It Is Finished: LA Cathedral adds new tapestries

It is finished. Probably it shouldn’t have been. Well enough should have been left alone. This past month the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Los Angeles, Our Lady of the Angels, announced the completion of its tapestry cycle.

The original tapestries by artist John Nava, installed for the dedication of the cathedral in 2002, are rightly considered among the most salient, sensitive, and sophisticated pieces of contemporary liturgical art in the United States.

 

But as a liturgical consultant and artist I must say I am not a fan of the five new panels recently installed behind the altar. Inexplicably, the new work by Nava lacks the subtlety in both conception and execution that marked the original saints in the nave and presbytery. The new image of a centralised Mary, perhaps slightly more palatable if we think of her as Mother of the Church, though the image tells us none of that, has lost all connection with the divinized humanitas so present and convincing in the original tapestries.

Here Mary looks like a socially-distanced, colouring book cut-out of kitschy saintliness. Perhaps she is to invoke the posture of the sculpted Mary over the cathedral’s festal entrance, but the halo effect on the tapestry leaves the impression of a somewhat decapitated corpse. From a distance the viewer is not even sure it is Mary. Perhaps the risen Lord? So, bam, in your face BLUE; This will compensate for any iconographic ambiguity, in a once monochromatic adobe inspired interior alla Moneo – originally an intelligent reference to nature and immigrant. And forget the two dancing angels flanking the mysterious and lonely floating figure.

None of that close-packed saintly solidarity of the original masses, a glorious sandal-and-sneaker wearing people fully alive at the eternal banquet. Perhaps the only interesting feature is that the back weave of the five panels is a map of Los Angeles. But this graphic game is completely out of sync with the original tapestries too. The pattern is slightly echoed in the original Baptism of Jesus tapestry, but the pattern behind the altar comes across as heavy handed and derivative.

I don’t have insider information, but my instinct tells me that along the way process and patrons took control of this project. If I had to hazard a guess I’d probably blame a lot on that most enigmatic of happenings – when ordination makes all clergy art historians, art critics, artists, and liturgical experts. I could be wrong. I’d be happy to be wrong. But I have a hard time thinking that Nava, as a completion of his original work, would go this way and make these choices.

Perhaps more importantly, besides any artistic critique, the new tapestries make a schizophrenic sanctuary even worse. I dare say, they need to leave the altar, clear out the surrounding area, and start over. An already disparate sanctuary in its origins must now contend with yet two more disembodied elements that pull the eye in an uncontrollable and inarticulate cacophony: A worthy monumental altar, since-the-beginning awkward ambo and cathedra, the indecipherable charcoal black crucifix that once provoked me to write about liturgical ‘death-spaces’, and now a high-hovering blue question mark sandwiched between two pirouetting greeting card angels. I’m perplexed by the choice. Does the image not edge on Mariolatry? Would not Mary have been suitably located in a more eschatologically based scene that completed the logic of the gathered Church in heaven and earth already present in the original liturgical art? Mary dangling over an altar in an ‘apse’ is an odd choice. Colossians 1:18? At least in Byzantine art history she is present with her Son. Not here.  

21 comments

  1. I don’t see anything wrong with having Mary in the center or making her appear “glorious,” per se. However, I don’t get why they didn’t continue the procession of saints up to her image.

    Setting aside that I don’t care for the style of the building and just trying to judge it in terms of composition, it’s bizarre to me that they put the window above the altar off-center and stuck organ pipes to the right. They awkwardly float above the centered altar and do nothing to draw the eye to it. Such a monumentally tall space should have taken care to use the lines of the building to lead the viewer’s gaze to the altar, as one would see in pretty much any old 19th century American church where the lines of the building draw the eye to a reredos or window which in turn leads the eye down to the altar.

