THE STAMFORD ADVOCATE – DECEMBER 25, 2009
Long forgotten murals restored in Stamford church
After nearly half a century, St. John’s murals uncovered in time for Christmas
Posted: 12/24/2009 06:31:00 PM EST
Updated: 12/25/2009 01:05:27 AM EST
STAMFORD – Hidden in plain sight for nearly 50 years, artwork that once adorned the sanctuary walls and ceiling of the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist was unveiled this week to applause and admiration from parishioners.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” parishioner Tracy Banaham, of Wilton, said in a hushed whisper after the noon Mass on Tuesday, joining a half-dozen onlookers who gathered to get a better look at the three murals unobstructed by scaffolding for the first time since the artwork was discovered last April.
Others applauded during the Tuesday homily, when Monsignor Stephen DiGiovanni remarked, “It’s nice to have it done, isn’t it?”
The lost artwork includes three images symbolizing the Holy Trinity atop the
stained glass windows behind the altar: the hand of God, the lamb of God and the dove of the Holy Spirit.
Four smaller, circular depictions frame the center window, showing the symbols of the Gospel writers: the ox of St. Luke, the angel of St. Matthew, the eagle of St. John and the lion of St. Mark.
The whole illustration is crowned by metal gilding that reaches to the half-dome’s apex — perhaps a nod to the vines of the Garden of Eden, said DiGiovanni, the church’s pastor.
Last year, DiGiovanni found a hint of the artwork and the Dutch metal-gilded ceiling that crowned the windows behind the altar.
DiGiovanni, the Atlantic Street church’s official historian and unofficial sleuth, said the former pastor, the
Rev. James O’Brien, who led the parish from 1900 to 1928, commissioned a parishioner to design an illustration depicting God’s creation.
The parishioner, Thomas Magee, was an established businessman with a workshop at Broad and Summer streets. Magee completed the murals in 1927, DiGiovanni said.
In the early 1960s, the murals were covered by coats of white paint when the late famed film director Otto Preminger, a friend of the church, refurbished parts of the interior in exchange for using the church as a site for his Oscar-nominated film “The Cardinal,” DiGiovanni said.
It may not have been a radical decision then, he added.
By the 1960s, the mural might have been damaged — the gilding, mostly made of copper, would have probably faded to black by then — and thought to be too costly or difficult to repair, DiGiovanni said.
In the last month, St. John’s hired renowned conservation artist John Canning, whose Cheshire-based studio has completed restoration work at Grand Central Terminal and Radio City Music Hall.
Using a variety of complex solvents to dissolve the white paint — and at points, a thin scalpel — four workers spent a month removing the roughly 20 coats of paint that covered the mural and restoring the original work, Canning said.
The estate of the late William Thomson provided the $108,000 for the repair. Thomson, a longtime parishioner who was an altar server and an usher in his youth, and who later served as a church trustee for decades, left his estate to the church, DiGiovanni said.
To have the scaffolding removed from the altar in time for Christmas, men worked through the night Monday into Tuesday.
“All these people were just normal guys who wanted to give something to God this Christmas,” DiGiovanni said.
Five-year-old Ana Ucero knelt at the altar with her mother, Margarita, Tuesday pointing at the images, as DiGiovanni explained the significance of the animals.
“Isn’t that special?” Margarita asked her daughter, who had been baptized at the church.
Ana nodded solemnly.
Christmas Mass will be “phenomenal” this year, DiGiovanni said.