Category: symbolism and artistry

Wheat

In 1911, the interior of our church was decorated with an intricate arrangement of Catholic symbols — but something important was missing, which would only be fittingly supplied when SFDS joined with MBS in 2007. What could it be?

The answer, surprisingly, is the wheat in one of the mosaic medallions on the front of the MBS altar. Wheat has been an enduring symbol of abundance and rebirth, redemption and freedom, across cultures and through time. Wheat and grapes seem an obvious reference to the Eucharist, and our church is filled with grape designs and Eucharist motifs, but there was only the faintest suggestion of a wheat-like pattern in a few short decorative borders, until the altar from Most Blessed Sacrament — a church named for the Real Presence in the Eucharist — was incorporated into our building.

The “forgotten” plant symbolism is perhaps understandable since Catholicism tends to be more focused on the host’s transformation into the Real Presence of Christ. We know that bread for the Eucharist must be made of wheat – missionaries cultivated wheat around the world for the purpose, and the gluten-sensitive in modern times have been informed that wheat gluten is essential to the makeup of the host. But there is little to tell us why a wheat host is so important – there is no entry for “wheat” in the Catholic Encyclopedia!

The wheat shown on our MBS altar is a kind of “bearded wheat” (with bristles), like the wheat grown in Biblical times, which Jesus would have recognized. He would have known Exodus and the grain-related Jewish religious traditions that were part of the Passover. Wheat is one of the “Seven Species” listed in the Book of Deuteronomy as native to Israel (“a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey”) and thought to contain “special holiness.” Wheat is also among the “Five Grains” (wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt) which have special status for a number of Jewish rituals. Challah and Matzah can only be made from these grains and only bread made with these grains requires the blessing before and after eating,

Myjewishlearning.com offers insight into the special importance of Jewish bread and blessing: “Jewish meals begin with the blessing over bread and then the sharing of bread together…” The words of the prayer: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” surprisingly, do not refer “to the actual bread that we hold in our hands at the time when the blessing is said…” One reading “is that our daily bread reminds us of time past, when bread trees grew from Eden’s soil… Official Jewish wisdom…identifies the bread of the blessing as the bread of a messianic future, constituting “a statement of faith in a time to come when all will have enough to eat, free of the backbreaking work that is now required by most of the world’s population just to put food on the table.” The traditional blessing of the bread at the Last Supper invoked centuries of heritage and yearning. Then Jesus offered himself as the “Bread of Life” for its fulfillment, changing the wheat bread and grape wine, by the miracle of transubstantiation, into his Divine Presence – the true “daily bread” for which we pray in the Our Father, and which refers both to the daily necessities of life and even more to Christ himself.

Wheat has been a critical dietary staple worldwide for many centuries, but the wheat we consume today is very different from that of ancient times. Varieties have emerged and changed to suit different conditions. Wheat is now bleached and separated; doused with poisons to control pests and weeds; and engineered and hybridized to alter specific characteristics and increase yields. A bread baker, writing in The Jerusalem Post, mused that “Wheat bread…is no longer regarded by many nutritionists to be a healthy food, perhaps because of all the shenanigans we have been getting up to with it in the last century or two…” Traveling too far from its origins, a once dependable staple has transformed into something that a growing number of people find difficult to digest. Perhaps there is a Catholic parallel here, highlighting a need to reclaim our spiritual roots, along with a recognition of our special responsibility to preserve and protect the natural resources important to survival in what Pope Francis calls “our common home”   —  so that those who come after us will have wholesome food to sustain life, and can continue to partake of the special gifts of the Eucharist.

Saint Joseph’s Lily Staff

When our church was built, back around 1911, every detail inside was carefully designed – right down to the lily staffs surrounding the cross on the door of the Saint Joseph altar tabernacle.

What is a lily staff and why is it important?

