Haiti cathedral's murals could be resurrected, experts say

Trinity Sunday celebration will mark diocese's second collection toward rebuilding
May 26, 2010

Some of the world-famous murals that adorned the walls of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti's Holy Trinity cathedral prior to the Jan. 12 earthquake, and gave Haitians of all faiths a vision of their place in the stories of the Bible, could be preserved and possibly even restored.

That's the assessment of a team of art experts who have surveyed artworks and other cultural artifacts that were damaged in the magnitiude-7 quake. However, they said, decisions about the murals' fate need to be made soon.

"The murals are running out of time," said Corine Wegener, a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and president of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, which is dedicated to the protection of cultural property worldwide during armed conflict. A retired Army officer, she was posted to Iraq just after the looting of the Iraqi National Museum.

"They're really, really at risk and there are going to have to be some decisions in order for us to move forward," Wegner said of the murals. "What nobody wants to have happen is that while we are making these decisions, a small aftershock [occurs] and they're gone."

Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Institution undersecretary for history, art and culture, echoed those concerns. "If we leave them in their current state, they will indeed suffer increasingly more damage," he said. "They are not going to last for a very long time."

Episcopal Diocese of Haiti Bishop Jean Zaché told ENS by phone from Haiti May 27 that "it is so important that we keep them and preserve them, so even though we will rebuild the cathedral where it was" the question is, indeed, how to protect the remaining murals in the meantime. Duracin said he envisions the survivors being incorporated into a new cathedral.

"When we have the design of the plan of the [new] cathedral, we will protect them," Duracin said. Meanwhile, he said, he believes the murals can stay in place due to work that has already occurred to begin to stabilize them.

Duracin hopes to convene a meeting in Port-au-Prince soon to discuss rebuilding plans with representatives of the many groups that cherish the cathedral and are eager to help in its rebuilding. One of those representatives is Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe Bishop Pierre Whalon, whom Duracin asked earlier this year to help guide those efforts. Duracin said that an architectural firm is already helping the diocese in the planning process.

"It is the will of Haitian people to rebuild the cathedral because the cathedral has been for us our mother church here in Haiti," he said.

The cathedral is still operating on the site, albeit without walls in what Duracin calls the "open-air cathedral." It consists of plastic sheeting stretched over a frame of two-by-fours that shelters some pews rescued from the cathedral ruins.

The diocese will celebrate Trinity Sunday at the site on May 30 and take up its second diocesan-wide offering for the rebuilding effort.

"That will be our second symbolic but very important effort to rebuild the cathedral," he said.

The first offering, collected during the diocese's April 6-8 synod meeting, netted $6,000.

Kurin, who returned from Haiti on May 25 after negotiating a cultural-heritage recovery plan with Haitian government officials, told ENS that he had not seen the Holy Trinity murals prior to the earthquake, despite having been in Port-au-Prince many times.

"It was incredibly striking and sad and in some ways strangely uplifting to see those murals in their current state," he said. "When you see the ruins of those walls and the murals still standing, they are standing there proudly amidst the destruction."

Kurin said he was also struck by what he called the "Haitization" of biblical stories portrayed in the murals. "In that fact, there's a respect for the people of Haiti in those murals … the art of those murals incorporates Haitians in that story and that's very moving," he said. "Those murals represent a coming together of different cultural traditions and making them particularly and especially Haitian. They're unique; they're beautiful."

Kurin and others hoped to include the murals in the Smithsonian's Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. The project will operate in a 7,500-square-foot, three-story air-conditioned building in Port-au-Prince that once housed the United Nations Development Programme, according to a Smithsonian news release. It will be a place where objects retrieved from the rubble can be assessed, conserved and stored. Haitians will be trained to take over the conservation effort in a few years.

The effort is being conducted in partnership with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities with assistance from three U.S. federal agencies: National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Additional money is coming from the Broadway League.

Both Kurin and Wegener said that the cathedral murals' importance reaches far beyond the diocese.

"Of all the Haitians I've spoken to about some of the most at-risk and most-important cultural heritage, without exception the Holy Trinity murals are mentioned time and time again as such a critical part of Haiti's cultural identity and heritage," Wegener said.
"Whether you're Episcopal or not, everybody realizes that that was such an important moment in the development of Haitian art and that those have to be preserved if we can do it."

Holy Trinity was established in Port-au-Prince on Pentecost, May 25, 1863. Its church building has since been destroyed six times, often by fire and once by an earthquake in the 1920s. The paintings, completed in 1950-51, portrayed biblical stories in Haitian motifs and were crafted by some of the best-known Haitian painters of the 20th century.

"It has been said that Bishop [Alfred] Voegli had his Bible in his hand with the painters and he explained the Bible to them and asked them to how to put the Bible in the Haitian context," Duracin told ENS. To do so meant that elements of Voodoo, so pervasive in Haitian culture, were included, and Voegli was severely criticized at the time.

"Many people had left the church because they could not understand that," he said. It took years for people to realize the value of the murals, he added.

Some progress has been made toward stabilizing the murals in the ruins, according to Kurin, Wegener and Susan Blakney, an art conservator from Skaneateles, New York, who trained in emergency conservation efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

Wegener said that during her first visit to the site in early March, the murals were free-standing and exposed to the elements. By her return in late March, she said, Haitian artist and architect Patrick Vilaire had purchased materials and erected scaffolding around some of the murals and draped some of the remaining walls.

"The murals right now are very fragmented. There was one mural that was very tightly buttoned up with a blue tarp. I climbed up to look at it, but they had closed it up so tightly that I couldn't even peek in," Susan Blakney told ENS, describing her early May visit to the cathedral with the Smithsonian team.

"What we've got now is fragments" of varying sizes, Blakney said, ranging from the relatively intact Baptism of Christ and Last Supper murals to more roughly damaged murals to piles of rubble. Parts of some of the murals, which are painted on an approximately one-inch thick coating that had been applied over rough walls "have already started to delaminate or shear" from the walls, she said.

However, she added, "what's there could be saved" and there are many options for that work.

The three conservators said that the walls and their murals could remain in place, possibly with a shelter built around them in which on-going conservation and/or restoration work could be done. They could be removed, requiring a not-impossible but very complicated effort that would combine engineering with art conservation. They could then be taken offsite for additional work.

Part of the decision, they said, depends on whether the diocese wants to restore the murals to their pre-Jan. 12 state, preserve the murals in their current state as relics of the quake, forego any work with an eye to creating new murals in a new cathedral building or consider some combination of those choices.

"We have to have those decisions from them before we can go forward," Wegener said.

Even at a time when Haiti is still struggling to house and feed earthquake survivors in the face of the oncoming hurricane season, Kurin said efforts such as the Smithsonian's project is humanitarian work.

"Culture feeds the soul," he said. "Things that stir and inspire the soul are part of being human."

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