For centuries, Catholics around the world have looked to the saints for inspiration, guidance and hope, especially during the most challenging of times.
While the saints and their stories are present in the form of liturgical art in Catholic churches and schools, there are also magnificent representations of the saints throughout the cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Newark to help Christians better understand the connections between their faith, and the promise of the resurrection.
As the construction of the new Chapel Mausoleum of the Resurrection at St. Gertrude Cemetery in Colonia nears completion, four life-sized, handcrafted wooden statues of the evangelists and the four creatures associated with each one have been completed by Demetz Art Studio located in Ortisei, Italy, and await installation at niche banks located at the front and rear of the new mausoleum.
“From the moment families and visitors enter the new mausoleum for a committal service or to visit a loved one, we aim to provide a deeply spiritual and uplifting experience,” said Andrew Schafer, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Newark. “The lives of the saints serve as examples of how the love of Christ follows us from baptism into the afterlife. This is just another way we fulfill the important mission of our ministry.”
According to aleteia.org, St. Matthew is associated with the angel because his Gospel introduces Christ’s birth and includes the genealogy of Jesus. The lion stands with St. Mark since his Gospel emphasizes the majesty of Christ and His royal dignity. St. Luke is connected to the ox as his Gospel focuses on the sacrificial character of Christ’s death. And St. John is associated with the eagle, for it’s a symbol of “that which comes from above.”
An artwork of St. Gertrude the Great, the namesake of the cemetery, will also adorn the spiritual space for the first time in its nearly 90-year history. When the bronze statue of St. Gertrude is completed, it will be installed next to the new state-of-the-art cemetery office, which opened July 1.
Born in 1256, St. Gertrude of Helfta was a German Benedictine nun and mystic entrusted to a monastery at 5 years of age. According to the National Catholic Register, at 24, Gertrude received her first vision of Christ, and she focused on the study of Scripture and theology and spent hours praying daily.
“I am impressed by St. Gertrude’s devotion to prayer, especially for those who died. Her special devotion was to the sacred heart of Jesus, which exemplifies the unconditional love that Jesus has for all,” says Sister Donna L. Ciangio, O.P., D. Min. of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Newark. “Through the intercession of St. Gertrude, we can reflect on how Jesus calls each of us through our baptism to act lovingly in his name.”
Many of those prayers were miraculously answered after several monastery sisters were healed of serious diseases. She practiced a spirituality known as “nuptial mysticism,” saw herself as the bride of Christ, and encouraged others to pray to His Sacred Heart after the apostle St. John stood Gertrude next to Christ during a vision where she witnessed his Sacred Heart beating.
Before sketching the artwork for what would become the bronze sculpture of St. Gertrude holding the Sacred Heart of Jesus, artist Albano Poli of Progetto Arte Poli, an art studio in Verona, Italy, commissioned by Catholic Cemeteries, studied and admired her strength, solitude, and life of prayer, especially throughout her enduring illness.
“During my childhood, I would go to the mountains near a local lake to meditate and pray,” explained Poli, describing a time when his family struggled to keep food on the table during World War II. “This [statue] gives me enormous strength and leads me to the creation of unique artworks that, for me, are always powerful creations between the faithful and the sacred.”
Progetto Arte Poli, where every artwork is entirely hand-made, has created mosaics for the Holy See at the Vatican Gardens, stained glassworks in the Apostolic Palace, and bronze and marble artworks for St. John Lateran Basilica, the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome.
The studio has also created projects around the globe. And while studio employees carve and sculpt the religious figures out of wood, bronze, marble, and other materials, they experience a unique process that bonds them with the creations.
“Every craftsman and artist at the very moment in which he is concentrated in the creation of the work becomes a metaphor of the primordial creative act, that of genesis and every work of art becomes the creation, the ‘child’ of the artist, and in turn, the artist becomes the father of the work,” Poli stated. “I hope this sculpture will also inspire equally powerful and heartfelt prayers for the salvation of beloved ones who are now facing their journey to heaven and God.”
This close relationship combined with the intrinsic sacredness of the subject inevitably creates a strong bond between the author and the sacred art piece, according to Poli, and the study of the life of the saint who is to be depicted or of the particular episode of the Gospel takes on the importance not only in the initial sketching phase but also in the actual creation.
In addition to the statue of St. Gertrude, Progetto Arte Poli is also currently working on several other artworks to be installed at St. Gertrude Cemetery and Mausoleum, including a statue of Jesus being baptized by St. John the Baptist at the circle of the main entrance; a marble altar depicting bronze statues of Mary with the Twelve Apostles during Pentecost inside the new mausoleum; and the primary stained glass of the Ascension of Christ that will greet visitors as they enter the chapel mausoleum currently under construction.
“Every time we pray the words of the Creed, we profess to ‘believe in the communion of Saints.’ The latest collection of artwork to be installed at Saint Gertrude’s Cemetery and Mausoleum, is a bold and beautiful reminder of the existence of the lives of the Saints as followers and companions of Jesus,” explains Reverend Monsignor Michael A. Andreano, Spiritual Director of Catholic Cemeteries, and Pastor of Saints Peter & Paul Parish, Hoboken.
“Their lives with Him on Earth forever attached them to Him, bringing them beyond this life to eternal life in heaven. We, too, who follow Him are promised that same path, through the Resurrection,” Andreano adds, as he quotes from the Gospel of Matthew 10:32. “You who acknowledge me here on Earth, I will acknowledge before my Heavenly Father.”
Most of the new artworks are expected to be completed and installed in the new chapel mausoleum by spring 2021. Visit the Saint Gertrude Cemetery and Mausoleum web page for updates.