Online Edition – March 2007
Vol. XIII, No. 1
Uncovering – and Restoring – the Sacred
When two priests set out to find remnants of a mural in their parish church, no one could have imagined the transformation that would result
by Ted Crisman
Late one December night, two young priests went into St. Bernard’s parish in Keene, New Hampshire, with the hope of finding a mural of the crucifixion on the sanctuary wall.
The mural, a scene of the crucifixion done in 1892, had been covered with paint in the mid 1900s. The two priests knew about the painting from a photograph taken in 1893. Using this old photograph, they estimated where the face of Christ would be, and began their search. After some careful peeling and chipping of paint, they found what they were looking for.
When they returned to the rectory, their pastor perceived they had “been up to something”. They described what they had discovered. The pastor was as excited as they were. He had grown up in St. Bernard’s parish and remembered the mural with great fondness. The priests made a plan to raise the money necessary to uncover and restore the mural.
The next task was to find someone to do the work of uncovering and restoring the mural. One of the young priests knew of my background in art and construction, and asked me to submit a proposal, which was accepted.
Last September, my brother-in-law Paul Swingle and I began the initial work — removing the wallpaper and chipping away at the two layers of wall paint used to cover up the artwork.
It took about five weeks to uncover the entire mural, which had sustained some damage due to the natural settling of the wall, the brittleness of plaster and the scuffing that occurred during the removal of the wall paint. We repaired some areas where the plaster was coming loose, as in the case of the central area of the sky, which we re-plastered completely. We also repaired numerous cracks and divots, and two areas where a full- size sculpture of Christ had been affixed to the painted surface.
After we had plastered, scraped and washed the whole mural, we then erected the scaffolding necessary to install new lights and to restore the mural. I enlisted the help of fellow artist, friend and parishioner John Traynor for this work. John and I painted for about two and a half weeks. After overcoming several technical problems, we were able to work quickly through the entire mural, in some cases starting with a blank wall and repainting (in the style of the original artist) areas that had been ruined. We repainted and glazed the rest of the mural to brighten it, as it had become dull with smoke, neglect, and age.
During the whole process of restoration, there was tremendous support from the parish. Many people were very excited, yet there were some who were doubtful as to the success of restoring a damaged and tired-looking mural. Soon those folks understood what we were doing, and saw that this artwork was not just being cleaned, it was being “rebuilt” and brought back to life. Many parishioners came in during the project to express their joy and amazement at the transformation the church was undergoing. What had been a very bare and less-than-beautiful sanctuary was beginning to visibly represent the central act of salvation.
There were also other developments that no one could have planned or foreseen. During our mural restoration the pastor had asked me to design a new reredos (altar screen or backdrop, more or less) to be adorned with a crucifix and candles. I modeled my design on the side altar and tabernacle, now positioned just to the right of the sanctuary, which had formerly been used for Mass. Our pastor had been on a retreat during our restoration process and when he came back I had the drawing ready.
When I showed the drawing for the new reredos to him he appeared stunned and asked, “Did you copy the design of the old altar from pictures of the parish in the 1800s?” I hadn’t, but I explained that I borrowed elements from the side altar and tabernacle in order to unite the architectural elements within the body of the church. I was puzzled by his reaction. But apparently when he saw my drawing for the new reredos it seemed to have an incomplete look — which only a tabernacle could complete. (Until this time he had not been open to the idea of placing the tabernacle in the center of the sanctuary.) In the weeks that followed — especially after a brother priest mentioned some of his own parishioners’ desire to move the tabernacle to the center of the sanctuary — the pastor became more convinced that this was a real possibility.
At the next parish council meeting the pastor told the council that he wanted to move the tabernacle to the center of the sanctuary. They were unanimously in favor. (Some members present were parishioners at our sister parish and asked if their tabernacle could also be placed in the center of their sanctuary.) In the end, this was done, and the response from parishioners has been overwhelming.
Once parishioners began the see the transformation of the crucifixion mural, and learned of the construction of a new altar of repose and restoring the tabernacle to the center of the sanctuary, many made sizable donations for this purpose. With only three weeks until Christmas, my brother-in-law and I began constructing the new altar.
It is so difficult to put into words the gratitude and amazement that I felt upon completing the project. At the beginning of the art restoration project if you had told me that I would be building an altar, and moving the tabernacle to the center of the sanctuary, I would have thought you were dreaming. Now I’m the one who feels as though I’m dreaming.
The changes are felt deeply by many. One person, a non-Christian who works at the parish, said to me after all the improvements had been completed, “You know, now this place really looks like a church.”
On a more personal note, for many years at Saint Bernard’s there has been deep desire that God restore order. That’s the best way I can describe it. ‘Order’ with a capital ‘O’, order, which of course includes Beauty, which draws men to God, the Good. Among other serious problems, we worshiped in a building that had been stripped of any beautiful sign of God-transcendent — Holy — Other. From the appearance of the church, one never had the sense that Catholicism is about the Incarnation, God passionate about His creation, in love with it. By degrees beauty, on many levels, is being restored, in this case we can see it with our eyes. All this is simply gift.
In many lives, the work of the Spirit has ignited the fire of love for Beauty. At the same time, there is a renewed understanding of culture, its essential qualities and the influence it has over the destiny of mankind. The emergence of a plenitude of artistic gifts in Christians everywhere is not to be understated.
Within the past few years, the vision of a rebirth of Christian culture has become clearer. And this led to forming ArtSolidarity, a group of working artists, along with a growing number of people willing to support the arts.
The letter of Pope John Paul II to Artists was not only a beautiful gesture by the Vicar of Christ, an artist himself, but it was the communicating of an understanding of Beauty, and the importance of the artist and his call as such. It was an occasion where the pope reminded the Church that she must not forget the power and the necessity of the arts: “Beauty will save the world.” This letter deepens the inspirations already happening in many lives. It fuels our resolve to band together as artists, particularly when we experience the hardships that have come to us as working artists. Patience and faithfulness to our vision have been rewarded. Our goal is to form a coalition of artists who believe in Beauty and live out its call as working artists in the world.
Two ideas ArtSolidarity is researching are the creation of the ArtSolidarity Artist Award Grant to fund the creation of works of art, and an ArtSolidarity publication. We are also developing an artist retreat, a time to meet with other artists, share our art, enjoy having time away from the the workaday world, a time to be recreated by leisure.
A quotation from the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky wonderfully summarizes some of our convictions about art today, and helped fuel our resolve:
Art could be said to be a symbol of the universe, being linked with that absolute spiritual truth which is hidden from us in our positivistic, pragmatic activities….
Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing which draws people to art. Modern art has taken a wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence in order to affirm the value of the individual for its own sake. What purports to be art begins to look like an eccentric occupation for suspect characters who maintain that any personalized action is of intrinsic value simply as a display of self-will. But in artistic creation the personality does not assert itself, it serves another, higher and communal idea. The artist is always a servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of our human calling…
We put all our hopes and desires in God’s hands and pray that Mary may obtain for us the virtue of obedience.
Ted Crisman lives with his wife and five children in rural New England. Since 1995 he has worked in the art field, and also has a small construction company. Recently, he and several artist friends have organized ArtSolidarity, in the conviction that “art is vital to our culture”, thus “art done with Beauty as its object and inspiration is our goal”. You may visit the ArtSolidarity web site at: http://artsolidarity.blogspot.com