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Pieces of Our Past

April 17, 2014

Artifact: Dossal

Archive Work CoatSize: 13 feet by 16 feetThe Ruins of Buffalo

Date: 1951

Significance: As we approach the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord on this Easter Sunday, we wanted to feature an artifact that reminds us of Christ’s great redeeming sacrifice for us on the cross. This large dossal, a curtain hung behind an altar, was used at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Brentwood, Missouri. Its design is rife with symbolism, featuring the three crosses of Calvary and the sevenlast words of Christ.

Symbolism of the Dossal1: See the diagram at right for corresponding numbers and look at the various photographs for details of the symbols. The entire dossal is quilted with an all-over design of hearts and is bordered with the earliest known symbol of Christianity, the Ichthys, which stands for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

1. The center of the dossal depicts the thorn-crowned cross of Christ, standing on a tricolored panel, to remind us that all races of humanity are equal under the cross of Christ, which in turn rests on an open Bible.

2. On the cross of the redeemed thief the chains of sin broken by the word of Jesus. It rests on the crown of salvation above an open Bible.

3. The cross of the unrepentant thief, bound by the chains of sin, sinks into the fires of perdition.

4. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34] The cross, stopping a bolt of wrath, expresses the forgiveness we have through Christ. We need to be forgiven and to be forgiving.

5. “Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:43] The crown of salvation symbolizes the heavenly reward of our faith in the Savior, as it was promised to the penitent thief.

6. “Woman, behold, your son! . . . Behold, your mother!” [John 19:26–27] The monogram, J and M, signifies Jesus’ concern for His mother, when He entrusted her care to His beloved John.

7. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46] The pain-wracked question of the tortured Redeemer is symbolized by the question mark over the cross. He was forsaken so that we might be received on high.

8. “I thirst.” [John 19:28] The empty cup speaks eloquently that He poured out His life to save us.

 

9. “It is finished.” [John 19:30] The circle surrounding the cross tells us that the work of salvation is complete. Our lives are complete only in Christ!

10. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” [Luke 23:46] The circle, with the cross of suffering removed, is a symbol of full freedom from woe when the soul returns to the Father. He who dieth thus—dies well!

11/12. The Sacrament of Holy Communion is represented by the patterns of chalices and of wafers, the body and blood of the Lord’s Supper.

13. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is symbolized by the panel showing ripples of water.

14. “Praise Ye the Lord,” in both lettered words and in Braille, remind us that the Savior redeems both the seeing and the blind.

15. A panel of hearts signifies the love of Jesus for us all.

History of the Dossal: A Saint Louis artist, Don Charpiot, designed the dossal while the women of the congregation executed it. The symbolic design was intended to help the worshipers at Mount Calvary to “meditate on the glorious message of the Cross.” The dossal hung on a blank interior wall behind the altar in the new sanctuary.

In 1951 Mount Calvary was in need of a larger sanctuary. Unable to build further on their existing property, the congregation purchased 7.8 acres of land nearby with a building that was the former Van Horn’s Restaurant, which had been a popular restaurant for over 30 years. Van Horn’s was famous for being a place of leisurely family dining outside the city. Over the years the area surrounding the estate changed from rural to suburban.

The congregation did not have enough funds to buy the property and build a new church simultaneously, so they renovated the restaurant for their needs instead. The congregation members handled the majority of the renovations themselves, turning the main hall into a sanctuary seating 350, a balcony overlooking the dance floor into a choir loft, and the upstairs dining rooms into Sunday school/day school classrooms. The new church was dedicated on October 14, 1951. It continued to serve as the church until 1965.

While renovating an existing secular building into a church is rather common today, at the time it was a novel idea. It was so unusual, in fact, that Life magazine published an article about the renovation titled “Club into Church.” The tag line was “a famous St. Louis night spot now is filled with worshipers.”2

1. Descriptions were based on those found in various papers in the Mount Calvary geographical collection.
2. “Club into Church,” Life (5 November 1951): 127–28.


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Last updated: Wednesday, April 16, 2014
URL: http://www.lutheranhistory.org/pieces-2014-51.asp