Dominic and Clare: Two Great Saints, Two Great Activities

With the feast of St. Dominic tomorrow, and that of St. Clare of Assisi coming up this Saturday, I wanted to share two bits of news related to both, which hopefully the reader will find interesting.

The first involves a Solemn Mass which will be held at St. Dominic’s Church here in DC, at 7pm tomorrow evening. After Mass there will be the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. Dominic, followed by a reception which, I am assured by the parish, will be non-solemn. St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, who, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1180-1226), helped to usher in a significant period of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic growth in the Church during the Middle Ages, and his spiritual descendants carry on that work today.

If you’ve never been to St. Dominic’s, you’ve probably seen its striking bell tower from the 395 expressway going to or from Capitol Hill. It points skyward amidst the bland, boxy, brutalist concrete structures that were built in the middle of the previous century, when demolition of historic structures in the name of “progress” was all the rage in urban centers. St. Dominic’s is one of the few architectural survivors from before that supposedly enlightened movement destroyed the neighborhood around it, which similarly ruined places like Penn Station in New York and Boston’s City Hall. And what a magnificent survival it is, as you can see here:

Esgles

SantDom

Although I’m unaware of any evidence that he ever met her, another contemporary of St. Dominic was St. Francis’ dear friend St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), whose life the church commemorates on Saturday, August 11th. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, more commonly known as the Poor Clares, a few years after the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Whereas the former concentrated largely on preaching and education, and the latter on caring for the poor and outcast, the Poor Clares are a contemplative order, living in monastic community and spending their days in lives of prayer and meditation.

In 1326, the first Poor Clares monastery was founded in Pedralbes, then a small village in the foothills of the mountains that surround Barcelona, by King Jaume II for his 4th and final wife, Queen Elisenda de Montcada. She retired there after his death, and over the years the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes grew in size and beauty to eventually become designated as a National Monument of Spain. It’s a place that has been important in the life of my mother’s side of the family for many generations.

One of the great treasures of the monastery is the Chapel of St. Michael, a cell located in the beautiful, triple-story Gothic cloister (the only one in Europe, BTW.) It is completely covered with frescoes dating from 1346, executed by an artist named Ferrer Bassa (1285-1348). Little is known of his life or training, but the frescoes are highly significant to art history as evidence of early Italian Renaissance art making its way to the Iberian Peninsula. Bassa’s work shows that he was familiar with the work of contemporary Italian artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini, and others, and may have studied in Siena. This art would have been seen as cutting-edge design at the time of its execution in Barcelona, since there was nothing else like it outside of Tuscany.

Now, after a multi-year, complex conservation and restoration effort, the chapel has been brought back to as near as possible what it looked like when it was first completed in the mid-14th century. The decorative program features a number of saints – including St. Francis and St. Clare, naturally – as well as scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Because the chapel was originally a nun’s cell, it’s not possible to get a good sweeping vista of the decoration, but this gives you some idea of the impression that you get when you step inside from the cloister:

Capella

The significance of the spread of this kind of art outside Tuscany cannot be overestimated. Whereas in earlier Catalan art, faces were often stoic and expressionless, Bassa introduced his Catalan viewers to a new and unprecedented kind of realism, drawn from the observation of nature and real life, in which we can more easily empathize with the figures depicted in the scenes. Here, for example, we see expressions of anxiety, sorrow, and suffering in the faces of the women who have been witnessing the torture and death of Jesus:

Mullers

Whether you find yourself in Barcelona this weekend for the feast of St. Clare, or indeed at any other time, if you are interested in art history, magnificent architecture, and/or Christian spirituality, make sure to make a pilgrimage to Pedralbes. There are still a few Poor Clare nuns left, although sadly like many religious orders in Spain, they have been dying off for quite awhile now, and personally I’m worried that the place, which is mostly run by the city as a museum at this point, is going to get turned into some god-awful hotel and conference center or something, so best to go see it now while you can. It’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, being in a mostly residential neighborhood, but I think you’ll find the beauty and indeed the peacefulness of the place well-worth the trip.

Really, REALLY Bad Art Restoration

If you thought that infamous art “restoration” in Spain was bad, wait until you see this one.  This time, the victim is not a small church in active use, where one wonders why no one noticed what the woman was up to for so long, but rather a large, semi-abandoned church in Russia, or rather a part of Russia which was once part of Germany.  If there is to be a prize for horrible conservation this year, surely this is to be the undisputed winner.

People often forget that Germany, like Italy, Spain, etc., didn’t always exist in the form we know it today.  In fact one can argue that “Germany” didn’t even exist until 1871, when most of the German states united into a single confederation.  As a result of subsequent wars, treaties, invasions, and so forth, some parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were once considered “Germany”, now belong to other states.

One example of this is the Baltic port city of Kalingrad, formerly known as Königsberg, which today is part of Russia.  I won’t go into all of the historical back-and-forth of who owned it and when, but suffice to say that since its founding in the Middle Ages, it was part of Germanic territory for a long time, and boasted a substantial German population.  Most of that population was forcibly removed by the Soviets after World War II, and the city was repopulated with Russians.

Following the collapse of communism and the explosive growth of the Russian Orthodox church over the past twenty years, we have seen a great deal of church restoration and new construction to meet the needs of Russian Christians.  This is of course great news for Christianity.  Unfortunately, some avoidable cultural losses are being suffered by the local populations as a result.

A report yesterday in The Art Newspaper indicates that the 14th-century church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, near Kalingrad, has now lost almost all of its medieval frescoes.  Originally a Catholic church built by the local German population, after the Reformation the building was taken over by the Protestants, who whitewashed over all of the frescoes.  The frescoes were subsequently re-discovered in the last century and revealed, but they were severely damaged during bombing in World War II.  When the Soviets took over, the church was converted into a museum and storage depo, which obviously didn’t help with what was left.

In 2010, the building was given to the Russian Orthodox church, to meet their growing need for more worship spaces.  Unfortunately, according to art experts, the remaining frescoes in St. Catherine’s are now all but gone.  They have been covered over with some cement-like covering which, unlike the whitewash slathered on centuries earlier by the Protestants, cannot be removed.  With just 2-3% of the wall art remaining, conservation is possible, but the rest is lost to history.

In the case of St. Catherine’s, we are dealing with a slightly different situation to that in Spain.  Whereas the suffering Christ in the latter church was relatively new and could be easily restored, here the paintings were so far gone as to be little more than fragments.  Thus, the wall paintings here, beautiful though they once were, never had a chance of returning to that relatively pristine state they enjoyed before the ravages of World War II.

That being said, those who understand culture and history appreciate that these things come with certain requirements.  It’s certainly understandable why the local Orthodox diocese, when it took over the building, would want to work on making it a place where religious services could be held again.  Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that preservation of objects from the past, while not essential to the practice of Christianity, is something that should be attempted whenever possible.

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century) Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century)
Rodniki (Arnau), Russia