Church of the Sacred Art



'Church of the sacred art' Art Monthly March 77: 34 (1995)

If Jesus were a carpenter today, would he have a mobile phone? The comic implications of this possibility tell of the divide that separates the ancient passions of material craft from the today’s anaesthetised networks. The church remains one of the few places where a telephone cannot be found. Even to atheists, the presence an overheard projector or an amplifier in the still space of worship can seem sacrilegious.

Two recent ecclesiastical commissions suggest otherwise. Different orders of  the Sacred Heart have initiated architectural works in collaboration with artists and practitioners of craft: a chapel at Cabrini Hospital (Malvern) and a holographic shrine for St Brigid’s Church (Coogee). Technology figures in both as a contemporary response to traditional religious ideas.

The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was founded by the Italian nun Frances Cabrini. Cabrini was the first American saint: she was canonised in 1946 for her deeds, not her visions. In 1958 Archbishop Mannix invited her order to Melbourne and they established Cabrini hospital.

The commission consists of seven stained glass windows (David Wright); tabernacle, cabinet of sacred oils, sanctuary lamp and holy water bowls (Helge Larsen, Darani Lewers and their daughter Pia); altar and chairs (Leon Sadubin); and the chapel itself (Andrew Raptopolous from architecture firm Bates, Smart and McCutcheon). One would normally assume that the craft works were added to ornament a space determined by the architect, but in many cases the design was altered to accommodate the specially made objects (for example, the angle of window sills was changed to suit the stained glass).

The craft team had previously worked together on St James church in Sydney, where Wright was responsible for a window representing creation. This time, he is responsible for the other side of the equation.

The Cabrini order determined that Unity in Diversity was the theme for the commission. The symbol of the tree was chosen to manifest this duality: the multiplicity of branches is united by a common trunk. The craft team also worked with the tree’s cycle of growth and decay as a way of offering consolation for sickness and death. This symbol is reflected in the curved steel sheets around the sanctuary lamp (layers of bark), the tabernacle engravings and the forest–glowing with metallic lustre - that embeds the crucified Christ in the main window above the altar.

Artistically, this positive emphasis may suit a therapeutically oriented religion, but it lacks the dialectical energy that engages with the deeper sorrows and anxieties of existence. I acknowledge that aesthetic judgments may seem indulgent in a place of belief and care, but one shouldn’t take for granted that sickness is best sealed off from life. Thankfully Wright’s interpolation of  a `journey’ theme  resurrects the idea of finality. It is within this narrative that a very strange transformation occurs: medical technology becomes religious artefact.

Wright’s glass work is organic. He uses the lead as a line in which to enclose his figures, forming womb-like sacs of fingers and toes. In the surgery scene, the lead outlines pipes, hands and roots that connect the patient to life support systems (Wright’s earlier commission was at the coronary unit, Austin Hospital). One puzzling feature is the bright red blip showing on the  monitor. In a church context, this can be read as a high-tech equivalent of the eternal flame. At the same time, the attitude of the suffering patient surrounded by a caring circle of humanity presents a modern allegory of the crucifixion scene. There seems a continuity here with Renaissance depictions of the crucifixion, such as Bellini’s Agony in the Garden, in which angels position goblets to catch the blood of Christ as he hangs from the cross.

The rationale for the Cabrini commission grants art the power to give  technology a human face. In the chapel brochure, Wright states: `The cleverer we become the harder we must work at our creativity and spirituality so that we are not alienated by our own technology.’ The modern hospital lives and breathes this technology: even the corridors feel like aircraft cabins, sealed within a brightly sanitised humming machine. And this machine does not stop at the chapel - the closed circuit television camera tracks a special sensor worn by the priest when he celebrates mass - but it is given some purpose as a santum of life force.

The commission at St Brigid’s Church is more inspirational than therapeutic. This church is run by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (the one founded in France by Jules Chevalier) and is designed as a one-tenth scale version of Westminster Cathedral. Fr Peter Carroll approached the renowned holographer Paula Dawson last year with idea that: `Technology can be expressed artistically and it transports us to a world of awe - this is the environment of mystery which is synonymous with the mission of the church.’

The commissioned shrine will be a velvet-lined domed structure admitting one person at a time to enter and gaze at the holographic spectacle. Each solitary guest will see a dazzling scene that includes frangipani flowers set among reproductions of the trefoil marble decorations inside the church. Dawson’s guiding idea is taken from the prayers of Carroll’s order: `May the light of your Father’s love shine in us as it did in your heart, a light that the darkness could not overcome.’

One of the concerns with this commission is that the reflective role of the church may be lost in the race for high technology. But technology is not necessarily an enemy of religion. The shrine’s architect, Richard Johnson (Denton, Corker Marshall), claims that traditionally the church has been used as a vehicle for `cutting-edge’ fine art. Nowadays if a patron of the new exists, it is more likely to be the university than the church - MIT rather than the Vatican. Nonetheless, there remains a place where technology need not be so anxious to demonstrate its powers, but simply shine forth.

If you believe, with Nietzsche, that it was the technological impulse which inspired the death of god,  you might think with Dawson and the Cabrini craft team that it sometimes needs to revive the ghost - `only as an aesthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity.’