We don’t know much about St. Joseph from the Bible. Stories of Mary’s betrothal come from the apocrypha (ancient books not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible). There, the Protoevangelium of James claims that when young Mary wanted to dedicate herself as a perpetual virgin at the Temple, the high priest prayed for direction. An angel then told him to gather all of the unmarried men of the area, and have each one bring his rod (generally thought to be a walking stick or staff) to the temple “and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be…and Joseph took his rod last; and behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, ‘You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord.’” The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew tells a similar story, stating that “the man from the point of whose rod a dove shall come forth, and fly towards heaven, and in whose hand the rod, when given back, shall exhibit this sign, to him let Mary be delivered to be kept.”

A new detail appeared centuries later, when the stories were gathered into the Medieval Wikipedia-like Golden Legend compilation of all knowledge: “And then Joseph by the commandment of the bishop brought forth his rod, and anon it flowered, and a dove descended from heaven thereupon, so that it was clearly the advice of every man that he should have the virgin.” Use of the word “flowered” is unclear – it can mean “come out into full development,” and the earlier stories seem to suggest that the dove “flowered” from the rod, rather than that the rod burst into bloom. In any case, artists were inspired by the botanical idea, and over time, the concept of a flowering rod seems to have further developed into a specific flower. The University of Dayton Archives observes “The lily is associated with St. Joseph, spouse of Mary, through an ancient legend that he was so chosen from among other men by the blossoming of his staff like a lily. Likewise, the biblical passage, ‘The just man shall blossom like the lily’ is applied to St. Joseph in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church for his feastday, March 19.” The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that the lily is “The best known symbolic flower. It is the principal symbol of purity and thus associated with the Virgin Mary, especially in scenes of the Annunciation…Saint Joseph also frequently carries a lily…”

It’s actually more curious and complicated: the particular kind of lily on our tabernacle – often shown with St. Joseph in religious art — is a Calla Lily, native to Africa – an arum genus rather than a lilium – technically not a lily at all. Arums were associated with fertility in ancient cultures. At the same time, the rod of Joseph is not just a walking stick: the word was used in the Old Testament to mean genealogy — part of a family tree – such as the passage in Isaiah, thought to foretell the birth of Jesus: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (ISA 11:1). Mary has also sometimes been described as a rod, with Christ as the flower.

So, the lily staffs shown on our St. Joseph tabernacle, surrounding the symbol of a cross (which also is part of a tree) combine ancient natural symbols for integrity, belonging, and heritage, on a container for the sacred Eucharist. And one tiny artistic detail “blossoms” to connect and ground us through space, time, and history. The essence of our Catholic culture.

House of Mary

The tabernacle below the crucifix on the old high altar is the one used at Mass most of the time, but the repository on the Blessed Mother altar has a special significance.

What is a tabernacle and why is the one on the Mary altar important?

A tabernacle is a “little house” of God. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art reports that the first tabernacle of the Old Testament was a “portable shrine to contain the Ark of the Covenant,” with the original stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments; while in churches today, “In Christian usage a tabernacle is a receptacle for the Blessed Sacrament.”

The tabernacle on our Mary altar has an added layer of symbolism, as a reminder that Mary, when she was pregnant, became a human “tabernacle” for Christ. Philip Kosloski of Aleteia notes that “This idea of Mary being the new “ark” or “tabernacle” of God is a long tradition. For example, the ancient Akathist hymn of the 6th century reads, “Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! holy beyond all holy ones. Hail! ark gilded by the Holy Ghost. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.

