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The Marian Altar of Wit Stwosz—Replica, St. John Cantius Church, Chicago

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When St. John Cantius was built by Polish immigrants in 1898, its congregation numbered over 1,500 families. But, by 1998, Ogden Avenue and the Expressway had cut a swath through "the Polish Patch" community, and the new Pastor of St. John Cantius, the Rev. C. Frank Phillips, C.R., preached to fewer than 70 souls on Sunday. But Father Phillips realized that the roads that took people away could also bring them back…

Elements of the main altar of St. John Cantius Catholic Parish, Chicago, provide the setting of the Replica of the Wit Stwosz Altarpiece video. (Be sure your volume's on, so you can also enjoy the St. John Cantius choir.)
 
 
The main altar of St. John Cantius—crowned by the cross and an icon of St. Anne and the Virgin Mary—features a Baroque excuberance and an icon depicting the Miracle of the Broken Jug of its Patron Saint. It's a miracle, Brother Nathan Caswell, S.J.C., says, that also stands as a metaphor for so much that is broken—and needs to be mended.
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They stand by Interstate 90 in the heart of Chicago, grand churches with tall domes and towers, witnesses all of a bygone era when Polish immigrants reached the Windy City with not much else but their deep faith.

I have seen them time and again as I drive by on I-90, but I am always driving through, it's after hours, or thinking of those 500 miles home. But this time, during a business trip to the work of art that is the Renaissance hotel in Schaumburg, I knew I would also be lighting a candle or two.

Always on the lookout for depictions of The Nativity, I do my due diligence, browse the Web, and on the St. John Cantius Parish site I find five tantalizing photos of three different stained glass windows. Surely, they must also include The Nativity?

It can be a long haul from Schaumburg to the Loop—once I was stuck in traffic for over two hours—so, just to be sure, I make a call. "A Nativity? Yes; there most certainly is a stained glass window of the Epiphany," says Brother Mark Visconti, S.J.C., and he invites me to visit St. John Cantius.

Almost in a trance thinking about what sacred art lies in store for me, I don't even know how long it takes me to reach the corner of Carpenter and Chicago Streets. In front of me, St. John Cantius towers 200 feet, dwarfing the rectory. The church front is rusticated, with three arches resting on tiny pillars. Above them, six stone columns with Corinthian capitals terminate in an entablature of triglyphs and large capital letters: AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM—For the Greater Glory of God.

But it is the crest just above, set within a basket-weave pattern that fills the pediment, that testifies to St. John Cantius' Polish heritage: the words, Boze Zbaw Polke—God Save Poland—are carved just below the golden cross that tops the roof. Above it, a large single tower reaches heavenward, crowned by a Baroque copper cupola reminiscent of one of the steeples of the Basilica of St. Mary in Krakow. And no wonder: Chicago has the largest concentration of Poles outside the Polish capital.

Another reminder of St. John Cantius Polish heritage is found inside, on the Stations of the Cross: JESUS W GROBIE SLOŽONY marks The Entombment of Jesus. And in the high altar, the Kosciól Mariacki (The Basilica of St. Mary), Krakow— the hometown church of St. John Cantius—— towers in the background of the icon of the Saint on the main altar. It rises higher than the slender columns supporting immense arches and vaults. The church interior, decorated in earth tones that highlight the Baroque-inspired exuberance of the three altars, is lit by tall stained glass windows that pierce the walls. And there it is, flooded by the afternoon sun—a stained glass window of The Nativity.

I'm opening my camera case as a tall young man in a black cassock approaches. "Hello, Alexis," he says, "I'm Brother Nathan. Brother Mark sent me to meet you."

Br. Nathan has just come in from the Rectory next door. It's 95 degrees outside with humidity to match, but inside, St. John Cantius is a different world. What does it feel being in this magnificent church?

"When you come into this church—any church—you come into a sacred space, into—as the cornerstone says—'The House of God and the Gate of Heaven.' This is where we come to meet God, and here the truth of our faith is communicated to us through images which tell the story of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the lives of the Saints—which all revolve around Christ.

Altar of Our Lady of Czestochowa—The Black Madonna—St. John Cantius, Chicago.
"When you enter St. John Cantius, the architecture, the sacred art—the fresco of Christ Resurrected in the apse, the large altar that is made for the greater glory of God, the sacred statues—puts you in a different space. A different space inside yourself. You quiet yourself down, forget about the traffic, about the city: it's just you and the Saints that communicate God to you, that help you focus on God."

Suddenly, a single organ note fills St. Cantius, and Br. Nathan pauses for a moment. I imagine the sweet sound of the pipe organ filling this magnificent church, its music a low accompaniment to prayer.

