I’ve been trying to write this blog entry for weeks now. Literally, weeks—ever since I came home from Shanghai. I’m still a bit at a loss for what to say, but it’s Christmas Eve and the subject matter seems particularly appropriate.
Several days before I left China, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness an extraordinary fusion of art, history, and religion—in an atmosphere of such cheerful genius and goodnatured fun, that what was a historical event ended up being an afternoon of laughter and storytelling, mixed in with moments of pure awe. Yes, I know that sounds faintly melodramatic—but trust me. Trust me. I never use the word awe loosely.
So, what had me all choked up?
Quite simply (or not so simply), the installation of stained glass windows at St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai. I know, you’re probably wondering why bits of colored glass are so important, and that’s not easy to explain in this small space—though if you’d like a deeper understanding of why this was a significant event, a Really Big Deal, I recommend reading Adam Minter’s LA Times article on the history behind the creation of these stained glass windows.
And oh, that installation was something. I had the great honor and privilege of meeting Wo Ye, the artist tasked with replacing all the stained glass destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Wo is a remarkable woman. Wonderfully generous, an artistic genius, unpretentious, a rascal—if I had a list of fascinating people, she would be on it. A true pleasure to meet her, and I sincerely hope I have another chance to be in her company. She has faced tremendous obstacles while trying to complete this project; from different Catholic groups who have conflicting ideas about what religious symbols are appropriate (and whether a Chinese sensibility should be permitted); and from those who have discounted her abilities and vision, simply because she is a woman.
I’ve posted pictures, but they don’t do reality justice. I promise you, the light that passes through those windows is spectral, and the glow that fills the church has a peculiar weight to it; until you feel, almost, that moving through it requires passing through layers and skins of light. The silence is incredible, too. When sitting inside the cathedral, you can sense the weight of focused thought and energy: years of prayer. I like to sit there sometimes, and listen just to the silence.
Adam posted some beautiful photos at his blog, and some of mine are below.
Some photos of the lovely Wo Ye. On the third picture, the one that shows two people crouched on the ledge just inside the window…that ledge is 60 feet or more above the ground, and no one was wearing a harness or a rope while working out there. And that ledge is narrow. Wo Ye is the one on the right, and she had to be up there for most of the installation to make certain everything was put in correctly. Nerves of steel.
We were up and down that scaffolding like crazy people. So much fun. Do any of you know what scaffolding in China is like? Dudes, it’s bamboo, some mats, and a whole lotta keep-your-fingers-crossed.
Here are some of the guys doing the installation work.
And more photos of Wo Ye supervising.
The installation isn’t complete, and won’t be for another year or two. With any luck, I’ll be there the next time.
Merry Christmas Eve, everyone. And for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, I wish you the very happiest of holidays. I hope your travels have been safe, and that your time with family and friends is sweet and full of love.