Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Historic Murals in Providence, RI and a Restored Tabernacle in Cambridge, MA

Some years ago, the excellent devotional magazine Magnificat published a feature on a painting, Sacré-Cœur, protecteur des familles by the French painter George Desvallières (1861-1950), a striking if somewhat unconventional treatment of the subject in, as the magazine put it a very "non-Sulpician" manner. My parents, who were visiting me at the time, discovered that Desvallières had done a series of murals at a church in Pawtucket, just outside Providence, the old French-Canadian parish of St. John the Baptist. The church is itself worth a visit for the architecture alone, being an exercise in restrained classicism by distinguished Canadian art deco architect Ernest Cormier, but the murals, with their unusual mixture of post-Impressionist fluidity and traditional subject matter, are fascinating instances of yet another forgotten path of twentieth century art. Sacré-Cœur, protecteur des familles is in some respects a rather murky work, in terms of color and brushstrokes, even if there is an appealing vigor to it, but the Pawtucket murals are fascinating exercises in color and stylization, and certainly unique among New England churches. For my own part, I wish the facial features in the figures were somewhat more distinct, but from a compositional perspective, they contain a surprising power, both harmonizing and contrasting with the more conventional classicism of their surroundings.

As I said before, the church itself is a monument to early twentieth-century design and construction, and also features some superb period stained glass, including an image of the Espousal of the Virgin that was probably my favorite piece in the entire church. The marble and mosaic furnishings are particularly good, and the chancel features, somewhat unusually, twin ambones, something often discussed in periodicals of the Twentieth-Century Liturgical Movement but seldom seen in practice. If you are in the area, please drop in; when we stopped by back in 2012, the pastor greeted us with great hospitality and spent an hour or more showing us all the church's architectural delights. I only regret not having had time to write about my visit before now.

In other news, coinciding with an ongoing restoration of the church's interior, the tabernacle has been restored to the old high altar at St. Paul's in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the site of April's extraordinary Eucharistic Procession and my own adopted home parish. A new sedilia had been installed earlier this year at the floor level of the sanctuary as part of the transition.

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