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A Cuzco School Nativity — The Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California

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Concrete, metal, glass, and wood may be the building blocks of Oakland's 21st century Cathedral, but these most basic of materials are transformed by natural light into an ethereal, spiritual, space. Shepherded by then Oakland's Bishop Vigneron and designed by a gifted group of San Francisco architects headed by Craig Hartman, The Cathedral of Christ the Light stands as a testament to faith and divinely-inspired design…

 
Like the ribs of a biblical arc, the wood latticework of The Cathedral of Christ the Light envelops you, and ethereal light not only infuses the church with spirituality, but creates the Cathedral's primary iconography — an almost 60-foot-high apparition of Christ in Majesty from Chartres Cathedral. 
 
The Omega Window of The Cathedral of Christ the Light, facing Okland's Harrison Street, illuminates the image of Christ in Majesty (see photo, below). 
A storm that threatens to bring rain to the Bay Area is still far off at sea, and the Cathedral of Christ the Light shimmers in the morning light as if clad in a glass veil.

The round Cathedral tapers towards the top, and a slice taken out of its in its outer skin facing Harrison Street creates a recess featuring an arched window-like structure, (see photo, left). The Cathedral rises from a concrete podium, with two sets of steps circling around it. I take the one on the left, find myself on the Cathedral Plaza level, and proceed to walk around the Cathedral perimeter towards the entrance.

It is marked with the words, set in the pavement, "I am the door; whoever enters through me will be saved," (John 10:9), and two cornerstones: on the left, "St. Francis de Sales, Sept. 13, 1891," (Oakland's Cathedral damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and subsequently demolished), and on the right with a dedication: "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, [To the Greater Glory of God] The Cathedral of Christ the Light, September 25, 2008, Anno Domini."

Two large wooden doors, set apart by panels of clear glass, are incised by two intersecting circles that overlap when the doors are closed, create the outline of a fish, echoing the shape of the "window" I saw from Harrison Street, and the one just above the entrance.

Through the doors, the low ceiling of the Cathedral narthex gives way to the soaring height of the sanctuary. Like the ribs of a biblical arc, the wood latticework of The Cathedral of Christ the Light envelops you, and light — diffused, opaque, translucent, filtered — fills the Cathedral and illuminates the spirit (see photo, top of page).

Light not only infuses the Cathedral with spirituality, but creates its most visible iconography — an almost 60-foot high image of Christ in Majesty from Chartres Cathedral that seems to float like an eerie apparition above the altar. It's Christós Pantocrator (Christ the All Powerful), painted with light, not "written" (as icons are said to be) in the tempera of Byzantine iconography, or carved in stone as in European Cathedral.

In this image, the Lord holds high His right hand in blessing, and with His left, the Gospel. In front of me flash the words I have seen written on that Gospel in Byzantine icons of Christ Pantocrator: Εγώ Ειμί Το Φως Του Κόσμου· ο Ακολουθών Ειμί Ου Μη Περιπατήσει Εν Τη Σκωτία, Αλλ' Έξει το Φως Της Ζωής. "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."

In awe, I'm drawn towards this image of Christ, and begin to walk down the center aisle. But a dark-suited security guard catches up with me and whispers, "We'll have a communion orientation in a moment; would you please use the side aisle?"

 
The powerful image of Christ in Majesty, from Chartres Cathedral — light, and 94,000 perforations of varying size, a connection between the church's Medieval past and the 21st century 
Of course. My feet veer to the left, but my eyes stay focused straight ahead. An amplified voice welcomes parishioners who'll be assisting with communion during Mass, but it's falling on deaf ears, because my eyes are filled with wonder.

I'm now back at the baptismal font, and about to start walking on the curving outside aisle of the Cathedral when I notice a priest standing among a small group of people. I introduce myself to Father Raymond Sacca, the Cathedral Rector, who explains that he's about to address the orientation. Seeing my reaction to the figure of Christ floating in mid-air, he says, "It's Christ in Majesty, from Chartres Cathedral, painted by light, shining through 94,000 pixels of various sizes." What a fitting connection for a 21st century Cathedral to the Medieval tradition of the Church! (See image, below left).

Before walking towards the altar to join the orientation, Father Ray takes the time to show me the Cathedral's St. John's Bible. It's an extraordinary, large-format edition, filled with beautiful illustrations and calligraphic sacred texts issued by St. John's University, St. Joseph, Minnesota.

When I look back up, the image of Christ seems to move and change. As I walk, the light seems to slightly shift — did a wispy cloud go by overhead? — and the image of Christ becomes more visible, in subtle shades of light and shadow (see image, below left). The image of Christ seems to be in motion, looking so much like a 3-dimensional hologram, not holes of varying size through silver aluminum panels.

