Renaissance Art Flourishes at St. Thomas Aquinas in Charlotte, North Carolina

What to do with a 1990's parish church built on a budget in functionalist style?  Answer: install a gorgeous antique baldacchino (a ceremonial canopy) exquisitely hand-carved during a previous age of faith.  Art moves us because it is beautiful, because it means something.  It is such a treat to see Renaissance beauty like this on our side of the pond.  The beauty on display here is not just a matter of form -- it involves an emotional response from us.  Great works of religious art express emotion and acquaint us with holy feelings.  It is impossible to bestow too much praise on the fine priests of the church of St. Thomas Aquinas in Charlotte, North Carolina who dreamed up this project and brought it to a completion.  These priests know who they are (Frs. Winslow, Christian and Kauth -- great men!).  God bless and reward them for their good taste, artistic sensitivities, guts, grit, vision and determination to bring this great project of beautification to a completion.  Beauty like this plays a special role where widespread unbelief or invasive secularism make real religious growth and affiliation practically impossible.

The baldachin came from an old church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Holy Innocents in the Sheraden neighborhood) that was founded in 1900 and closed in 2016. In 2017 the diocese sold the baldacchino, pulpit, and altar rail to St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Charlotte where these items were installed. It is reassuring to know this great work of art was salvaged potentially from a dumpster. Point for the team. 

The baldachin carries great symbolism under its weight, supported by four pillars. It represents the arc that was over the holy of holies and it indicates through its carvings of sixteen saints the cloud of witnesses who are present at every Holy Mass. This particular baldachin is of enduring beauty, finely wrought of carven oak (a symbol of eternity) and originally installed in or around the year 1900. It stands thirty feet tall and covers 196 SF of floor space; a classic example of similar baldachinos that were built in that period of art and learning known as the Renaissance, conceived to promote reverence for the altar. 

The pinnacles point toward the infinite, effulgent in symbolism and saints. It is embellished with fretwork, carvings, and painting in silver and gold leaf, red, green, and aquamarine blue. The triangles formed by the gables represent the Blessed Trinity. In the fore-gable facing the congregation is a carven Lamb of God with a golden nimbus and banner of victory. The other gables contain similar carven images of the Pelican, a symbol of the Blessed Sacrament. Also, the Phoenix, a bird symbolic of the Resurrection and immortality. And the Dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. Flanking each image are Greek characters - monograms related to each one.

In each of the fenestrated arches are seven doves in descent, which symbolize the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are enumerated by Isaiah in the Scriptures (Isaiah 11:1-2) as seven spiritual gifts: Wisdom, Understanding, Council, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. 

Also depicted twelve popular saints, carven similarly in oak and clustered in groups of three. They rest on capitals of the Doric columns in niches formed by gables at the angles. Facing from the inside of the canopy are St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles. On the Gospel side of the altar is St. Agnes, a child martyr of purity, and St. John, the Beloved Apostle. On the Epistle side of the altar are St. Paul, apostle of the Gentiles, with St. Mark, the author of the first Gospel, and St. Luke, a gentile convert. On the right front of the canopy are grouped St. Catherine of Alexandra, of Egypt - the early cradle of the Christian Faith, St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into one language, and St. Matthew, the tax collector who converted. On the left are St. Gregory, patron of the sacred liturgy - depicted with a dove - symbol of divine wisdom, St. Ambrose, Doctor of the Church with symbols of eloquence and industry, and St. Augustine, with a symbol of his penitent heart.  

The saintly statues and stately pillars and arches display a web of heavenly images that bring to mind the image of a carpenter fitting part to part the creation of a work of lasting art. There is a tradition at work here, highlighted by Alberti's Ten Books of Architecture (De Re Aedificatoria), published in 1452. In this great work leading up to the High Renaissance, an underlying philosophy is described at work that sees architectural beauty (concinnitas) as the appropriate fitting of part to part. Indeed, this great work is an exquisite combination of harmony, a feast of engineering, artistry and imagination.    

The Renaissance was a time of exceptional and outstanding artistic production, particularly in Rome and Florence. During the Italian Renaissance the best exponents of sculpture, architecture, painting and design came together to create some of the most enduring works of art the world has ever seen. This included a painter known as Fra Angelico (1395-1455), in English known as the "angelic friar." Fra Angelico was an Italian Dominican of the early Renaissance who painted some of the most sublime religious images in the history of Christian art. The biographer Vasari describes him as having a "rare and perfect talent." This holy man of God was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and is entombed at the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in the heart of Rome.  

Three iconic paintings adorn the sanctuary behind the balacchino. They are reproductions framed in gold, copies of original creations by Fra Angelico. All three images are memorable works of art that reflect the personal interpretation, skill and style, that is distinctly Fra Angelico. Visible are his trademarks of expression and gesture seen in the characters depicted by the artist. The reason Fra Angelico's paintings have been so famous over the centuries is because they resonate with the audience through their bearing and expression, coming nearer to the truth than similar works done by other artists. The three paintings are, in the middle, the Virgin and Child with Sts. Dominic and St. Thomas Aquinas (painted between 1418-1436 in Fiesole, near Florence). On the left is the Entombment (painted between 1436-1445) at San Marco in Florence and on the right the Noli Me Tangere (painted between 1436-1445) also done at San Marco in Florence. The paintings are the perfect juxtaposition and an entire volume could be written on their deep meanings and spiritual significance. The central paining was installed in 2013 and the other two in 2016.     

Suspended from the ceiling is another work of art that reflects the Renaissance genius. This is a unique and rare sight in this part of the world, a large crucifix suspended from the ceiling known as a "rood cross." This is a triumphal cross above the entrance to the chancel, that is massive and emblematic, a common sight in late medieval and Renaissance churches in some places. The crucifix which had been previously in the sanctuary was embellished with paint, beautiful stenciling and gold leaf in Renaissance style and placed here in 2018. It reminds one of the notes of the music rising to Christ in the heavens; as even the art of music is essentially architectural.

Architectural beauty gives form and coherence to our states of mind. Here the unstable dissonance of a modern church built in 1995 was given new life with genuine art that meanwhile presents definite objects of emotion to the beholder. This cooperates with human emotions which are founded on thoughts that bound from objects perceived. In addition, it is not enough to have just beautiful art, but also a functional liturgical space where the divine mysteries unfold in temple worship. The baldacchino represents a harmony of the vertical and the horizontal movements of the human spirit, of transcendence and immanence, detachment and appreciation, supernature and nature, divine and human. All of this supports a platform for more beautiful liturgy. The faithful have the right to receive the word of faith and the liturgical expression of the Church not in a mutilated, falsified or diminished form, but whole and entire, in all its beauty, rigor and vigor.  

Interestingly, the addition of the baldacchino necessitated a new substructure plan of the sanctuary, with proper spacing and layout that could hold the additional weight. Like the circular dome of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice that had to meet an octagonal base, the baldacchino was able to rest upon a newly designed and built floor with proper footings in place. 

The ingenious pairing of the canopy, cross, paintings and floor plan explain why we feel at home with this place of beauty and elevated by it, the perfect setting for classical liturgy, the Gregorian Rite, to worship in the manner of our ancestors.  Every Sunday the EF is celebrated here with great reverence and musical solemnity, a refuge for many and an oasis of true beauty, a genuine spiritual home.

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