’s gloomy atmosphere, Butterfield clearly loved light — as the building is flooded with it through the many kaleidoscopic stained glass windows. The church’s positioning works in its favour during High Mass, as shafts of light stream in through the upper stained glass windows, hitting the pulpit to draw attention to the preaching. The North wall is covered in tiled friezes. Every minute detail of the building has been considered and lavished with ornament. Compared to the rapturous music of High Mass, on weekdays the church is completely still — providing a oasis of tranquility in the heart of the busy city.

As a visitor to the church, belief obviously plays a crucial part in creating a spiritual experience. But religious or not, the overwhelming attention to detail that goes into every High Mass means it’s hard not to have an experience.