The background shape of this Chartres image also brings into focus other Cathdral shapes I've been noticing — the East and West "windows," the entrance door circle inscriptions, the Cathedral ceiling. I recognize them as vesica piscis, the almond shape in the middle of two overlapping circles with the outside edge of each reaching the center of the other. Take a look at the Chartres image, below left, and you'll see this shape enclosing the figure of Christ.

Vesica piscis is also known by the Italian word for almond, mandorla, and it often encloses the image of Christ in Majesty, as it does in Chartres. It's an ancient symbol, but in Christian symbolism it stands for the coming together — in Christ — of the spiritual and earthly spheres — the divine and the human.

Although the term vesica piscis literally translates from the Latin as "fish bladder," the Greek word for fish, ΙΧΘΥΣ, icthys, is the reason for vesica piscis' association with Christianity: The Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ is also an acrostic for Ιησούς Χριστός, Θεού Υιός, Σωτήρ (Iesoús Christós, Theoú Yiós, Sotér — Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

And, although not yet evident to me amidst all of this syllogism, the very shape of The Cathedral of Christ the Light is a vesica piscis! But more about that, in a moment.

 
Christ in Majesty, from the portal of Chartres Cathedral, framed by a vesica piscis, the intersection of two circles representing the spiritual sphere intersecting that of earth. 
Lost in thought, working through all of this, I realize that I've walked all around the sanctuary a couple of times, and find myself by the flowing baptismal font once again.

I take out my camera and, and standing in front of the baptismal font, I begin to shoot, not quite knowing what I'm going to do with all of these incredible images. I'm may be in search of The Nativity, after all, but feel compelled to try and capture the beauty of The Cathedral of Christ the Light.

As I walk around again, I notice the bronze relief plaques of the Stations of the Cross set low on the wall, so that they can be touched by the faithful. And above them, all around the Cathedral, silver candelabras are suspended by silver chains, the name of an Apostle engraved on their silver rectangular base. The each hold a single candle — that no doubt is never needed in daylight — visual allusions to the Light of the World.

I'm almost half-way around the Cathedral again — the side aisle gently rises past, and in the back of, the altar — when I see it: a side chapel, filled with large paintings.

This chapel is lit by a slit cut into the concrete wall on the right corner, and another, larger one, cut at its circular base. But a knee wall prevents direct light from flooding the chapel, and it seems slip over the concrete barrier, like the fog I saw the day before flowing over the Golden Gate Bridge. The chapel — and the paintings — glow with indirect light.

Set in gold-toned frames, the paintings depict, starting at the far right, Jesus at the Temple, The Return from Egypt, The Circumcision, and — could it be? Really? — The Nativity!

I can't believe my eyes or my good luck. I sit down in one of the wooden stools to admire the beautiful art: fanciful, fresh, innocent — almost naïve one might say, but in a most charming manner — but what a spectacular interpretation it is, nevertheless! The Virgin tenderly covers the slumbering Child with a lacy veil, surrounded by a carpet of flowers, shepherds, and St. Joseph, who leans over a wall, holding a lily.

I have admired such paintings before, during my trip to Peru, especially in Cuzco's Cathedral of Santo Domingo. In the ancient capital of the Incas, I even bought two Escuela Cuzqueña (Cuzco School) angels from an artist in an open air market.

The Cuzco School tradition, originating with the 1534 Conquest, brought European artistic tradition to local Quechua artists who made it their own with the use of earth colors, bright yellows and reds, a lack of perspective, and the use of exotic backgrounds. In fact, The Nativity is practically filled with flowers and colorful birds perched on lush forests.

Swirling among the clouds above, a banner exclaims, "GLORIA YNEX CEL SIS DEO." It's Latin with a Spanish flavor (see image, below).

 
The Adoration of the Shepherds, Chapel of the Holy Family, Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland California — "This Roman Catholic art of the Cuzco School dates from 1650," explains docent Carminda Gutierrez. "It's a combination of the art of the indigenous people of Peru, mixed with the influence of the Spanish Masters who arrived after the Conquest." 
 
My companion in search of The Nativity in the Bay Area, friend Terri Carlson, admiring the Cuzco School paintings in the Chapel of the Holy Family, The Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California. 
The storm that has been threatening rain has reached shore as I drive the 40 miles back to Oakland from my base in San Jose. I'm here on business, but the inclement weather has cancelled my shoot, and I'm on my way for my second Cathedral visit accompanied by my friend Terri Carlson who's as excited to see the Cathedral as I am. After all, I have been talking to her about nothing else for a couple of hours.

Terri, wanting a respite from what she calls the Midwest Tundra, joins me in my Bay Area search of The Nativity. And, given the rainy weather, she doesn't mind being confined indoors, enjoying the sacred art I'm photographing.