    1. I’m sure the original spatial conception was that the best way to focus upon the liturgical action in the sanctuary at floor level was to have nothing above it that would pull the eye upward. Hence the offset alabaster window/cross. There’s more than one way to skin a cat shall we say. But, as you point out, once one starts engaging that vertical axis in a sanctuary, there is little turning back. And it is at that moment that whatever is put behind the altar needs to embrace the sanctuary in design and content.

  2. Sorry – it is still a concrete warehouse; now with added art work. As the saying goes – “The Taj Mahoney” At a time of deep anger, sadness, and abuse, millions spent on what? – while the courts had to force accountability and responsibility. What do the victims feel? Poor timing; ambition; what? All for cathedrals, new art work, etc. but not when it happens like this. Can not the same be said about the purchase in Orange County of the Crystal Cathedral?

  3. I agree with you, James. This is atrocious.
    The tapestries of the communion of saints are breathtaking. This is Hallmark Card stuff.
    I really loved the map of LA with the text from Revelation. This completely obscures all of that, and turns it into a backdrop for sentimental display. A shame. Really a shame.
    And doubtless a reflection of the piety of the current archbishop.

    1. I had not realised there was an interim period with a map and text. Both are included in the new tapestry, but the text is illegible unless one is very near.

      1. Yes, as I recall one has to get near to read the inscription, and also to appreciate the map. But the effect was electrifying, because it relates the whole city to God’s promises in Revelation. I thought it was subtle, yet profoundly moving. One needs to draw near to get it.

        Now, however, this all seems like a mere backdrop for a hovering, attention-grabbing Marian devotional image. God will dwell with them? No, apparently the message now is that Mary will dwarf all that drivel from Revelation! There are fifteen images of Mary at the entrance. Fifteen! Not enough?

        “The east wall is decorated with seven Altar Tapestries featuring a schematic map of Los Angeles converging with a Cosmatesque design. A quote from the Book of Revelation sewn into these tapestries reads, “See, God’s dwelling is among mortals. God will dwell with them. They will be God’s people and God will be with them.”

        When I saw this picture, I assumed the figures were appliques.

      2. I was confused by various descriptions…clearly there are five panels and not seven…unless there are two stage r or l, not directly behind the altar.

      3. I had written about the map tapestries here. They were some of my favorite parts of the cathedral. Agree that they are even more of an invisible backdrop. And yet, from what I can tell, the people who call that cathedral home love their new Mary, especially because she looks so much like them. And the critique about the multiple Marys throughout the building haven’t mentioned that Los Angelenos *have* multiple Marys in their religious imagination and daily faith life. The many diverse cultures and many of their indigenous ancestors find their Marian face somewhere in that Cathedral. It is one deep thread that unites us. If there were only one Marian image there, it would do damage to that unity and would not reflect the local church. Yes the space is flawed in many ways. But the space is also deeply loved by a diverse people. We can see humanity and our holiness in that space in ways we don’t in other cathedrals.

        Here’s the post I wrote about the map tapestries: https://liturgy.life/2020/12/wherever-gods-people-dwell/

  4. I agree with James that the new tapestries are out of key with the remainder. Not only that, but they are a major distraction from what is going on in the sanctuary. I am sure he is right when he implies that the design was hijacked by the personal devotional requirements of the present prelate.

    Jack raises a different point when he asks why the building does not draw the eye towards the altar. Well, of course, it actually did before the installation of the new backcloth. Why on earth they couldn’t have just left a blank canvas on which each worshipper could imagine their own imagery, rather than have someone else’s kitsch imagery imposed on them, I can’t imagine. The building was fine as it was.

    But in fact tinkering has gone on ever since the building was first opened. James mentioned the brooding black crucifix which originally stood further to the left at the rear of the sanctuary, before it was bumped by a new archbishop’s cathedra and moved to the middle, along with a questionable change of colour to the cross. We have seen plants and candles appear in profusion, almost as if people were afraid of leaving a large unadorned space in the middle of which the altar was pre-eminent. The temptation to keep adding ornamentation has always existed in the Church, with the exception of the Cistercian abbey churches of the Middle Ages which returned to an austere simplicity in which God could speak and be heard.

