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Orna Sacra: new tools for the iconological study of liturgical heritage

Liturgical heritage, generally considered as belonging to the decorative arts, is often neglected. Researchers from UCLouvain, KU Leuven and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage have developed new tools and methodologies to deepen our understanding of the religious, social and artistic values of these specific items.

KU Leuven
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Marie-Christine Claes, coordinator of the project
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Ornamenta Sacra

Chalices, monstrances, thuribles, altar vessels, candlesticks, chasubles: these objects, made of a multitude of materials and techniques, all have one thing in common; they play a significant role in religious rites and occupy an important place in the history of religious art. In collaboration with researchers from UCLouvain and KU Leuven, the Institute conducted an iconological and anthropological study of the liturgical heritage in the Southern Netherlands (1400-1700), the so-called ornamenta sacra.

The focus on the Southern Netherlands is a voluntary choice: the region was a crossroads of cultures and religious faiths. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the politico-religious upheavals (including the Iconoclasm in 1566) left their mark on the liturgy. The study provides a comprehensive overview of the evolution of the relationship between art and liturgy.

Decorum as a starting point

Since ornamenta sacra are liturgical items, they are strongly linked to rituals. These objects are not only practical due to their function but also because of their material, symbolic and artistic value. In this project, we approach these objects from the perspective of decorum, in other words, how their appearance serves their function.

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Meaning and experience

This approach invites a rethinking of the interactions between motions and emotions. What synesthetic experiences do ornamenta sacra provide? Part of the study focuses on the different sensory functions of this experience: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting.

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Added documentary value through research

Today, many of these items, once part of the same liturgical ensemble, are often dismantled and dispersed throughout different collections. Here we have mapped out the links between these items (in terms of origin, typology and chronology).

Online tool

As part of this project, researchers have developed new online resources. They are available to all those interested in our liturgical heritage.


  • the Orna Sacra website
  • the OrnaWiki with a multilingual thesaurus, linked to the BALaT liturgical items
  • the Proceedings of the International Conference 2019 (Peeters Publishing, 2022).

Would you like to contribute towards future heritage research?

Our heritage is a shared responsibility. Together, we can ensure that future generations get to enjoy it.

CHRISTINA (Christian Iconography in the Inventory of Belgian Cultural Heritage) : Comprendre les images religieuses en contexte

Les tableaux d’autel, les monuments funéraires, les confessionnaux, les jubés, les vitraux ou encore les textiles de nos églises sont les supports d’une multitude d’images. Loin d’être isolées, celles-ci sont connectées au sein de l’édifice religieux, un espace pour lequel elles ont été spécialement créées. Comprendre ces images, c’est donc les étudier en tentant de restituer leur place au cœur du lieu et des rituels qui leur donnent sens. À travers le projet CHRISTINA, des chercheurs de l’UCLouvain et de l’IRPA œuvrent ensemble au développement d’une approche « relationnelle » du richissime patrimoine religieux des églises belges. L’objectif est de valoriser ces réseaux d’images dans la base de données en ligne BALaT.

Discover this project