More Real Than Real: Church Architecture In The Digital Art Of Markus Brunetti

I recently came across reviews of an interesting summer art show out in Hong Kong, for those of my readers who find themselves there over the next few days. Through the end of this week, the Axel Vervoordt Gallery is showing “FACADES”, an exhibition of the work of German photographer and digital artist Markus Brunetti. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a photography show, featuring images of various famous churches – but looks can be very deceiving.

For more than a decade, Brunetti and partner Betty Schöner have traveled around Europe taking high-resolution photographs of every element of carefully selected churches in a wide variety of architectural styles. The structures are chosen for their overall interest and level of detail, and range from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque and beyond. But instead of just standing back far enough to try to take in the entire building, they photograph no more than a few square feet at more of every part of the building’s façade at a time. They then digitally stitch together these images, photoshopping out things like power lines or street lamps, digitally adjusting light levels and colors, and so on, in order to create a single, unified whole. The process can take months or even years to complete.

The end result is an image of an existing building which in a sense does not exist – or at least, does not exist in a way that we can perceive with the naked eye. It’s almost like looking at a very exact blueprint of a façade from an architect’s portfolio, except one with a far greater sense of color, decoration, and spatial depth than what even the most detailed line drawing could hope to achieve. And unlike a photograph, where light, the camera lens, and the human eye bring certain elements into focus and cause other elements to recede, every detail of these buildings is clearly delineated, in a way that was previously impossible for us to see before the advent of highly sophisticated imaging technology.

As the Gallery explains, “[n]ever before have these buildings been rendered in such a way. The fine mosaics, intricate carving, filigree metal work and stained glass are there for us to see, along with the cracks, deformations and decay. These are not simply photographs of façades; they are reconstructions of them, attending to every last idiosyncrasy.”

For those of us who are mere observers and appreciators of art, we can appreciate the enormous amount of work, skill, and carefully attention to detail that went into the creation of these images, which in a sense are more real than real. At the same time, I can imagine artists and historians pouring over these pictures with great pleasure, seeing things all at once which they could never hope to capture from even the best single photograph of one of these buildings, while architects and designers would surely love to be able to study these elements knowing that they are not hampered by this column detail being slightly out of focus or that bit of statuary being hidden by something else. In a way, Brunetti’s work reminds me of 2nd Period Roman wall painting, in which we are forced into experiencing a single perspective, even though we are given the illusion of everything existing in three dimensions at once.

The philosophy or message behind Brunetti’s images is one that I will leave to those who need to find esoteric meanings in things which, of themselves, are extremely interesting works of art. If you love architecture and appreciate technology, the technique used by Brunetti et al. is absolutely fascinating. I would love to see some of these images up close, for clearly these are pictures to get lost in.

FACADES is at the Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Hong Kong through August 26th.


The Dangerous Christian

After the horrific death of Father Jacques Hamel at the hands of Daesh supporters on Tuesday, a number of commentators pointed out that, theoretically, Father Hamel could become the first canonized saint to be martyred in Europe this century. Admittedly this is an extremely premature notion, since being named a saint by the Church can take quite some time, even centuries. I will not get into the technicalities involved in this process, which are best left to others more versed than I in such things. Yet Islamic terrorism aside, Christians have long been considered dangerous creatures by many in power, even in our supposedly more enlightened times.

Saint Jaume Hilari Barbal i Cosán (1898-1937) was born in the tiny village of Enviny in Catalonia, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Today, the village boasts a population of only 27 people, plus a lovely Romanesque village church where the very devout Barbal served as an altar boy and discerned his vocation. He left for the seminary at the age of 12 but, plagued by hearing problems, he eventually had to drop out and return home.

In his late teens Barbal was able to join the Christian Brothers, and became a teacher in the schools run by that Order. He was particularly concerned with making sure that the poor received the best education possible, and with instructing his students in the catechism in order to provide them with a good moral and spiritual foundation. Unfortunately, Barbal’s hearing continued to deteriorate, until he finally had to give up teaching altogether. He then became the gardener for his Order’s House of Formation in Tarragona, a city about an hour south of Barcelona by train.

In July 1936, Barbal was traveling back to his home town of Enviny in order to visit his family, when he was arrested and charged with the crime of being a member of a religious order; he was then put on a prison ship along with other members of religious orders, where he was held awaiting trial. Barbal admitted to being a member of the Christian Brothers, even though technically by that point he was only working as their gardener rather than as a teacher, and in January 1937 he was sentenced to death. As he was led to his execution, it is said that he commented to the young men who made up the firing squad, “To die for Christ, my young friends, is to live.”

The volleys from the squad did not kill him at first, as it is claimed that at least some of the men fired wide on purpose out of guilt. In any case the squad dropped their weapons and fled, so the head officer personally shot Barbal five times at close range, in order to finish the job. Barbal thus became the first of 97 members of the Christian Brothers alone (not including other religious orders or secular clergy) who were executed by leftists in Catalonia between 1936-1938. As an aside, this incident should give you some idea of what the so-called democracy that existed in Spain before the Civil War actually looked like.

Perhaps if there had been more parishioners at the morning Mass, Father Hamel would not have been killed. Perhaps if the young men in the firing squad had restrained their commanding officer, St. Jaume Barbal would not have been killed. In either case, their deaths provide us with an opportunity to reflect on how very fortunate we are to be able to worship anywhere at all.

The barbarism that led to the killing of both St. Jaume Barbal and Father Jacques Hamel seems completely out of place in a civilized society, and yet here we are. We are extremely complacent, in Western democracies, when it comes to our religious freedom, to the point that we often take it for granted that we can worship or live out our vocations without fear of violence or retribution. As the lives of both of these men show us, Christian persecution in the West is by no means a thing of the distant past. It is still dangerous, after nearly 2,000 years, to try to preach and live the Gospel.

New Church To Glow At Ground Zero

I must confess that, being neither a New Yorker nor Greek Orthodox, I was unaware that a significant, new church is under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Designed by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava, the St. Nicholas National Shrine will replace the now-demolished St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was destroyed on 9/11 when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed onto it. The hope is that the church will be completed in time for Easter of next year.

I encourage you to watch the video of what the completed building will be like, and to pay particular attention around the midway point to see what effect it will have at night on its somber surroundings. Thanks to the materials that will be used in its construction, St. Nicholas will actually glow from within, rather like alabaster does when you put a candle behind it. Moreover, the placement of the building within an elevated park will give it a far greater physical prominence in the neighborhood than it held prior to the previous church’s construction. As the parish website points out: “It is clear that the Church will be a lamp on a lampstand, and a city set on a hill (cf. Matthew 5:14,15).”

What struck me immediately was how wonderfully appropriate this house of God will be, in a place where so many cried out to Him in despair. There is a tremendous, symbolic poignancy in the juxtaposition of this small but dignified building, located just across from the massive memorial fountain-waterfall. This part of the 9/11 memorial is certainly a very powerful design, summing up the feelings of those who lost loved ones on that day. Yet it has always struck me as being dangerously nihilistic, like a well descending into nothingness.

Although not a part of the 9/11 memorial itself, St. Nicholas will nevertheless be a fitting companion to it. You will not be able to visit the waterfall and pools without seeing the church, looking as if it was perched solidly on the precipice of an abyss, as a refuge from what terrifies us. It will no doubt receive many visitors seeking somewhere to pray, but I think its greater significance over time will be as a reminder of the bulwark of Faith, particularly in times of trouble.