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Only women

· Among the women architects, sculptors and painters who made the Church of Maria Theotokos of Loppiano ·

Imagine the Tuscan countryside in a Renaissance painting: the background of a picture by Piero

della Francesca or Leonardo da Vinci. Imagine the hills, the cypresses, the countryside put in order by man, the vines and the sloping fields. And then think of a mantle, a large mantle that is lowered from heaven over one of these fields. It brushes it, almost touches it, but hangs a few metres above the land, something high up appears to be holding it back and it stays suspended between the sky and the earth, between the azure and the green.

The building

This is how the church in Loppiano, dedicated to Mary Theotokos (Mother of God), looks to visitors when they first glimpse it. Loppiano is a small locality in the already magical region of the Val d’Arno. “This ‘mantle’ is large, but also gently sloping”, the group of women architects, sculptors and painters who built it explains, “so as to be a church that is welcoming, like Mary’s mantle, a church that links heaven to earth, the Creator to his creatures”.

I went to Loppiano to meet the women of the Centro Ave Arte, which came into existence in the Focolare Movement. Chiara Lubich, the movement’s Foundress, wanted the centre in order to quench “the thirst for beauty that is widespread in the world”. When the church was built the Focolare community had already been settled there for quite some time. The Tuscan rural houses had been rebuilt. The old farm had been put back in working order, there were cooperatives, a university institute, a ceramics workshop and community life. Yet all this lacked something that would give it a loftier meaning that would send the unequivocal signal of a mission and a presence. It was this that prompted the decision to entrust to the architect Ave Cerquetti the construction of the church, “like a seal, like the culminating point of the Citadel”.

Erika Ivacson, a sculptor of Hungarian origin, Elena Di Taranto, an architect, Dina Figuerido, a painter of Portuguese origin, Patrizia Taranto, another architect, and Vita Zanolini, coordinator of the group, are the five women who carried out the project. They proceeded to show me their work, which they completed in record time, in only four years from 2004 to 2008. It was an exceptional and totally successful endeavour. Mary’s mantle is there, lightly touching the fields, and beneath her mantle lies the church. It is circular, modern, and its curved lines chase one another and converge. “Ave called me one morning to explain her idea to me, she already had it all in her head and on a piece of paper: the circular form, the tabernacle, the stained-glass windows. She wanted a design that would express Mary, the community and openness to the world”, Elena Di Taranto said.

In this Church dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, there is a break with the traditions of sacred art: the curved line that the architects, sculptors and painters chose as a distinguishing architectural feature. Nothing in this building, which houses meeting rooms and congress centres, as well as the church, is straight, squared or rigid. On the contrary, everything is curved or arched. The church is circular and the light wood benches are circular, the great coloured windows are curved, and the white ceiling, divided by arched beams, swoops downwards from the top. There was no need for them to explain it to me as it is quite clear: the linear curve is the architectural means that best succeeds in achieving the idea of welcome. In that circularity of the benches around the altar Communion is celebrated and there is instant communication between the faithful and the priest. This, they explained to me “allows for a unanimous presence around the altar”. The sloping ceiling expresses an idea of protection, the acceptance of anyone who wants to enter God’s house. And the immense stained-glass windows “create a continuous dialogue between the interior and the exterior, between life that is lived and is celebrated”.

There are no flowers or plants and sacred images are few and discreet. The women architects, sculptors and painters of the Ave Centre chose unadorned simplicity, the emptiness that becomes beauty. It does not renounce the greatness and magnificence of the sacred but does not express it in a traditional way. It is of course faith, nothing else, that must fill that space, the faith brought by the men and women who seek refuge beneath that mantle. The building is made to welcome it. The huge stained-glass windows, the work of Dina Figuerido, are impressive. “Light slides”, she said, “it is dominant in comparison with the figures that are hardly visible. On the one hand there is Christ’s Passion and on the other, the life of Mary”. And, once again, that light is welcoming and how welcoming, more welcoming than any rich, ornate and decorated piece if marble, is that immense, enormous block of white Trani, rectangular and barely engraved, which Erika Ivacson chose for the altar! “I wanted it like that, unadorned, white, rough and simple, so that everyone might recognize it as their own and see in it Christ’s sacrifice for humanity”.

Behind the altar is another stained-glass window and behind that stands the tabernacle, set at the base of the bell tower. It has two enormous transparent cracks that soar upwards. Once again interior and exterior are merged, the green of the fields and the countryside cultivated by man enter the house of God.

Those who laboured to produce this work are all women and it was a female group that planned and created the Church of Loppiano, even though many men naturally collaborated. This group has subsequently pursued its work in many other sacred places. “We believe in an art that contains Jesus’ presence”, Vita Zanolini, coordinator of the group of architects, explained to me.

It is only by chance that the Ave group consists solely of women (and also by tradition, given that the Focolare Movement has always been directed by a woman). However, in these years of work it was realized that a form of sacred art exists, a way of building places of worship, that women alone succeed in creating. That women have an educational task and that it is important for female sacred art to come into contact with a male priesthood was understood.

Would it be possible to imagine a group of men as attentive in rendering through curves circularity, open spaces, transparency, power and the indispensable nature of the encounter between humanity and God? I could not but ask this question even though, when they showed and described their work to me, they never ever alluded to femaleness. They smiled and admitted that it would be quite unlikely that a group of men would choose to use this soft, luminous and welcoming approach. Men would probably have preferred a straighter and squarer church. A man would have suggested a different idea of the relationship between God and humanity or perhaps even a different idea of faith. They added that, to their great amazement, when the Superintendent of the Belle arti of Florence came to visit the Church of Loppiano he said – as a man – that the presence of a quite feminine artistic skill was evident in this work. They told me that in recent years they had in fact discovered that their way of working is different from that of other teams. “We are truly a group, we work in agreement and correct each other. In the past few years I have understood that another person’s ideas do not exclude me, do not banish me, if anything they contain me”, said Erika Ivacson. And Patrizia Taranto recounted: “we always go to the places where we are to build or to renovate, we can’t manage to plan clinically, around a table. We must know the person who gives us a commission, we must understand what he or she is really asking of us”.

They – and of this they are really, with no presumption, convinced — have much to teach those who give them commissions, who are priests, bishops and Catholic communities and movements whose male element is predominant and who are often at a loss as to what to do. With marvellous monasteries, cloisters, churches and convents before them they do not succeed in imagining different spaces, in respecting what should be saved, in comprehending how it is possible to make innovations in a sacred place. “A monastery today”, the group explained, “cannot be what it was 500 years ago, the beauty it possesses must be saved, but it must be redesigned for the new tasks and new communities. In churches, in dioceses and in monasteries there is a way of life, alone or with others, whose spaces must also be made new”.

They are convinced of it and they work trusting in their creativity, in their ability to contribute to changing the living environment of a community of faith, to introduce a modern touch as welcome as the traditional. Today they are a group very much in demand that has demolished, when they existed, even long-standing barriers against a wholly female team. “Do you know when it is that the diffidence of clients vanishes?” Vita Zanolini told me at the end: “when they see that we are listening and making notes. It seems that not everyone does this”.

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