Lafayette museum shows area church treasures
Lee Gray automatically lowered her voice upon entering the gallery.
Her reaction seemed natural, something that most people do when walking into a church. Or, in this case, a museum gallery filled with objects usually found in southwest Louisiana’s Catholic churches.
She pointed out Byzantine objects, vestments and icons, all collected in the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette to tell the story of the region’s dominant religion.
A celebration of Louisiana’s bicentennial wouldn’t be complete without it. Gray is the museum’s curator, and she spent two years collecting items for “Faith and Form,” which runs through Sept. 1.
“We called it ‘Faith and Form’, because faith is often signified in visual form,” Gray said. “The exhibit isn’t about individual churches but about the objects in those churches functioning as visual communication.”
But when taken out of the setting of the church, the context changes. These pieces not only serve as religious symbols but are objects of fine art.
“And a lot of people go to church not realizing that they’re surrounded by this beautiful art,” Gray said.
That seems only natural, too. Church is a place of worship, and the objects aid in that worship.
Yet their beauty is somehow amplified in the gallery, emanating a collective power that causes a hush among visitors walking into the gallery, along with a respectful focus on the story before them.
And the story is that of Catholicism’s long presence in Louisiana, beginning with the state’s history as French and Spanish territories.
“Catholic practices of these European nations persisted as the state grew in population during the 18th century,” the museum’s exhibit label states. “By the early 19th century, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Germany furthered proliferation of Catholicism as they settled in the southern part of the state. Until the American purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, everyone in the Lafayette area was legally required to be Catholic.”
But that changed when Anglo Americans began settling in the area. With them came Protestantism, and by the end of World War II, the northern part of Louisiana was predominantly Protestant.
“In Acadiana,” the museum’s exhibit label continues, “Catholicism remains the primary denomination, mirroring that of the nation as a whole. Catholics make up about 22 percent of the population or 77.7 million as the largest religious denomination in the United States. This exhibition consists of religious artifacts from a variety of Catholic churches in Acadiana as well as a few artworks from the Museum’s permanent collection.”
Churches loaning objects to the show are St. Peter Catholic Church of New Iberia, St. Joseph Catholic Church of Iota, Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church of Baldwin, The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist of Lafayette, Holy Ghost Catholic Church of Opelousas, Our Mother of Mercy Josephite Catholic Church of Rayne, Our Mother of Mercy Josephite Catholic Church of Church Point, Holy Cross Catholic Church of Lafayette and St. Basil Catholic Church of Duson.
“We start with the Byzantine era and how symbols evolved over time,” Gray said. “Christian symbols were merged with pagan symbols.”
And, as explained by the museum’s labels, “Re-interpreting pagan symbolism also maintained the mystery of early Christian beliefs and practices when practitioners feared exposure of their monotheistic convictions.”
But transitions from pagan meanings to Christian interpretations was relatively easy, and narratives of sacrifice, leadership, baptism, visitation, death and resurrection were transformed from pagan rituals into Catholic iconography.
Icons are well represented in “Faith and Form” by those created by local Catholic priests Gregory Cormier and Rex Broussard and Lafayette resident Faye Drobnic.
“Icon painters must follow a specific set of guidelines,” Gray said. “Their icons are not supposed to reflect their individual style, but it’s interesting to see how a little bit of their style appears in some of these pieces.”
Which is understandable, really. People have different personalities, and even when reproducing images from early Christian icons, no two will be exactly alike.
It’s only human.
Still, icon painting is serious business.
“Faye Drobnic works at the Catholic diocese, and she teaches a class in icon painting,” Gray said. “Anyone can take it.”
And while taking the class, students will learn how icons are a means to practice devotion to God by aiding in prayer and meditation.
“While creating an icon, the painter mediates in order to seek the religious inspiration for capturing the elements of devotion that will then speak to the viewer,” the museum’s label states.
“Faith and Form” moves next to chalices and ciboria where thoughts stray from the church to Hollywood. A scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” comes to mind. In it, Jones stands before a bevy of chalices and must choose the Holy Grail among them.
A wrong choice would have been fatal.
Most of the chalices in that scene sparkled with a polished beauty, as do the pieces in this gallery.
And the difference between these pieces and Hollywood’s is that these are actually used during Mass and are essential to illustrating the presence of Christ.
The ciboria, meantime, hold the consecrated particles used for communion.
“Chalices must be made of precious metals such as gold or silver,” Gray said. “But in a case of poverty, the outer part of the chalice may be made of pewter, but the inside of the cup must be gilded. Two chalices from St. Peter’s church in New Iberia illustrate the diversity found in chalice design: one has an outer shell cast in pewter and the other is hand-carved olive wood.”
“Faith and Form” also examines African-American Catholic churches in Acadiana. Southern Louisiana has the largest per capita black Catholic population in the United States, and though Catholic doctrine outlines the form and design of objects used in Mass, African-American parishes’ vestments often reflect an African heritage.
“As the outer garment, the chasuble is often decorated with images important to the identity of a specific church or parish,” the museum’s label states. Included in this exhibition are chasubles unique to African-American churches, such as the examples from Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Opelousas, and one complete garment set and miter worn by Bishop Joseph Abel Francis (1923-1997) from the cathedral of St. John in Lafayette. Bishop Francis was the first black bishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.”
Finally, included among the rich beauty of these items are pieces by Southern folk artists, who often create personal pieces not necessarily for church use. Still, they are influenced by religious iconography. It’s a form that reflects their faith.
A faith that causes a hush among visitors as they enter the gallery.