Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hall of Saints

The Hall of Saints at the Holy Face Monastery in Clifton New Jersey is an enclave within a sanctuary.

I never heard of the Holy Face Monastery before last year, when I went there for a celebratory service, procession and picnic for “Madonna del Sacro Monte” – an event resulting from the rediscovery of a sacred statue that was once in Jersey City. I wrote about that last year – please click here – quite a fun blog, which was actually translated into Italian and published in magazine… on the other side. 

 During a lull in the festivities of the second annual feast, I wandered into the Hall of Saints, a wing of the main chapel on the campus. Holy Face Monastery is a kind of New Jersey version of the Cloisters. Back when America had factories, Clifton was a factory town, swatches of suburbs in between factories and major highways. Secluded and Serene, the Holy Face Monastery is an oasis of tree lined opportunities for spiritual contemplation. It is an unlikely island of quietude in the most unlikely of spots, industrial North Jersey.

But the sanctuary within this sanctuary is the Hall of Saints. Dozens of statues of images, familiar and new, of saints and icons, visualization of catechisms. Catholics believe in the communion of saints – a community of immortal souls here and on the other shore – and while they do not pray to the holy individuals represented in sculpture here, they pray for intercession, a mystical concept inherent in the communion of saints concept.

 The Hall has a quiet, but the solemnity seemed subtle. There were places to kneel, candles were available. But it seemed as much chapel as museum gallery.

Religious Art – at least the catholic depiction of saints – fascinates. I love the details that draw you into the narrative of the personage. The cherubs at the Madonna’s feet signify The Assumption; the cloak with stars Our Lady of Guadalupe. References to world history abound here – sure, the lens it is seen through is biased, but at least it is history. My point there is a lot going on here, and I continue my argument that this art is as valid as any other and in many ways, involved with some levels other art can only imply. There is room for both, and both have similarities and differences, but in the catholic context, the details signify who is being represented, and thus the life and specific story of the Saint. The visage and the legend – the allegory of the life – become personally relevant to the believer beholding the statue.  

I never saw such variety before, a real test of my long ago catechism classes. They all seemed new, at least very clean.

The quietness, the sense of eternity, of oneness and wonder, the Hall of Saints inspires that lingered long after I left the infinity within its confines.


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