In 1909, a small community of farmers purchased some land for a Catholic mission church; after World War II, the area boomed with aviation and aerospace industries. St John Chrysostom Church in Inglewood, California, which seats at least 1,000, was finished in 1959 to accommodate this growing, thriving Catholic population. It is located minutes from Los Angeles International Airport and the 405 freeway.
An “Art Deco Revival” edifice built entirely of reinforced concrete, St. John’s 182ft carillon bell tower can be seen from miles away. Art Deco-inspired architectural forms are used throughout the church, and the 42ft walls house intricate, Celtic stained glass windows based on the Irish Book of Kells.
The church remained a humble, yet beautiful space until a series of “renovations” climaxed in 1995. In the last two years, however, the parishioners of St John’s have entrusted the sensitive restoration and decoration of the church to Enzo Selvaggi of Heritage Liturgical.
In this interview, Enzo discusses this enormously successful project.
WHAT THE ‘RENOVATORS’ DID
“Well, the original balustrade had long been dismantled, its solid marble supports and cast bronze decoration tossed into storage closets, or piled as stands for pamphlets in the vestibule.
“No portion of the sanctuary was left unscathed. The sanctuary floors had been covered with a seafoam green carpet glued directly to the terrazzo and the marble — some stains on the Calacatta Gold marble are visible to this day.
“The altar was demolished and a table-style altar was created at the bottom of the steps. A Jacuzzi-style tub was placed in the sanctuary.”
“The original baptistery was converted into a prayer chapel, decorated with a giant mustard yellow “plus-sign” on the avocado green walls and ceiling. This avocado green and mustard yellow color scheme would continue, in varying shades, throughout the church. Even the individual coffers 45 feet up were painted mustard yellow, each with burgundy borders, with the soaring avocado green beams intersecting on the ceiling.”
Wow, this sounds like a mess!
Unfortunately, the 1990s renovation took Saint John Chrysostom many steps backwards, so considerable restoration had to occur before our decorative phase could begin.
The full scope of the renovation project has always been to restore the church to its original design and function and to complete the decoration. It was never truly decorated. Statues had been housed in niches and stained glass windows were commissioned when it was first built, but the rest of the church was left with simple, white plastered walls and little to no ornamentation.
The mural is really a third phase of a multi-phase program.
Who provided the initiative for this ambitious project?
The pastors at St. John Chrysostom are inspired men. Their intention has always been to create something for the glory of God, to bring people to prayer, and to sanctify the space. They never wanted to simply make an updated and pretty space that would make the magazines. The spiritual value of this work is always at the forefront, which is why the first phase of our project was to restore the sanctuary itself.
It was entirely the enthusiasm and outpouring of positive reaction from parishioners during the sanctuary renovation, and their donations, that allowed the mural decoration project to become a reality.
What was your inspiration for the work?
Inspired by the existing Art Deco Revival architecture of the church, we wanted to find a style that would not clash with, but enhance, the existing architectural design — and also speak to today.
With this in mind, our composition was influenced by the Beuron school (from the Bauron Benedictine Abbey of Bavaria), which preceded Art Deco. This is an iconographic style with a certain static, two-dimensional quality to images, with some similarities to ancient and Byzantine sacred art. All of its symbols are clean, graphic, and direct.
This created a deep well of inspiration to combine two seemingly disparate art styles – ancient Byzantine and contemporary Art Deco – into a cohesive design scheme that is relevant for the present age.
How long did the work take?
Creative development took several months and execution was done in five weeks during Lent.
How did the work proceed?
The logistics of the implementation of the mural allowed us to hide the mural from the parishioners as we worked. A scaffolding platform that covered the entire space underneath the apse was hoisted above the sanctuary, and with the use of tarp curtains, our work was obstructed during the entirety of the painting. Some of my fondest memories are of people coming to pray while we were working.
On one occasion, a lady approached me and asked what we were painting. I showed her a picture of the work in progress I had taken on my phone. She didn’t speak any English, but when she saw the picture she exclaimed, “La Virgen!,” and started crying.
