The Little Oratory– Curating My Religious Art Collection

The Little Oratory– Curating My Religious Art Collection


So I’ve been slowly inching my way through The Little Oratory. (I’m almost done with the other book I’m reading for to months and when I’ve done with that then I’m sure I’ll finish up The Little Oratory fairly quickly.) If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I’ve blogged extensively about religious art in the home and praying the Liturgy of the Hours with kids. So I’m not starting off from scratch, but the book is inspiring me think more deliberately about what I’m doing and what I want to do in the future and in general is bringing greater focus to my efforts, which tend to fizzle out and become lackluster over time. I know it might seem like I’m a superwoman of prayer, but I tend to blog when I hit the high places and so capture the really great moments… but our daily life really is much more of a slog.

Anyway. As I read I’m thinking about prayer and art and being deliberate with both. I’m thinking about the space we live in and how to shape it best to suit our needs. Our house is a small space. Very limited. There really isn’t room to do with it what I’d really like. So anything I do will be a compromise. But I’m not going to rant about the house, I’m not going to rant about the house.

This is going to be a thinking out loud post. The first step is to simply take stock of what is. Then I can think about what I might like to be.

So here’s the deal. When we were first married I didn’t have very much in the way of religious art. And when Bella was a toddler I started to have this desire for things to look at to help me to pray but mostly to help her. I wanted beautiful pictures and statues to inspire and to create an atmosphere. At the time Dom was out of work and we had really no resources to go out and get things. So I prayed about it. Almost immediately things started to fall into my lap. And now seven years later I see how abundantly my prayers were answered as I look about and see the bounty of beauty in my home. (My very untidy, rather dirty home, make no mistake about that. I have five very little kids.) My goal that I set was to have a crucifix in every room of our home and a picture of Mary likewise in every room. Also, I wanted a statue of Mary.

And now we most definitely have that. And then some.

So the other day I went through the house taking photos of what is here. And at that I didn’t actually photograph everything. just the important groupings.

My question I’m seeking to answer is how can I use all these things to make focal points for prayer that we will actually use? At least I think that’s the question.

The Living Room

So let’s start our tour by the front door. Here’s a little icon of the holy family that a nice couple that we knew from daily mass gave us as a wedding present.

Holy family picture by the front door.
Holy family picture by the front door.

The placement of this image was very deliberate, a prominent placing of the Holy Family. I like to see them as I’m going in and out, notice them when I grab my keys, ask them to watch over our family.

Other art in the living room that I didn’t photograph: a print of the Penitent Magdalene by Georges de la Tour; Annunciation and Resurrection by Fra Angelico, Madonna and Child print in a frame that matches the Annunciation and Resurrection; wooden statue of Holy Family on the windowsill, crucifix on wall, house blessing on wall.

The Dining Room

Next is the main shelf that as Dom points out is right at the center of our home. At the heart. For that reason it sort of works, even though this spot isn’t a good one to stop and pray. This is the major hallway into the bedrooms, it’s in the dining room, looking over our table.

Main prayer shelf in dining room. Note the clutter.
Main prayer shelf in dining room. Note the clutter.

The big icon is one my parents bought in Venice. It is hand painted on glass. A valuable work of original art. It’s my great treasure. The kids bring flowers to put here and sometimes I do too. I do sometimes stop to pray, especially last thing before I go to bed, asking Mary to watch over my family and my home.

But you can see the shelf has a tendency to gather clutter. And below it is the cookbook shelf and the top of that is sort of my junk drawer. I’m dissatisfied with this space in many ways, even as I like it in others. On the shelf is a rather random assortment of images. There are three relics: of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and St Faustina (she was Blessed Faustina at the time we received the relic and that’s what the card says). I’ve put them in nice frames and one reason I wanted this shelf was to have a place to display them properly instead of being stuck on a bookshelf with flotsam.

If you turn to the right from this shelf you’ll see this beautiful image of the Madonna and Child that I bought from the Vatican museum when I was in Rome. Above it is the San Damiano cross that Father Murphy, our former pastor and the priest who married us and who baptized our three oldest kids, brought us as a housewarming present when we moved in here and he came to bless the house.

San Damiano crucifix and Madonna and Child image in the dining room above Lucy's chair.
San Damiano crucifix and Madonna and Child image in the dining room above Lucy’s chair.

