Sept 1, 2002

In Our Own Image
 By REED JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer

She could be the woman piloting the No. 3 bus along Sunset Boulevard, the one who served you lunch today in Little Tokyo or wiped your brow as you lay in a Boyle Heights hospital bed. She could even be that statuesque supermodel type--those sinewy arms, those lofty cheekbones!--breezing by on the Santa Monica Promenade.

Her expression is demure, but her stance is powerful and direct, like an athlete's. Her eyes are cast downward but her shoulders are broad, and her oversized hands look strong and capable--appropriate for a woman whose image has led armies into battle and seized the imagination of entire continents.

Down through the centuries she has gone by many different names: The Virgin of Pomata. The Virgin of Montserrat. The Divine Shepherdess. The sorrowful Mater Dolorosa, grieving for her Son, depicted in Michelangelo's Pieta. La Virgen de Guadalupe, a.k.a. Our Lady of the Americas, who revealed herself not to the rich and powerful, but to the Indian peasant Juan Diego. The formidable Madonna of the Apocalypse, destined to help rid mankind of Satan.

She's certainly no stranger to Los Angeles, where her image adorns garage walls and Pico-Union
tiendas, front-yard grottoes and roadside shrines. Her character and deeds have been celebrated by artists as dissimilar as Botticelli and Chris Ofili, Bach and the Beatles, while sightings of her inspire pilgrimages to this day.

Yet in her latest manifestation, serene and self-contained, floating above the Great Bronze Doors at the entrance to the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, she seems to be all these women and many more besides. A woman for the ages, favored by God above all others, but also a woman specifically of 21st century Los Angeles. A homegirl. One of us.

has to be one of us," says artist Robert Graham, puffing a cigar as he gazes up at his 8-foot-tall creation, ablaze in the morning sunlight. "I think that throughout all the representations of the Virgin goddess, there has always been the recognition that each one of those has been of the time and of the people."

Which raises a question, pondered deeply over the last several years by Graham, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and other movers and shakers behind the $200-million cathedral complex, which will be formally dedicated Monday:

What should be the attributes of this thoroughly modern Virgin? What qualities do you ascribe to a woman mentioned only fleetingly in the New Testament, as well as in the Koran, who has inspired monarchs, artists and theologians for two millenniums? A woman whose picture is instantly recognizable to millions, but who lacks a codified image?

In an essay about Graham's statue and the Great Bronze Doors, Jack Miles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "God: A Biography," writes that the Virgin "is like a miraculously talented actress who discovers something new within herself wherever she performs by drawing theatrical power from each successive audience."

That metaphor might strike some believers as irreverent. Yet the 15 different incarnations of the Virgin depicted on Graham's bronze doors illustrate the myriad ways in which Mary has been imagined, the roles she has played, among them the "Black Madonna" of Montserrat, Catalonia, in Spain, and the Virgin of Loreto, in Italy, surrounded by the words of an incantatory prayer listing her various titles--Holy Mother of God, Vessel of Honor, Ark of the Covenant, Morning Star, Refuge of Sinners.

Significantly, many of the images chosen for the door were imported by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries to the colonies of the New World. Some were adopted wholesale by the colonized. Others were transformed by contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, who alchemically combined them with likenesses of their own earth-mother goddesses and female deities.

These images should have particular resonance with worshipers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where one of every six U.S. Latino Catholics resides. They also provide a historical foundation for the ethnically indeterminate features of Graham's statue, a regal
mestizo beauty who embodies certain qualities of her iconographic ancestors.

In his essay, Miles suggests that, "at the risk of caricature," Graham's statue "may be said to have a Caucasian nose, Asian eyes, African lips, and straight, coarse hair worn in a thick Native American braid." How else should the patroness of America's most ethnically scrambled city look?

But the implications of the statue's appearance go way beyond a politically sensitive act of cultural affirmation.

By awarding the Virgin a central place in the cathedral's narrative, the archdiocese is keeping faith with a long, if fluctuating, Catholic and Orthodox tradition of devotion to Our Lady, a tradition enjoying a resurgence under Pope John Paul II. (The pope's personal motto, "Totus tuus sum, Maria," or "I am all yours, Mary,"
reflects his belief that the Virgin intervened to save his life from an assassin's bullet in 1981 so that he could help defeat European communism.)

