Category: symbolism and artistry

Stuccoed Stars

1954 wall (2)
St. Francis de Sales 1954

The side walls of Saint Francis de Sales church might seem restfully plain when the rest of the church is ornate, but it’s deceptive! Parish history is thickly layered beneath the surface.

When our church was built, the side walls showed the same bricks that you see today on the walls of the Sanctuary. Early pictures reveal mosaic medallions — a star in an eternal circle, and a Trinity triangle  — decorating each of the six arches. Eight-pointed Nativity stars adorned the middle arches; and the side arches appear to have featured six-pointed stars representing the six days of creation and the House of David — earthly lineage of Jesus.

In the 1920s, each triangle had a large round lightbulb at its centre, and a row of  lightbulbs lined each arch. That changed in 1940, when Bishop Lamb replaced the exuberant celebration of electricity with more elegant and “practical” metal sconces, fastened to cross-shaped brackets in the mosaic triangles, their shaded lamps dangling from metal chains.

The church decor was slightly altered in the 1950s by Bishop McShea, then heavily renovated for the Parish 1965 Diamond Anniversary under Monsignor Sefton. A story says that Monsignor Sefton came home from a trip to Europe, inspired by the cool blue lighting of Mediterranean churches, and wished to replicate the effect with blue walls. His chosen shade of tile was very fashionable in the 1960s and prevailing tastes were for streamlined modern decor. Diocesan-approved changes at that time included new pews; new flooring; and an electrical update to remove wall lamps (leaving wall holes?) and replace ceiling lamps with chandeliers. Unapproved tile walls quietly slid in, with two casual notations: “The price listed for the terrazzo floor also includes setting tile in six arches of the church” and “Belfi Brothers. This amount also includes setting tile in 6 arches of church.”

Skip forward to the 1990s, when the “blue bathroom tiles” began to fall off the walls, revealing the patchy tile-prepped surface underneath. Father Janton remarked that the bald patch looked like the African  continent drawn on an ancient map. When  it expanded to resemble Pangaea, it was time to do something. The mustard-coloured resurfacing was a simple, attractive solution (look above the sacristy doorway for the remaining blue tiles)

The walls of our church are layered with stories. Symbols changed their meaning over time. Technologies advanced. A richly ceremonial era gave way to the sleek modernism of the 1960s and early Vatican II. Hard times improved. And today we should find meaning in graceful continuity.

 

Advertisements

Imperfection

_MG_2634 (2)

Have you ever noticed that Saint Matthew’s name  is missing an H above the 47th Street door inside St. Francis de Sales Church?

It is ironic – or appropriate — that Saint Matthew should be victim of a typo, since he is the Gospel-writing Evangelist whose chronicle is thought to represent the “human” side of Christ; and spelling mistakes are pretty human! Matthew, whose Evangelist symbol is the “Winged Man” shown on one of the triangular pendentives that support the dome, begins his  Gospel with a litany of Jesus’ earthly family lineage through Joseph. His writing stresses the Jewish background and human nature of Jesus.

_MG_2568 (2)Matthew is both Evangelist and Apostle. As an Apostle, his symbol is the tax collector’s bag (shown near the parking lot door), since his profession before becoming a follower of Jesus, was that of publican, collecting taxes for the occupying Roman forces. Tax collectors in those times were allowed to collect as much extra money as they dared for themselves, once they had extracted the amount required by the government, so they were despised for greed and feared for extortion. And to the Jewish people, tax collectors were complicit with the Romans, which was considered particularly awful (though Jesus did remind his followers to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” so he was not against funding the government!)

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was criticized for associating with undesirables. When Pharisees asked  Matthew “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replied “Those who are well have no need of a physicianI came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9:11-13). Jesus  came to minister to those in need,  not to praise the smug and judgmental.  And he supports and stands by those who follow him: the quote above our door reminds us that Jesus vowed “I am with you all days, even to the consummation (end!) of the world...”

