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L.A. Cathedral Tapestries Weave Old Art With New

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a gallery beneath the 13th century belfry tower that dominates the storybook streets here, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Friday presided over the unveiling of monumental tapestries designed by a California artist and produced by Belgian craftsmen for Los Angeles’ new cathedral.

Brugge is as Old World as Los Angeles is New World. A medieval gem with a population of about 110,000, it has canals instead of freeways and a cityscape that is a pedestrian’s dream.

But Mahony came to Belgium because Brugge and Los Angeles have been united artistically and spiritually by the “Communion of Saints” tapestries. The artwork will be the decorative centerpiece of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, scheduled to open in September 2002.

Displayed for the first time Friday, the tapestries depict a procession of 135 saints and other figures chosen to represent the human mosaic of the biggest U.S. Roman Catholic archdiocese, with its 5 million parishioners who attend Mass in 42 languages. The works will be the largest display of tapestries with images of saints in a church anywhere, the cardinal told a gathering that included leaders of Brugge, faithful from L.A. and participants in the project.

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“It is a day of great rejoicing for us,” Mahony said. “You are very much a part of our city now. Those tapestries will be a great point of interest for countless visitors for many years to come.”

And so the venerable Flemish art of tapestry making becomes yet another element in a cathedral whose ambitious scale aspires to express the creativity and ferment of a world-class city entering a new millennium.

The tapestry project teamed John Nava, an Ojai-based painter of Basque and Mexican descent, with the Dekeukelaere brothers, two sturdy, bearded artisans with roots in a textile tradition that began when Brugge was a medieval hub of trade and culture.

Roland and Christian Dekeukelaere have never been to L.A. They work outside Brugge in the village of Wielsbeke. Their business, Flanders Tapestries, is based in a small mill that contains two state-of-the-art looms and four employees.

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In recent years, they have shifted from weaving for furniture and commercial products to making reproductions of traditional tapestries. Their sales representative connected them with Nava; the artist decided he had found the men and machines for an unusual job.

“The tough thing is . . . big companies don’t want to horse around with you,” Nava said. “It’s hard to find people who just want to do something on an artistic basis. And that’s what these guys wanted to do.”

The brothers were awed when presented with the possibility of weaving the 36 tapestries, each of which measures 7 feet wide and 20 feet high. They will hang in two rows in the nave of the cathedral, intended to seat 3,000.

“We were a little bit afraid,” Christian Dekeukelaere said, chuckling.

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The challenge was irresistible, however. The cathedral will be an international showcase of talents, such as Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo and nine artists including Nava, who has worked primarily in figurative oil painting. (His brother, Gregory Nava, directed the acclaimed 1983 film “El Norte.”)

“John is a very nice man and a wonderful artist,” said Dekeukelaere. “But he didn’t have a clue about weaving.”

That meant a crash course in the tricks and limitations of reproducing painted images in fabric--and considerable angst about how the finished product would come out. Nava may have been a neophyte, but he brought a quiet obsession and a well-researched vision to the work. He didn’t want dark art about torments and blood, Cain and Abel; he wanted a sense of hope, redemption, inspiration.

Moreover, he envisioned the saints as real people. If Joseph was a carpenter, he should have a vigorous, workingman’s air. If St. Monica was a black North African, she shouldn’t look Scandinavian.

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In search of authentic multiethnic faces, Nava hired a seasoned casting director to prowl the streets of Ojai.

The artist kept his eyes open as well, finding models among friends. His model for St. Perpetua, a 3rd century Carthaginian martyr, was one of his son’s classmates, Eleni Towns. A graceful and reasonably beatific-looking 14-year-old, Towns came to Brugge for Friday’s event. She cautiously appraised her likeness towering overhead, smiled and offered a quiet “Looks good.”

Nava painted nonstop for 20 months, e-mailing his work to the Dekeukelaeres so they could assemble the images. There were last-minute changes and additions, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the only adult figure in the tapestries who has not yet been made a saint, and Maria Venegas, the first Mexican woman to be beatified.

The manufacturing finally took place in July and this month. The tapestries will be displayed here for about three weeks before being shipped to Los Angeles.

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Mahony seemed pleased with the results. Before the ceremony, he explained the spiritual message behind the artwork as he strode through the exhibition hall--a tall figure in black following the international procession of saints on their way to a new house of worship rising fast in Los Angeles.

“The idea is we’re in the middle, we’re in the church, still living and on the way to the kingdom through the Eucharist,” the cardinal said. “But we are accompanied by the example and witness and power of the saints. They are already at the kingdom, but they accompany us, even now, even here.”


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