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By Renée Malaval, Editor–Mosaique Magazine
(Note: This story appeared originally in the June 2014 edition of Mosaique Magazine and is but one example of the fine writing and international coverage the publication has to offer. Highly recommended; ordering information below. All photos of this extraordinary work can be enlarged, so click and enjoy. – Nancie)
The artist Gerard Brand from Obernay is no newcomer to mosaic, but this time, his work, like the church of Saint-Denis in Gerstheim, Alsace, is amazing, even miraculous!
During the night of November 25, 2011, a fire completely razed the town’s much loved 150 year-old Catholic church.
Two years later, on February 16th 2014, a grand Mass was celebrated in the completed new building, attended by the local archbishop and more than a hundred faithful.
These crowds came to admire the modernized copy of the original building, ornamented with works from various artists who worked under the guidance of architect Alain Steinmetz. “The destruction of our church felt to a lot of us like a small kind of death; its reconstruction now feels like a resurrection!” commented Monsignor Christian Kratz, bishop of Strasbourg.
Two hundred works in mosaic
The project of the Gerstheim church kept Gérard Brand busy for two years constructing over 200 individual mosaics. Gilles Antoine and myself were staying in Obernai when the fire happened and we went with him to survey the site of the disaster the very next morning. He collected all sorts of relics from the ruins: charred beams, fragments of stained glass, liturgical vestments and objects, statues, crucifixes, stone fragments of « gres des Vosges » (a type of limestone), broken off from the ancient pillars, altar and the baptismal font; remnants from the chandeliers and bronze candle holders, flagstones and marble from the flooring, fragments of doors and windows…
When I read about the fire in the press, I contacted the church priest right away. I already had all the creative themes in my head. – Gérard Brand
While the work to be done seemed crystal clear to the artist from the start, he still spent a full year patiently preparing, cutting, fragmenting, cleaning, polishing, cleaving and sanding all these vestiges, thereby creating tesserae for more than two hundred small mosaics. He offered the inhabitants of Gerstheim, and anyone else who desired it, the chance to own one of these reworked fragments of the old church, be it a wood of metal sculpture, a piece of stained glass or a picture with an old metal frame.
With this series of creations, Gérard Brand added an uncommon dimension to the usual role of an artist: assembling fragments of materials that are part of a sacred memory, he chose to create mosaics around these sacred tesserae or “works of relic-art.” He found a new way to concretize the mystical character of this work and to find his way into the domain of sacred arts.
A monumental work in the choir of the church
Gérard Brand spent the second year on a single, monumental work which now fills the area of the chancel.
As described by Valérie Wackenheim in an article in the Alsatian News on January 29th, 2014, there are “twenty-three human silhouettes of light, all reaching to the sky: men, women, children, symbolizing, with their outstretched arms humanity reaching towards light. The curve of their hands, outreached heavenwards, espouses not only the solar disc of the stained glass design but the curve of the dome of the church. They await resurrection.”
“From their base upward, these bronze giants bathed both in natural light and their own inner radiance, shift from woodsy maroons, to the orange of old bricks, to black, then slate green, ending with pale marble.”
These colours also tell the tale of the “passage from shadow to light and pureness, passing through fire as purification.”
These intermingled silhouettes emphasize the bonds between beings. One has to get really close to discover here, pieces of chandelier and old zinc gutters and there, a crown set with green stones, while elsewhere is small plaster statue of the Infant Jesus, whose face still bears traces of flames, and two small phials still containing their sacred oils.
“The human figures hold their own memories, but they also bear personal and precious objects, witnesses to their past and a legacy to future generations.”
Special objects have touched me since early childhood.
Church objects are sacred. We owe them our respect. The door to the old tabernacle inspired the creation of a small rectangular frame cradling a glass box holding the keys to the old tabernacle. One missal, used for the very last church ceremony before the fire, is from now on encased in a glass frame.
This is an important relic that represents the word, purity itself. It’s a real treasure, the last witness before the fire. I saved it in extremis, because since it was damaged no one thought to keep it. But apart from a hole with blackened edges, it stayed almost intact.
On the pages of this missal, texts have been written by Monsignor Jean-Paul Grallet, Archbishop of Strasbourg, Marie-Gérard Harth, priest, Marc-Daniel Roth, Mayor of Gerstheim, Raphaël Lipp, President of the Board at the Saint-Denis church in Gerstheim, Alain Steinmetz, architect of the reconstruction of the church, and by Gérard Brand himself. “Nobody knows what the others have written. These words belong to the memory of this book. It is up to future generations to decide to open it someday.” From now on, with its elevation to art object, the missal has also become a “sacred treasure”.
The remnants of liturgical vestments, carefully freed from their stitches, then cut up and put under glass, have metamorphosed into large « mosaic-stained glass », placed in the church narthex. The artist has kept up his exploration of the theme of transparency, central to his art since many years.
“My work is born from intimate thoughts.”
Even with the help of natural gestures and mastery of technique, Gérard Brand does not deny the presence of a somewhat divine inspiration: “I am not practicing (Catholic) but I do believe.” For him, work and prayer can blend and the long hours spent in his workshop are meditative.
I don’t want anything more than to feel words, warmth, vibrations. I want to create an emotional reaction.”
Indeed. For Gérard Brand, the act of creation is one of truth and love.
(Again, our thanks to our esteemed colleagues at Mosaique Magazine for the permission to reprint this article. Photos unless otherwise noted Gilles Gay.)
- To order a copy of Mosaique Magazine in the US, click here, Europe and other countries, click here 100 pages; English insert; additional artists profiled include Pamela Irving, Béatrice Serre, Almuth Schöps, Felice Nittolo, Riccardo Licata, the Chilean Mosaic Intervention and much, much more. Buy the magazine. You won’t be disappointed.
- Website of Gérard Brand here
- Video of an exhibit with works also made with church fire remnants: