Monday, March 02, 2009

An Unfortunate Artistic Proposal for the Josephinum



What used to be there, and what we ought to have instead

I was honored to speak at the 2007 Society for Catholic Liturgy national conference at the Pontifical College Josephinum on the subject of a program of renewal for sacred architecture derived from the writings of Benedict XVI. While there, I had the privilege of touring the extensive facilities, a quite remarkable if austere exercise in late Gothic revival style. I was, however, quite saddened to see the strange state of the chapel, which was hard-hit by a renovation in 1989-1990 that removed the beautiful polychromed and gilt furnishings and covered the gigantic mural by local master Gerhard Lamers in grey latex paint. Lamers' original proposal, largely identical to the finished product, is the third photo in the series above.

This mural, which is still presumably under all that, somewhere, was a true treasure of the American branch of the twentieth-century Liturgical Movement. It was a tiered composition framed by elaborate Gothic surrounds showing Christ in glory at its apex, in the middle, in an imaginative bit of iconography, St. Turibius, the chapel's patron, was shown ordaining clerics to the minor and major orders, and in the lowest register could be seen ranks of angels, also in the robes of the various orders of the priesthood, an intriguing and inventive adaptation of various medieval precedents in a fresh new context.

Unfortunately, there are plans afoot, not to restore the mural--possibly Lamers' greatest work, and the centerpiece of an exhibition on his art at Cincinnati's Fitton Gallery in 2002--but to cover it over with an enormous, out-of-place work in a rough, loosely Byzantine style that is likely not to highlight the altar, as a good liturgical work should do, but simply crush it. I am grateful that the proposed design does apparently make an effort to connect with tradition at some level, but the result is, in my opinion, not a success. This is not enough.

This issue brings up the problem of when do we make the better the enemy of the good. The proposed design is at first glance, reasonably traditional, but on close inspection it is a somewhat arbitrary mixture of Byzantine, Gothic and Beuronese forms; such eclecticism is not in itself problematic but requires far more integration to be successful, while in this context it is likely to distract rather than complement. Even the older mural a least gave some sort of surrounding to the tabernacle other than paint, something to mediate between it and the wall and create, with the warm gilt wood of the reredos, a true shrine for the altar and tabernacle.

The colors, shockingly bright and even, to be perfectly honest, garish, compared to the more subdued Lamers work, are likely to distract from the altar rather than complimenting it. I am also puzzled by the selection of a superficially Byzantine style for the composition; too frequently Western Catholics default to iconography out of a desire for the primitive that underestimates the complex sophistication of the tradition. I do not know much about the tradition of icons, but I suspect our Eastern readers will find the proposal more of an artificial pastiche than an exercise in a living tradition.

The scale also does not work very well in situ. The figures all seem a bit too small, lost in the space given them; The pantocratic Christ does not loom over the apse as in the most ancient examples, while the central band--which appears to be an allegory of the Last Supper whose origins I am unfamiliar with, also contains figures that lack a certain presence; the crucified Christ in particular seems to be overwhelmed by the primary image of Christ above. The lowest band, with the flattened Gothic canopies over Beuronese angels (abruptly terminated at the center), lacks the strength to support all this superstructure, while the empty mandorla at the center of the register puzzles me.

If there must be a new mural rather than a restoration of the old one, let it be equal in beauty to the Lamers. A major new commission like this requires a major artist, someone with subtlety and status. But given the amount of money and work that will have to go to implement the design, such efforts ought to go to recovering the far more subtle, harmonious and sophisticated Lamers work and bringing the chapel back to its original state, or some reasonably close facsimile. It's all there, after all, a real masterpiece beneath the paint.

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