Historically, the Virgin Mary hasn't always been an essential thread in the Christian narrative, says Jaroslav Pelikan, an emeritus history professor at Yale and author of "Mary Through the Centuries." Possibly because explicit references to her in the New Testament are relatively scant, it wasn't until AD 431 that the church even officially recognized Mary as the mother of God. As late as the third century, there was "no trace of belief in Mary's assumption into heaven," Pelikan writes.

Over the centuries, the worship of Mary has drifted in and out of fashion, sometimes regarded as a fitting tribute to the mother of God, other times as a potential threat to the theological supremacy of the Trinity. Marian cults have flourished, then mysteriously faded.

Medieval women particularly identified with Mary's humility, Pelikan writes, "but also with her defiance and with her victory." In modern times, the Virgin has been a figurehead for Third World liberation movements and a lightning rod for feminists. Simone de Beauvoir, in her classic "The Second Sex," claimed that Mary's subjugation to Jesus in Christian theology relegated women worldwide to "inferiority" status.

Even today, the Virgin's symbolic potency makes her a provocative, sometimes controversial figure. Earlier this summer, the Rev. Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury, head of Britain's Anglican Church, was accused of idolatry for encouraging devotion to the Virgin Mary. A sculptural installation by contemporary artist Robert Gober, which featured a statue of the Virgin with a culvert pipe piercing her midsection, practically touched off a riot when it was shown a few years ago at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.

In the end, every generation and culture seem able to find a Mary suited to their own tastes and preoccupations. "By one of the most dramatic reversals in the history of ideas," writes Pelikan, "this humble peasant girl from Nazareth has been made the subject of some of the most sublime and even extravagant theological speculation ever thought up."

It was far from a given that Mary would grace the new cathedral's entrance, according to some accounts. Initially, essayist Miles says, plans had called for a statue of Jesus in that exalted position. Later, the cardinal suggested that Mary, as the cathedral's namesake, ought to have a prominent role in Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo's elegant modernist design.

Even so, it was apparently some time before Mary emerged as the undisputed central figure in Graham's sculptural composition. One early version of the work had Mary with the infant Jesus set across her breast. Another called for flanking the Virgin with two angels.

Eventually, it was decided that symbolism, language and local historical context dictated a different concept of this singular woman, who lent her name to the settlement founded here in her honor in 1781: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora, la Reina de los Angeles.

"By having her without the flanking angels, it's an allusion that she's Our Lady of
Los Angeles," Graham says, giving the last two words their Spanish pronunciation, with the long o and the soft g. "We are the city of Los Angeles, and she's our patron." And we, Graham says, are her angels.

Graham says he finds it difficult to discuss his thought process in creating the work, or to analyze the challenges of the high-profile commission he reportedly lobbied hard to get. "I got a really good model and closed my eyes and just hoped it came out all right," he said during a public forum at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this summer. The process of mold-making, casting and fabricating the work took place over roughly two years, and involved three foundries.

Graham, 64, is a longtime resident of Venice Beach, where he lives with his wife, actress Anjelica Huston. His pieces are scattered through the city, most prominent among them "Olympic Gateway," a pair of headless, heroic male and female nudes, which marks the entrance to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and was commissioned for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Arguably the best-known figurative sculptor working in the United States today, he has won commissions for several large civic projects, including "Monument to Joe Louis" (1986) in downtown Detroit, a section of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (1997) in Washington, and "Duke Ellington Memorial" (1997) just north of New York City's Central Park.

Graham says an artist's identity shouldn't matter in the greater scheme of monumental works designed to last generations. "The majority of these landmarks we pay attention to are anonymous, or without authority," he says. "In order to do it, you really do have to relinquish your authority."

However, he has permitted himself one autobiographical footnote in the Great Bronze Doors: The image of the Virgin of the Rosary of Chichinquira, from Colombia,
includes a replica of his mother's rosary.

Born in Mexico City in 1938, Graham was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools there and in the U.S., where his family later moved. The Virgin of Guadalupe was a presence in his life practically from infancy. "You can't get away from the Virgin in Mexico," he says.

Graham acknowledges that "research was very important" in his approach to the project. To learn more about how the Virgin imagery has evolved historically, he visited museums and libraries, and pored over books like Carol Damian's "The Virgin of the Andes: Art and Ritual in Colonial Cuzco."

That knowledge is distilled into the 15 virginal manifestations that grace roughly the top two-thirds of the inner doors. Below them, 40 smaller icons represent faiths preceding Christianity and include an I Ching symbol, Celtic serpents and a condor symbol popular with the Chumash people who once inhabited Southern California.