"My life is prayer," says Br. Nathan. "It's the work that I do as a brother. St. John Cantius is an incredible place to center yourself on prayer and focus on God.

The organ note sounds again, more insistently, as Br. Nathan says, "Having been here for five years, I still see new things that I've never seen before. Every day I see a new detail, a new revelation. It's a constant epiphany, really."

Br. Nathan's words are now mingled with the roar of the organ, and I wonder if any of this will make it onto my tape recorder. I realize that we're not about to listen to a concert but we find ourselves in the midst of a tuning of organ pipes. Br. Nathan is now telling me about the Polish faithful who built St. John Cantius.

"This building is testament to their faith. They came here with nothing, and they did so much. Can you imagine building this beautiful church if you have nothing? They did it for God, and this church and its sacred art are a testament and a witness to their faith."

Br. Nathan walks towards the front of the church and I follow. He stands before the carved pulpit that winds around one of the columns to the left of the altar. Just above it, hangs a round, crenelated canopy. "I can just imagine what it was like here before we had electricity and the ability to amplify sound," says Br. Nathan. "What would the priest's homily must have sounded like, from the ambo? What a wonderful way to naturally amplify sound."

Detail from The Presentation at the Temple, stained glass window, St. John Cantius, Chicago.
Just as suddenly as it had sounded, the organ falls silent, and Br. Nathan's words now echo in the church even without the ambo's natural amplification.

"The large icon high up on the main altar is of St. John Cantius, our Patron Saint. He was born in 1403, and was a priest and professor at the university. In this icon we see portrayed the Miracle of the Jugs: a young girl was bringing the milk ito town to sell at the market; this was her family's income. As she carried it, she tripped on a cobblestone, and broke the jug. And St. John Cantius, who was a very humble, a holy man, picked up the pieces of the jug, and it fused together. He told the girl to fill it with water, and she did, and it turned to milk.

"This image of the broken jug, that miracle really, has become the symbol of the charism of our order, which is the Restoration of the Sacred. In a world where the broken jug is not glorified—who's interested in putting a jug back together?—where people embrace the brokenness of things (broken families, broken marriages), the Restoration of the Sacred is a restoration that is aimed—most of all—at the restoration of souls, through sacred art.

"We are, as a community—as I like to think of it—pieces of the broken jug. We are put together, and God, through His grace, holds us together and allows us to be filled so we can spiritually communicate God's love to the world. We're the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. As canons regular, we live the life of priests and brothers, in a community, under the Rule of St. Augustine. There are 25 Brothers and Priests here. Our life is the Mass and the Divine Office. Secondary to that, we administer the Parish, and it all revolves around the liturgy. And, as Pope Benedict XIV has written, God, who's transcendent, is expressed in the Liturgy, so the Restoration of Sacred Art means the restoration of the Liturgy.

"The Rev. Frank Phillips, Pastor of St. John Cantius, got an indult [permission] from Cardinal Bernadin to say the Old Mass, the Tridenitine Mass. He had conducted the choir at Webber High School where he had taught, so he brought in a choir. Father Phillips came here in 1998, and the understanding was that he most likely was going to shut down the church.

"St. John Cantius, which was founded in 1893, was filled at the beginning. Then Odgen Avenue tore through the neighborhood, then the expressway, cutting up the Polish Patch, as it was known. Attendance diminished to about 70 people on Sunday Mass. But soon, people started hearing about this church, and it grew, and grew, and grew. Now, about 2,000 families call this their parish.

"As Father Phillips always says, the expressways that took people away can also bring them back."

Brother Nathan Caswell, S.J.C., opens the Stwosz Altarpiece for a visitor.
Replica of the Wit Stwosz Gothic Altarpiece

Just to the right of the St. Joseph altar, between the relief Station of The Cross Jesus Zdjety Z Krzyza (Jesus Taken Down from the Cross) and an arched stained glass window stands a carved painted-and-gilt-wood altar. It just fits under the south balcony of St. John Cantius, with only inches to spare.

"This is the Wit Stwosz Gothic altarpiece," Br. Nathan says, "a replica, one-third the size of the original in the Basilica of our Lady of Crakow, Poland. It features themes from the life of Christ and Mary. In tribute to the Polish pilgrims who build this church, in 1995 Father Phillips decided to have this altar made by Polish master carver Michal Batkiewicz.

"Wit Stwosz was a German carver, and during World War II the Germans decided this masterpiece was theirs, so they took it. It was eventually found years later, in perfect condition, in the basement of a castle in Germany. Stwosz was paid the entire budget of the city of Krakow for a year to carve the 42 by 36 foot original, which took 12 years. "

Visitors to Krakow are filled with wonder with St. Mary's and its famous altar. Created at a time when most faithful could not read or write, the Wit Stwosz Altar presents the faith for all to see. Reminiscent of the iconostation (or icon screen) of Orthodox churches, the Stwosz altar consists of dark square panels trimmed in gold. And even at one-third scale, St. Cantius altarpiece is a marvel to behold. At the top, gold filigree spires enclose The Crowning of the Virgin in Heaven, and, at the bottom altar predella, a man has fallen asleep, his arm embracing the trunk of a tree.

