Imaging Church – John Nava’s Tapestries
The images created by a people offer a peek into the mind and heart of the culture from which those images spring. Accordingly, early images of Jesus and the saints appear with the clothing and technology of the late Roman Empire. Artists of later years dressed their subjects in the clothing of their own day. Their images reflected the values of their community. Social class, esteemed occupations, ways of making a living, styles of clothing, relationships between men and women, and many more facets of human life are all reflected in images of the heroes of the day.
The Communion of Saints in Our Time
Artist John Nava, in creating tapestries to adorn the walls of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California, joins a long line of men and women who have used their artistic vision to portray realities that otherwise remain unseen. Nava’s Communion of Saints collection is the largest grouping of tapestries hanging in a Catholic church in the United States. A total of 25 tapestries, with images of 135 men, women and children (some recognized as saints, others as blessed, and others representing the anonymous holy people among us) hang along opposite walls of the body of the church (the nave). The individuals pictured on the tapestries are not grouped by historic age but rather are mixed all together, representing the community of faithful disciples all living together in Christ and no longer divided by time, space, or social distinctions. They look like ordinary people, each dressed in the clothing of his or her own time. All face forwards, towards the altar, leading the eye to the focal point of the Cathedral. The names of most are woven into the fabric beneath their image, making it much easier to recognize those whose images are not often seen.
When the Litany of the Saints is sung or prayed, the way they are seen on the tapestries, I suspect, is the way they actually all join us in worship and celebration of the wonders our God has done and is doing. When liturgy is celebrated in the Cathedral, the saints are there too, because it is the entire Church that joins to praise our God as we celebrate our liturgies.
Nava also created a set of five tapestries for the baptistry and seven to hang behind the altar. The tapestries in the baptistry have the Baptism of Jesus as their theme. Rather than having crowds of people, however, the only figures are John the Baptist and Jesus kneeling in front of his cousin. Above them and around them are patterns dating from the 11th century and the Byzantine era, connecting past artistic images with the present.
The Altar tapestries offer a map of Los Angeles that converges with a circular “Cosmati”pattern normally associated with the divine in art.
Nava has said he hopes in future centuries, people will see these tapestries and recognize that “These people were seen as whole, strong humans, full of hope.” An image of the Church — The Communion of Saints.
For a description of the tapestries and the way they were created, please visit the official website of the Cathedral. Information about the tapestries is found on the menu under the heading Art, subheading Tapestries. Links at the top of the tapestries page open to pictures of the works themselves that can be enlarged for better viewing. Of course, for the best experience, visit the Cathedral when you get to Los Angeles! It’s well worth the time.