Milan, 20 January 2023
I love serendipity, those moments in life when, quite by chance, something wonderful happens to you. Such a moment occurred a month or so ago now, when my wife and I, free for the day from our babysitting duties, headed off to LA’s Chinatown, to have our hair cut and to nose around a little. Pleasant as this all was, it was not where the serendipitous moment occurred. It was later, when we decided to walk from Chinatown to Bunker Hill, hoping to catch an exhibition at the Broad Museum or the Museum of Contemporary Art, which both sit on that hill. There was indeed a wonderful exhibition at MOCA, but fascinating as it was, it was also not there that the serendipitous moment occurred. It happened on the way; by sheer chance, I chose a route which took us past LA’s Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
I cannot stress strongly enough, one should never go past a church without visiting it. For two thousand years, churches have been the repositories of some of the best art our cultures have produced (as indeed have temples and other sites of worship the world over), so there are very good chances that there will be something interesting to see in every church. The Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels was a brilliant example of the truth of my injunction, “Enter that church! Do not walk past it!”
The cathedral itself, opened in 2002, is certainly an interesting example of postmodern design by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo (who also designed the fantastic museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain, which my wife and I visited some 15 years ago; but that is another story). These two photos give an idea of what the cathedral looks like inside and out.
As I said, interesting. But the real jewel – that serendipitous moment – were the tapestries that lined the two walls of the nave. They were magnificent. They were designed by the Californian artist John Nava and woven in Belgium, a country with a centuries-old tradition in the making of tapestries.
This photo shows their general layout.
Readers with good eyes will be able to see that the tapestries depict a procession of people – women, men, children – moving towards the cross above the high altar. Closer inspection shows that most of these people are saints (or in certain cases blesseds). These photos show some of the panels (there are 26 of them in all).
Some of the tapestries on the southern wall:
Sone of the tapestries on the northern wall:
With the more modern saints, Nava used photos or contemporary paintings to create their likeness, otherwise he used family members, acquaintances, and models. He wanted his saints to look like real people, where we the viewers could say “hey, that looks awfully like so-and-so”.
The tapestries show quite a mix of saints and blesseds, from all over the world (although Europe does predominate) and across all ages. A good number I’m familiar with. My mother, may she rest in peace, used to ply me with comic books (graphic novels might be a more respectable term, given the subject matter) of the lives of various saints, to give me good examples to live up to. So, for instance, I’m familiar with Jean Vianney, the Curé d’Ars (the saint on the far right in this photo).
Then there’s Saint Francis, a saint I am particularly fond of as I’ve written about in an earlier post (again, the saint on the far right of this photo).
Then there’s San Carlo Borromeo; you cannot live in Milan for any length of time without coming across him multiple times (he’s the second from the left in the photo below).
I’ve mentioned San Carlo a few times in my posts, and I think Nava has made his nose too small – all the paintings of the saint I’ve ever seen show that he had a monstrous conk.
Some are saints who were alive during my lifetime and with whom I have a certain familiarity – Mother Theresa and Pope John XXIII, for instance.
I like the fact that Nava has mixed in a number of anonymous people with his saints and blesseds – mostly children, as we see in the first of these close-up photos – to remind us that we can all be saints (although, as history has sadly taught us, we can all be devils too; but we’ll draw a veil over that today).
Readers will see that while the faces which Nava created are intact, the clothes of many show gaps and scars, reminiscent of old frescoes which have been partly destroyed; a nice touch, I found.
Stumbling across these tapestries was wonderful enough. But what was even more delightful was that this modern procession of saints immediately brought to my mind another such procession, in a church nearly 10,000 km away and erected some 1,500 years before the cathedral of our Lady of the Angels: Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, a church which has been the subject of several of my earlier posts.
Ravenna is one of my most favorite places in the world, filled as it is with early Christian churches whose interiors house mosaics. Any long-term readers of my blog will know that early Christian mosaics hold a special place in my heart. I still remember that morning in early July of 1975 when I walked into Sant’Apollinare Nuovo for the first time: another serendipitous moment. Callow youth that I was, I had put Ravenna on my itinerary because the Michelin Green Guide, which I was religiously following, assigned the town its maximum of three stars. I had no idea what to expect, and I was overcome by what I found before me. The walls of Sant’Apollinare glitter with wonderful mosaics showing a line of virgins and martyrs processing solemnly towards the high altar. In a sign of how things have changed in the intervening 1,500 years, whereas in the tapestries all the saints are mixed companionably together, in Ravenna they are rigorously segregated by gender, with the virgins processing down one wall and the martyrs (all male) processing down the other (they are also all white, showing the much more local reach of the Christian church then than now).
Here we have the procession of the virgins.
And here, a little less clearly, we have the procession of the martyrs.
I throw in a couple of close-ups to give readers a better sense of what the mosaics are like. Here, are some of the virgins, with names that we would recognize today – Christina, Caterina, Paulina.
And here are some of the martyrs, with names like Clement and Laurence but also others which are far less familiar to us today – Sistus, Hypolitus, Cornelius.
The other mosaics I discovered that day – in the churches of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and of San Vitale, in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, in the Baptistery of Neon and the Arian Baptistery – were just as magnificent and are forever etched in my mind.
Ah, the thrill of serendipity! Remember, readers: never pass a church (or a mosque, or a synagogue, or a temple, or a gurdwara) without going in! (if they allow you, that is) Chances are you’ll see something interesting, and sometimes you’ll find something wonderful.