Books and Beauty: Liturgical Layout

Over at the New Liturgical Movement, the editor Shawn Tribe has written an interesting piece proposing a set of guiding principles for missal layout coinciding with the new Roman translation of the Novus Ordo mass.

Upon seeing the article, I was immediately reminded of the words of Percy Dearmer on the subject of liturgical books and layout which are well worth repeating in full:

It is an established convention that the books associated with religious worship shall be not only bound in black or at best in dingy colours, but shall be printed and arranged in the most repellent manner. It is almost impossible to procure Bibles and Prayer Books printed in good type and arranged in the best way, as other books are arranged. Occasionally well-bound copies are given as presents — thirty years ago they were still dismal, however great their cost, though today they are brighter outside — but when you open these expensive copies, the same ugly typography meets your eye. Now a publisher who issued a new book in such type, chopped it up into short verses, sprinkled it with unemphasized words in italics, arranged it in narrow columns with cramped margins, spaced the verse as if it were prose, eschewed quotation marks in his dialogue, and finally encased the whole in cheap black cloth — such a publisher would be bankrupt in a year. However good his books, people simply would not read them. (Art of Public Worship, 33.)

Dearmer called for beautiful books that would be worthy of and properly honor (honour?) both the words that they conveyed and the dignity of public worship for which they were intended.

Apart from a few fits and starts in this direction, not many folks have heeded him… (The outstanding outliers in this case were the English printer Pickering and the American Daniel Updike. [Corrected per comments!] For more on this topic see Martin Hunter’s essay “Prayer Books and Printers” in The Oxford Guide to the BCP.)

C’mon folks! In this age of computer printing and graphic work there is absolutely no reason why liturgical works cannot be beautiful! Indeed, care and beauty on the front end can make a well thought-through and designed book more functional than an ugly one!

I have seen in draft a missal for the monastics, oblates, and friends of the Order of Julian of Norwich which holds great promise in this regard, but these sorts of works should be the rule—not the exception.

13 thoughts on “Books and Beauty: Liturgical Layout

  1. Scott Knitter

    I have to say the U.S. Book of Common Prayer 1979 has stood the test of time with its beautiful, restrained typography and design. Its Sabon typeface is both modern and classic, the formatting is consistent and very readable, and the whole book is nothing but type: no chunky two-color woodcuts of stylized people with their necks attached at the back of their head; no frilly borders around pages; no irresistable urge to fill in white space with stuff. The designers understood the concept of active white space that invites the eye to enter into the content. The BCP 79 is a model I wish more publishers would learn from.

  2. Derek Olsen

    Ok, Scott—I take your point. The ’79 BCP is quite a lot better than the alternatives. Looking at some of the old prayer books in my collection and at PDFs of others, it’s clear that things used to be a lot worse and that we are blessed in the ’79 book.

    On the other hand…

    I’m trying to wrap words around exactly what I’m thinking here and am failing… Perhaps the best way to say it is something like this: The ’79 BCP is a classic Anglican book in that it represents a compromise position between all of the various parties within the church. However, it leaves opportunities for traditional embellishments. For instance, the rubrics of the mass allow hymns, psalms or anthems at just the spots where the Minor Propers can be added. Not every parish is going to do that or wants to do it—and that’s fine; the book doesn’t require it. But it does leave the opportunity for such embellishment.

    I don’t see any reason why we can’t think of the typography in the same way. We can make additions (and editions) that embellish and enhance the book without distracting or occluding the legitimate text.

    I like a nice page border, myself. In fact, I’ve got a facsimile edition of Owen Jones’s The Psalms of David Illuminated that I think is terrific what with its florid capital initials and handsome borders. Should *all* BCPs look like that? Of course not—but why not create and make available such things for those who desire it?

  3. Jonathan

    Derek, unless the draft OJN missal you saw was created within the last few months, the Order has been using that missal for some time (possibly with some additions, emendations, and deletions depending on the age of the draft you saw). They also have a lovely Book of the Chair (which contains the priest’s parts for the Liturgy of the Word), which also helps to reduce the number of page turns the officiant has to make.

    Another facet to keep in mind as one works on liturgical layout is whether the final product is to be a working book or a devotional object. For a working book like a missal, while the text and binding need to be attractive, it’s generally best for it to have very little ornamentation or even none. For a working book the text and reciting the text is the point, and, while extra ornamentation may not interfere, it also can’t be given much attention due to time constraints. Most BCPs, however, are more like devotional objects most of the time. Yes, people need to be able to read the text, but they also have time to sit with the text and the prayers. In a devotional context it would make sense to have significant embellishments and maybe even include artwork as the NLM’s proposed missal does, although it would probably be best to have several editions with different styles of art to cater to variations in taste.

    Actually, it’d be a lot of fun to do that layout work after I get my hands on the required publishing software.