Our Mary altar tabernacle is labeled “Mater Salvatoris” (Mother of the Savior) and the door is embellished with roses. The University of Dayton’s John Stokes Jr. archives provides insight into the meaning of the decorations: “the rose, queen of flowers, is an ancient and universal symbol of the Incarnation, of Mary, of her love of God, and of her spiritual beauty and fragrance, pleasing to God.” The roses on our tabernacle are “a wild rose typical of those known to the Christians of the Middle Ages and called by them, Mary’s Rose. It is also the rose adopted as the model for the central rose windows of the medieval cathedrals.”  Curiously, our patron Saint Francis de Sales had a slightly different idea of the symbolism, referring to Christ as Mary’s rose: “that Divine flower, our Lord, who came forth from the Blessed Virgin, as it had been foretold by Isaias that a flower should rise out of the root of Jesse.” The symbol of the rose on our tabernacle thus references both Mary encompassing the Christ child, and Christ contained within

Spiritually, Mary’s significance as a tabernacle in our church is not confined to her shrine: it’s part of the fabric of our building. One of the inscriptions, threaded around the sanctuary walls, reads “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth” (26th Psalm), with the Mary monogram placed above the words “the beauty of thy house” — perhaps as an acknowledgement that Mary is the “house” of Christ!  It goes further: above the front door of our church is an image of Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional entryway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin — with the Virgin being symbolic of the Church.” The verse inscribed around the image (2 Chronicles 7:15) is the Word of God at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, which contained the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant. So our front door welcomes us to Mother Church, which contains the precious tabernacle of Christ’s presence. Was the heavy symbolism accidental or intentional? We do know that Reverend Crane, who commissioned our church, had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother, and chose to lay the cornerstone on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1907.

Incidentally, the Mary altar and tabernacle have a surprising historical importance to our parish, in addition to the religious symbolism. The altar donor was Eleanor Donnelly, the female “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church,” a powerful feminine presence of the era. Descendants of architect Henry Dagit, also relate a family tale that one of Henry’s daughters was sculptor Adolfo de Nesti’s model for the statue of Mary, providing a link back to the long-ago designers and builders of our church.

The Cross and the Peacock

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched when you are sitting in your pew?

The colorful “eye” patterns on peacock feathers are supposed to represent the “all-seeing eyes” of the church, and there’s a pair of these peeking out — like an ever-vigilant Santa’s “elf-on-a- shelf — from a half-hidden, half-moon stained-glass window perched above the left confessional at the back of the church.

The two peacock feathers in our window actually form part of a Resurrection tableau, on either side of a cross with five “jewels” in the middle, indicating the five wounds of Christ; diamond-shaped Byzantine lozenges symbolizing the Word of God made flesh; and a calla lily border signifying rebirth.

How do the peacock feathers fit in with the Resurrection theme? That’s a complicated question. Some claim that medieval Europeans long ago believed that peacock meat would never spoil, so peacocks came to represent the “incorruptibile” and, by extension, immortal. Others maintain the fact that peacocks shed their feathers and re-grow them in the Spring, suggested a phoenix-like cycle of rebirth and renewal. According to Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, the peacock is a symbol for “the blending together of all colours and for the idea of totality. This explains why, in Christian art, it appears as a symbol of immortality and of the incorruptible soul.

Peacocks have a long mystical history in art. Tracing their story, Jelena Andelkovic writes that in ancient India and Ceylon, the peacock was considered a symbol of the sun, because of it plumy tail. In the Greek and Roman worlds, the peacock was the emblem of Dionysus, god of wine; and Juno/Hera. queen of the gods. The eyes in the peacock’s tail represented stars and invoked eternity. This may have been the roots for their association with the all-seeing church, and their use as protective talismans.

Cirlot observes that symbolic peacocks often flanked a “Cosmic Tree” — an ancient association “which came to Islam from Persia and subsequently reached Spain and the West,” and “denotes the psychic duality of man…drawing its life force from the principle of unity.” When peacocks were adopted in Byzantine Christian art (a design inspiration for our church), especially in Ravenna, Italy, Jelkovic notes that they were often shown on sarcophagi with a “Tree of Life” from the Garden of Eden, which “symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth, death and resurrection, and sometimes suggests crucifixion.” Two peacock feathers flanking the wood of a cross in our church might then be intended to signify Christ’s connection with heaven and earth — both human and divine — a theme that is already highlighted in the double-cross motifs below the long, stained glass windows on the parking lot side.

