Saturday, March 9, 2024

Courtroom and sanctuary. . .

Although I am certainly not the first or only person to have noticed the resemblance between the arrangement of the typical courtroom in America and the worship space of a liturgical church, it still amazes me.  How interesting it is that in the sacred duties of justice, the architect chose to lay out a pattern and form which bears striking resemblance to a Christian congregation!  It is hard not to believe that those who design the traditional American courtroom were oblivious to or were not inspired by traditional sacred architecture. 

The central focus of the Church building is the altar, flanked by pulpit and lectern.  So it is that the central focus of the courtroom is the raised desk where the judge sits, flanked by the pulpit of the witness stand on one side and the stenographer's desk on the other.  As the Church may have choir on one side or both, so the jury tends to sit as a sort of choir in judgement, so to speak.  Just as the altar rail marks the distinction between the public space and sacred space of the clergy, so there is a rail or partition of some sort in the courtroom to demarcate where the visitors sit and where those who are somehow directing the legal process are placed.  There are assisting clergy in the chancel and lawyers to prosecute and defend within the sacred space of the courtroom's chancel.  There are assisting clergy such as acolytes and torchbearers and thurifers and such in the Church and bailiffs and deputies within the courtroom.  In fact, the public seating of a typical courtroom gallery may even be pews instead of chairs and so reflect the nave of the Church even more.  The judge wears robes and the assistants to the judge also wear the distinctive clothing of their offices -- no different that the chancel and the clergy of different rank in the Church.  The bar is the line of demarcation for the professionals and so the altar rail delineates where those who have offices serve.  There is even a reredos behind the judge's desk which reminds us of the reredos behind the altar. Often even sacred art adorns that space just as it does in the Church.

Which inspired which?  I suspect that there may be bit of both but the Church has clearly contributed to the design of the legal space.  It would not be wrong, however, to presume that the Church has learned something from the sacred space of the law as well.  Have you noticed what I have?  What do you think of it the commonality?  Is it fitting and normal or eerily odd to you?

1 comment:

William Tighe said...

I recognize the church, which I frequented in the years 1979 to 1981, when living in London (England): St. Etheldreda, Ely Place, Hatton Gardens, London. It was the chapel of the medieval mansion of the Bishop of Ely. During Elizabeth I's reign the then Bishop of Ely was forced to make a long lease of the property to various lay magnates, including Sir Christopher Hatton and Lord North. In the early seventeenth century the palace houses the Spanish Embassy, and the chapel was its chapel. Later the neighborhood went downhill; the palace was destroyed, and the chapel was out to various uses, sacred and profane, before being purchased on behalf of the Catholic Church in 1874, and restored for Catholic worship. A bomb falling nearby during the Blitz destroyed all the window glass, which was restored in the 1950s. In a passageway near the church there is a small pub, The Old Mitre, which has occupied those premises since 1546. For more, see:,_London