They’re among the world’s most famous works of art, and it would take an international trip to see them all.
But through the illusion of painting, costumes, makeup and lighting--and the willingness of some 40 people to hold perfectly still--works by the likes of Da Vinci, Vermeer, Michelangelo and Raphael will be in one place on the Palos Verdes Peninsula this weekend and next.
The fourth annual Pageant of Our Lord, which opens tonight at the Rolling Hills Covenant Church, uses church members as live models to recreate 10 famous paintings or sculptures that touch on events in the life of Jesus Christ.
Between artworks, costumed actors portraying Lazarus--the man Jesus raised from the dead--and his sisters, Mary and Martha, recount their memories of Jesus. A 34-piece orchestra and a 120-voice choir provide a rich musical background, drawing extensively on Handel’s “Messiah” but also including “Silent Night” and pieces especially composed for this year’s pageant.
“We do this as our unique way of presenting Easter,” said David Halverson, minister of worship, music and drama at the church. “We started it because we thought it might attract people, and it did.”
The church, which has a 1,100-seat sanctuary, expects 6,000 people to see the pageant during its seven performances. It is open to everyone, not just church members.
Though the artworks vary from year to year, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is one of the most popular, according to Halverson and the pageant’s artistic director, Rassie Harper. And one of the most spectacular is Thomas DeKeyser’s “Crucifixion,” in which three men are suspended 12 feet above the floor. This work comes complete with a crashing thunder-and-lightning effect.
Harper, a retired Gardena firefighter, said the pageant is a form of worship for the volunteer church members who put it on. “It is a wonderful way to use the talent God gave me and in turn, giving glory to Him, a way of giving thanks,” he said.
Karen Bostelaar, who lives on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, has portrayed Mary for the last two years in the “Pieta,” the serene marble sculpture by Michelangelo of the crucified Jesus and his mother. “Last year during the performance, I got such an overwhelming feeling of sadness that I started to cry,” she said. “I know how Mary must have felt.”
Bostelaar said being in the pageant again this year was very important to her after a diagnosis of breast cancer last August, followed by a mastectomy and chemotherapy. “I thought that it might be the last year,” she said, adding with a smile that everything “looks good” now.
If the pageant is a deepening of faith for the church members who paint the artworks, model, work backstage and provide the music, getting the whole thing ready for the public can have its light moments.
During a rehearsal this week, one of the disciples wore a Hobie sweat shirt, and the Prodigal Son sported a blue T-shirt that proclaimed Action Tools. And the “Crucifixion” painting was missing a key member: Jesus. It seems that the man portraying him was outside and missed his cue.
Carl Ibscher of Lawndale, who plays Nicodemus in the reproduction of a 16th-Century bronze plaque, recalls that when a painting of Christ calming the waters was portrayed last year, one of the men who played a disciple wore a skipper’s hat.
The 55-year-old Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach was the model for this pageant, which strives to make every live work look identical to the original. In “The Last Supper,” even the worn look of the fresco--its cracks, chips and the doorway that was cut into it--is captured.
Over the years, church artists have learned that even the great masters made mistakes about dimensions or deliberately distorted them. In “The Last Supper,” Harper said, one of the disciples is extending a knife. But no one’s arm could be that long, so the pageant model holds a stick attached to a foam-rubber hand and knife.
Wood and cardboard are used to create depth, and stiff painted muslin serves as the backgrounds and clothing that cover the figures. In most instances, the live models fit themselves into the work by thrusting their heads or limbs through the background and blending into what has been painted. There are few full, costumed figures.
Harper said lighting and makeup are key ingredients. The makeup, he said, “like painting . . . might change the mouth or make the cheekbone protruded or look sunken in.”
White body makeup and glycerin give the sheen of marble to the models in the “Pieta.” It looks so real, Harper said, that “you’d expect the marble to crack if anybody moved.”