Located above the confessional, our feathers could also offer a meditation on Christ’s sacrifice and an admonition to humility for those examining their conscience before entering the box, since the peacock’s showy tail can represent vanity and pride.  The peacock’s reputation for “incorruptibility” could also be a caution to the ambitious!

In the end, whatever the peacock represents, the real “eyes of the church” are not the ones in the stained-glass feathers above the confessional: they’re ours — acknowledging each other from our pews each week; watching our parish children grow, year by year; looking out for one another; and feeling that we share a bond over time as part of a faith community!

Different Perspectives

Double vision? Not quite! The work on the left, by Danish painter Carl Bloch; and the right-hand work — our Agony in the Garden window, by stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo – are strikingly similar, but their differences reveal the artists’ separate worldviews.

Artist Carl Bloch was born to a Danish merchant family, in Copenhagen, in 1834, and his father planned for his “respectable” future as an officer in the Danish Navy. In 1855, Bloch chose, instead, to enter the Royal Danish Academy of Art, for formal art training. He always traveled in good society: among his friends were playwright Henrik Ibsen and fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen (of Little Mermaid fame), who even wrote a cringeworthy poem in his honor. Today Bloch is best remembered for the much-reproduced series of 23 religious paintings he created for the King’s Chapel at Fredriksborg Palace in Denmark between 1865 and 1879 (Now the National History Museum run by the Carlsberg brewery foundation). Wikipedia notes that “For over 40 years The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made heavy use of Bloch’s paintings, mostly from the Frederiksborg Palace collection, in its church buildings and printed media. The Church has produced films depicting scriptural accounts of Christ’s public ministry, using Bloch’s paintings as models for the colour, light and overall set design as well as the movement of the actors in many of the films’ scenes.” 

                Our stained-glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s life followed a different path. He was born into a family of artists, metalworkers and armor makers, in Torricella Peligna, Italy, in 1871 – a region rich with romantic ancient legends, historic sites, and wild landscapes. His family emigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia in 1882. Some form of handcrafts was always in D’Ascenzo’s future: he initially apprenticed as a stonecutter and to a woodworker, studying painting in the evenings at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts (now part of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts) and the New York School of Design. D’Ascenzo embraced the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, which reacted against industrialization and mass-production — setting up a medieval-style guild to create one-of-a-kind handcrafted artworks – such as our church windows, which were one of his early commissions. Among his other well-known works are stained glass in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge; on the Nipper Building in Camden, New Jersey; and at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The two artists probably never crossed paths, though Carl Bloch lived in Italy from 1859 to 1866, and likely traveled back and forth afterwards. D’Ascenzo would have been nineteen when Bloch died of cancer in Denmark.

D’Ascenzo’s Agony in the Garden window is clearly inspired by Bloch’s work, but D’Ascenzo added his own layer of meaning. Bloch’s paintings are like stage sets, focused on the drama of the characters, while D’Ascenzo’s Arts-and-Crafts style designs also celebrate “our deep human need to connect with the natural world.”  The contrast in the Agony in the Garden images is especially outstanding: Bloch’s bleak landscape emphasizes Christ’s sorrow and loneliness, while D’Ascenzo changes a barren tree into a beautiful green tapestry and tucks several apostles into the lush foliage.  The tree is essential to his message – a reminder of Christ’s passion, and an emblem of our faith’s deep spiritual connection to the natural world. In the Old Testament, the olive tree was seen as a symbol of Hope: D’Ascenzo profoundly transforms Bloch’s “glass half empty;” to a “glass half full!”

Interested in other local history? Check out our new sister webpage httpps://streetofhistoryphiladelphia.wordpress.com

The Hand of St. Joseph

Have you ever noticed that when sculptor Adolfo de Nesti carved our statue of St. Joseph, back around 1911, he depicted the saint with his eyes closed?

Perhaps that has protected St. Joseph from having to witness a lot of “indignities” heaped on our statues over the years.

