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Thursday, February 16, 2012

DeStaebler Masterpiece Meets New Media at Newman Chapel at UCB

By David James Randolph                      From “Worship That Flies” Tribute

We see Stephen DeStaebler’s work at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit centering in the Crucifixion or Crucifix in the setting of a living, breathing, working and worshipping community of the Roman Catholic Newman Center at the University of California at Berkeley. The Chapel of the Newman Center at UCB dramatically displays the challenges and opportunities for worship in this 21st century. Front and center is Christ on the cross by De Staebler and immediately on the left as we face forward is the screen that is used for digital projections. This juxtaposition symbolizes the encounter of ancient tradition with new media in contemporary worship. This embodies the issues we are discussing here providing a focus, theatre and laboratory for art and worship. The specific aspect of this chapel that makes it ideal for discussion is the juxtaposition of the Crucifix by De Staebler and the screen used for digital projection at the very center of the worship space.

Consider the Crucifix that is part of the sculpted altar by De Staebler dated 1968. As a space for worship, this is a means of grace. This crucifix depicts Christ crucified, without doubt. But this crucified Christ is also risen. Or actually rising as we view him. I know of no other sculpture which so perfectly expresses the Biblical view of Christ at once crucified and risen. Scholars’ wrestle with how these two dimensions of the Christ appeared chronologically (separated in time) must be understood together theologically. The worshipper in this space comes into the luminous presence of one who transcends those categories.

In the context of De Staebler’s work this Crucifixion is exceptional. Characteristically, his figures are fragmentary, suggestions, hints of a hidden whole. Here, in this broken Christ, the whole is restored.

This Crucifixion is also exceptional in the context of art history and takes its place with the masterpieces of sacred art. What other work of any period so effectively represents the Christ at once crucified, risen, ascending while present where His word is preached and the sacraments administered?

To fully appreciate this work and its setting it is important to consider the lighting. De Staebler himself pointed this out to me in his observation that the sculpture and worship center were designed to be illuminated in a particular way. For variety of reasons including the time of day and the economics of electricity the work may be shadowed or obscured in a negative way that calls for the intended illumination. This work also grows richer with progressive viewings and meditation that of course is part of its purpose in the chapel.

Consider the screen by the side of this crucifix. Looked at, the screen is an intrusion. It seems a profane intrusion into the sacred. It is not aesthetically pleasing. But the screen is not there to be looked at. It is not an object of art but a means of communication. Therefore, when the projector is turned on, the words of the hymn appear, and the congregation lifts its voice in song, the screen illuminates the crucifix as brilliantly as medieval manuscript art enlightens the Bible.

Worship is transformed from an activity in which individuals are riveted to books holding texts to a communal experience freeing them to be more present to one another, more aware of their surroundings and more active in their worship.
The screen was installed in this chapel originally as in many places of worship to show the words of hymns and announcements. But once installed they open the possibility of a new world of communication. For example, when a funeral mass is held here a memorial video may help viewers recall the life and times of their friend.

The use of a screen or screens in worship has become so extensive in some churches that it includes virtually every aspect of the service, including film clips in sermons and short films or videos, animated biblical cartoons for children, etc. for, and thus the challenge and opportunity of New Media in worship.
The New Media are no a less challenge to the art world itself. Walter Pater said that all art aspires to the musical. Now all art aspires to the digital. Digital media are now defining how paintings of the past are studied and how art of the future is created. For some, New Media take the place of the thief who would rob Jesus of his power while for others it is a means of renewing that power. The Chapel of the Newman Center at the University of California at Berkeley with the masterpiece of Stephen De Staebler near the screen for new media demonstrates the renewal of this power. 

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