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Painted Screens & Painted Stations: A Secular and Sacred Art Report

August 16, 2014

Crossposted from Gaudete Theology

Last Sunday afternoon, I spent a couple hours at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, one of the two interfaith centers in which my parish has a presence. The building has a central area resembling a courtyard, with plenty of natural light, opening out to various worship spaces and meeting rooms around the perimeter, and the walls of this courtyard-like space are used as an art gallery. Sunday was the final day of an exhibition called Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore.

I’ve been intrigued by painted screens since I first learned about this Baltimore folk art form, but this was the first time I’d seen them. Like many domestic arts, it was intended to be both practical and pretty. In the days before air conditioning, the row houses of Baltimore would get pretty sweltering in the summer, and folks wanted all the windows and solid doors open to get as much ventilation as possible, with no curtains in the way to obstruct the air flow. But then what do you do about privacy, especially in an urban environment with folks walking right past your windows?

Well, it turns out, if you paint a picture on the front of the window or door screens, then that effectively blocks the viewers’ gaze through the screen. Your eyes focus on the picture, instead of looking through the screen; at least, if the area behind the screen is not illuminated. What a clever way to solve the problem! And what an opportunity it creates for beautifying a city street. Time was, most houses in some areas of Baltimore had painted screens on the windows and doors, so walking down the street was much like walking past a gallery of paintings.

The exhibit included screens that had been painted by traditional screen painters near the end of the era when the art was flourishing, and contemporary screens (for sale!) by currently practicing screen painters, some of whom had been trained by traditional painters. There was a little biography of each painter mounted among their works. The sizes ranged from small screens that might cover a ventilation window, to medium/large screens that would fill a normal sized window or the top of a screen door, to full door-sized screens (in some cases, mounted in the door frame, into which the painting extended).

What struck me at first inspection of these pieces is that they reminded me of cross-stitch. The screen, of course, is a fine rectangular grid to which the colors are applied; visually, this creates an impression similar to the fine rectangular grid used for cross-stitching.

The older, traditional pieces had some common themes; I don’t recall whether these were themes that were common to screen painting generally, or to one particular screen painter. They were landscape themes, mostly: a cottage, a stream, a flowering tree nearby. Quiet bucolic images, gentling the urban landscape in which they resided.

My favorites among the traditional pieces, though, were the ones that depicted a block or two of Baltimore rowhouses, each with its windows and doors covered by painted screens, as well as people scrubbing stoops, selling vegetables from a horse-drawn cart, or just ambling along. Delightfully self-referential, as well as showing how these screens looked in their native habitat.

Some of the contemporary pieces were painted in traditional styles; others took traditional themes but rendered them in a more contemporary style; still others ignored tradition entirely, and simply used the screen as canvas. It seemed to me that the modern pieces tended towards a more pastel palette and an airier feel. There were lots of Baltimore scenes, often harborscapes, or showing city landmarks like the Bromo-Seltzer Tower. My favorite, though, was much like this whimsical piece that portrayed a cat clinging to the screen door from the inside, obviously after the butterflies she could see outside. What fun!!

The same artist, Anna Pasqualucci, exhibited a few small (5×7, maybe? 8×10?) pieces in shadowbox frames, in which the screen had been shaped to create a 3D effect. A scene of the Baltimore harbor, with buildings standing out from their surroundings and waves rolling up onto shore, was my favorite of these.

After taking my time with all the painted screens, I decided to check out the Catholic chapel. While weekend Catholic masses are celebrated in one of the large worship spaces, both interfaith centers have a dedicated Catholic chapel for the reservation of the eucharist. I normally worship at the Wilde Lake interfaith center, and I’ve been in its tiny eucharistic chapel a number of times, but I’d never been to the one at Oakland Mills.

Well, it was lovely. It was larger than the one at Wilde Lake, and clearly intended for small masses and prayer services of 30-40 people. The chairs were arranged choir-style, in rows along the left and right walls, facing each other across a central aisle, as they are in the large worship space at Wilde Lake; the altar, centered in front of the far wall, was small and plain; there was an electric piano off to one side. But it was clearly designed for both communal and private prayer: there were a few prie-dieux here and there.

