Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The All Souls Altarpiece

The All Souls Altarpiece (2010)

At home, one of the best parts of Christmas involves unpacking ornaments and decorations and being flooded with memories and stories of other Christmases.  It’s also like that at church, as we light Advent wreath candles, sing familiar hymns, decorate, and especially as we place the All Souls Altarpiece in the Mary Chapel.   In 2010 our altarpiece was built by John Coates and painted by self-taught artist Louis von Rago, based on an outline by Ed Perlman.  It combines both traditional and contemporary elements, and is meant to be especially accessible to children. At the 4 p.m. Children’s Mass on Christmas Eve, the crèche will come to life with needlepoint figures made by parishioners, a project coordinated by Susan Morrison.

Some of the images on the altarpiece are scriptural: the angels, the sheep, the ox, and the donkey.  But other images come from tradition, such as white lilies representing the purity of the Virgin Mary.  These also foreshadow the crucifixion of Jesus, since a popular medieval white flower was from the mustard family, whose Latin name is Cruciferae. The red carnation is known in Northern Europe as Naegelblume or nailflower, because its blossom was thought to represent the serrated edges of a medieval nail.  Together, the flowers represent all creation’s joy at the birth of a savior, but also connect his birth with the death and rebirth we celebrate at Easter.  

The more contemporary symbols include shepherds wearing “technicolor dreamcoats” and multicultural angels playing instruments (including a saxophone) who sing “happy birthday” as well as “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”  The black sheep among the others represents all of God’s children who may come to Christ through unconventional paths, many of whom form the heart of All Souls parish. The manger is complete with a “barn cat,” whose sainted relative (a cat who has died and gone to heaven) can be seen watching from the top left side of the roof.         

Like the householder in the Gospel of Matthew, we seek to “bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old.”  We look and listen for God to speak out of the old, as well as the new. Glory be to God in the highest. 

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