The inspiring and daunting austerity of the new Cathedral permeates every aspect of its architecture. Going against tradition and placing the main entrance to the extreme left of the facade, the architect - like a stern teacher - reminds us to be humble and not to forget who's the boss. Upon entering the Cathedral through a long narrow corridor, the visitor is forced to accept the ceremonious preordained rhythm of his encounter with the space. It definitely worked for me, producing a heightened state of awareness, the effect similar to a musical overture that precedes the rising curtain at an opera performance. After the narrow entrance, the immensity of the Cathedral's nave is close to shocking. In yet another successful attempt to challenge us, the architect directs visitors to enter the cathedral first through its most sacred area - the altar. The whole space is so big and so bright that it instantly establishes itself as a perfect architectural symbol for our sprawling city, reflecting its ambition and size, and celebrating its merciless crystalline light. If you tell me of a person who was not overwhelmed by the spectacle of sunlight beaming through the huge Spanish alabaster windows, I will tell you, this person is an alien.
To complete the interior and to offset its minimalistic architecture, Cardinal Mahony commissioned Los Angeles figurative artists: Simon Toparovsky to make the bronze Crucifix for the altar, and John Nava to design the numerous tapestries for the walls. Because I visited the artists' studios several times during their work on this project, and became privy to the complexity of the issues they were dealing with, I find myself unable to be completely objective in my response to the final results. I think both artists, unquestionably, created the best works of their career. Both artists felt the crushing weight of traditional religious iconography.
Slightly bigger than life-size, the Crucifix by Simon Toparovsky shows the tormented body of Christ in the last moments before death. It's both beautiful and harrowing. The artist created an image of Christ, which is intimately familiar through thousands of traditional depictions, but also surprisingly new and individual. His unbearable pain and approaching death are revealed more graphically and with more naturalism than I have seen before. The lower limbs are grotesquely swelled, the flayed skin is emphasized by the highly unusual red patina applied to the bronze sculpture. Only standing close to the Crucifix can one see a beautiful face, unmarred by pain. The elongated silhouette of the body, with its sinuous lines, made me think about the eloquent movement of the great dancers of our time.
John Nava had the unenviable task of bringing to life the images of 135 saints, for each of whom he had to find a model among his family, friends, and perfect strangers he met on the street. Diligently, for several years, the artist made hundreds of beautifully executed sketches of the faces, hands, and feet of this army of saints. Time was at a premium. With the help of a computer, he designed a few variations of robes for all the figures. The final composition was scanned into the computer and emailed to Belgium, where the tapestries were woven at the largest loom in the world. I have to admit that I was more moved by the finished tapestries when I first saw them in the artist's studio. Hung on the walls of the Cathedral, they acquired a more stately, slightly detached aura. Without John Nava's tour-de-force tapestries, the majestic interior of the Cathedral would be unbearably overwhelming.
For more information: An exhibition on John Nava's tapestries for the Cathedral will be held at The Judson Gallery of Contemporary Art:
"Art for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. John Nava: Tapestries from Proposal to Installation"
October 15 - January 25, 2003
The Judson Gallery of Contemporary and Traditional Art
200 South Avenue 66, Los Angeles, CA 90042
The official website for The Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels