The cult of syncretic material – TLmagazine
In the oldest monotheistic religions, the use of gold was a constant. The value of the material was part of a message, which had to communicate the concepts of unity, power, charm and mystery. There is no church, mosque, synagogue or temple in which gold is not a decorative architectural element, or the protagonist used to create the ritual instruments, devotional icons, focal points of liturgy or ceremonial vestments.
However, modernity seems to have definitively marked the destiny of this material; with its rarity and redundancy, it is no longer used as much by artists, architects or their clients. And yet, gold has such deep-rooted traditions that it has not entirely disappeared from the landscape of places of worship. On the contrary, its decline has been retarded precisely because of the comforting weight of the material’s rhetoric. God is light, sun and fire, and gold is the color that best represents him: because he dominates the darkness and manifests an immediate and comprehensible ideal of beauty. The gold melts into the symbol, which in turn becomes the engine of the ritual.
Among the most striking examples ever devised by a designer is the work of textile designer Nanni Strada for the liturgical chasubles featured in a 2005 exhibition in Vicenza, Italy. The Belgian theologian Julien Ries wrote that “the symbol is the orientation and the principle of movement, the bearer of meaning and the unifying force of the invisible and the visible. It constitutes a laboratory of energy with inexhaustible virtuality”. So much so that for some time now, designers and artists have been using the ritual to imagine enterprising ways of rewriting codes, materials and relationships, while respecting the message.
Another story concerns the set of objects that accompany traditional Jewish rituals, which has been the subject of experimentation since the 1980s. The driving forces behind this thinking have not been individual designers, but rather institutions such as the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which has collaborated on editions with Achille Castiglioni and Peter Shire, and the Jewish Museum in New York, with exhibitions such as “Reinventing Ritual: contemporary art and design in Jewish life”, in 2009 .
This last initiative, organized by Daniel Blasco, had the task of shaking up a consolidated panorama, and in particular of reopening the debate on the formal manifestation of the spiritual encounter through an attitude aimed at absorbing contemporary themes. This notably includes recycling, gender politics and the relations between different ethnic communities, which can be found in the classic and always disturbing works of Lella Vignelli, JT Waldman and Martin Wilner. Rethinking ritual tools in this light offers design and art new possibilities for mediation; they are challenges to the pace of information.
Don Giuliano Zanchi, theologian and director of the Diocesan Museum of Bergamo, is clear on this point, affirming that “the linguistic horizon frequented today by the aesthetics of lightness is at least past. This is a fact that is even embarrassingly obvious. The glittering costume jewelery of church interiors and artefacts does not testify to a communication strategy but to an uncertain identity.
Today’s Catholicism needs axes that maintain it in an authentic alliance with man. Design creativity is certainly one of them. But the instinct of a creative world which is easily led to approach ecclesiastical matters with the bland attentions of a superior subject, inclined to mechanically apply pre-established criteria, disinclined to rephrase its questions in the presence of other intentions, to integrating the aesthetic expectations of different forms of experience does not bode well either. The symbolic experience that plays out in sacred space requires aesthetic solutions that cannot simply be replaced by automatically importing standards or patterns from a commercial catalog.
Recalling the validity of this approach, a precious object is housed in a splendid museum dedicated to sacred art, designed by Peter Zumthor in 2007. one-of-a-kind object,” explains Riccardo Falcinelli, color and visual communication specialist. “The body of Christ is cast in metal, while the head is made from a lapis lazuli portrait dating from the first century: therefore more than a thousand years old.
This is a typical choice for a goldsmith, much like setting a hard stone in a metal holder. But there is more: the Hellenistic head is a woman’s face, mounted not only on a male body but on that of Christ. For the anonymous medieval sculptor, the conflict of sexual genders, the contrast of materials and colors (golden body and blue face), is neither alienating nor far-fetched. What matters is the superposition of an old and precious color on a modern base, which gives all its meaning to its spirituality. In short, the face of Christ exerts a charm that makes sense, because it is dear, prestigious and distant.
This piece, commissioned by the Archbishop of Cologne in 1049, is known as the Herimann Cross. The female head in lapis lazuli placed in place of the face of Christ is an extreme and enigmatic testimony to the practice of reusing antiquities, already fashionable in the Middle Ages. Although the current state is not original, this work is like the other crosses of the time, but at the same time is original thanks to the choice to complete the body of Christ with a female head.
The face of Christ/the woman attests to an important fact: a truly surprising absence of scandal and conditioning for the time. The relationship between them and black is a recurring theme in Islamic iconography. Here too, yellow gold is synonymous with light, while the combination of green and black is considered sacred, found in alphabets and scriptures, and appears consistently in the mathematics of mosque shapes.
The Sufi mystic, psychotherapist, Quranist and artist Gabriele Mandel Khan has produced limitless literature on these themes, inspiring other artists like Jean Cocteau and Henri Matisse in Europe and the Middle East, as well as designers like Isao Hosoe and Lorenzo Palmeri, precisely because of their ability to retain the aesthetics and architecture of thought. When mathematician and theologian Pavel Florensky published his essay The Pillar and Foundation of Truth, in 1914, he wrote that “no formula can encompass all the fullness of life”; the mystery of the sacred is not the result of the impoverishment of vital experience, whether by ignorance or oppression, but more radically by the excess of life, with its multiple and contradictory manifestations.
Florensky continues: “The closer one is to God, the more distinct the contradictions.” Different monotheistic religions put the meaning of the sacred in specific objects, colors, shapes and times. From this perspective, thanks also to the logic of the arts, the sense of the sacred and the right exercise of reason go in the same direction. A bit like proving that the more reason we use, the greater the sense of the sacred.
The Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed, in exile in the United States, has found a provocative antidote in a work that is powerful because it is syncretic. “God is Design” is a video animation based on more than 3,000 black and white drawings of ornamental motifs and symbols from the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), as well as graphemes referring to the morphology of cells human. Frantic patterns and reconciled differences, but also acquired certainties that cancel each other out.