October 13, 2016

Photo Essay: Sin City's Guardian Angel Cathedral

I've got this map.

It's not a map of the places I've been, which you can find here on my site. No, it's a private map, visible only to me, of the places I want to go.

And it can become a little overwhelming.

I've bookmarked a lot of museums, historical sites, diners, bars, and so on in case I find myself somewhere with a little time on my hands. They're not necessarily items on my bucket list—they're just places I think I might like to go if I'm nearby and have got the time.

The problem with this map is that I don't always remember why I've bookmarked something. That means that sometimes I go there without knowing what I'm looking for once I arrive.

That's what happened when I decided to go to the Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas, on the northern end of the Strip. I couldn't remember what about it had interested me, but I went to check it out anyway.

The moment I saw this A-frame modernist structure, I started to take notice...

...but it wasn't until I took a closer look at the colorful mosaic tile mural on the face of the Catholic church that I knew I'd stumbled upon something really special.

I've seen lots of liturgical art in my day, but nothing quite like this.

It looked like something out of a comic book, or perhaps rendered by a pop artist. You might even say it's downright Cubist.

Its subjects of Peace, Prayer, and Penance were solemn, but the corresponding figures—and namesake guardian angel—depicted in tile looked more like superheroes than the sad and pious characters you normally find adorning a Catholic edifice.

But the staggering work of sacred art outside the cathedral was only the beginning—because inside, a series of 12 triangular niches were filled with mid-20th century stained glass windows (dated 1965) that illustrated the Stations of the Cross with the same daring approach as the mural out front.

It turns out that the tile and the leaded glass were the work of two different artists—that is, two sisters from Hungary named Isabel Piczek and Edith Piczek. Edith designed the murals (which were executed by the Favret studio in Pietrasanta, Italy) while Isabel created the windows.

The two sisters worked out of their "Construction Art Center" studio in Echo Park, Los Angeles,  creating liturgical art for many churches throughout LA and Orange counties—but the Guardian Angel Cathedral is considered the crowning achievement of their careers.

And, looking at the painted faces and the shadows and shading used in window installations like "The Birth of New Humanity," it's easy to see why.

The church actually opened in 1963, before Las Vegas even had its own diocese. But what it did have was lots of tourists and local workers from the casinos wanting to go to church nearby.

Its A-frame design is the work of Paul R. Williams, the architect who designed everything from celebrity ranches to the Murphy Ranch gate and the Solstice Canyon estate (that unfortunately burned to the ground).

While the building structure is decidedly modern, the Piczek sisters have described their combined aesthetic as "Mystic Realism."

As they've said, their artwork "is the kind of art which does not want to exist for its own sake."

In fact, they've argued, "The real artwork is not made from glass, paint or tile."

It has much more to do with an "inner existence" and "the monumentally recreated world of Man’s Super nature." It's no surprise that Isabel was also a theoretical physicist.

But, when it comes down to it, the real purpose of the art is to create happiness.

And by that measure, judging by my own reaction to it and all metaphysics aside, the art was successful.

Like most stained glass, the windows are only visible during daylight while the sun's rays are beaming through. Later in the day, when the sides of the A-frame are cast in shadows, al you can see from the inside is a dark outline, illuminated only slightly by artificial light.

And like many traditional ecclesiastical leaded glass windows, these were meant to be read as much as viewed...

...though the facial expressions therein seem to tell stories of a thousand words each.

Still, the commands are simple, clear, and emphatic: Go forth, teach all nations.

If you look at the windows closely, you can see a few references to gambling and the other vices that may take hold of the parishioners of this cathedral—whether they're based in Sin City or just passing through.

At least there's somewhere to go for some penance and contrition after all that sin.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Stained Glass Crawl Through a Cathedral Crypt
Photo Essay: Climbing to the Top of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Photo Essay: Blessings for the Poor in Spirit
Photo Essay: The Way of Sorrows
Photo Essay: The Monastic Life at St. Andrew's Abbey

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