I can see them from my usual seat at the table. They hang right over where Lucy usually sits and are on your right as you head back to the bedrooms.

As you are looking at this wall, behind you is another Madonna, this one by Ingres. We received it as a wedding present and somehow it just seems fitting to have the Madonna of the Eucharist presiding over our dining room, reminding us of our true food. She also hangs over the whiteboard we use for school.

The Kitchen

Next, the kitchen. I don’t think this needs any tweaking. As you can see I have a couple focal points, both above different work stations. Also, behind me as I stand at the sink I have a crucifix and a religious art calendar.

Kitchen sink.
Kitchen sink.
The pass-through between living room and kitchen. Under this shelf is the coffee pot and tea pot and counter for food prep.
The pass-through between living room and kitchen. Under this shelf is the coffee pot and tea pot and counter for food prep.
The other side of the pass through.
The other side of the pass through.

I suppose this photo really should be in the living room set, but I’m too lazy to move it and rewrite the caption.


I do think each bedroom should have a place for each individual to pray. Room for images of saints each person has a devotion to, room to go and be alone and pray. I figure if I create the space the kids will use it as they need it. Mostly I’m happy with this, even though there are multiple focal points, I think generally it can work.

First, my room:

Crucifix and icon near the door in my bedroom.
Crucifix and icon near the door in my bedroom.

When I’m siting in bed this is where my eyes drift. I frequently stop here as I go in and out the door. When I put Lucy to bed, we stop and say goodnight to Jesus and Mary and kiss the crucifix.

Corner shelf in master bedroom: St Melanie icon, Madonna and Child and Flight to Egypt statues. The box also has an image of the nativity and the vase was my grandmother's.
Corner shelf in master bedroom: St Melanie icon, Madonna and Child and Flight to Egypt statues. The box also has an image of the nativity and the vase was my grandmother’s.

This corner shelf is nice, but the placement on the far side of the room, on Dom’s side of the bed, makes it impossible to really see when I’m sitting in my usual spot on the bed. So it’s a nice place to store and display art but not a useful focal point for prayer.

Next to my bed: two Madonnas nursing.
Next to my bed: two Madonnas nursing.

I framed these two postcards I bought in Europe and hung them near my bed. Mary nursing Jesus. It just feels right. Lucy likes to say goodnight to them. I don’t know if they are really so much a prayer aid as art that I find beautiful and inspiring. If you can really make a distinction. I’m not so sure.

The girls’ room:

I first put up this shelf near the door in the girl’s room. I put it up high deliberately to keep little hands off of breakables. But it’s not very accessible and I’m not sure it really works well except that it manages to display things while at the same time protecting them until they are old enough to be trusted not to break them.

Bella's shelf with various images of saints.
Bella’s shelf with various images of saints.

Bella has a hard time just leaving her things on the shelf or the wall when they were hung there. She wants to take them down, move them, carry them around. They get lost and broken. I got the shelf because the pictures wouldn’t stay on the wall, but they don’t stay on the shelf either. I tried, but she’s a hard nut to crack.

Shelf above Sophie's bed.
Shelf above Sophie’s bed.

Sophie’s things have a tendency to wander off too. Lucy probably contributes and the boys and Bella. Or maybe Sophie doesn’t worry about curating the space. If she wanted to set her mind to it, I suspect she could keep it tidy and everything in its place.

The boys’ room:

Corner shelf and images above Ben's bed.
Corner shelf and images above Ben’s bed.

I put up a shelf, again to hold statues and other things I don’t want lost of broken. On the wall underneath are a collection of saints and a crucifix and guardian angels.

Anthony has a similar cluster of saints images and a crucifix above his bed.

So I think what I really want to change now is to make a deliberate focal point in the living room. Dom wants to move the shelf from the dining room. I’d sort of prefer that shelf to remain there and to add a new shelf or table in the living room. So first we have to decide that. Then I have to decide what to add. The problem with the current shelf in the dining room is that it’s too cluttered and crowded. I want something simpler. Which means, though, that I have to find homes for the various objects on that shelf that don’t belong in a formal living room oratory space. Then I need to decide which works I do want to be our focal points. Recognizing that it can shift and fluctuate according to liturgical season and family need.

This is sort of the opposite dilemma to the one the book imagines: the family who have no art and must go out and get some. That’s sort of the rationale for including icons in the book that are meant to be removed and framed and used.