In many cultures and times, it has been a tradition purposely to  insert an error in an artistic work to acknowledge that God alone is perfect. The spelling error in our otherwise magnificent interior is likely to be a genuine mistake, but it still reminds us that the church is a place for imperfect people to find hope in trying to connect with something greater than themselves. And we are all imperfect – no room for complacency – with every reason to be welcoming to all.

Seeing and Believing

DSCN4470 (2)

Saint Thomas the Apostle was labeled “The Doubter” because he needed to see proof of the resurrection in order to believe. But his focus on visual  confirmation might have been a natural result of his professional training, with some modern implications.

The Builder’s Square (near the 47th street door) is an especially appropriate symbol for Thomas, because square encompasses multiple meanings: it can be a geometric shape, or a tool used  to measure and lay out right angles. As a figure of speech, it relates to certainty, as in a sample sentence from Thesaurus.com: “do those announcements really square with the facts?”

Ironically, we have few dependable facts about Thomas, who is thought to have been a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan (and who may have been Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany).  Encyclopaedia Iranica reports an ancient tale that “The apostle was entrusted with funds for building a palace, but spent them on relief of the poor. When called to account, he declared he had built the king a palace in heaven…”  (this is a slightly different version from our 1940 Anniversary Book, which claims Thomas built the palace then donated his own construction profits to the poor). Tradition says Thomas went afterwards to India, where he is  “commemorated as a founder of the South Indian Christian community, and a church is named in his honor.”

We don’t know if Thomas ever actually built a palace for the glory of King Gondophares: his story is from an early manuscript in the Apocrypha not considered reliable enough to become part of the Bible. But its lesson – that a heavenly palace built of good deeds is superior to an ostentatious display of personal wealth – is very apostolic. The location of Thomas’ emblem next to the donor plaque in our church is also interesting: is it there because he is the Patron Saint of Architects and Builders or is it a  subtle reminder to early wealthy parishioners that they should also work on their spiritual palaces?

Thomas, emphasizing visual symbols, is an important saint for those who build and maintain religious structures. Large buildings commemorate what is valued in a society and modern landmarks tend to be commercial.  But each church in the landscape provides a needed visual reminder of God’s presence to all who pass by — a reason to keep ours in good order!

 

Acanthus

DSCN4297 (2)Looking at all the leaves carved on columns and tucked into the arches in our church, you might wonder “why the kale obsession?”

What you see is not, however, an historic tribute to a now-trendy vegetable. Instead, the leaves are acanthus – a frilly, thorny Mediterranean plant with a long architectural and symbolic history.

When did acanthus first appear in architecture? Some suggest that the form evolved from palm designs used in ancient Egypt in the time of the pyramids. A charming legend tells a different story of an ancient Greek sculptor who, fascinated by the sight of acanthus weeds growing through a basket on a gravesite, was inspired to recreate their shapes on Corinthian columns.

Whatever the origin, the leafy border was a common feature of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. From there, it traveled to the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to be used in Byzantine design from the 600s AD. At that point, the leaves became artistic forms, combined in complicated scrolls and garlands. These patterns were further adapted in Medieval Romanesque architecture, then became popular again in Late Victorian decoration. So the acanthus leaves in our 1911 Byzantine-Romanesque church have long design roots!

Symbolically, acanthus represents eternal life. Because of its thorny leaves, it also references the loss of Eden in Genesis: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field…”

When our church was built in the early 1900s, the Garden of Eden reference was accidentally relevant: new houses in the neighbourhood were being built over surrounding country fields, while flowers and leaves were remembered for us in sculptured clay and stone. (Many of those new houses, incidentally, were decorated with stylish acanthus “gingerbread”!)

At that time, and up until Vatican II simplified the church calendar, the church was more connected with the natural world, decorating with seasonal flowers and celebrating Ember Days of fasting and prayer four times a year to mark the changing seasons. Their purpose, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia,  was to “ thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.” In an increasingly technologized age, perhaps stopping to notice our acanthus “kale” can help us to reconnect!

The Poisoned Chalice

apostle john1

Snake on cup — unhygienic?

Perhaps not!

The 1940 parish anniversary book reported that the snake-and-cup emblem of Saint John the Apostle (by the 47th Street door) came from an ancient legend: “according to the tradition handed down by Saint Isidore, the idolatrous enemies of the Saint having poisoned the wine which he used for the holy sacrifice of the Mass, hoped thus to kill him. But the Saint frustrated their design, for on his blessing the wine a serpent came forth to warn him.”

The story first appeared in the Apocrypha — a collection of manuscripts not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible. In the Sixth century, St. Isidore included the texts in an ambitious encyclopedia of all world knowledge. His information was then folded into the 13th century Golden Legend collection of saints lore, and spread from there.

Versions of the story differ: the wine was sometimes Communion wine; more usually, it was a beverage given to John at the Temple of Artemis or in the Marketplace. But the truth might actually be related to the roots of modern medical science.

bowl of hygeia

In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the god of medicine and his daughter, Hygieia, was the goddess of health and hygiene. Hygieia tended to the snakes at her father’s temple, which were made immortal by his magical potions. Her snake-on-a-cup emblem, known as the “Bowl of Hygieia,” has become an international symbol of pharmacy.

Snake magic was a distraction that obscured real medical knowledge. Ephesus (in Turkey), where St. John visited, was not far from Pergamum – site of an important temple to Asclepius  and early medical center (where celebrated physician Galen would establish the foundations of modern medicine half a century later). So John’s snake chalice could have been a “Bowl of Hygieia” containing medicine. Was he healed of an illness? In any case, legend suggests that acceptance of science strengthened, rather than damaging his religious faith. An important idea.

The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests a (snake-free) chalice is a logical emblem for Saint John for an entirely different reason: “Perhaps the most natural explanation is to be found in the words of Christ to John and James: ‘My chalice indeed you shall drink…’” This brings us to the central image above the altar in our church, with Saint John on the left, gazing up at the crucified Jesus, and, abstractly, the “Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation.”

t007

 

BONUS: The Tale of St. John’s bedbugs from the Apocrypha:

bedbug…And having so said, and bidden farewell to them, and left much money with the brethren for distribution, he went forth unto Ephesus…

Now on the first day we arrived at a deserted inn, and when we were at a loss for a bed for John, we saw a droll matter.

There was one bedstead lying somewhere there without coverings, on which we spread the cloaks which we were wearing, and we told him to lie down upon it and rest, while the rest of us all slept upon the floor.

But John, when he lay down, was troubled by the bugs, and as they continued to become yet more troublesome to him, when it was about midnight, in the hearing of us all, he said to them: I say unto you, O bugs, behave yourselves, one and all, and leave your abode for this night and remain quiet in one place, and keep your distance from the servants of God.

And as we laughed, and went on talking for some time, John went to sleep; and we, talking low, gave him no disturbance (or, thanks to him we were not disturbed).

But when the day was now dawning I arose first, and with me Verus and Andronicus, and we saw, in the doorway of the house which we had taken, a great number of bugs standing, and while we wondered at the great sight of them, and all the brethren were roused up because of them, John continued sleeping.

And when he awoke we told him what we had seen. And he sat up on the bed and looked at the bugs and said: Since ye have behaved yourselves in heeding my rebuke, come unto your place.

And when he had said this, and had risen from the bed, the bugs ran from the door, hastened to the bed, climbed its legs, and disappeared into the joints.

And John said again: This creature listened to the voice of a man, and stayed by itself and was quiet and did not trespass; but we who hear the voice and commandments of God disobey and are light-minded: and for how long?

After these things we came to Ephesus…

Adapted from  “The Apocryphal New Testament”
M.R. James-Translation and Notes
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924

 

Snake in the Glass

_MG_2615

_MG_2611The third long window on the St. Mary side of our church is an Easter theme with a Christmas puzzle.

At the top, Jeremiah prophesies “Then I took the cup at the hand of the Lord...” The sections below show Jesus comforted by an angel during the Agony in the Garden, and the Death of St. Francis de Sales – two stories about the end of life. So how does the Star of David at the bottom – a symbol of Jesus’ family lineage and of his birth at Bethlehem — fit this theme?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t.

Long ago, someone restored several panels and put them back incorrectly. A photo at the Athenaeum shows the windows just after they were installed in 1910. At that time, the bottom part of the Agony in the Garden window featured the wreath-with-a-passion-flower-and-snakes currently under the middle window.

That makes more sense! The passion flower is said to represent “faith and suffering.” The laurel wreath surrounding it is a traditional symbol of victory, creating  an Easter message of triumph over death. According to Heilmeyer’s Language of Flowers, the passion flower can also represent “a hankering for a long-lost paradise.” Two snakes nibbling at crosses represent original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden – the reason we need a Savior.

Worries about lost paradise form a subtle undercurrent in the Agony in the Garden window. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth notes that “D’Ascenzo’s composition …appears to have been derived from an etching of the Agony in the Garden by Rembrandt. But D’Ascenzo has changed Rembrandt’s composition with the introduction of an olive tree, which forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” William Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, medieval, hand-crafted, nature-inspired worldview. His ideas were popular when our church was built and D’Ascenzo admired him. The world in 1910 was experiencing rapid change – our church had modern electricity, a state-of-the-art Guastavino dome, and fireproof tiles made for skyscrapers  — new “fruit from the tree of knowledge” that was both exciting and unnerving. D’Ascenzo, like Morris, looked backwards to a simpler, more natural age.

Curiously, the accident of the mixed-up windows has changed their mood from melancholy reflection on change, to a reassuring meditation on continuity: moving clockwise around the church, the Star of David — the symbol of Jesus’ family lineage — below the Agony in the Garden heralds the next window in the eternal cycle — the Annunciation across the aisle, followed by Jesus’ Birth.

The Cross in the Dome

The careful arrangement of the symbols in the twenty-four windows of our church’s Guastavino dome generally goes unnoticed.

Imagine a cross, drawn through the centre of our dome. One line would connect the Keys in the dome window on the St. Joseph side of the church, with the Triple Crown on the St. Mary side. The other would go from the Descending Dove window in front of the altar, across the dome to its opposite, the Ascending Dove. The two lines would cross in the  triangle-in-a-trefoil window in the middle.

The meaning of the first part of the cross is easy to understand. The Keys are the emblem of Saint Peter, based on Matthew 16: “And I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven...” and the Tiara, or Triple Crown, across from it, is a symbol of the Pope. (The 1940 Anniversary Book explains that “the first circlet symbolizes the Pope’s universal episcopate, the second his supremacy of jurisdiction, and the third his temporal power”).

The other part gets complicated.

The dove pointing down, designed to be seen by people in the pews,  represents God’s presence and favour. The 1940 Anniversary Book reports that as “a symbol of the Holy Spirit it is specially connected with Baptism…

Across from it, the dove in flight was designed to be viewed by the priest and, in 1911, was thought to be “indicative of the graces which lift man up to God through the priesthood.” By 1940, it was re-interpreted as “the Ascension of Christ, or the entrance of Saints into glory.” But Henry Dagit’s original 1908 plan  suggested that half of the dome panels would relate to the  Old Testament, and half to the New, so it could also have a third meaning – recalling the story of Noah in the Old Testament, who looked for a sign of God’s presence, in the form of a dove at the window.

Imagine an invisible line through the dome, connecting prayers offered up in the sacrifice of the Mass, to the grace of the Holy Spirit descending on the parishioners. Now visualize a cross linking  Biblical promises of the Old Testament and New; intersected by the line of authority from Saint Peter to the Pope; with the “Eye of God”  at the centre of everything. That’s a neat description of Catholicism. (And the mystery remains: who imagined and put together all of the careful symbolism in our church: Henry Dagit; one of Dagit’s designers; or Reverend Crane himself?)_mg_2409

 

 

 

Neon Halo

In 1969, an astronaut stepped onto the moon; the New Mass of Vatican II came into full effect; and Robert Venturi renovated the sanctuary of our church. Nothing has been quite the same since.

De Sales had already weathered a number of alterations: Monsignor Sefton, who was pastor from 1961 to 1967, and assistant for 12 years before that, had provided continuity through the remodeling of the Lower Church, the re-tiling of the domes, and the blue-tile-wall modernization of 1965 (the blue tiles were removed from the nave in the 1990s, but remnants can still be seen above the sacristy doorway). But then he moved on, and the radical New Liturgy of Vatican II was ushered in by new faces in the rectory, just as the parish population was shrinking and its demographics changed.

As with every Catholic church across the country, the sanctuary of de Sales had to be opened up and reconfigured to include a permanent free-standing altar for the New Mass. Father McNamee recommended a friend-of-a- friend, world-renowned architect Robert Venturi to do the work at our church, and months of  planning and discussion followed with pastor Monsignor Mitchell and priests and architects — but, as was typical in those days, without input from the congregation.

Parishioners attending the inaugural folk guitar Mass were startled to find their familiar, ornate, back-facing marble altar thrust into the shadows, “cancelled out” by a ghostly neon halo hovering in front of Jesus’ feet. The white cathode tubing highlighted an elevated platform. Upon this bright vinyl island stood a plain modern altar table made of milk-white plexiglas, as smoothly curved as “bent butter;” a sleek plexiglas lectern; and a presider’s chair upholstered in shiny white patent leather. The center section of altar rail was gone, opening up the space to symbolically welcome priest and people together around the table.

The boldly original design and concept were intended to highlight the spare, simple, modern ideas in the New Liturgy, while paying homage to the past.

The New Mass and the new design were equally controversial.

The Venturi renovation proved, in fact, to be the most divisive episode in the history of our parish! College students, some of whom studied under Venturi, were electrified by the bright new look and the energy it represented. Architectural publications praised the design. Longtime parishioners did not. This was one renovation too many. The neon lights were blamed for migraines and removed as soon as the school year ended. The other furnishings disappeared from the  sanctuary piece by piece over time.

Ironically, in retrospect, Venturi saved our church. Vatican directives said that two altars must not compete for attention. In the 1960s, ” old-fashioned” ornate back altars were often altered,  removed, or covered. Venturi believed our history was important, though, so he left the old fittings in place and used the band of neon light as a form of “electric demolition” or “an editor’s pencil” to cancel them out visually. The old altar remained intact in the shadows, giving substance to the new.

It’s still there today, long after his renovations were removed. And now that the New Mass is old news, and the current forward-facing altar from MBS church symbolizes a new reality for our parish, we’ve restored this interesting chapter to our history.

In 2015, the Parish invited the Society of Architectural Historians to bring Father McNamee (pastor emeritus at St. Malachy) and Venturi’s partner Denise Scott Brown to come back and talk about the long-ago renovations. Feelings still ran strong: longtime parishioners were passionate about the attempt to change the character of their church; while Denise Scott Brown, recalled every carefully considered detail of the design and the pain of losing it: “it was like watching your child die and not being able to do anything about it.”  But after almost half a century, those involved found common ground in the perspective of time and age, and a whole new group of parishioners, neighbors, and friends heard the story for the first time.

The Thirteenth Apostle

p-1911-069-matthias-eng

dscn4256-2Around the nave of our church are twelve names and symbols of Jesus’ Apostles. But the twelve inscriptions do not include Judas Iscariot – the “bad guy” who betrayed him on Holy Thursday. So who is the extra Apostle?

