Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Disappointment for Bishop Baraga

I was delighted to hear the news, recently, that Bishop Frederic Irenaeus Baraga had recently been declared venerable by the Holy See, and that a possible miracle for his beatification was under investigation. Baraga, the Slovene "snowshoe priest" was an early missionary in the region of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and in addition to serving as first bishop of Sault Sainte Marie, also translated the Scriptures into Ojibway. I was just as exited to hear a new chapel for his tomb was planned for the handsome neo-Romanesque St. Peter's Cathedral in Marquette--until I saw the official renderings. I laud Bishop Sample of Marquette for proactively moving forward with a new devotional tomb space for the bishop (like any ecclesiastical project, no easy task today), but the design, while better than it might have been, still represents a lost opportunity.

In this day and age, amid a growing revival of traditional art and design, that what might become the tomb of an American saint--a rare breed indeed--would be designed in an uninteresting, anonymously neo-modern pseudo-traditional style is surprising. Perhaps I should be grateful for the traditional nods--stained glass, arches, stone walls--which the design includes. The problem is not that the design is searingly avant-garde, but that it is far too timid and inarticulate. The exterior does blend somewhat with the fabric of the existing church, but it does nothing to improve it. The interior, by contrast, is rather sterile, and features a skylight, a distinctly un-ecclesiastical element that, along with the tomb's unconventional placement along a side-axis, does the space no favors. The apparent lack of an altar also illustrates the continuation of a false dichotomy between private devotion and public liturgy. The detailing, while admittedly schematic at this stage, lacks the imagination necessary to elevate and give life to the space. While extensive ornament might not be possible from a budgetary perspective,there is still much more that could have been done within that comparatively simple framework.

On a happier note, our readers may enjoy this ink illustration I did of the venerable bishop some years ago as a commission for a priest from Michigan, who uses a variation of it as his bookplate--probably the only time Adirondack-style interior design has served as an inspiration for the detailing of a work of religious art!

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