  4. Grrg (@gregorybloch)

    I can’t be the only one who thinks that the illustrations the NLM poster chose to include in his sample layouts are dreadful, low-quality, kitsch, right? And it’s kitsch of precisely the same type — sentimental, cartoonish, fussy — that Dearmer, in Art of Public Worship, spends pages lamenting!

    (And Mr. AKMA, I’m fairly certain that Dr Olsen meant to type “Daniel Updike” but accidentally typed “John Updike” instead. John Updike, to my knowledge, has no opinion on liturgical books…)

  5. Derek Olsen

    Oh, he’s Dr. AKMA and more deserves the title than me… You’re both right; I was thinking Daniel as I typed “John” but didn’t know of that article. Thanks!

  6. David Donnell

    Red rubrics are not too much to ask for if you’re willing to pay a much higher price for your BCP.

  7. Michael S

    The 79 is not bad, certainly.
    However, it would be *greatly* improved by:
    *justification!*. It’s completely identified as a child of its time by the ragged right.
    *Headings in small caps* rather than the inconsistent use of italics/bold. Bold is ugly, and italics should be saved for rubrics.
    *People’s part consistently in regular type*. Sometimes it’s in regular with “People” prepended, sometimes it’s in italic. (This seems to have a long pedigree in the BCP, alas.)
    Judicious use of dropped capitals, for example at the start of each psalm.
    These things are not, I think “too fussy”; no one would look at such a book and exclaim, “What century did *this* come from!”

    One other thing in it that annoys me is taking certain texts and line breaking them at clauses. The BCP only does this on common recited passages: Creed, Lord’s Prayer, etc. EOW seems to do it for everything. There is no way I can read that and not end my thought at every line break. That’s what all other reading in life has trained me to do. If the sentence isn’t over, you don’t put a full-stop; if the paragraph isn’t over, don’t break the line!

  8. Precentor

    Greetings from a first-time commenter.

    I agree with many of the sentiments already expressed here: that the 1979 BCP was a step forward in many ways from the sometimes overwrought and almost unavoidably cramped liturgical books of yesteryear, and that at the same time there is room for more variety and more elaboration in the design of such books, of which there are so many fine examples in the history of printing. I would simply add that there is also still room to bring further insights of modern typographic, information, and publication design (which is not necessarily to say a modernist aesthetic) to bear on the considerable complexities of liturgical typography. Common Worship, not without its flaws, nevertheless to my mind represents a very notable endeavor in this regard, though it is of course only one possible solution; there is an account of its making at (also linked from Oremus) that makes an interesting companion piece to the Updike article mentioned above. Incidentally, a proposal for a fine Standard Book to succeed Updike’s (see seems to have gone nowhere, appearing as it did at a time when it seems the Church had reached a point of exhaustion and could no longer be bothered with such things.

    As a professional church musician and typographer, and a student of the liturgy, I dream of sinking my teeth into such a project as our good host suggests – or, a bit closer to home, as there is not likely ever to be much call for a Prayer Book Noted, or even a Prayer-Book-as-Devotional-Object, in my parish or diocese, an Antiphoner usable by mere mortals (something I occasionally putter with until my long-suffering partner seated across the study table notes that my Monastic Diurnal is encroaching upon his Accounts Receivable and there’s laundry to be folded). Of course, given the expense and difficulty, the question of whether to print liturgical resources at all in the twenty-first century is a fair one; the sprawling complexity of the liturgy in all its fullness seems a perfect opportunity for the computer programmer, as our host has so admirably demonstrated with the St Bede’s Breviary. But I for one find it unpleasant to read, and impossible to pray, from a computer screen, and I hope that there will always be a place for (well-)printed versions of texts that we mean to keep.

    In any case, God save the Church from such dreadfully debased attempts as that put forth over at the Novus Motus. Holy Augustine (of Hippo), Holy John (of God), [and Blessed Percy,] pray for us!

    – Precentor

    Post Scriptum:

    This is perhaps not the best venue to debate points of typographic style at any great length, but I would suggest in response to another commenter that there is a good deal to be said for setting liturgical texts (including Scripture) per cola et commata, as recommended by one St Jerome (as well as one Bradbury Thompson, typographical advisor to the 1979 BCP and frequent user of ‘sense lines’ – which I gather he imagined to be a modern invention – in books he designed, notably the Washburn/Oxford Bible): such setting can be helpful in shaping oral renditions of texts like these that are meant to be read (or better, sung) aloud, as well as in decoding (and encoding) textual structures that don’t always fall neatly into modern categories of poetry or prose – all of which I suggest would be beneficial to the understanding, performance, and ongoing development of the liturgy.

  9. Jeffrey

    Like Precentor above, I bring you greetings as yet another first-time commenter.
    I also would like to help develop liturgical books that are both beautifully designed and designed to be used in public worship. Has anyone, for example, produced an altar book that includes EOW texts?

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