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William Schickel, RIP

William Schickel, one of America's finest liturgical artists, has died at age 89.Educated at Notre Dame, where he studied under Yves Simon and was influenced by Jacques Maritain, Schickel settled in Loveland, Ohio (near Cincinnati), so that he and his family could live close to The Grail, a international Catholic women's movement.Schickel and his late, devoted wife Mary were exemplars of just how rich lay Catholic life could be in the pre-Vatican era. In addition to Bill's interest in Neo-Thomism and Modernism in art, and Mary's involvement in the Grail, they were also interested in the agrarian impulses of mid-century and spent their early years on a farm.Bill never thought of himself as merely a liturgical artist -- he was a painter and sculptor who produced many works outside of a liturgical context -- but many of his greatest works were for churches and church-related institutions.His most famous project was the renovation of Gethsemani Abbey. Thomas Merton sat on the committee that oversaw the project and said of the renovation: "I just want to tell you what a splendid job I think you have done in our Abbey Church and the Cloister. I particularly like the interior of the churchbright, simple, clear-cut, no nonsense and perfectly in accord with the spirit of our life. Also I am glad to recognize that it is still my Abbey Church, the place of my vows and first Masswithout its ancient defects."There is so much more that I could say, but in this limited space I'll just end by noting that William Schickel offers an enduring model of an artist who believes that his own gifts only make sense when brought into dialogue with the communities he is called on to serve. And his desire to be both true to the ancient faith and to the best strains of contemporary art ought to inspire new generations of liturgical artists.Read the obituary here. His gallery website is here.Brian Volck includes a moving description of Schickel's funeral in his Good Letters post today.My book about him, Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel, will be brought out in an expanded, second edition (with a foreword by James Martin, SJ) by the University of Notre Dame Press this winter.

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Thanks for this post. I'd never heard of William Schickel, but the links you included revealed a lot about the man. I especially enjoyed the following description by Brian Volck of Schickel's funeral procession to the cemetery and the 'hands on' way in which his family and friends buried him: "The hand-carved pine coffin was borne from the Oratory, then downhill on a footpath, between woodland and meadow, to the Grailville cemetery. We followed, singing 'Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world,' and I recalled dusty roads in the Honduran highlands, where a hairpin turn would suddenly reveal a funeral procession, mourners in their very finest, singing or silently praying behind a spare wood coffin.With prayers at the gravesitebeside that of his wife, Maryfamily members lowered the coffin into the ground. Yet, we were told, our work wasnt finished. Once again singing, we all took turns filling the grave from the adjacent dirt mound, the first clods of earth falling ominously on the wooden box, growing softer with each shovelful.Women and men set to work, young girls hiked up their skirts, young boys reveled in an excuse to get their best clothes muddy. We sang in harmony until the job was done. One of Schickels sons in law asked if Id gotten my hands dirty. 'Yes,' I said with a smile, 'I wouldnt have missed it for anything.'"

WilliamI have participated in graveside ceremonies during which the mourners filled the grave from a mound of dirt at the grave side. It is truly a profound experience as we mingle our sweat and effort with our sorrow. I have seen this done only at Jewish funerals. It is a beautiful practice and it is good to see it used at a Catholic funeral.

Gregory: Larry Cunninghams notice of your book in Commonweal uses the adjective austere to refer to Schickels architectural work. Stark is what came to my mind as I looked through the images to which you referred us. The chapels look as bare (one is tempted to say as barren) as New England congregational churches. I wonder if he was influenced by the thought of Fr. Alain Alain Couturier, O.P, and his journal LArt sacr (You can find an appreciation of him by Thomas F. OMeara at: http://www.spiritualitytoday.org/spir2day/863814omeara.html.). Couturier invited some of the great masters of modern art to design churches. OMeara quotes a remark of Couturier: One baptizes only the living as well as his reference to the enormous still-borns -- St. Patrick in New York, St. John the Divine, Sacre-Coeur in Paris. One of our students, Mark Wedig, O.P., did his dissertation on Couturier, and at the defense we had a lively discussion of whether the Dominican made image-less mysticism a kind of artistic ideal, against representational art. Schickel's churches reminded me of that discussion. Some of his later works seem more representational, incarnational. Were there developments, changes, in his art, in his ideas about art? Here is how OMeara poses the issue: Immanence, transcendence: the Noli me tangere of Easter counterpoised to the baby's birth at Christmas. To forget either side is to wound the church, not only in its dogma but in its activity.

I remember as an altar boy standing at many a gravesite as the coffin was lowered into the ground by the workers, and then as the mourners threw the first shovel-fulls of dirt upon it. I can still remember the rattle as the dirt and stones hit the coffin. Only then did the funeral party leave the gravesite. My mother was buried in the cemetery behind St. Anthony's Church in Nanuet, N.Y. I had gone out with the hearse to the gravesite, but everyone else walked from the church to the grave. It was very moving--as if a whole village were on their way.

Joseph:Bill Schickel was well aware of Pere Couturier, though he felt Martain was a deeper and ultimately more profound thinker about art. Schickel took inspiration from High Modernism -- even his representational works are largely stripped down and abstracted. Like a number of modern liturgical artists he liked the way minimalist depictions could renew worn-out iconographic cliches -- for example, the inclination of a head (a mere oval) representing faith, rather than the watery-eyed, rosy-cheeked holy-card saint. In many ways, Schickel remained faithful to Modernism long after it had gone out of fashion.

Thanks, Charles, for your comment. I've been to funerals like those described by Fr. Komonchak, where a few shovelfuls of dirt were thrown in by the mourners, but never to a funeral where the entire burial was handled by the mourners. I agree with you that it's a beautiful practice.The circumstances are somewhat different, but reading about Mr. Schickel's burial reminded me of the funeral for Sr. Dorothy Stang, the American nun murdered in 2005 because of her advocacy on behalf of the Brazilian poor who were being cheated by powerful ranching and logging interests in the Amazon rainforest. At her funeral, one of the Brazilian mourners said that Sr. Dorothy would be "planted" in the rainforest that day. I love that image because it reflects both her closeness to the land and its people, and because her martyrdom will hopefully nourish the fruit of faith over an extended period of time. Mr. Schickel and his wife both seemed to have a strong connection to the land where they now rest in peace.

Oops... Should be "At Sr. Dorothy's funeral, one of the Brazilian mourners said..."

The movement towards abstraction in religious art occurred contrariwise to two other trajectories.-The 20th century was as none other the century of the image. Even before the refresh-rate revolution of microprocessors, the broadcast images of photos-movies-tv flood the mind constantly, forming the imagination. During the very same time, statues, architectural ornaments and representational paintings were removed from churches, starving the religious imagination. -The later liturgical movement sought clarity above all else. Liturgical texts, even Scripture, even the Gospels, were recast in the simplest language even at the cost of meaning. The target audience for religious language became a sixth grader, at the very same time the target audience for religious art became the subscription list to MOMA.

I haven't found that my religious imagination is starved in buildings like Schickel's (although I believe the only project of his I have actually been to in person is the Duchesne shrine, which I found beautiful). The use of only a few, spare religious images, to me, is a welcome respite. But then my tastes in church architecture are fairly monastic, and I know in most parish churches there's always a general desire to fill up every possible open wall or window.

Perhaps there is a happy medium between the look that Thomas Merton described as "an ecclesiastical pawn shop," and blatant iconoclasm.

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