But the days are short, and it's great fun having Terri to talk about it all over dinner in Little Italy instead of having my usual chocolate milk and banana alone in my hotel room while backing up my images.

Terri and I park the car in the Cathedral garage on 21st Street, take the elevator upstairs to the plaza, and run for the Cathedral entrance through the pouring rain.

The Cathedral may be enveloped by dark clouds, but, inside, light fills the sanctuary: softer, muted, to be sure, but glorious, marvelous light nevertheless. The broken rays that a few days ago snuck through the Douglas fir ribs to sprinkle on the red oak pews may be absent today (see photo, top of page), but what does it matter? The Cathedral still feels ethereal, the image of Christ even more pronounced and no less inspiring.

Terri and I linger for a while in the Holy Family Chapel. She loves the Cuzco School paintings, and has her photo taken with The Nativity. The only reason we leave the chapel as the clock nears five, is because I don't want to find the Cathedral bookstore closed as I did before.

The bookstore is well stocked (I'm delighted to find Art of the Creche: Nativities from Around the World by James L. Govan) and my selections — books, a rosary, a Greek icon — are on the glass case in front of the checkout when I notice a painting hanging on the wall.

 
Cathedral of Christ the Light Docent Carminda Gutierrez stopped by to pray — and ended up giving a private tour. 
"Excuse me; do you know the name of this style of painting from Peru?"

The sales clerk thinks for a moment, but, like me, she cannot come up with the name.

That's when a woman with short brown hair, brown eyes, in a brown coat approaches us, saying, "It's from the School of Cuzco," spelling the word, "C, u, z, c, o.

"Actually, it's a combination of the art of the indigenous people of Peru, mixed with the influence of the Spanish Masters who came to Peru and mixed with the Dutch Masters, who influenced the Spanish Masters who taught the people of Cuzco how to do this particular kind of painting.

"The way you an tell that this is a Cuzco School painting is by the flora, the fauna, the colorfully lush birds in the background, the very delicate lace at the edge of the painting."

We have the great good fortune to run into Carminda Gutierrez, a Cathedral Docent who stopped by to pray on her way home from work and doesn't know that, at this late hour, she's just might be asked for a private tour.

My digital tape recorder at the ready, I ask if we may move to a corner of the store? I don't want people's voices to obscure our docent's impromptu exegesis.

"Of course," says Carminda, and I explain my devotion to The Nativity. Can she tell me anything at all about the Cathedral's Cuzco School paintings?

"There are four paintings in the Chapel of the Holy family," Carminda says, "from about 1650. Would you like to walk there while we talk about them?"

Would I? You can hear our dash acrross the wet plaza in the sound of wind and rain in my recording. But soon we're in the empty Cathedral, save for the security guard at the front entrance.

"So this is the Chapel of the Holy Family," Carminda says. "These four paintings date from the 1650s. The Cathedral obtained them from an art dealer in New Mexico, but they originated in Peru. This style of painting is called the School of Cuzco, and the master of this school of painting was Diego Quispe Tito.

"This style of painting is indigenous to the people of Peru, influenced by the Spanish masters who came over from Europe, and those Spanish masters were influenced by the Dutch masters. So there really are three kinds of styles in these paintings.

 
The Adoration of the Shepherds — Detail showing the earth colors and rich embroidery, hallmarks of the Cuzco School. (The Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California.) 
"The first painting is The Adoration of the Shepherds, but we know it as The Nativity. You can tell it's a Peruvian painting from the shepherd's Peruvian hat. And you can tell that it's the style of the School of Cuzco, from the flowers that you find all over, and the colorful birds you see perched on the roof and the woods.

"The second painting is The Circumcision, the third, The Return from Egypt, and the fourth, Jesus at the Temple. In every single one of these paintings you have Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And apart from the flowers and birds you see in the paintings, you'll also see the very delicate embroidery lace that is painted at the ends of the robes.

"You also see St. Joseph holding a bouquet of lilies, which is the symbol for innocence.

"These paintings are old, but behind you, these two statues are new, commissioned for the Cathedral and created by Luis Mora, a Guadalupe artist. The first is the Immaculata, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, to go with the theme of the Holy Family, we have St. Joseph holding the Baby Jesus. They are cedar wood, primed with gesso, so that painting and gold guilding can be applied. Aren't they beautiful?"

Would Carminda care to share a bit about herself?

"Me? I'm Portuguese, made in Hong Kong, from a place called Macao, a Portuguese colony," she offers with a smile.

How did she become a docent?

"When the Cathedral first opened, there was an announcement in my parish church that they were looking for docents. EVer since I first came, I have absolutely loved the Cathedral."

What did it feel like walking in for the first time?

