Weaving the divine

Artist John Nava tells stories of faith in L.A. cathedral tapestries

Some of John Nava’s “The Communion of Saints” tapestries in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. (Photo/Victor Alemán)

Originally, John Nava’s tapestries for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles were commissioned to enhance the musical quality and acoustics of the vast space. Engaging with this ancient technique, however, so significant in the history of church décor, Nava breathed new life into an old and almost forgotten art form.

In early April of 2002, prior to final weaving of the baptistery tapestries group, this full-scale portion of the central part of “The Baptism of the Lord” was tested for position and size in the cathedral by artist John Nava using a scissor lift. (image from Angelus)

Technology met tradition, and meaning returned to media in the extraordinary series of 37 tapestries produced from 1999 to 2002. Twenty-five draperies line the walls with 135 Catholic saints; five panels surmount the baptismal font and the seven above the altar lead the faithful to the holy city, the celestial dwelling.

As a medium, tapestry requires that every part of the surface be decorated: blank space is anathema to the nature of the technique. Medieval weavers used a “millefleur” effect (floral patterns) or the patron’s coat-of-arms or some other figurative device to fill the space around the scene.

Nava gave his backdrops an interwoven pattern of history, using images from the excavations of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem from the time of Christ along with neighborhood rocks, paper, chipped paint and rust to create a subdued yet textured surface.

The chalky shade of ancient limestone, embellished with spatters of faded paint, patina and print complements the smooth stone walls, but adds the venerability of age and the layers of living history through the myriad materials. The saints figured on them process from the past, from the limestone blocks of the Holy Land, away from the iron weapons of their martyrdoms through the colorful medieval churches toward Christ.

Nava’s nod to the Old World is also evident in the altar tapestry where he used a map of Los Angeles superimposed by cosmatesque circles. This technique using different stones from different countries cut into geometric shapes was invented by the Roman Cosmati family in the 12th century. The myriad colors arranged in circles signified the universal Church, spread over many nations, but united in Christ. Nava updated this ancient symbol for the culminating point of the cathedral.

This early test sample of woven faces shows how electronic files that appeared to have flesh tones on the computer screen resulted in unpredictable tones when woven. The checkered cloth is a sample color palette from Belgium. (image from Angelus)

The tapestries of Our Lady of the Angels revived that tradition of collaboration when John Nava contacted the Flanders Tapestry company near Bruges. Two brothers, Roland and Christian de Keukelara, had developed a method of using Jacquard loom technology to read digital files.

The skill of Donald Farnsworth digitized Nava’s images to be sent to the de Keukelara brothers for weaving. Using a palette of 240 hand-selected colors, the tapestries were woven at about 65 shots per centimeter. Raphael’s Sistine tapestries, by contrast, were woven at seven warps per centimeter, then considered the finest weaving of the day.

John Nava’s wool and viscose tapestries may not boast the opulent palette of silk and gilt threads, but the subdued variety and richness speak to an age no longer dazzled by brocades. His “fantastic inventions” are those of the Lord, the great variety of faces that form the rhythmic pattern of 135 saints. Representing every age, every color, every size, Nava’s procession of holy men and women illustrates the universal Church in all its diverse glory.

Full story at Angelus.

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  1. I am, normally speaking, loathe to criticize an artist, one who is, most probably, sincere in his efforts to enhance a temple space. But, c’mon…..the tapestries, to me, just are not a “fit” for that space, or any Cathedral.

    Stylistically, conceptually, they are a bust….Style-wise, the quasi realism akin to the front cover of “The Watchtower.” (Jehovah Witness rag). a big NO..

    Conceptually vague: The looking off into the distance, presumable at GOD, all piously with folded hands also is just odd. The Chinese in a “coolie” hat? and other genuflections to PC “inclusiveness” also just give a self conscious overlay to the whole thing. When we go to the “House of God” to worship in the “beauty of holiness” we do well…

    • The word “coolie” is a derogatory, pejorative, and a racial slur–such as in our North American culture–in reference to the people from Asia. The fact that you, Jay, so unabashedly used it discounts and discredits whatever point you are trying to make here.

  2. to present a semblance, at least, of an otherworldliness, as opposed to “down the street.” The Mahony stamp on this is also just too palpable, and that is also, for me, troubling.

  3. Computer printed? NO thanks.

  4. helen wheels says:

    de gustibus, non est disputandem

    I like ’em

  5. They’re okay, not magnificent. I don’t know why the archdiocesan newspaper is running a story about them all these many years after they were made and installed in the Taj Mahoney.

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