Lost Between Sea and Sky

Looking for Padre Pio in Renzo Piano’s Pilgrimage Church

by Matthew Alderman, appearing in Volume 18

It is a perilous thing to ask the saints for design advice. The apostle Thomas earned his patronage of the architectural profession by giving away most of his construction budget to the poor and was nearly martyred for his trouble. And while legend says the former doubter was hired by the Indian king Gundoferus on account of his knowledge of ornate Roman classicism, St. Bernard, that great micro-manager of monasteries, had very little time for the fancies of Romanesque ornamentation, railing against its distractingly frivolous capitals and grotesques.1 Ultimately, each church building is not about the earthly taste of its titular but a reflection of the glorious entirety of the heavenly Jerusalem. Yet the gulf between St. Pio of Pietrelcina, thaumaturge, stigmatist, and occasional flying friar, and the new shrine recently raised over his tomb by his countryman, world-famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, is a chasm difficult to cross, even by a saint occasionally known to levitate.

The Capuchin friar St. Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), better known to his filial devotees as Padre Pio, lived a life marked by mystical phenomena: ecstasies, diabolical persecutions, bilocation, prophesies, the ability to read men’s hearts, and most extraordinarily, the impression of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s passion. In spite of all these wild spiritual gifts—and the thousands who came to pray or just to watch—the saint remained humble and level-headed, devoted to the simple ministries of a parish priest, the public celebration of the Mass and the constant hearing of confessions. In the end his sanctity lay not just in miracles but in his life of prayer and sacrifice. He was canonized in 2002 by John Paul II, who many years earlier had asked the friar to hear his confession.

Piano describes the new pilgrimage church in Padre Pio’s Puglian hometown of San Giovanni Rotondo as a “portrait” of the saint. His conception of the saint’s simplicity led him to reject the traditional basilican model of church-planning as smacking too much of “power” and “grandiloquence,” opting for a centralized plan executed in simple wood and local stone.2 Architectural critic Edwin Heathcote, in a glowing Financial Times article on the new building, describes the shrine’s interior as an “embracing shell like a slightly squashed armadillo.”3 Until recently, Padre Pio’s mortal remains rested in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a large but plain basilican-style church in a lightly-modernized Romanesque style, sparingly ornamented with touches of marble and mosaic. This more conventional structure was built during the saint’s lifetime to accommodate pilgrims visiting the famous wonderworker.

The Padre Pio Pilgrimage Shrine seats 8,000, with room for 30,000 standing on the parvis outside. It has been described as the second-largest in the world after St. Peter’s.4 Dedicated in 2004 after more than a decade of planning and with a budget of $51 million, the shrine returned to the media spotlight after Pope Benedict XVI officially opened the church’s crypt, a golden-walled underground chamber housing the saint’s silver sarcophagus.5 The Architectural Record describes the shrine [9] as “an attempt to rationalise and dignify this public urge to venerate a remarkable individual.”6 While referring primarily to the medieval zoo of souvenir-hawkers and pilgrim hotels that now rings San Giovanni Rotondo, journalistic coverage hints at a dissonance at the heart of the project. Most commentators seem more interested in discussing the building’s relationship with the landscape than its status as a religious shrine. Piano has remarked, “I have tried to arrange the vast spaces and surfaces in such a way that the gaze of visitors can be lost between the sky, the sea and the earth.”7

The low arches give one a crowded and earthbound feeling. Photo: wikimedia.org/Itto Ogami

Piano expresses his own religious opinions less dramatically than his sweeping design proclivities. In an interview with the Catholic news service Zenit, he describes himself as a “Catholic by formation and conviction,” though he adds, somewhat cryptically, “not bigoted.”8 Piano sought to enter deeply into Padre Pio’s own religious experience. “I […] became a bit of a Capuchin,”9 he comments, also studying the history of liturgy and religion in the process. Piano’s tutor in the ways of liturgy was Crispino Valenziano, a professor of liturgical anthropology and spirituality at the St. Anselm Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, and sometime deputy of former papal master of ceremonies Piero Marini.

The building reflects the low, scrubby, rolling terrain all around it, but it does not appear to be nestled in the landscape so much as lie flaccidly upon it. Rather than primitively edenic, the effect is ramshackle and faintly industrial. The shrine’s most obvious feature is its broad, nearly flat roof, an irregular and jagged armor of immense pre-patinated copper plates. Beneath the low, bowed roofline, the structure seems not so much built as assembled, a sagging bricolage of precariously-balanced stone, wood, glass, metal, and stucco. The self-conscious geometric twists feel, at some level, far more ostentatious and alien than the triumphalist ornaments Piano took great pains to avoid. Indeed, lacking the sense of scale brought by ornament and detail, the long, low structure has a lumpen, looming quality.

There are few obvious symbols, save a very large freestanding cross placed off to one side of the church interior. The main entrance consists of two squat bronze doors covered with spare, pseudo-primitive modernistic sculpture set into a façade of green metal slats. The low campanile, built into one of the piazza’s retaining walls, is handsome in a stripped-classical way, although ultimately peripheral to the overall design.