In pre-Vatican II times, John Deady recalls “at least twice a year they used to hang a shrine around his neck. One was for the feast of Christ the King in October, another that occurred around this time of year was a portrait of St. Francis X for the annual Novena of Grace. These were drapes and pictures of the appropriate individual.” He notes that “The Blessed Mother was not spared this indignity: at Christmas she was hidden behind Christmas trees as a backdrop for the manger and again she held up the elaborate repository that was set up for Holy Thursday….The Holy Thursday repository was particularly elaborate…”

During Lent, before Vatican II, the statues in the church were draped in purple. This wrapping of statues entailed a certain amount of manhandling by the crew of boys who helped out at the time. The late Don McDermott recalled how the boys who assisted at the Holy Saturday Liturgy, would then “stand in assigned places around the packed church and at the Gloria they would in perfect unison using the long window poles from the school classrooms, uncover all the statues as the bells rang.” This provided a dramatic ritual, but the wielding of long poles with metal hooks in a crowded space might have offered its own perils.

The statues of the Sacred Heart and St. Francis de Sales both stood proudly up in the sanctuary for many years: the Sacred Heart, to the right of the Blessed Mother; and St. Francis de Sales, to the left of the St. Joseph altar. They were both banished – the Sacred Heart, unceremoniously shuffled to the side of the church, and St. Francis de Sales to the back — with the Vatican II “de-cluttering” of the sanctuary, probably during the Venturi neon lights renovation in the late 1960s.  

In modern times, Mary and Joseph were half-concealed behind the heavy metal scaffolding that filled the sanctuary from 2006 to 2013, during roof repairs. Saint Anne and Saint Anthony are still hidden in the lonely darkness behind the metal mesh on the sides of the church. For awhile, Saint Anthony sported a construction helmet to protect him from falling debris; today, the two statues are shielded under rough wooden shelters.

The custom seems to have been revived, recently, of mummifying statues in purple, in the last two weeks of Lent “at the discretion of the local pastor.” It is suggested that “The veiling of crosses and images is a sort of ‘fasting’ from sacred depictions which represent the paschal glory of our salvation.

One might wonder how meaningful is this veiling, if the statues are not appreciated the rest of the year: how is it that nobody noticed when St. Joseph’s index finger broke off, sometime in the past ten years or so! Our statues of St. Martin de Porres and the Sacred Heart also have damaged fingers. The Sacred Heart is ancient breakage, badly repaired; St. Martin’s cracked finger is more recent.

We’re not sure when or how the damage to our St. Joseph statue occurred, but it’s part of our story now. Perhaps we should take it as a symbol and caution: he used to raise his hand in blessing, pointing to the heavens; today, his hand curves down, his thumb pointing towards himself. Did our world turn inward when we weren’t watching? We need to point to the heavens once again! In the “Year of St. Joseph,” perhaps that should be our parish mandate.

Unexpected Cherubs

What comes to mind when you hear the word “cherub”? Our church has a few, and some are not quite what you might expect.

The beings shown in our round stained-glass windows – crafted by Nicola D’Ascenzo in 1910 – are a good fit with the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art, which observes that: “In art, cherubim and seraphim are often represented as chubby children with wings, sometimes only a head and two wings. Because cherubim are referred to as ‘burning coals of fire’ (Ezek 1:13), they are often coloured red, symbolizing burning love, while seraphim may be blue, the colour of heaven, but it often occurs the other way round…”  But that’s only one idea.

Cherubim are types of angels. The word angel comes from Latin for “messenger.” The roots of the word cherubim are unclear, but it may be related to “blessing” or “approaching.” Beings called cherubim are mentioned in the Old Testament, as guarding the Tree of Life in Genesis; and in Exodus, as guardians of the Mercy-Seat in Solomon’s Temple. They appear in the Vision of Ezekiel and in the Apocalypse. When a fifth-century Greek monk named Dionysius proposed a “celestial hierarchy” — which was later accepted by St. Thomas Aquinas (who imagined Satan as a fallen Cherub) and used by Dante in his works – he placed the cherubim and seraphim in the highest order of angels, closest to God. But what do they look like? We can only guess!

The original cherubim of Jewish tradition are both fierce and solemn. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia,The prophet Ezekiel describes the cherubim as a tetrad of living creatures, each having four faces—of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man—the stature and hands of a man, the feet of a calf, and four wings. Two of the wings extended upward, meeting above and sustaining the throne of God; while the other two stretched downward and covered the creatures themselves… and they were full of eyes ‘like burning coals of fire.’” These imposing characters eventually supplied the artistic symbols for the four gospel-writing evangelists of Christianity – the eagle, winged lion, winged ox and winged man shown on the four pillars supporting our dome!

How did “cherub” come to refer both to scary winged creatures and sweet, winged children? Angelic beings are made of energy and don’t actually have bodies, so any representation is symbolic — and symbols can change with time and circumstance. In the early 1400s, when Italian Sculptor Donatello saw Eros and Cupid — spirits of love and desire in classical mythology – depicted as cheeky, winged babies on ancient Greek and Roman funerary art, he was inspired to create charming child angels to embody the Christian spirit of God’s love. These figures were called “putto,” plural “putti” (from the Latin for “boy” or “child“), and they became a popular theme in art through the Renaissance. Often grouped closely around sacred figures in paintings, their arrangement suggested an important position in the angelic hierarchy. The English use of the word “cherub” to describe these characters appears to have evolved over time: the word originally signified the fierce cherubim of Ezekiel. Cherub was also occasionally used to describe someone with a red face. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the adjective “cherubic” as meaning “like a child angel,” seems to date from the 1800s.

Today, whether they are “blessing” or “approaching,” cherub messengers bring gifts of continuity and connection to our church — in art evolved from Old Testament tradition that adorns our four supporting pillars, and Renaissance-style putti represented in our windows. Two post-Victorian winged-child sculptures — perched at the back of our church, near the doors to the Baptistry and the Choir — are quite possibly modeled on the youngest child of architect Henry Dagit or sculptor Adolfo de Nesti’s own baby son, born in 1908. And high in the choir loft, if you listen closely enough, perhaps you’ll hear ghost echoes from recent generations of “choir babies” – the young children of our choir members – warbling their own cherubic notes to our song.

Color OUR Collections!

Launched by The New York Academy of Medicine Library in 2016, #ColorOurCollections is an annual coloring festival on social media during which libraries, museums, archives and other cultural institutions around the world share free coloring content featuring images from their collections.

 In past years, our SFDS Parish History Archives has contributed stained-glass windows and other church details to color, and 1920s parish bulletin advertising art. This year’s parish coloring book celebrates parish organizations and activities of yesteryear. Check out all the new offerings for 2021 – from SFDS to Drexel University to the Vatican Libraries and beyond at https://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/

Here’s our 2021 coloring book:http://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2021/01/sfds-2021-coloring-parish-activiities.pdf

The Nativity Portal: We Like Sheep

The Nativity scene is very weathered above the 47th Street door to our church, and today it’s hard to tell if the visitors to the Christ Child, are kings or shepherds!

Does it matter?

You might have expected that our “magnificent church” would have identified with the Three Kings, dressed in worldly finery, and offering splendid gifts to honor the Christ Child. And, indeed, the Adoration of the Magi is a traditional theme for doorway sculptures on many elaborate old churches.

Our church seems to have chosen a different route, though. A partial view of our sculpture, visible in several 1940 SFDS school photos, appears to confirm that the central visitor is a child shepherd with a sheep — and this is supported by the phrase around the scene, still readable as “The Word Was Made Flesh” rather than “They Offered Him Gifts…”

Why depict a shepherd?  Pope Francis observes that the arrival of the shepherds marks a critical moment in the story of Christ’s birth, since, after hearing from the angels, “the shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation. It is the humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation.”

