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October 15, 2002 - January 25, 2003 at Judson Gallery, Highland Park

by Shirle Gottlieb

“Study for a Baptism”, 2002,
oil on canvas, 48 x 48”.
Photo: Maimon Nasatir.

All images © John Nava,
2001-02, all right reserved.

“Weaving File for Communion of Saints
Tapestry One, North Wall,” 2001, digital file.

“Weaving File for Communion of Saints Tapestry
One, North Wall" (detail), 2001, cotton and viscose.

When John Nava, renowned California figurative painter, was selected unanimously to create the tapestries for The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, he began what was unarguably the most demanding, intense, and reverential assignment of his life.

Although the tapestries are divided into three distinct themes, two of them are the subject of the current exhibit. The more prominent one, The Communion of the Saints, consists of 25 tapestries depicting 135 realistic, larger-than-life saints and believers. The other, Baptism of the Lord, features the title image on a set of five enormous tapestries that were designed specifically for the baptismal area. All of them convey the appearance of fresco paintings.

At first it was thought that Nava would actually paint each one of the figures. They would then be mounted or applied to the cathedral walls. But when sound in the sanctuary was found to echo and reverberate, it was decided that thick tapestries would help solve or mediate the acoustic problem. With the help of Don Farnsworth (artist/printmaker/computer expert) and state-of-the-art technology, Nava created a digital software program that took his paintings, fed their images into complex weaving machines, and transformed them into tapestries.

What you see when you visit the gallery is a record of Nava's entire creative process--step by step--from his initial proposal to the Cathedral committee, to the final installation of the tapestries in the Cathedral. Beginning with his conceptual drawings, then moving through phases that include liturgical research, oil studies, digital images, and weaving tests, the task was gargantuan. The end results reflect Nava's virtuoso drawing and painting skills combined with the latest advanced technology. In a word, it is overwhelming.

Of special significance is the fact that the saints (assembled in groups of four to seven on each panel) depict a wide variety of nationalities, ages, and positions in life. And while all of the saints are identified by name, the children, teenagers, and street-people being blessed by them are anonymous individuals like those we meet every day. The image that commands the most attention is The Baptism of the Lord, depicting Christ kneeling in prayer at the feet of John the Baptist. Sensitive, poignant and spiritual, it is surrounded by five panels of swirling, stylized water patterned after Byzantine tiles in Ravenna.

Nava spent better than two years working non-stop on this project. He flew to the Flanders Tapestries Mill in Belgium as the deadline drew near. Once there, he directed the weaving of all 25 Communion of Saints panels plus The Baptism of The Lord and The Holy City. It was all completed in 45 days. What would have taken 20 years had it been hand-crafted in the past was completed in a matter of weeks through the application of modern technology.

Nava writes that he made a special effort to depict his figures realistically and "completely without irony." Stating that the best figurative painters of the 20th-century presented a "self-destructive, diseased and decadent" view of the world, he wanted his imagery to convey the opposite, "to be a message of hope, redemption and meaning." That he has done.

Since the "raison d'etre" for this project is the tapestries themselves, we visited The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to see the end result of Nava's long and devoted creative process. When standing in the sanctuary surrounded by the tapestries, it is impossible not to be impressed on three levels: the quiet majesty of the imagery, the technical skill of the artist, and the grace of the message. But one questins the subdued color scheme (a pale, muted palette of mauve, pink, beige, brown, ivory and earth tones) when the tapestries cry out for, even beg for color. It is stated that "the tapestries were designed to be compatible with the interior architectural design with regard to color, texture, light, etc.," and that Nava worked within the construct of this plan. But why is the decor of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels so low-key in the first place?

Throughout Europe and the Americas, cathedrals are radiant with the glow of stained glass windows, resplendent with gloriously hued tapestries, and vibrant from gilded altars and religious icons. We cannot help wondering why the joy and spirit of color was repressed, when the history of ‘The City of The Angels’ resonates Latino culture, which was brought to the New World by the colorful countries of Spain, Portugal and Italy.

“Weaving Test for South Wall Tapestry
Seven (Detail): St. Rose of Lima with St. Jerome
and St. Lucy", 2001, cotton and viscose.

“Head Study: St. Rose of
Lima", 2001, o/c, 14 x 17 1/2".

“Weaving Test (Detail): Face of St. Rose
of Lima", 2001, cotton and viscose.