The interior is a greatly-enlarged variation on the same semi-circular plan that has become ubiquitous in suburban parishes everywhere. [10] Piano’s version is generated by a roughly spiral geometry reminiscent of a nautilus or snail shell. For a shrine dedicated to a priest who lived his vocation of alter Christus in the stimata, this departure from a cruciform plan is idiosyncratic in the least. The architect was deeply concerned that the enormous interior retain a focus on the altar while creating within it the smallness and intimacy necessary for prayer and recollection. Piano’s solution was to divide the interior into a collection of smaller spaces, each like a separate church seating around 400, opening onto the altar at the nexus of the nautiloid curve, creating a sense of prayerful privacy in the midst of a low, open space. This is an interesting response to the contemporary trend towards ecclesial giganticism that has led to such buildings as the Los Angeles Cathedral and the new church at Fatima.

While intriguing in the abstract, the reality of the plan presents serious physical and metaphysical difficulties. The building’s skeleton of twenty-one spoke-like stone arches radiates, in two roughly concentric rings, from a funnel-like central hub placed above the saint’s crypt-level tomb. The altar, set atop a lofty, if narrow, open sanctuary, stands directly in front of this nexus. Piano explains the arches were an attempt to create “the modern equivalent of a Gothic [sic] cathedral, but to make the arches fly within the space.”10 However, the effect is impersonal and uncomfortably vast, while between the arches it feels more than a little claustrophobic. The predominant note is earthbound, linked not with the upward movement of man towards God, or God towards man, but toward the unseen body of the holy man in the basement, who is treated more like Merlin than a Christian saint.

The nearly flat roof is formed by an irregular shell of giant pre-patinated copper plates. Photo: wikimedia.org/Nikzia

There is little ornament and less sacred art. A fabric screen depicting scenes from the Apocalypse by Robert Rauschenberg covers the interior of the front façade’s broad parabolic window. Faintly cartoonish, it is loosely traditional in its composition and adds a bit of welcome color to the interior, as does a gradated splash of faded blue on the vault over the altar.11 For all Piano’s conscientious pursuit of the Franciscan spirit, one is glad that Giotto did not respond to the same impulse at Assisi when St. Francis was still within the reach of living memory. Despite Piano’s concerns about Franciscan simplicity, his conception of humility might seem myopic to Padre Pio himself, who wore the simple robes of a Capuchin in daily life but at the altar obediently clothed himself in the colorful silk vestments of a priest of Jesus Christ. It is not a coincidence that the first notable act of St. Francis after his conversion was to restore a little church, San Damiano, to its former glory. Just as splendor does not automatically entail waste, conversely—as any architect knows—plainness can be surprisingly expensive and may suggest not humility but elite faddishness.

Reinforcing this impression, the small sanctuary platform is almost crushed by the low curve of the vault overhead. On the other hand, the altar cross by Arnaldo Pomodoro is certainly futuristic, a chunky block of metal hanging perilously over the altar and resembling a mass of burnished, half-melted machine parts. It also lacks the figure of Christ.

Nestled cleverly in one of the outer curves of the nautiloid, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is one of the more intriguing and truly intimate portions of the interior. Unlike the centralized arrangement of the main church, it is oriented longitudinally on a trapezoidal plan. The chapel walls narrow subtly, moving the eye towards the tabernacle shrine, set atop a low octagonal plinth of three steps. The overall effect is minimalistic, but the warmth and texture of the mottled beige walls breathe some life back into the space.

Piano commissioned the late Roy Lichtenstein—famous for the deliberately cartoonish painting entitled Whaam! [11] among many other things—to decorate the shrine’s Eucharistic chapel. Lichtenstein was working on an image of the Last Supper before his death; Piano elected not to have another hand complete or replace the painting.

The tabernacle is an imposing and even startling object: a pillar of volcanic Mount Etna stone standing alone at the far end of the chapel beneath a round skylight high above. 3.5 meters in height, it rises smoothly from a square base to a faceted octagonal top. Two rows of silver plates representing Old Testament types of the Eucharist or incidents from the life of Christ flank the sides of the pillar to form a roughly cruciform shape, with the central door in the form of a silver pelican. When opened, the tabernacle doors reveal a pair of beautiful, faintly Asiatic representations of the ichthys sculpted into the interior. The reliefs, while exaggeratedly pseudo-archaic in some details, are for the most part well-executed and compare with some of the more interesting Art Deco work of the Liturgical Movement period. The use of Biblical parallelism and typology also adds an unexpected dose of sophistication to the sequence.