    But to return to Jack’s question. He assumes that the eye should be drawn towards the altar, but I suggest that a different emphasis might be preferable. Liturgical architects with some theological background know that when designing a new church space, or re-ordering an existing one, the first question should never be “Where shall we put the altar?”, followed by “Where shall we put the ambo and presider’s chair?” Rather, it should be “How best should we configure the assembly?” Failing to use the assembly as a starting point has been responsible for the many questionable designs that we see appearing even today. Once you have got the relationship of the members of assembly right, then you can start to look at positioning the other primary symbols.

    In this respect, the contemporary tunnel that is Our Lady of the Angels in LA is a failed design, like so many others, following as it does in the footsteps of the “Gothic tunnels” of church buildings built in earlier styles. It was always going to be so, and this was pointed out right at the start, when the architect first displayed his plans; but no one took any notice.

    Joseph Gelineau once famously observed that in most churches all you can see is the backs of other people’s heads. In the case of LA, you’d also need to provide binoculars for those in the back half of the tunnel, as indeed you do in many other large cathedrals. And closed-circuit TV monitors like those in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, don’t do it (but that’s another whole issue which we don’t have space to discuss here).

    If we take the full, conscious and active participation of the assembly seriously, something more is required. We are no longer in an era where the role of the assembly is as spectators of the liturgical action (though in time of pandemic we have most unfortunately had to return to precisely that) because that assembly is asked to do something together as a body. It’s much more difficult to do that when the only view you have is the back of other people’s heads and a distant figure behind an altar or an ambo. The way we lay out our assemblies will either succeed or fail to draw them in to the liturgical action. Mostly, our layouts fail in this regard.

    So when Jack asks for the eye to be drawn to the altar, I suggest that what he should really be asking for is for the eye to be drawn to the entire liturgical action, which should be taking place within the entire liturgical assembly, rather than on a stage at one end of a long room, quite possibly in the far distance. That has implications for the shape of the building and is something that all liturgical architects should be taking into consideration. Few do.

    We need to start with the people.

  5. I agree with Rita. I prefer the tapestry cycle as it was originally where the original sanctuary tapestries did serve as a backdrop to the liturgical action. I find it interesting that in the article in the diocesan news it only talks about the new tapestries as completing the art of the cathedral. You’d never know that the art was complete when it opened. It is completely dismissive of the original intent of linking the church of this particular time and place with the new and eternal Jerusalem using the Revelation quote.

    As far as centering the space on the liturgical action and altar, one of the things I’ve always liked about that cathedral is that the paving stones throughout the building are laid in concentric circles starting with the altar. So even in the ambulatory chapels you can always tell which direction the altar is.

    1. There are many elements of the cathedral that I do think are well-designed. The pavement, as you point out, is one of them. Nor am I against the liturgical arrangement wholesale, just some of the relationships between liturgical furniture and art in the sanctuary. I am still surprised that the new tapestries are ‘so’ out of character with the original. If I had been Nava, and I was given a forced commission, I would have politely turned it down.

  6. Unfortunate, ill-considered, cloying.
    Early in the design process Moneo’s design work was limited to the building structure and site (even here, he was required to alter the entrance design to accommodate Robert Graham’s “Our Lady of the Angels” sculpture). Artwork and liturgical furnishings were to be designed and executed by local Californian artists and artisans. While laudable, this risk-laden decision resulted in a pastiche of visual elements: A cringeworthy ambo (what ambo?), bishop’s chair, and Blessed Sacrament Tabernacle to name but three. Interesting that the newest tapestry is opposite the Baptism of Jesus tapestry behind/above the beautiful baptismal font, with the latter being another unsuccessful treatment, unlike the majestic Communion of Saints procession on either side of the nave (the baptismal scene is left floating…an incomplete composition).
    Moneo’s site and cathedral processional programming is often overlooked. From the moment you enter the cathedral compound from the street, under a low slung belfry, you are guided through a transitional and preparatory space as you ascend to the entrance portal of Our Lady of the Angels (why then have this “icon” dominate the worship space?). As you continue your pilgrimage along the side ambulatories you are given glimpses of the cathedral interior through apertures in the nave walls. Your entry to the worship space completes a processional inversion, as you are now facing the direction from whence you have come, effectively positioning the sacred as the lens through which one contemplates and engages the world.
    No question that the altar is the focal point of the space: floor gently slopes down to the altar; four (usually) processional candles (eight feet high) demarcate the altar’s four corners; floor pavers radiate from the altar; “transept” banks of sloping pews on either side are oriented to the altar. Word count limit means I cannot address the crucifix and its position that makes for powerful scenes of veneration. Cue sighs of…

  7. I wish that Mary had been portrayed some other way that ties her in with all the people in the cathedral’s other tapestries. At least, many more angelic figures could have been placed around her to bring out the meaning of her title: “Queen of Angels”. I have always preferred images of Mary where she is with her son Jesus, whether he is in her womb (as Our Lady of Guadalupe or as painted in certain Eastern ikons), in her arms as a child, or as in the Finding in the Temple or as an adult in the Pietá by Michelangelo. There are various other meditative images that could have been used. Perhaps having Mary centered alone in such an important visual space reinforces, for some people, a form of Maryolatry. Or, it asks the question: Why is Jesus the Savior, her son, not pictured with her? Yet,
    for other people, such questions might never come up…

  8. Mary ‘center stage” and clearly the focus of the sanctuary plus 15 images of Mary throughout the building? Yes, Fr McCarthy, it speaks loud and clear of Maryolatry. The only Christ figures are at his baptism(his back) and a black figure crucified. No doubt who is the focus of this cathedral.
    You would think that a Risen/Glorified Christ matching the magnificent tapestries would complete this building, lifting our eyes to the One who feeds us by His Word & Sacrament.
    Doesn’t the Archdiocese have competent professionals at the Liturgy Office, including the Archbishop
    who would need to objectivity study and approve artwork like this?
    As a liturgist and Catholic, this really disturbs me. I dont even want to share what my Lutheran friends think about this…..Come to think about it, what do you think Mary herself feels about all this attention to her vs Her Son?

    1. “ what do you think Mary herself feels about all this attention to her vs Her Son?”

      Reminds me of my pastor’s homily for Immaculate Conception last year where he asked the same question. He said Mary would be honored by the all the love she receives because she gets to help people to love her Son, Jesus. Coincidentally, he grew up Lutheran;)

  9. Lurker comment:

    A worthy theme for the altar tapestries, to my mind, could have been the Adoration of the Magi (with the Christ child standing on Mary’s lap at the center, angels above, more muted colors, cf. Fra Angelico).

    1. It keeps the Marian element appropriate for the dedication name, without any doubt of Christocentrism.

    2. Works well with the processional character of the nave tapestries (cp. Many Italian Renaissance altarpieces of the theme, as well as keeping the allusion to Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna, which I assume was an inspiration for the nave).

    3. It could connect the offering of the Magi with the Eucharistic offering at the altar.

    Not that I think they’ll change it on my account, but it seems there could have been plenty of Marian-connected themes that also fit the general scheme better.

    1. The “anonymous” saints among the croud with the Magi could be presbyters and deacons vested in vestments typical of the Cathedral to complement the anonymous saints in the nave.

  10. This is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

    The new tapestries make an important and interesting point. Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles is Our Lady of Los Angeles, mapped as the background, and of the angels around the city. This contrast of Angelenos and angels illustrates the inscription:

    “See, God’s dwelling is among mortals. God will dwell with them. They will be God’s people and God will be with them.”

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