New York artisan ascends 14 stories to cover metal cross in gold leaf as part of special gilding process
By Jim Wogan
Anne Domenech is an artist with absolutely no fear of altitude. For four days in October, Ms. Domenech found herself suspended in a crane basket nearly 14 stories above the floor of the new Sacred Heart Cathedral as she plied her trade—gilding a cross that sits atop the cathedral with a thin coat of gold.
“You have to watch everything to be safe … at the same time you are gilding and you are holding these (gold) leaves and you have to make sure that they are going where they are supposed to and I am staying where I am supposed to stay,” said Ms. Domenech. “I am not scared of heights. I could go higher. I am a little bit of a scare devil, as you say.”
With an accent that reveals her French ancestry, Ms. Domenech (pronounced Doe-mah-nek) possesses a calm and friendly demeanor that belies her sometimes intense surroundings. She works as an artist and gilder for EverGreene Architectural Arts, a firm based in New York City. She arrived in Knoxville on Oct. 24 to begin her work.
“I have to do this job, so I do it, but at the same time it’s a work that is very meditative, to do gilding. You don’t just apply leaves, you really have to think,” she said.
Gilding is the process of decorating an object or a surface with a thin layer of precious metal—gold, silver, or sometimes even palladium. Ms. Domenech said the sheets, called leaves, are usually as “thin as a page in the bible” and are meticulously laid onto a surface prepared with an adhesive.
Her work was completed in four days. In comparison to her other projects, it was a short stay.
For Sacred Heart Cathedral, the gold was a gift that was completely unexpected. The cathedral paid nothing for it.
“Through the very generous gift from EverGreene Architectural Arts, the cross on top of the dome of the new Sacred Heart Cathedral will be gilded in gold,” Father David Boettner, a vicar general for the Diocese of Knoxville and rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral, announced shortly before Ms. Domenech’s arrival.
“Originally, we had not planned to gild the cross because we did not think we could afford it. We are very grateful for the gift from EverGreene, which made this possible,” Father Boettner added.
Ms. Domenech has extensive experience as an architectural artist. Her resume includes gilding the dome at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and gilding the lobby and corridors of New York City’s Empire State Building during its recent restoration.
“What is unique for me with this job is that (it is) at the start of construction of the cathedral. That’s like, unbelievable for me to put the cross, that special element, that holy element, on the cathedral. For me, it’s very special. I am very proud to be here,” she said.
“I know when I was up there (it seemed like) I could see the whole state of Tennessee and that made it much more spiritual. I feel proud because I accomplished what I came here for, and I know that we are giving something to the community. That is very important.”
Despite her experience, working in a crane basket that swayed in every breeze was unusual for her. Her safety harness provided obvious security. Scott Carey, an employee with cathedral contractor Merit Construction, accompanied Ms. Domenech to the top of the cathedral each day. He compared the journey to riding a Ferris wheel. Mr. Carey was there for safety and communication, but he even got to help the artist with her craft, handing Ms. Domenech sheets of the gold gilding material. His unexpected duties reinforced his impression of the monumental cathedral construction project.
“Gilding the cross is really an eye-opener on how big this project is, and how artistic and how particular each finish is going to be. This is one of the many amazing finishes that the cathedral is going to hold—one of the many crown jewels,” Mr. Carey said.
As her work concluded, Ms. Domenech was asked about some very small gold flakes that sparkled on her face—minute pieces of 24 karat residue from her work gilding the cross.
“Yes, I know, I am Goldilocks,” she said laughing. “Sometimes I come from work and I take the subway in New York City, I go home and I have all these gold flakes everywhere, and people look at me, and, like, where on earth (did) she come from? Yeah, it’s strange.”
Gold flakes aside, the eight-foot cross that tops the cathedral is a fitting focal point for the cathedral project.
“The cross is transformational for Christians and Catholics. Jesus died on the cross and the power of Christ’s resurrection transformed this tool of torture into a sacred symbol,” Father Boettner said. “The Catholic Church of East Tennessee and the parishioners at Sacred Heart Cathedral appreciate the work Ms. Domenech did, and we are especially grateful to Jeff Greene and EverGreene Architectural Arts for their generous gift.”
EverGreene is a specialty contractor and design studio working with commercial, government, institutional, sacred, and theater clients in the areas of interior restoration, conservation, decoration, and new design.
Established in 1978, it is a company of artists, conservators, craftsmen and designers who work throughout the United States and abroad. The company operates as both an art studio and a contractor combining art, science and technology as designers and craftsmen work side-by-side.
Visit the Cathedral Construction page of the Diocese of Knoxville website for updates on the construction of the new Sacred Heart Cathedral.