340 square yards of tapestries hang on the nave walls of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles CA depicting 135 officially declared Saints and Blesseds from around the world in 25 groupings, women and men of all ages, races, occupations, and vocations, from the first to the 20th century. Beginning in 1999, the artist John Nava gathered available photographic likenesses of individuals like John XXIII and Mother Teresa. And where such likenesses were not available, he studied portrait paintings and death mask images to compose as near a likeness as possible of the other figures. And for the rest he sought the assistance of a movie casting agent and found live models who bore the likeness of known saints. Then he set out to portray these giants and heroes of our faith as though they were people we can encounter today. It took him 20 grueling months to design the project in his studio while simultaneously conducting test trials and developing palettes and digital techniques with partners at a weaving mill in Belgium to eventually produce the final tapestries.
I have seen the tapestries in person in 2014 and they are breathtaking. The panels vary in length from 14 to 21 feet and are 7 feet wide. Photos on the internet don’t do them justice. Along with the massive scale, the realistic 3D rendering, the blending of vibrant colors, and the use of a stone textured pattern for the background were just as impressive. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time sightseeing since a wedding was about to begin. But I loved that the faces on the tapestries were very expressive, inviting the observer to direct their attention to the great cross window in the sanctuary above the altar of sacrifice. In a way, that is just what these women and men of heroic virtue and stature do. They invite us to gaze upon Jesus.
One of the express decisions of the artist was that the saints immortalized in his work would look like ordinary people, people we can encounter today. Other popular representations of the saints in paintings or sculpture tend to highlight more ethereal qualities. Their eyes are frequently trained upwards, their heads tilted in a holy angle, their lips frozen in that Mona Lisa partial smile, their faces radiant with confidence and joy. It is clear they have chosen to ignore us who are gawking at them. It appears they have long been and forever transported somewhere far, far away beyond our reach.
But the holy women and men portrayed in John Nava’s tapestries at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels have a warmth that invites us to glimpse a reality we do not yet possess. Soon but not yet. Although they loom large over us, they have features we can identify with. And while we believe they are assured seats of honor at the wedding banquet of the Lamb, they seem to draw us in as if to tell us we too have a place with them. The guest list is not yet final. The banquet hall doors are not yet shut.
I imagine every parent who cradles their newborn infant in their arms will try to find hints of themselves. This new person who might bear a passing resemblance—at this point it might be difficult to tell, this new person does carry their genetic material, and potentially also the best of themselves, their values, their faith, and their hopes for the future. They may harbor some fear of the unknown, but most parents will focus on the positive. They convince themselves this child is destined for greatness. This child will stand taller, work harder, exude more confidence, accomplish greater things, travel farther, and do more amazing things than they can ever imagine. This child represents their finest contribution to the ultimate betterment of human civilization. Too much?
Now we have an inkling of what God experiences when he looks at us, his awesome handiwork created in his own image and likeness, destined for greatness, his finest contribution to the ultimate betterment of human civilization and the entire created universe. Don’t be looking at your feet. It hasn’t been all bad. There are quite a number of bright spots. But I’m guessing our all-knowing and merciful God knew that all along, probably agonizing quite a bit whether the benefits ultimately outweigh the liabilities. But just because God hasn’t shared every detail of his plan with us doesn’t mean he hasn’t figured it all out already. If any parent is able to bring about the greatest good for their own child by just desiring it, how much more can our all-knowing and merciful God accomplish who, from nothing but the sheer power of his will, brought into being, continues to sustain in being, and brings to perfection all that he has made?
All this takes us back to those beautiful tapestries that hang on the nave walls of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. Scattered among the 135 officially declared Saints and Blesseds are 12 untitled figures including children who represent the many anonymous holy people in our midst. We know that the guest list is not yet final, and the banquet hall doors are not yet shut. Maybe your likeness or that of someone you know is already rendered in that work of art. The broader truth is that God created each of us to be with him for all eternity to enjoy fellowship with himself and all the blessed in heaven. The guarantee God gives us is that he desires our greatest good and that we possess every potential to attain that good. All God asks of us is that we desire it just as much, and that we will work with him to bring it about.
There are passages in sacred scripture, in the prolific and scholarly writings of countless women and men of great learning, holiness, and moral standing, in ethical codes of every major religion and school of philosophy, in newspaper and magazine advice columns and in the spoken and lived wisdom of our own immediate ancestors that point to us some tried and proven way to a life of spiritual fulfillment, intellectual prominence, material success, or enduring remembrance. We might claim an edge in the struggle with God’s own Son sharing with us every possible advantage and inside information. But we cannot discount that God ultimately desires the best outcome for every one of his daughters and sons. It goes without saying there are many paths that lead to God and the eternal banquet in heaven. We trust a reliable source and we know a sure path. Why risk going somewhere else?
The artist John Nava explains on the Cathedral website that “the message of the [Communion of Saints tapestries] and the message of the Church … is a message of hope, redemption, and meaning. He would like people viewing the tapestries to see the humanity of these figures and feel a sense of connection to them.” He invites us to see in ourselves and in one another what God sees in these holy women and men, these giants and heroes of our faith, the best of his handiwork and the peak potential for the rest of us who are still on our way to God and that glorious destiny in the world yet to come.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020