How the parish priest react?
Father Marcos Gonzalez has been one of the best clients a designer could ask for. From the very beginning, Father’s mission and focus of the scope of the work was Apostolic. His commitment was strong, and always open to our development of a cohesive narrative, design plan, and color scheme.
His reaction was very positive. He was very moved and said it was “magnificent” and that it reminded him of walking into an ancient Roman basilica.
The people of St John’s supported this project with donations. How did they react?
The night of the Easter Vigil was the dramatic unveiling. It was such a joy to hear the gasps and whispers amid their upward gazing eyes. A lot of people have been really moved.
This is not a wealthy parish, by far. The parishioners have driven the funding for these projects at every stage. I have been continually humbled and honored by their positive words and efforts.
If they can do it, any parish can.
“THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY, THE FIRST TABERNACLE OF THE INCARNATION — THEOTOKOS — is enthroned at the center of the mural above the earthly tabernacle in the sanctuary. The throne and tabernacle are encircled by seraphim, who are described in the Apocalypse as continually praising Our Lord with the “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.” Enzo Selvaggi. Designer
“MY FIRST REACTION WAS WONDERFUL AMAZEMENT AT ITS BEAUTY. Then I realized, ‘this is a wonderful teaching painting.’” Father Marcos Gonzalez, Pastor
“MY PARISHIONERS REACTED WITH INCREDIBLE JOY. Some people actually cried upon seeing it for the first time. They are most grateful and proud of the growing beauty of their church.” Father Marcos Gonzalez, Pastor
“THE MURAL IS A DEPICTION OF THE HEAVENLY JERUSALEM, where the Incarnation, presented in glory, is surrounded by the Church Triumphant offering their crowns of glory to their divine source of grace.” Enzo Selvaggi, Designer
“THE BLESSED VIRGIN PRESENTS THE CHRIST CHILD, HER SON, TO THE WORLD, who in turn holds the orb of His power and dominion in one hand, while he blesses and heals with the other. It is to remind us that it is to this end – eternal glory and praise to God in heaven – that all of history and life is oriented. Even more, the mural is meant to depict how our adoration of God in the Holy Mass is a participation in this cosmic and historic event.” Enzo Selvaggi, Designer
“In depicting the constellations, one of my desires WAS TO PAY HOMAGE TO JOHN PAUL II’S TREATISE “CHRIST: THE BEARER OF THE WATER OF LIFE.” Enzo Selvaggi, Designer“
FATHER GONZALEZ SAYS THAT HIS ULTIMATE GOAL IN RESTORING ST JOHN’S is “to make the church a true temple of worship of Almighty God. It should be a “Domus Dei” where hearts are lifted and inspired and the Faith is taught in all its beauty.”
HONORIFICENTIA POPULI NOSTRI” FROM THE BOOK OF JUDITH on the finished apse mural.
- THE INCARNATION, DEPICTED BY CHRIST AS CHILD AND KING IN THE ARMS OF HIS MOTHER, is the central element to the mural as it is the fundamental element of our faith and liturgy: without the incarnation, made present to us in the Eucharist, there would be no redemption, and no access to heaven. In a particular way, we underline the Blessed Virgin as this “Ianua Coeli”, this door to heaven.
- PROCESSIONS OF THE BLESSEDS offering crowns of glory to the Christ Child, to paraphrase St. Augustine, “If then your merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His gifts.”
- PALM TREES, HISTORICALLY SYMBOLS OF ETERNITY symbolize that this scene depicts a heavenly/eternal reality.
- THE ASTRONOMICAL CONSTELLATIONS OF AQUARIUS AND PISCES are a reminder not only of Our Lord’s redemption of nature itself, but that even nature itself foretold the story of our redemption. This is in a St. John Paul II’s treatise, ‘Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life,” a great pastoral work on evangelization against New Age spirituality.