 
On the lower, street level, in the Mausoleum of The Cathedral of Christ the Light, stained glass windows from the earthquake-damaged Oakland Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales are set in alabaster-like walls. 
"When I first saw it being built, in the middle of a parking lot, I thought why here? No one is going to come to Mass. Then, as it rose, I thought it too modern. But then I saw the light — when I trained to become a docent, and learned about all the theological symbolism, I truly understood it to be such a beautiful, sacred place.

"Some people say, 'There are no statues around the Cathedral, it looks so bare.' But the architect, Craig Hartman of the San Francisco firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — he won the American Institute of Architects Design Award for his Cathedral plan, and has also designed the International Terminal of the San Francisco Airport, and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing — wanted our focus to be on the altar. You've noticed that even the pews curve around the altar?

"But the beauty of this place is the shape of the Cathedral. When you first enter, it looks like Noah's Arc, because of all the wood louvers. But it may not be evident that the architect designed it in the shape of a fish, because a fish stand for…"

ICTHYS: Iesoús Christós Theoú Iós Sotér

"Yes; you know! "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." We have a picture to show people that the acronym for the Greek word for fish says that. But also, the shape of the Cathedral comes from sacred geometry, and it means that you're in a holy place. When you intersect two circles, what's in the center is the vesica piscis, and that's the shape of the fish. It's a shape found in the natural world.

"Over the baptismal font, you have the shape of the vesica piscis; over the congregation, the ceiling is the shape of the vesica piscis; and behind the altar, the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, is in the shape of the vesica piscis."

We are in the center aisle of the Cathedral now and Carminda looks up at the image of Christ. "This image was taken from Chartres Cathedral, in France," she says. "They laser-cut 94,000 holes into those aluminum panels, one- to an eighth-of an inch wide, angled in different directions to allow natural light to paint that image — the first time this technology has been used in this manner. We need to credit the designer, Lonny Insrael, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. On an overcast day, like today, the image of Christ is sharpest. When it's sunny, you can still see it, but it's much brighter."

Carminda turns around and looks above the Cathedral entrance. "That window faces the East," she says. "It's called the Alpha Window, and stands for the beginning of time. That's why some of those petal-like panels are open, signifying dawn. The sun rises and travels to the Omega Window — the end of time. The Day of Judgement — Christ in Majesty. Isn't wonderful how Bishop Vigneron and the architects thought everything out?"

We're almost out the door when Carminda says, "You have to come back for Mass. It's so beautiful. You have to hear the organ. It has 5,298 pipes, and it was donated to the Cathedral by a single family. It's glorious. They hand-carried each pipe in, let it get used to the environment after the organ was assembled — and they cancelled all the tours, so it could be very quiet when they tuned it."

Terri! She's waiting for us just inside the entrance, and hands me a shopping bag with all my purchases that she bought for me before the bookstore closed. What a wonderful friend! I'll have to come up with an extra-special place for dinner tonight. Maybe the Spinnaker, in Sausalito, overlooking the Bay?

But right now it's time to say goodbye, and "Thank You!" to Carminda. As she walks away to take the BART she asks, "Have you seen the Mausoleum, downstairs? It's so beautiful, peaceful. I don't know where I'm going to be — another state? Another country? — when I die. But when I saw this Mausoleum I said, 'This is my future home.' I have a spot there.

"And you have to see the stained glass windows! They're from the original church of St. Francis de Sales."

 
The Mausoleum of The Cathedral of Christ the Light is infused with golden light that seems to penetrate through the alabaster-like walls. 
As Terri and I walk downstairs, to the street level, the timelessness of running water echoes in the Mausoleum. Past the marvelous bronze Pietá, a long corridor leads straight ahead, terminating in a semi-circular, contemplative chapel with an altar and a Crucifix.

The altar is from the St. Francis de Sales Cathedral, lit by natural light emanating from a circular opening above. The Crucifix is outlined against golden alabaster-like marble that seems to be lit from within (see image, left).

The alabaster-like walls follow the cyclical contour of the Cathedral, and are filled on one side with Mausoleum niches. On the outside perimeter, luminous panels of stained glass from St. Francis de Sales Cathedral are set in the wall.

Downstairs, surrounded by all the stained glass, I feel light years away from the 21st century Cathedral upstairs. But I realize that light — that gives stained glass its beauty and power — also transforms concrete, wood, glass, and metal into the ethereal, spiritual, Cathedral of Christ the Light.

If you're in the Bay Area you'll want to spend a few hours in The Cathedral of Christ the Light, 2121 Harrison Street, Oakland, California 94612; (510) 832 - 5057. Park in the enclosed garage (entrance on Grand Ave.), and don't be surprised if you find yourself driving back again, and again — just as I did.

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