A characteristic artistic feature of most Catholic churches are the Stations of the Cross. These are fourteen artworks, each of which corresponds to a moment in Jesus’ passion, beginning with his condemnation to death and ending with his burial in the tomb. How the stations are depicted may vary, which is part of their charm as works of art. They may be lavish or simple; they may represent the entire scene, or just a symbolic element. They are typically placed along the outer wall of the worship space, so that as you pray the devotion, you move from station to station and thereby walk with Jesus on his via crucis.

That wouldn’t work in this small chapel, which has a large central aisle, but no outer perimeter through which one might walk. I was delighted by their solution: the stations of the cross in this chapel are presented as tall narrow paintings, each containing a single key word (“condemned”, “falls”, “meets”, “dies”, “buried”) painted vertically in black capital letters ending at the bottom of the painting against a purple background, with the remaining vertical space, above the word, filled with swirls and smears of purple paint. (The stations are a particularly Lenten devotion, and purple is the liturgical color for Lent.) They are hung close together, on the front wall behind the altar, so that while they take up relatively little linear wall space (maybe 12 feet?), it would still be possible to stand in front of each one to pray, then step to the next.

My initial reaction was to be pleased by the text-oriented nature of these paintings: I’m about the most text-oriented person I know, and it’s rare indeed that I find a visual presentation that feels like it was made for me. But the more I think about it, the more I’m appreciating the non-text aspects of this art and its presentation. Each word has a different length, so the black text reaches up to a different height in each panel. This gives the visual suggestion of a rising and falling path, subtly reinforcing the notion of walking. And it hangs on the wall behind and slightly above the altar: a space that, in Catholic churches, is normally occupied by a crucifix. This artwork expands the crucifix, so that we have before us an image of the crucifixion from condemnation to burial. I would never have thought of this, and it probably wouldn’t pass muster for a lot of liturgical purists, but I think very highly of it.

Centered on the right-hand wall (as you face the altar and this representation of the crucifixion) is hung a medium-sized square textile artwork in shades of yellow that abstractly suggests a sunrise. Because it’s off to the right from the left-to-right ordered stations, and because there is a gap of unadorned wall between the stations and the sunrise, it also suggests the continuation of the story: the time Jesus was in the tomb, and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

I don’t recall that there was any art on the lefthand wall.

Immediately to your right as you enter the chapel, in the corner formed by the righthand wall and the wall containing the door, is a statue of Mary as our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s a medium-sized statue, perhaps three feet tall, on a low wooden stand; she is dressed in green, brown-skinned, holding a chaplet (a real one, not a painted one). A prie-dieu is placed in front of her. On another low stand, off to her left, is another small statue: Juan Diego, on one knee, looking up at the lady, with his cloak full of roses. I love this little tableau, and the fact that Juan Diego kneels alongside a person who kneels before our Lady.

Just a little further along that right hand wall, there hangs a wall-mounted tabernacle, centered slightly above eye-level for me, which meant I could get a really good look at it. It was quite beautiful: the sides of the case were silver, and the doors were clear glass covered with small square simple line drawings, rendered in silver or gold, arranged in a grid like patchwork. So you could see through the decoration to the simple gold ciborium, which thus contributed to the beauty of the tabernacle. Looking through the artwork to the ciborium reminded me that we look through the bread and wine with eyes of faith to see Jesus. The line drawings in some cases represented loaves or fishes, which are traditional tabernacle art, and in other cases seemed to be simply pleasing abstract shapes, often in groups of three. This was a lovely yet sparse use of the fine metals to give luster and beauty without a hint of opulence.

To the left and slightly above the tabernacle is mounted the usual red sanctuary lamp; before it is another prie-dieu, and beneath it is another wooden stand, in the center of which stands a medium-sized carved and painted wooden crucifix, so that a person kneeling there can look directly into the eyes of Christ. I noticed particularly that he seemed to be wearing a crown woven both of brown thorn and green laurel, and I very much liked that artistic representation of the resurrection victory over sin and death.

Overall I was very pleased and impressed by the sacred art in this chapel, both its quality and the care and thoughtfulness of its installation. It is a welcoming and peaceful space that I look forward to visiting again.

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