Anyway, I hope to follow up this post with a real review and more thoughts about the book, about prayer, who knows. I have more to say, I’m just not yet sure what.

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  • Hi Melanie! Great post. You have a lot of religious art! I love that you just prayed and then God rained it down on you ๐Ÿ™‚
    I know your children are learning so much about prayer and beauty. It’s wonderful that you have such a lively environment for them — and I don’t mean just the artwork. It’s everything, including your determination to think things through for them.
    As to the shelf in the heart of your home, if you don’t mind me giving you a little thought about it — why not take everything off and put back only what you want there. Then see about new shelves, etc.
    I suspect that what you need is a new shelf for the cookbooks, not a new place for your central oratory. Without being there, I sense that you love it there and it really does work. But taking everything off will help you figure it out!
    And do post this post on the Little Oratory page, if you like! We’d love to have you there!
    Lots of love — God bless!

    • Thanks, Leila.

      I’m not sure I was clear because I wrote this post in bits and pieces over the course of more than a week, but one concern I have is wanting a spot in the living room to act as an oratory since that’s where we say our bedtime prayers as a family. I’d like a shelf or table where we can light a candle, have something appropriate to the liturgical season or a saint’s day, something the children can look at as we pray and maybe a space they can help curate. None of that is really possible with the dining room shelf, which isn’t visible from where we pray, which is too high for the children to reach unless they stand on a chair.

      So yes, I want to declutter the dining room shelf. I do think taking everything off and only putting back what works is a great idea. But there’s still the debate on whether that shelf should be there at all. I’d love to move the cookbooks, but we really don’t have a spot where they can go. And much as Dom wants to get rid of them, I’m not sure I’m ready to totally purge them. He’d like to remove both cookbook shelf and prayer shelf from the dining room to make it easier to get through the hall. I really want there to be some sort of spot there for a candle.

      And then there’s the problem of where to put things which I remove. Especially I need to figure out what to do with the relics. I want them on display, but they clutter the prayer shelf and make it less effective and focused. So basically, I need to find a home for the objects that would be displaced. Even more so if Dom has his way and we totally move the dining room shelf to the living room and don’t replace it.

  • “But Iโ€™m not going to rant about the house, Iโ€™m not going to rant about the house.”

    I hear you on having to restrain a rant on the house. From looking at your pictures from all these many blog posts, I think our living room/kitchen/dining room dimensions are very similar and also very frustrating. Believe it or not, I think you may have more usable space in your living room since the dining room is offset to the side a bit. Our dining room lines up directly with the living room and the “door” is just a giant open space that eliminates the use of most of that side of the living room. What are these builders thinking?


    This book definitely has me in the intended audience because we have almost no religious art at home. Well to be honest, we have almost nothing on the walls at all. It is hard for me to visualize where to put stuff on the walls when the room is a mess and our rooms are almost always a mess. Or if they aren’t a mess, it is because I’ve spent a lot of time and effort cleaning and catching up and am worn out, but then by the time I have time to put stuff on the walls again, the room is a mess again. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not to Chapter Ten yet where I’ve been told is the spot that is supposed to make this problem alright. ๐Ÿ™‚

    So, yeah, no religious art. For whatever reason, my parents do not and have not ever given religious gifts even for Sacraments. My husband’s parents were (are) Protestant. I incrementally bought each child a small, wooden crucifix which is on the wall in their rooms and I have given them a small collection of holy cards over the years. These are generally kept in a small plastic box in the girls’ room, but they have been known to be strewn all over the house. Last year I finally splurged on a larger crucifix to put on the wall in the living room. I have a few small postcard size images that have wandered in with my Magnificat magazine since I started the subscription, but they are mostly in a pile on my dresser. And that’s it. My biggest hurdle is getting over my own mental paralysis.

  • Peeking into our neighbors’ houses at Halloween (Isn’t that why everyone likes to go trick or treating: to see how the neighbors use their space in the identical cookie-cutter neighborhood?) I perceive that we have much, much, much more stuff than anyone else on our street. I’m a packrat with a book hoarding problem and five kids, I get that. But I do think these houses were designed in the 50s as starter homes for young couples who didn’t have much in the way of furniture. And they work best with a minimalist aesthetic. I think I was made to inhabit a rambling Victorian farmhouse.