"It's the tree of Jesse, and it represents Christ's lineage," says Br. Nathan, referring to the prophecy of Isaiah about Jesse, the father of King David: "There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root." Golden tree branches encircle Kings and Queens clad in finery and set against a dark blue cloth (see image below).

"In these twelve panels," says Br. Nathan, "are represented scenes from the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary: at upper left, Sts. Joachim and Anna, and just below, The Birth of the Virgin. As you can see, other scenes include The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, The raising of Lazarus, The Crucifixion, The Taking Down from the Cross. On the bottom right, Jesus Approaching Mary Magdalene in the Garden panel, He's holding a shovel, because she thinks He's the gardener."

It doesn't take long to realize that this altarpiece isn't a mere "replica," but, a work of art in its own right. No wonder it took eight years to complete, and it's easy to see why. The Arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Olives panel, for example, is a good example of the Stwosz artistry: Jesus, clad in gold, stands at the center, a peaceful presence in an animated scene of jostling soldiers and Apostles. Is that St. Peter, his sword drawn, trampling a soldier underfoot? Another soldier has grabbed the Lord by his hair, and a third, in chain mail, holds Jesus by his left arm and has raised his right as if to strike. Beneath a starry sky, a golden chalice is shown at upper left, a reference to the passage in Luke, "Father, if it be Thy will, take this cup away from me."

 
 
The Nativity, detail of the Replica of the Wit Stwosz Gothic Altarpiece, St. John Cantius, Chicago.
Br. Nathan approaches the altarpiece—and swings it open. Now the whole central six panels have become one marvelous scene representing the Dormition of Our Lady. It's a powerful scene, the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary surrounded by the Apostles. Above, under a Gothic arch of gold and framed by angels with golden wings, Jesus receives His Mother in heaven.

It's a powerful depiction, the Orthodox Hymn of the Assumption carved in wood:

Apóstoloi ek peraton/Synathristhéndes entháde/Gesthemané to horíon/kithefsaté mou to sóma/Kai Sy Christé kai Theé mou/paralavón mou to pnéfma. (Apostles, who from the ends of the earth have gathered here, bury my body in Gethsemane. And You, my Christ and Lord, receive my spirit.)

"The left panel," Br. Nathan says, "represents the Joys of Mary: The Annunciation, The Nativity, and the Adoration of the Magi.

"In the Nativity, God is showing His face to man. God, who is absolute transcended, becomes absolutely imminent for us in the most humble manner. God, even though He is so completely Other, becomes one of us, the smallest among us. In the Adoration of the Magi, Christ manifests Himself to man, so that we can have a relationship with him."

In the panel of The Annunciation, the Virgin kneels, and the Archangel points heavenward, at the Lord God surrounded by golden rays.

In The Nativity, St. Joseph, holding a shepherd's crook, and Mary, arms crossed, kneel in front of the Newborn Child lying on his manger, next to the ox and ass. Shepherds and angels, under a canopy of golden spires, complete this charming, yet powerful scene.

In the Adoration of the Mag, the Three Kings, adorned in golden raiment, worship the Babe held by His mother.

And to the left of this panel—in a simple presentation that yet to me denotes artistic genius—one of the Kings' horses, with gold reins and hoof raised, is just about to devour a plant.

Replica or not, the Stwosz Altarpiece is a resplendent piece, and I wonder how many flash cards it will take me to photograph it.

"You'll also want to see our Museum, upstairs," Br. Nathan says, that houses our Neapolitan Praesepio."

I was to return to St. John Cantius twice more: to photograph the Praesepio and The Nativity stained glass window, and to attend the Tridentine Mass. Seated alone in the balcony just below the choir loft—so I could record the music for this video—I was transported by the panorama of the sacred art of St. John Cantius that spread before me, the deep voice of the organ, the heavenly music of the choir, and the 2,000-year-old Latin chants. If only I didn't live 500 miles away…

When in Chicago, you won't want to miss visiting St. John Cantius: 825 N. Carpenter St., Chicago, Illinois 60642-5499; Rectory: 312-243-7373. Until then, you'll enjoy browsing the St. John Cantius website.

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Replica of the Great Altar of the Basilica of St. Mary, Krakow—Wit Stwosz Altarpiece, St. John Cantius. (Roll your mouse on and off the image to "open" the altarpiece.)



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