As far as design elements I love that can often be found in historic churches, among my favorites is the niche. We may often think of the niche in terms of Greco-Roman architecture, but its use in housing statuary or other objects is probably quite universal. It’s the ultimate three-dimensional frame, and whether it has a classic round arch or a pointed gothic design, it can be utilized for Christian subjects beautifully.
The problem is finding a small niche, or a shadowbox which resembles one, to use decoratively or for crafting or collage purposes. Mexican tin nichos can be expensive. Very simple cardstock or MDF ones can be found, as well as smaller ones for pendants. I ended up finding some of what I was looking for in the antique kitsch of the Catholic gift shop. I’ve found inexpensive, small, plastic, dimensional standing niches (sometimes called “shrines”) containing rather unattractive statuary, which can be removed and replaced.
Recently I hit the plastic Catholic kitsch jackpot when I found an object that works perfectly as a hanging wall niche: a certain holy water font, and one of the cheapest I’ve seen at $2.50. Most holy water fonts have a bowl-like area for the water and a backing relief sculpture or place for a picture, and they’re very identifiably for holy water. Lutherans don’t do holy water (at least not as understood by Catholics) unless you’re talking about Baptism, so I was wary of getting a holy water font even if it did have a good niche on it. But then I found this font, which doesn’t look like a holy water font at all. Instead of a bowl, it has a kind of box that is flush with the sides of the side columns. Just fill in the box with foam or air-dry clay, and you’ve got a niche for a statue to stand in.
The detail on this is quite nice, for cheap plastic. At the top of the arch you can see a descending dove, and on either side is an Alpha and Omega.
At the bottom is a cross, flanked by candle-bearing angels.
There are other things you can use this for besides statuary. The font is designed so that you can slide a small, “holy card”-sized image into the back. You can make a sweet “remembrance of Baptism” piece for a child’s room by filling in the water box with craft foam, inserting some paper flowers, and making a little garden box out of it.
Or, if the child is a little older, why not use the box to house slips of paper with Bible verses that will remind them of the promises of their Baptism?
If the plain ivory plastic look (or the images I’ve chosen) are still a little too kitschy or juvenile for your tastes, never fear. Spray the piece with plastic primer and go over with a dark-colored paint, or give it an aged “shabby chic” look, or a gilded look with a bit of gold paint. You can find inexpensive paper cards of Christian icons or other artwork, and suddenly you’ve got a serious piece of decor. Or instead of the image, insert a Bible verse to frame along with the flower box or a little landscape at the bottom. This is a very versatile little niche wannabe!