04 December 2020
by Marco Romanelli
As everybody knows, to the extent that it’s become a truism, design relates to everything “from a spoon to a city,” but this particular craft, which encompasses the domestic and the urban, the individual and the collective, sometimes comes up against occasions and places with their own particular significance. Occasions and places in which design dialogues with the sacred. From a small roadside shrine to a magnificent cathedral, thousands of people over the centuries have devoted themselves to building God’s house on earth, and our cities are forever marked by their presences and by the memory of their work. Even non-believers sometimes pause along their way and perhaps even go inside, seeking coolness on a torrid summer’s day, lifting up their eyes to the architecture, to the windows that colour the light or gaze at the golden paintings and furnishings.
Sacred design has, in fact, respected the same timeframes and periods as architecture for quite some time, depicting the terrors of Mediaeval man, Renaissance centrality, Baroque bulimia and so on. The problems started, one might say, in more recent times: after World War II there was an urgent need to rebuild (many churches had been lost, not just destroyed by the war but also by the drive for urbanisation in the new low-cost social housing districts ). There was also the fact that the pressing issues that had led to the Second Vatican Council in 1962 had meant that the more enlightened Church authorities and some of the leading architects of the time were delegated to deal with sacred design. The temporary so-called garage churches became history, and a new vocabulary was devised, suited to celebrants who longer had to turn their backs on their congregations, becoming part, with them, of a single ecclesia.
In the Archdiocese of Lombardy, for example, Gio Ponti, Luigi Caccia Dominioni, Vico Magistretti, Angelo Mangiarotti, Figini and Pollini, Ignazio Gardella and Giovanni Muzio all ventured into the realm of sacred design, producing undoubted masterpieces (which architectural histories often fail to mention) within a very short length of time.
It is inside these buildings, as in many others that are conspicuous for their inferior design quality, that the really rather complex issue of sacred art and sacred furnishings arises.
Leaving art, which actually benefits from a clearer functional paradigm, to one side for the moment, let us turn to sacred furnishings, and the difficulty in looking after a quantity of “objects,” ranging from those more directly related to the act of worship (pyxes, chalices, chasubles, monstrances) to those more pertinent to the “habitable” space (pews, stalls, candlesticks). All of them objects, but especially the latter, over which the architect designer has no specific decision-making power. This is basically left to the clergy – who inhabit the church space in a privatistic mode – and to the parish committees, whose members aren’t always well enough informed for a discussion about design issues. The result, if not traditional, verges on the kitsch, not to say the superstitious. A visit to an ecclesiastical furnishing shop would bear this out (try Rome, around the Borgo Pio area).
Yet there’s been no lack of religious objects over time in which the designer hasn’t merely confined himself or herself to form and/or function, but has tried to express a deeper meaning. These objects range from certain architectural components such as the “swollen” marble tiles conceived by Caccia Dominioni for the presbytery in the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio (a reminder of the floors worn to various degrees by the prayerful in ancient monasteries) and the “vetrate grosse” (heavy glass blocks) invented by Gio Ponti (and manufactured by Venini) for the Church of San Carlo, which contain a wide variety of inclusions and are dry fitted, providing an echo of Gothic architecture in a modern key.
Then there are the “garments” used during the celebrations, first and foremost the chasuble, a garment that “dances” around the body of the officiant, as Nanni Strada understands very well, having designed a chasuble (in 2005, for Koiné Vicenza), in which the laser-cut white outer layer allows an inner layer to show through, coloured according to the different liturgical periods – red, gold, green and purple, refracting the light. In terms of objects, the most important is the chalice, the most sacred “cup,” regulated by an extremely rigid brief, yet interpreted in myriad different ways over the centuries. Then there is the cross, obviously. Referencing the crucifixion, it is perhaps the only sacred object to have made its way out of holy places and into the everyday lives of many people. Crosses as jewellery (recently by Giulio Iacchetti, Emilio Nanni and Paolo Ulian), portable crosses (Laudani&Romanelli) or crosses as provocation (see again Giulio Iacchetti with the Cruciale travelling exhibition, in which a mattress was displayed – similar to those on which migrants collapse exhausted – in the shape of a cross).
There is an intensity of meaning, or rather a search for a meaning that “underpins” the object itself and guarantees its duration over time. Thus, to sum up, we can reverse the initial argument and assert that there is a lesson that the designers of sacred furnishings (the kind that are really designed with the “otherworld” in mind) can pass on to those who design ordinary furnishing and household objects, and this is that they must be able to stand the test of time and express values shared by a community, during a particular period, countering globalisation and indifference, imitation and approximation.
These objects, be they sacred or not, are inhabited by a dense, poetic silence, “fiercely” beautiful (because, as Pope Paul VI said, only beauty can save the world). We must look for them (demand them) in churches and - why not - also on the stands at the Salone del Mobile di Milano.