Matthias, near the sacristy, was not among the original twelve. Our 1940 Anniversary Book mentions that “St. Matthias is represented by the emblem of the spear, as Raphael has painted him; others picture him with the hangman’s axe to indicate that he was beheaded…” A much-quoted anonymous reference suggests that the Italians painted Matthias with a spear and the Germans with an axe, although few enough representations exist that it is hard to generalize!

Little verifiable information is available about Matthias. Tradition says he was selected by lot, following a Jewish custom for determining God’s Will, to replace the traitorous Judas. Some accounts suggest that Matthias was killed while preaching in Judea. Other accounts suggest he was martyred after a mission to Colchis (Also  land of mythological Jason and the Golden Fleece. Today the country of  Georgia), where he was, perhaps, blinded by “cannibals” and, possibly, saved, for a time,  by Saint Andrew. Matthias is the patron saint invoked against alcoholism.

Why were there twelve Apostles in the first place? It is said that twelve is a “perfect” or “complete” number in Jewish religion. Twelve Apostles may have represented a link and sense of continuity with the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This would explain why it was important to maintain the number.

Judas, the first twelfth Apostle,  may have been banished from our walls, but he is still represented in our church, in the sculptured scene of the Last Supper on the front of the freestanding altar from Most Blessed Sacrament Church. All twelve original apostles were important in that most perfect of ceremonies – including the betrayer — an interesting thought.

Our 1911 back-facing altar features twelve encircled Xs around a Chi Rho (PX monogram representing the first two letters of Christ in Greek).  A similar design at St. Malachy Church – also decorated by Henry Dagit under Reverend Crane’s direction – is described as “…crosses in circles making twelve in number, which symbols stand for the twelve Apostles, the authorized teachers of Christ, who carried the real doctrine….to all the world.” This suggests that St. Malachy’s invoked Matthias, but we don’t know for sure which twelfth Apostle, in which role – Last Supper or Pentecost — was intended on our original  Altar!

t001-4

The Menorah in the Church Window

p1911-065-menorah

It seemed like a simple question: “Why is there a menorah on one of our  dome windows?”

The 1940 St. Francis de Sales Parish Anniversary Book called it “the seven-branched candlestick of the Old Testament Tabernacle, a prophetic emblem of the sevenfold sacramental grace which would issue from the Church of Christ,” but that seemed vague and didn’t explain why the symbol was chosen.

The number seven – emblem of perfection — turns out to have many meanings in Catholicism, but its association with candlesticks is hazy. The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia noted that seven candles carried by seven acolytes were used at Papal Masses. A Bishop could have seven candles on the altar if he were presiding at home; six if he were visiting outside his diocese. The kinds of candles to be used were strictly regulated (pure beeswax, except in Oceania, where sperm-whale candles were permitted), but little explanation was offered for the significance of the candle number.

Some have suggested that for Christians, a seven-branched candlestick could represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, Fear of the Lord). It could also invoke a vision of “heavenly worship” from Revelations, in which “Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne, which are the seven spirits of God”  This is offered as a possible explanation for the Papal candles. Or our candlestick could reference Judaism in the Old Testament.

According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia – current when our church was built – the original seven-branched Jewish candlestick was made for the Temple in the time of Moses: “symbolically the menorah represented the creation of the universe in seven days, the center light symbolizing the Sabbath. The seven branches are the seven continents of the earth and the seven heavens, guided by the light of God. The Zohar (Jewish mystical Kabbalah) says: ‘These lamps, like the planets above, receive their light from the sun.’”

The windows in our dome are thematically arranged, in pairs and opposites. The pair for the Menorah (the light of the Old Testament), is the Chalice and Eucharist (“Jesus Christ, the light of the world”), to its right, skip one. Opposite the Menorah, on the other side of the dome,  is the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, signifying beginnings; the Omega, the last letter, is across from the Chalice. Thus, Alpha and Omega, a name for God, encompasses Creation and Redemption; Old Testament and New: a catechism in stained glass.