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The tapestries created by artist John Nava for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels are the largest collection hanging in a Catholic place of worship in the United States. Throughout the ages, large scale pictorial wall cycles have served as one of the most effective forms of literary expression, vividly telling the stories of the Greeks, Romans, Medieval and Renaissance periods, especially to a largely illiterate population.

The tapestries are part of this heritage and link the very contemporary Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to this long tradition. In modern times, as in the past, tapestries have served as an art form that can combine great size with intricacy of detail, and in the Cathedral serve to soften the tonal quality and enhance the acoustics.

Of the three tapestry groups, the most prominent is the Communion of Saints along the south and north walls of the nave. Twenty-five fresco-like tapestries depict 135 saints and blesseds from around the world, including holy men and women of North America canonized by the Church. Twelve untitled figures, including children of all ages, represent the many anonymous holy people in our midst. All the figures direct our eyes to the light of the great Cross-window above the Altar where the Eucharist is celebrated.


Nava combined digital imaging and "Old Master" methods in creating the saints for the tapestries. He constructed figures from multiple studies, combined drawn and painted elements, had costumes made when needed and even drafted family members to serve as models on occasion. He wanted the figures to look like people we know now, and did not use a highly stylized form to depict the saints. Nava's desire is that people identify and see that "a saint could look like me."

The Communion of Saints consists of females and males of all ages, races, occupations and vocations the world over. Saints from the Renaissance are intermingled with people from the 1st century and the 20th century.

In certain cases, particularly saints and holy people of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Pope John XXIII and Mother Teresa, photographic evidence existed to indicate accurate appearance. In other cases, such as the 17th century saint, Ignatius Loyola, portrait paintings and death mask images were used. Cyrena Hausman, a motion pictures casting agent, worked closely with Nava and helped find many of the models chosen for the tapestries, including people who looked like known saints.

Sending artwork to the tapestry mill for the usual process of in-house translation into weaving code would have taken far too long and would have put another hand between the artist and the finished work. To meet the time deadlines involved and to make the weaving reflect the source images directly, Nava, working with Bay Area artist Donald Farnsworth, developed a method of making weavable digital files of the tapestry designs. These final weaving files were then e-mailed directly to Flanders Tapestries near Bruges, Belgium from Nava's studio in Ojai, California. What would have taken in the 16th century decades to make with scores of weavers and dozens of looms, took twenty months of designing and two months of weaving.

Nava and Flanders Tapestries developed a custom palate of two hundred forty colors based on sixteen colors of fiber going in two directions to create the images. Multiple tests and "a hair-raising," as he describes it, twenty months of intense work brought about a precise calibration of the computer monitors and the woven output so that what Nava saw in his studio was what the mill would produce.

All of the tapestries are made from cotton with a small percentage of viscose to ensure the colors, a subtle interplay of neutral tones evocative of the ancient frescoes of Italy, will remain true. Cloth woven from cotton by the Egyptians has survived intact for thousands of years.

The large stone texture patterns used in the background of the Communion of Saints are from actual scans of excavations of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem from the time of the Romans. He created a library of backyard stones, paper, chipped paint, rust, and more, bringing them all together into a group of textures and images to be compiled individually, scanned by digital cameras.

Nava believes the deteriorated "fresco" texture "marries with the building in a beautiful way," blending with the walls as paintings. The fictive wall textures and colors of the tapestries restate the massive walls of the Cathedral themselves and serve to integrate the ensemble. The tapestries vary in height but average about eighteen feet and cover about three hundred forty square yards of area.

Behind the Baptismal Font is a set of five tapestries with a central depiction of Jesus being baptized by St. John the Baptist in the River Jordan. They are each forty seven and a half feet high and seven feet wide. The total square yardage is one hundred seventy six square yards of tapestry.

The great circular pattern above the Baptism scene is based on "Cosmati" stone floor decorations from the 11th century found in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, Italy. The stylized "wavy" water patterns in the lower portion are derived from Byzantine mosaic patterns found at Ravenna and that were used throughout the early Christian period.

The seven tapestries behind the altar depict a schematic map of the streets of Los Angeles converging with an overall circular "Cosmati" pattern traditionally associated with the divine. Fittingly, a quote from the Book of Revelation is sewn into the tapestries that reflects the union of God and man here and now as the New Jerusalem. They are inscribed with the words, "See, God's dwelling is among mortals. God will dwell with them. They will be God's people and God will be with them."

A hundred years from now Nava hopes people will say about his tapestries, "These people were seen as whole, strong humans, full of hope." As he unrolled the "beautiful group of humans" on the tapestries sent from Belgium after the terrible events of September 11, 2001, Nava thought, "This is the time when you want to love humanity and see something that is really, truly uplifting and beautiful."

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