Month: January 2018

St. John the Omnipresent

harpies (2)Have you ever noticed how many times St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is represented in our church?

Saint John is the left-hand figure in Nicola D’Ascenzo’s Saint Cecilia window in the choir loft based on an altarpiece by Raphael. He is also the right-hand figure in the round stained glass window on the Mary side of the church, inspired by Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.” He kneels beside Jesus in the middle long window on that side of the church, as Jesus names Peter; and he hides in the bushes in the Agony in the Garden window. He is next to Jesus at the Last Supper on the freestanding altar from MBS and he kneels with Mary at the foot of the crucifixion mosaic.

johnEmblematically, Saint John’s apostolic symbol is near the 47th Street door; his Gospel is quoted above a former confessional; and he appears as one of the four Gospel-writing Evangelists, on the pillars supporting our dome. His sculptured eagle symbol also appears below the lectern on the old high pulpit, where the Bible would rest, since his gospel begins “In the beginning was the word…”

Why is St. John all over our church?

t007Beardless John is said to have been the youngest apostle and brother of James. As one of the original twelve, he was present at all the big moments in the adult life of Jesus. He also thought to have written one of the four Gospels, describing those events. According to his own account, he was the first to believe that Christ had risen from the dead. He is said to have written several Epistles, later,  from Ephesus (Turkey today). And his contributions have been studied and commemorated by scholars and artists through history.

Based on his identity as gospel-writer, various groups have adopted St. John as their patron over the centuries: he is invoked by writers, theologians, and those in the book trade. But all the attributions are based on traditions about him: we know very little about the real man. Scholars are not even  entirely sure that the Apostle and the Evangelist are the same person!  And debate continues over whether he also wrote the book of Revelations.

This mysterious “facelessness” allows John, known traditionally as the “Beloved Disciple,”  to be our symbolic representative.  When he participates in the Last Supper or kneels before the cross, we put ourselves in his place and share his experience. It’s a useful spiritual exercise, although  too much of a backward focus can also lead us away from the message that we need to act in the spirit of Christ today!

Our Man in Washington

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Adolfo de Nesti

If you’re ever in Washington DC,  stroll over to the Wilson Building (home to the offices of the DC Mayor and Council at  1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW), look up at the facade, and say “Hi” to the artist who decorated our church!

Huh?

Before crafting statues and friezes inside and outside our 1911 church, sculptor Adolfo de Nesti was commissioned to design classical figures to adorn what was then called the Municipal Services Building in Washington. The Washington Post, July 3  1908, reported that his 26 white marble statues, each over nine feet tall, represented “the arts, sciences, commerce, statesmanship, and other conceptions.”  One of the statues, depicting “a graceful-appearing young man with bared arms and a loose-fitting robe draped about his shoulders is Art…and De Nesti, it is said, has used his own head and figure as the model…”

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Art by Adolfo de Nesti (Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie)

De Nesti’s works were a small part of a much larger idea. In 1901, the MacMillan commission approved a development plan to re-make the nation’s capital as an idealized “City Beautiful” that would inspire “civic virtue…through important monumental architecture.” James Wasserman, author of a guide to Masonic Washington,  suggests that the many symbols incorporated in decorations throughout the city “silently communicate a curriculum designed to inspire, elevate, and teach eternal truth.

De Nesti, who came from Florence, Italy,  dreamed American in his Washington years. His business partner, Ernest Bairstow, would later be known  for his work on the Lincoln Memorial. De Nesti was on the Street Decoration Committee for the 1905 Inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt. And in 1906, he married Agnes Campbell Gordon Armistead – the Great Granddaughter of Colonel George Armistead, whose 1812 defense of Fort McHenry inspired our National Anthem.

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Statue of Our Lady by Adolfo de Nesti (Immaculata University)

In 1907, having finished his work on emblems of  “patriotic religion”  in Washington, de Nesti and his young wife began a new chapter of their lives in Philadelphia. Their son was born here in March 1908 and de Nesti began crafting inspirational symbols of Catholic faith in our church. In 1914, he sculpted a statue of the Blessed Virgin to top the dome at Immaculata University.

As far as we know, de Nesti  never became an American citizen, and likely returned to Italy in World War I. His wife remarried after a “tragedy” and divorce in 1921, at which point their son, Adolfo Napoleone Francesco de Nesti Junior changed his name to the all-American Armistead Greene.  Adolfo de Nesti’s American dream ended early but his sculptured likeness in Washington still wistfully overlooks every presidential inaugural parade. And Saint Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, the city of our nation’s Founding Fathers, is his memorial.

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The Wilson Building, Washington DC (Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie)

 

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