Christina Witkowski, Staff Writer
Former Romers distressed at the uninspired architecture of Irving’s lifeless suburbia and longing for a return to Europe, take comfort – you don’t have to purchase a thousand-dollar plane ticket to encounter works of art that elevate the mind, nourish the soul and delight the senses.
Midway between Houston and San Antonio lies the modest farming community of Schulenberg, a town where Old-World glory and small-town Texas hospitality unite.
The area was populated in the mid-to-late 1800s by Czech and German immigrants, mainly Catholics, seeking greater religious freedom and economic opportunity. But while land in Texas was dirt-cheap and readily available, the newcomers lacked the skilled labor, natural materials and sheer funds necessary to recreate the magnificent houses of worship of their native countries.
Ever resourceful, however, the immigrants relied on a little paint – and great love – to craft a thing of beauty in the vast and empty Hill Country – the churches now known collectively as the Painted Churches of Texas.
Observing the exteriors of the churches alone, one is struck by the diversity of style and scale, from the elaborate Neo-Romanesque exterior of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Shiner to the charmingly modest, whitewashed façade of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Dubina.
But it is the interiors of these churches that make them truly extraordinary. In addition to brilliant stained-glass windows, carefully painted statuary and Gothic-style details hearkening back to the architectural tradition of Europe, the walls and ceilings of the churches feature vivid, elaborate paintings. To create the appearance of expensive natural materials, the immigrants used stencils and hand-painted faux techniques, and the results are magnificent – a testament to the newcomers’ faith and tenacity.
Once again, the variety of styles is impressive, from the Baroque majesty of St. Mary of High Hill, “Queen of the Painted Churches,” to the whimsicality of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Dubina, with its charming angels and brilliant color scheme.
While they feature many marks of individual style and craftsmanship, the Painted Churches are not the product of an artist’s inscrutable “personal vision,” but that of a community conscious of the catholicity of its faith. Paintings and statuary depict recognizable religious figures and events from the span of salvation history. Though the stained-glass windows, inscribed in German and Czech, are the work of artists who lived over a century ago, they speak to the soul of the modern man in a common language of traditional imagery and symbolism, which has acquired depth and breadth of meaning over time, and which provides new food for contemplation in every age.
In large part, it was this traditional art that made the Painted Churches, for me and for those immigrants so long ago, seem especially like spiritual homes. Torn from family and fatherland, the immigrants found identity and community in a universal faith with a universal truth.
In “Under Ben Bulben,” W.B. Yeats writes, “Poet and sculptor, do the work, / Nor let the modish painter shirk / What his great forefathers did. / Bring the soul of man to God, / Make him fill the cradles right.” This is the role of the artist: to elevate the soul of man, to stir up within him the desire to know the Creator of all beautiful things.
The craftsmen of the Painted Churches, despite their poverty, understood the gravity of such a mission, and strove in a thousand tiny ways to carry it out. Indeed, every detail leads one to contemplation of the divine. Towering steeples and the rich peal of the noonday bell draw us out of ourselves and into an awareness of the presence of God.
The reverence of the immigrants toward the Real Presence is evident; each tabernacle is hand-carved and encrusted with gold. Above the tabernacle at Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Shiner, a painting, “Ecce Panis Angelorum,” features angels in rapt adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And locating the tabernacle at a Painted Church never feels like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” Instead, without exception, the gaze of the visitor is immediately directed down the central aisle to the Word of God made flesh.
Smaller decorations, too, facilitate man’s search for beauty and truth. Images of Jesus, Mary and the saints inspire us to strive for virtue; the colorful paintings and stained glass, those universal forms of catechesis, celebrate the rich heritage of our faith and allow us to reflect upon it. Even seemingly insignificant details – the placement of a statue, or the number of doors leading into the sanctuary – take on deep significance as a result of the immigrant artists’ careful attentiveness to their task. Far from the subjectivity and nebulosity that characterize much of modern liturgical art, the art of the immigrants proclaims, “This is our Faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it, in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
From the sheer beauty of these works of art we are drawn into wonder at the majesty of the faith, the conception of which the immigrants had in abundance. And having wondered, having caught a glimpse of the true and beautiful even in their smallest and most earthly manifestations, we cannot remain lukewarm – like the observer of the archaic torso of Apollo in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, we must radically change our lives.
But let us return to “Under Ben Bulben,” where we meet with the poet’s second, more befuddling requirement of aspiring artists – “Make (man) fill the cradles right.” It is my opinion that the poet is referring to the concept put forward in the “Phaedrus” and the “Symposium” – that upon seeing the beautiful, we are shocked and drawn upward, and that the shining forth of beauty in a beautiful thing makes us pregnant with new virtues and excellences.
Inspired by the art of their homeland, the immigrants were so imbued with love of the beautiful that they reproduced that beauty in a form old, yet new. The Painted Churches show us that art attuned to tradition need not be unoriginal, unimaginative or expensive; thus, the “modish painters” of today would do well to honor, as those settlers did, the inheritance of beauty and excellence that reflects the God who made all things good.