I had a chance Wednesday, while in Claremont, CA, for a parish mission at Our Lady of the Assumption parish, to go to the LA Cathedral. It's an impressive structure in the heart of the city built to last five hundred years. While I know traditionalists love to hate its modern design, I found much of the artwork inside extremely powerful and uplifting.
One thing that touched me were the angels that adorn the dedication candles that ring the nave. They were designed based on a dozen or so different people's experience or perception of angels, and each one is different. Some seem to be offering protection, others seem to demonstrate God's beauty or power, others seem to offer challenge to our half-hearted following of their Creator.
I was also stunned to find the sanctuary crucifix is only about ten feet high, with the feet of Jesus at about waist level. In such a large cathedral in which the ceiling is at least 100 feet overhead, that kind of intimacy was unexpected. Such proximity allows worshippers to gather close to the bronze corpus of the crucified Lord. The artist studied the physical effects of the torture of crucifixion on the human body and incorporated his findings into his bronze. So Jesus' legs are swelled with bodily fluid, his hands are frozen in spasm, and his flayed body a rough mass of welts.
But by far the most powerful art in the cathedral are the tapestries that line the four walls of the worship space. According to the LA cathedral website
Twenty-five fresco-like tapestries depict 135 saints and blesseds from around the world, including holy men and women of North America canonized by the Church. Twelve untitled figures, including children of all ages, represent the many anonymous holy people in our midst. All the figures direct our eyes to the light of the great Cross-window above the Altar where the Eucharist is celebrated.
The saints were selected to represent all the ethnic groups in the LA Archdiocese, and when photographs or portraits were unavailable, the artist, John Nava, used some of his friends and people from Ojai, CA, who fit the physical description of particular saints, as his models. Because they face the cross and altar, rather than the congregation, I would have thought the lack of direct eye contact from them would have made them seem somehow detached from us. But these saints, blesseds, and anonymous holy people are so beautiful, I cried, and at first I couldn't imagine why.
Behind the baptismal font (the only place where one can bless oneself with holy water in the cathedral) is an enormous tapestry of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Our Lord kneels humbly before his cousin, and we see his strong back that will carry our sins and the soles of his feet which blessed our earth with each step. His head is bowed as John pours water from a bowl.
The great circular pattern above the Baptism scene is based on "Cosmati" stone floor decorations from the 11th century found in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, Italy. The stylized "wavy" water patterns in the lower portion are derived from Byzantine mosaic patterns found at Ravenna and that were used throughout the early Christian period.
The seven tapestries behind the altar depict the New Jerusalem converging with an overall circular "Cosmati" pattern traditionally associated with the divine. It provides symmetry with the baptismal tapestry on the opposite wall. A quote from the Book of Revelation is sewn into the tapestries that reminds us of God's presence with us here and now, especially when we gather at Eucharist. They are inscribed with the words, "See, God's dwelling is among mortals. God will dwell with them. They will be God's people and God will be with them." The surprising - and shockingly hopeful - thing is that at the center of the circle is the grid of downtown LA!
The next morning - just yesterday! - I reflected on that experience, and I think I have some ideas as to why I was so deeply moved by these tapestries. In addition to being artistically breathtaking, they speak to me of God's humility, intimate love, and absolute power to transform us. God's humility is demonstrated in sharing our humanity in Jesus and in his two-fold baptism by water and by crucifixion, the two poles of the long axis of the cathedral. Both are demonstrations of his desire to do His Father's will. His intimate love and power to transform us are shown in the saints who stand so closely to one another and to us. Their tremendous diversity is overcome and made completely insignificant in their common discipleship. Their eyes are fixed on Jesus, as should ours, but they crowd so close to one another that I can't imagine them being unaware of each other. Their stance is a constant call to discipleship, which allows us to one day take our place alongside them in the New Jerusalem, with Christ as the light of that holy city. My tears expressed my desire to be one with them and the Lord.