Yet the overall effect is strangely uncommunicative. The faceless black stela of the tabernacle hints at some powerful Presence within, but fails to reveal it. The shiny stone the color of death seems a peculiarly inapt color for a tabernacle. There are no other furnishings save the squat, geometric pews in light-colored wood. Unrelieved by the gleam of hammered silver presence lamps (or even a pop art Last Supper), it remains alien and even sinister. Admittedly, it is not without a sense of otherworldly power, but at best it is an altar to the Unknown God, incongruous with the Gospels’ revelation. As St. Paul once said, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.”12

Passing from the upper church into the crypt—which holds, somewhat illogically, high-traffic areas like the shrine and the confessionals—one enters a shiny, glittery realm of recognizable iconography and haloed saints. Marko Ivan Rupnik, the Jesuit artist responsible for the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Vatican, contributed 2,000 square meters of mosaics showing eighteen scenes from the life of Christ, eighteen from the life of St. Francis and a final eighteen from Padre Pio’s life. The comprehensive quality and parallelism of such a cycle is worthy of much applause. Rupnik’s use of color is refreshing, with rich golds, reds, and intense chemical blues predominating. After the beige upper church, this wealth of gold, serpentine, jade, and rose quartz comes as a distinct relief.

The mosaics are not without their own shortcomings. The recent opening of the church’s lower level has unleashed an outcry in some quarters, with accusations that the lavishly decorated crypt is wasteful glitter.13 However, the real problem here lies not in the opulence of its materials—Said Judas to Mary now what will you do/With your ointment so rich and so rare?—but the content and shape of its ornamentation and iconography. One is reminded of the caviar-filled ice swan in Brideshead Revisited—the problem is not the caviar, but the shape.

While ultimately Byzantine in inspiration and straightforward in its use of traditional symbolism, Rupnik’s signature style lacks the sense of detail and scale necessary for such large compositions. The effect is somewhat superficial in its recollection of the traditions of the East, and the figures are too self-consciously abstracted. The mosaicist might have made a good miniaturist with his economical sense of form, but here everything looks like quick studies inflated to poster-size. And while the glitter is somewhat of a welcome change from above, the mass [12] of gold in this low, over-lit space, can seem oppressively unvarying.

The saint’s tomb itself is precious in its materials yet rather unprepossessing in shape and setting. The tomb is scarcely above eye-level, more an elaborate item on display than an object of veneration. If the mosaics are excessive yet undeveloped, the tomb is opulent though underwhelming. Even on the saint’s sarcophagus—so often an opportunity for a complex web of personified virtues, patron saints, and scenes of Biblical parallelism—there is nothing but a pattern of abstract forms of a mildly Romanesque nature. And while Padre Pio’s body has been exposed to the faithful in the quite recent past, all images of the shrine have so far shown the sarcophagus closed. While some may find this decorous, it seems a regrettable capitulation to squeamishness for a saint who had Christ’s sacrifice written upon his hands and side.

Overall, the fact of modernism’s muteness in the face of traditional religion is inescapable here. There is little in the church’s structure and details to distinguish it from a high-profile concert hall, while definite moments bring to mind a cutting-edge airport terminal or a lavishly bleak spa; but nothing overwhelms the soul with the blinding particularity of the Christian message.14

It is easy to decry the kitsch that fills the shops of San Giovanni Rotondo like the money-changers in the temple, or scoff at pilgrims who are more entranced by Padre Pio than Christ. Yet for all the desire to create a humble church for this people’s saint, this vast new shrine has been shaped less by folk piety than the by high-profile dictums of a design culture that is not entirely certain what to do with religion. At most the church can attempt a sort of fashionable plainness, not without a degree of appeal from some angles, but which is often more costly and momentarily modish than actual symbolic ornament, and which, being contemporary, will swiftly grow old.

This is not to say that, had it been deemed necessary to forgo the timeless route of the classical (or even the humility of the Romanesque), the architect could not have built a church in a simple but lofty manner. Freed from engineering gimmicks and fashionable nature-worship, it could have been clothed in noble materials and enlivened with dignified, if monastically severe, iconography. Piano’s instincts, moderated by the formative humility of historic precedent, might have led to something truly new.

Even if Piano found a cruciform tomb too much for the cruciform saint of Puglia, he could have raised a rectilinear hypostyle hall, broad but majestic. A fine model could have been the cathedral at Cordova, one of the few fully horizontal buildings where stone arches soar. If it were necessary to keep it airy and transparent so the faithful outside might participate, he could have looked to the open-sided chapels of early Spanish Mexico, with Franciscan roots of its own.15 Even Rupnik’s mosaics might have found a rich modern precedent in the decoration of the modernistic but dignified shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Missouri, and other works of the late pre-Conciliar era. Unfortunately, the Padre Pio shrine remains oblivious to both the recent, as well as the more distant, past.

One of the more extraordinary miracles attributed to Padre Pio describes a squadron of Allied bombers sighting the mystic floating high in the air, accompanied, in one account, by the Virgin and St. Michael. The flyboys returned to base, muddled and dazed, unable to drop their payload on the town of San Giovanni Rotondo.16 Renzo Piano has said that he hopes the pilgrim’s gaze will be “lost between the sky, the sea and the earth.”17 In the shrine, it is perhaps Padre Pio’s very physical brand of holiness that is lost; the saint is too potent for an age that prefers its spirituality safely disembodied.