Our doorway sculptures are part of an overall design theme in our church, based on John’s Gospel that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” This doctrine is central to faith: as the BBC concisely explains, “Through the incarnation of Jesus, humans were able to start repairing their damaged relationship with God. This relationship had been imperfect since Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Through Jesus’ incarnation, God began the process of salvation from sin, making it possible for humans to have a full relationship with him and go to Heaven.

How does this appear in artwork? The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art states that “The Incarnation, i.e. God becoming man in the person of Christ, is…symbolized, either as the Annunciation (at Mary’s words ‘Let it be with me according to your word’), or as the Nativity.” So the Nativity depiction above the 47th street door represents the witness to God becoming human. On the front of the building, the Annunciation scene – another Incarnation –is shown above the left or “choir” door. The theme continues above the center door, with the Christ child shown standing with arms outstretched in the same pose as Christ on the crucifix above the altar inside – foreshadowing his future sacrifice. And on the right, the crucified Jesus is mourned by his mother – a human moment – with an inscription reminding that “Christ died for us” – emphasizing that God became human to save us.

The same theme is echoed inside, with the three Life of Christ windows on the parking lot side of the church. Like the first door on the front of our church, the first window shows the Annunciation. The middle window is another Nativity scene with humble shepherds as the human witnesses to the Incarnation. The third window shows young Jesus building a cross with his Dad – a family moment, parallel to the scene of his mother taking him down from the cross on the front of the church. Below all three windows are different artistic interpretations of double crosses — symbols of the dual nature of Christ, both human and divine.

Why are the outdoor scenes above the church doors important? The entryway, or “Portal,” frames the experience. Those who pass through the front doors into the church are reminded of the power of prayer and instructed to be aware that Christ died for our sins. At the side door, we are advised to approach with humility. If that “portal” includes a child shepherd, then the meaning is even more pointed, since Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And the sheep in the scene remind us that we are God’s flock, and he is both our shepherd and the sacrificial “Lamb of God.”

St. Francis de Sales School Sixth Grade, 1940

Portal of Prayer

IMG_2318 sfds facade carving de nestiThe words and artwork above the doors of a church are intended to guide churchgoers as they move through the doorway, or portal, from the outdoor worldly world into sacred space.   At Saint Francis de Sales, that direction has long been hidden – and not just because it has been covered by scaffolding!

The message above the central door to our church is visible in photographs, but long misrepresented in writing. In almost every description of the church, since the beginning, only the first half of the inscribed verse is quoted: “My eyes will be open and my ears attentive.” Winding around a scene (carved by sculptor Adolfo de Nesti) usually described as “the Madonna and Christ Child” — an active toddler — this might easily be understood as a reminder to churchgoers of proper behavior as you enter the church: be still, be quiet; observe the magnificent decorations and the pageantry; listen carefully to the readings and the sermon.

This is only a partial quote, however. The actual phrase engraved above our doors is 2 Chronicles 7:15 “My eyes shall be open and my ears attentive to the prayer of him that shall pray in this house,” which puts a different spin on things: these are the words that God the Father, spoke to Solomon at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, built to house the Ark of the Covenant. The verse in the Bible continues “For I have chosen, and have sanctified this place, that my name may be there for ever, and my eyes and my heart may remain there perpetually.” So instead of telling us how to behave in church, our church is likened to the fabled Holy Temple of King Solomon! This is reinforced in the image framed by the verse, which is not just the “Madonna and Christ Child,” but Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional French doorway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin…the Virgin being symbolic of the Church as well as being the Bride of Christ.”

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The association is not incidental. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that “A door is an obvious symbol of the way to salvation through the church, and for this reason the main door is usually directly opposite the altar.” In our church, the pose of the toddler Christ above the portal is echoed in the crucifixion mosaic above the altar and the doorway inscription theme continues up in the sanctuary, with two phrases threaded around the top of the walls. The first is from the 26th Psalm in which David – patriarch of Jesus’ lineage — says “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth.”  (note the Mary monogram above the words “beauty of thy house!”) The other quote, from Genesis 28:16, is part of what Jacob said upon awakening from his dream about angels climbing a ladder to heaven: “Indeed, the Lord is in this place” — in the Bible, the verse continues “and I knew it not….This is no other but the house of God and the gate of heaven.

Studying inscriptions in churches, and especially the words inscribed above ancient European church portals, Calvin B. Kendall noted that historically, “Inscriptions articulated the hopes and fears of monks and worshippers, spoke for them and to them, and in some cases may have functioned as talismans against lurking demons.” In 1911, our doorway inscription boldly identified our church as a holy place and acclaimed the benefits of prayer in that uncertain age leading up to the First World War.

For many years now, the front of our church has been wreathed in scaffolding that has concealed the portal decorations and offered a different message and symbolism. Scaffolding is human-built structure that provides support while keeping people safe. It’s also an emblem of “work in progress,” a very apt description of our parish! And, perhaps, there’s a warning: over time, is it possible to become so conditioned to rigid human framework, that we are in danger of letting it overwhelm the spiritual message of God’s love?

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Rootedness

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Stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s windows, crafted in 1910, remind us of our faith’s roots in the natural world.

The long windows on the St. Joseph side of our church show indoor formative scenes from the early life of Christ with hints of outdoors: the Annunciation, with symbolic  lilies; the Nativity in a stable; and young Jesus building a cross (wood of a tree!) in his father Joseph’s workshop. Across the aisle, episodes from the ministry of Christ show him as an adult, moving into the world outside to give his Sermon on the Mount; name Peter and establish the church; and endure his Agony in the Garden.

Have you ever noticed that all three of these scenes include olive trees in the design! Olives are ancient plants, common in the Holy Land, with deep symbolic associations, heavily referenced in both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. The dove in Genesis brought an olive branch to Noah to signal a new beginning after the flood. Bible Places notes that “The oil was used to anoint kings, prophets, priests, and Temple articles. Messiah, in fact, means ‘anointed one…’ ” Olive trees are known to have deep roots and live to a great age: the olive trees at Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed at the foot of the Mount of Olives, are said to be among the oldest on earth and D’Ascenzo’s windows remind us that trees are central to our religion.

_MG_2611 (2)The olive tree is especially prominent in D’Ascenzo’s final scene from the Life of Christ, which shows him in the Garden at Gethsemane, before he was crucified. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth observes that the window is arranged so that the “olive tree…forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, hand-crafted, close-to-nature worldview. D’Ascenzo admired his work. The world in 1910 was experiencing industrialization’s rapid change and D’Ascenzo, like Morris, worried about the dangers of becoming disconnected from the environment. Nature references in D’Ascenzo’s windows are thoughtful and deliberate: below the Agony in the Garden, is a scene showing the death of wise patron St. Francis de Sales – peacefully, in a gardener’s house, with a plant on the mantel. Below that, the original vent window (now below the middle window) showed a leafy wreath and snakes invoking the Tree of Knowledge and the lost Garden of Eden.

Today, a century-and-a-decade after our church was built, coronavirus has forced the dizzying pace of world development to slow down. Waiting in quarantine, people are noticing local wildlife and the budding trees (and their pollen). Scientists are encouraging us to be more mindful of our surroundings and a number of recent news articles have suggested that “Pandemics such as coronavirus are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, according to leaders at the UN, WHO and WWF International.” Pope Francis this year celebrates the fifth anniversary of his Laudato Si’ Encyclical “On Care for our Common Home” and encourages the faithful to participate in The Season of Creation, an annual ecumenical celebration of prayer and action to protect our common home (September 1 to October 4). It’s time to go outside, appreciate our parish flowering trees — won in Fairmount Park contests years ago by SFDS School children and planted along 47th Street — and plant more enduring good works in the neighborhood!

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