Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Madonna della Strada- on the way to Art Deco

"Madonna of the Way." I think this reminds us well that Christian living is a ceaseless journey. Maybe this also suggests to us the nature of healthy Marian Theology- it's going toward Christ. The focus belongs on Him (read: overt Marian theology creeps me out). I happened upon an article in the online Loyola Magazine that exemplifies what I believe is this true spirit of Catholic journey, inquiry, and progress (see link below). It speaks of the Cassaretto family. To summarize: A bright, young Frank Cassaretto attends Northwestern in the late-1920's. He believes that science and religion are not only compatible but inseparable (remarkably progressive considering this is decades before "Fides et Ratio!") When his chemistry professor suggested that by class's end there would be no room for God Frank left and headed straight down to Loyola. His family hasn't left since- and they've made quite the name for themselves it seems. This was all very interesting to me for several reasons: I've been having quite a few discussions about the apparent contradictions between faith and science lately; I think it's refreshing that there are people who will stand up and proudly say they found faith at a Jesuit school; and...I think the Cassaretto's helped build a damned good chapel! http://www.luc.edu/loyolamagazine/summer07/FamilyTies.html

Despite the raging Depression Professor Cassaretto helped raised money and his wife even pitched in the bridge club winnings. These contributions and many others from generous and dedicated women and men of faith culminated in the 1938 completion and 1939 dedication Loyola-Chicago's "Madonna della Strada" chapel- campus chapel to this day.

Madonna della Strada, designed by Chicago architect Andrew Rebori, stands as one of the finest examples of Art Deco in Catholic Chicagoland- at least among churches. (Next door, Mundelein Hall features some sculpted angels flanking the doorway that look like they came straight off the Chrysler Building!) However, it has been a long time in the making. Though the structure was remarkably completed in the midst of the Great Depression it wasn't until 1948 that the interior walls could even be plastered. In truth, the interior was never quite completed- until now. An interior renovation/completion project which began in 2004 has nearly ended. In January I had the privilege of experiencing this new space. My friends were initially struck by the relative simplicity of the room- which I expected. Many people display a predilection for the 'busy' decorative scheme, a kind of 'gothic' prejudice in Church design. This is no such animal. But neither is it the barren, so-called 'neo-iconoclasm' that so many people fear in churches today. (It's Art Deco!) Where there are images, and there are plenty, they are in rich and vivid color, stylized figures with clean lines, clearly respecting the Art Deco theme. It is a bright sanctuary- the walls are white and ample natural light flows in through a number of windows. This clarity only heightens the impact of the rich iconic material. The fresco behind the altar as well as the Stations of the Cross, both with gold-leaf, are the work of Turkish-born iconographer Meltem Aktas.

The liturgical furnishings are absolutely stunning. The altar, ambo, and decorative railing, fashioned out of iron and marble, form an elegant and cohesive visual statement. I especially like the floor in Madonna della Strada. The picture above shows what's going on here. Gray tile from a 1982 renovation was removed and replaced with Italian marble of several varieties. The marble is arranged such that it forms inlaid sleek-lined designs which add remarkable richness to the room. The floor patterns in the main aisle point processionally from the baptismal font to the altar- symbolic of our Christian journey, and the name of the chapel itself.
One other thing that many people notice straightaway are the chairs. This church has no pews...which seems to be an increasing trend in Churches today. Personally, I think pews are a bit overrated- "medieval torture devices" someone cynically called them once. But this is a bit anachronistic! Pews are a relatively new and Protestant innovation appearing initially around Reformation times. (This doesn't make them bad, just the discomfort)! My saintly LCMS neighbors once told me, rather shocked, that the European cathedral they visited had not a single pew- all wicker chairs! I chuckled discretely in accord with my ethnocentrism. The fact didn't surprise me. Church chairs in the old world are as much a Catholic tradition as booze. So, I suppose, the seating arrangement in Madonna della Strada comes with good precedent.

Also a big part of the Catholic tradition, at least nominally...in some places...is music. Madonna della Strada, with its plaster walls, barrel-vaulted ceiling, and polished marble floor has the wettest acoustic I've ever encountered in a church of its size (which is relatively small, surprisingly). It seems the S.J. powers-that-be spared no expense in this renovation. I was, however, a little skeptical when it came to the music part, only because the Jesuits haven't been known for their love of the organ in the last few decades. I was, accordingly, delighted to find that they've commissioned an instrument for Madonna della Strada which will make a sonic statement rivaling the room's visual eloquence in excellence. This coming summer Goulding & Wood of Indianapolis will install its Opus 47- a 3-manual, 70-rank instrument which takes its tonal inspiration straight out of 19th-century France. They have specifications on their website: http://www.gouldingandwood.com/main.htm. This will sound positively brilliant- and be worth every dime of the mint it surely cost. I think this is cause for a return visit! The installation of the organ will mark the last phase of the renovation. If Mr. Cassaretto were alive, I think he'd be happy to see the Chapel in its full splendor. And the sound of that instrument...I think it could bring anyone to God, chemists at Northwestern included.

This chapel has always been the preeminent visual reminder of God's presence at Loyola. Now, after a just renovation long deserved, Madonna della Strada can again fulfill its full purpose- It is grand house of God and a fitting sanctuary for his people. See their website for more: http://www.luc.edu/loyolamagazine/fall07/Feat_MadonnaDellaStr.html

1 comment:

kcsteinfels said...

CORRECTION - the mural of the Jesuit Saints and the Stations of the Cross in Madonna Della Strada are the work of Melville P. Steinfels, an American-born artist.

Please correct.