Peggy Fogelman, assistant director for education and interpretive programs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and author of an essay on the Great Bronze Doors' historical antecedents, says the "multiplicity" of Graham's imagery allows cathedral visitors to approach the Virgin and the faith through various symbolic points of entry.

For instance, she says, "some people, because of their personal experience, have a more immediate response to the Virgin of Sorrows, like they can relate to that aspect of losing a son, that very human aspect of the Virgin."

The inner doors are contained in two outer doors that assume the shape of inverted Ls. Together, the 25-ton doors function as a kind of vertical mobile sculpture. "I really think Robert's narrative articulates exactly what those doors ought to be," says Richard S. Vosko, a priest and religious scholar who was the archdiocese's liturgical and public art consultant.

Hovering 20 feet above the cathedral plaza, the statue of Our Lady is set within a gold T-shaped section of the tympanum, a rectangular area above the doors. The tympanum is scored with three horizontal lines that, according to Miles' essay, represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A halo of natural light, created by a large opening in the tympanum, surrounds her head.

Her feet are bare, as are her long, graceful arms, and she wears no headdress--one of several striking departures from traditional medieval and Renaissance images of Mary.

Her palms are turned outward, as if welcoming worshippers into the house of God, and she stands on a crescent moon, an allusion to the description in Revelation 12:1 of a woman presumed to be Mary, "clothed in the sun with the moon under her foot." Some observers have told Graham that the statue's powerful bearing puts them in mind of another strong, devout female servant of God: Joan of Arc.

The Virgin's appearance, including her clothing, received much attention not only from Graham, but from the cardinal and his board of cathedral advisors. (Though there appears to have been a lively give-and-take on some issues, Graham says he doesn't have any complaints about his relations with church officials: "I was given the liberty to work without interference.")

According to a footnote in Miles' essay, "in an early model, the Virgin wore sandals and long sleeves; but to the consternation of some, both had disappeared when a scale model of the doors was displayed at a fund-raising dinner on May 24, 1999."

The essay quotes from a letter written by Mahony to Graham in which the cardinal stated that "some cautions are being raised by members of our Cathedral Advisory Board over the final form and appearance of the statue."

In reply, Graham wrote to Vosko, noting that the "concept of garments in sacred images always follows cultural and geographical conventions of their time," and that the statue's garments "reflect current ideas of clothing of the coming 21st century," including suitability to a warm climate and "utter simplicity."

Graham went on to note the unusual properties of Mary's long, almost mystically wrinkle-free tunic, contributing to her aura of placidity. "Her grandeur is in its simplicity in context with the heavenly plane of the tympanum," Graham wrote. "This I feel would be debased by adding ersatz regal trappings or other 'fancy' ornaments to Her garments."

Fogelman, of the Getty Museum, says that "to me, actually, the most powerful thing" about Graham's statue is that the Virgin's arms are bare. "There's a kind of immediacy and maybe even accessibility that her bared arms kind of imply," she says.

These issues, part aesthetic and part liturgical, relate to a broader question: Should the statue and the doors be considered art? "It isn't art," Graham insists, "because I don't know what art is. It's a door to the cathedral, and it's a door that represents Catholic content to the Catholic community. It's not art in the same way that a Buddha wouldn't be art to a Buddhist. It's a Buddha!"

Chuckling, he lights up another cigar.

So who exactly is the woman behind the woman who will embody the spiritual aspirations of several million people, now and in centuries to come? (For the record, she's reported to be a local model of mixed Anglo and Latino descent.)

Graham would clearly prefer that her identity not be made public. "The model was just the beginning of the piece," he says. "But by the time it's finished, it's not either me or the model that comes out."

Of course, a little mystery won't hurt Our Lady; it never has.

A few days ago, Graham, Miles, Fogelman and the cardinal were at an evening reception and book-signing in the new cathedral's courtyard. Among the guests nibbling hors d'oeuvres and sipping wine and soft drinks as they milled about the plaza was John R. Williams, an associate with Leo A Daly construction firm.

The son of a Mexican-Japanese mother and a Welsh-French-English father, Williams said he was pleased by the statue's appearance. "I can look at her one way and see a Northern European woman, then when you're up close I see more of the Latino, Hispanic background," he observed. "We're so used to seeing paintings of her with a European look, and I'd never understand that, with her being from the Middle East."

A few yards away, Graham was busily greeting friends while patiently signing book after book. Night was falling across the city. The moon had not yet risen.

But at the center of the party, illuminated from below, Our Lady of Los Angeles watched over her new home, a point of light in the darkness.

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