Sacred Heart Cathedral is where construction, art intersect

Hard hats, scaffolding, tight spaces all in a days work for EverGreene Architectural artisans on a mission

By Bill Brewer

When the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus begins filling with worshipers next month, people attending Mass, adoration, confession, or any of a number of sacred events coming up will enjoy many “wow” moments as they observe the cathedral’s beauty.

One of those moments will be when they first glimpse the paintings on the ceiling of the dome above the baldacchino and altar. These frescoes that depict 16 saints, the Apostles, the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and Jesus were painted by artists with EverGreene Architectural Arts, which has clients around the world for whom the company has done murals and other artwork; stone, metal, and wood installation; decorative finishing; commercial and traditional painting; plasterwork; and gilding, as well as conservation and restoration work.

Suspended by a scaffold high above the cathedral floor, an EverGreene artist touches up one of the frescoes on the ceiling of the cathedral dome.

The New York construction arts studio is known as a top source of interior and exterior artwork projects from design through installation. The studio’s murals, mosaics, sculptures, art glass, and other artwork adorn churches, museums, government buildings, theaters, hotels, restaurants, and private homes.

As unique as it is to see EverGreene artisans working on a construction project, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus isn’t the only project the company has undertaken in Knoxville. In 2004, EverGreene was selected to work on the Tennessee Theatre restoration. EverGreene craftsmen cleaned, repaired, and repainted the architectural surfaces in the historic Gay Street performance venue.

That same expertise was on display at Sacred Heart for several months last year. The cathedral paintings are reminiscent of famous church ceilings around the world and have an effect akin to seeing the Sistine Chapel.

As work on the cathedral has progressed and some parishioners have been able to get an early peek inside, it is common to see them with necks craned skyward, gazing at the artistry. Awe is a frequent response.

That sense of awe and inspiration are appropriate responses to many areas of cathedral construction, from the stone and tile work, the hand-crafted altar, baldacchino, cathedra, Stations of the Cross, and wood accents, to the side altars, dome, and cupola. Every phase of cathedral construction has required excellence to the point of artistry.

While EverGreene Architectural construction industry, so is the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In building the cathedral, the Diocese of Knoxville planned a home worthy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, celebrating Him in sacred worship space adorned by the best gifts and God-given skills of the men and women who erected it. It also is to be a mother church appropriate for the 51 parishes and missions of the diocese.

The cathedral project has drawn top craftsmen representing a variety of construction trades. EverGreene, which came highly recommended, is no different.

EverGreene’s Mike Carpenter spent four months on site inside the cathedral putting in the frescoes. He led a team of eight artisans who placed the paintings of the saints, Apostles, and Holy Family created at EverGreene’s New York studio on the cathedral dome walls.

An EverGreene Architectural Arts artist paints one of the many frescoes that reflect Church history on the dome of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Mr. Carpenter explained that once the images created in the studio were ready, they had to be transferred to the cathedral dome.

Images in the dome were handcrafted by EverGreene’s decorative artists. The artists painted the images onto canvas in the New York studio. The canvas paintings were then transferred to templates and placed on the dome interior by hand.

The process has been painstakingly detail-oriented, according to Emily Sottile, director of EverGreene’s Sacred Space Studio, who oversaw creation of the dome artwork.

She said the Diocese of Knoxville approached EverGreene to offer a proposal for the cathedral work in mid-2016. Before EverGreene was selected, a diocesan team comprising Bishop Richard F. Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Father David Boettner, cathedral architect James McCrery, and Mary Mac Wilson, director of parish operations for Sacred Heart Cathedral, developed a liturgical artistry program for the cathedral.

Ms. Sottile said EverGreene worked with the cathedral team on how each element would look individually and as part of the cathedral.

“The upper dome depicts the risen Christ, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On either side of Christ is the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. On either side of them are the Twelve Apostles. The level below that in the dome is the restored Garden of Eden with many wonderful saints. That is the Communion of Saints,” Ms. Sottile explained.

Scriptural passages also adorn the cathedral walls where the dome transitions to the nave and the transepts.

She noted that the pendentives — the four corners that taper into the wall from the dome — contain the Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). And there are stars on the coffers above the nave.

To illustrate how intricately detailed the cathedral is, inside the coffers where the stars are painted are the sprinkler heads for the cathedral fire safety system. Father Boettner points out that basic elements of any building that are critical to its function, such as sprinkler heads, electrical switches, and heating and air conditioning ducts were designed to blend in with the cathedral’s ornate architecture and not detract from it.

“When we were introduced to the project, the team had wonderful references of the images. We had to design what the images would look like,” Ms. Sottile said. “We began to paint these images on canvas in our studio in Brooklyn and that went on for several months.”

“We depict the blood and water of Christ in our paint,” she added. “All of the symbolism and detail are from Catholic liturgical precedent; harmonious scale and style transfer it into a language that is expressed visually, and it unfolds over time to lead people in following the Christian mysteries.”

Another cathedral fresco illustrates Pope St.
John XXIII, who is holding the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Blessed Pope Paul VI, holding his encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

Ms. Sottile pointed out that the ecclesiastical artwork is never just decorative; it’s about helping to teach, to pray, and support what the cathedral will do in all its aspects.

Overcoming technical difficulties was one of the biggest challenges facing EverGreene in creating and installing the frescoes.

Those difficulties included making the images clear and undistorted inside the dome that is more than 100 feet above the cathedral floor. A related challenge was making the images stand out on dome walls that are curved.

EverGreene has a stable of artists — more than 200 — that creates its construction art, with many of them assigned to the Brooklyn studio, and others like Mr. Carpenter working in the field.

EverGreene also had an artistic role on the cathedral’s exterior. A gilding expert was lifted to the top of the dome to place gold leaf on the cross atop the dome.

Another technical challenge EverGreene had to overcome was in the field. Mr. Carpenter noted that a number of construction disciplines were underway simultaneously, which placed workspace at a premium. For example, the EverGreene team was placing its artwork on the dome ceiling as carpenters were installing molding, trim, and hand-crafted wood fixtures next to them, and crews were putting in the concrete floor base below.

But such is the nature of a major construction project that is relatively large in the scope of complexity and detail and relatively small in square-footage.

“It’s been difficult due to so many trades in the same area. All the trades want to work in the same progression,” Mr. Carpenter said, noting that his team of construction artisans adjusted to working side-by-side with other crafts.

A computer-aided design program assisted in creating the cathedral images in the studio. At Sacred Heart, Mr. Carpenter and his team took positions atop scaffolding surrounding the dome interior and applied the artwork created in Brooklyn to the cathedral’s blank canvas — its walls. This process involved recreating the intricate, life-size images made in the EverGreene studio using paper templates and specially designed paint that not only gives the images life, but preserves them, too.

“Climate control and new materials enhance the longevity of our work. We have better materials that last longer and don’t yellow as quickly. For instance, we use archival varnish,” Mr. Carpenter noted. “We take the paper images up and tack them to the wall. We use a lot of lasers now. That speeds up the project. We project a lot of laser lines onto the project.”

An EverGreene artist prepares a piece of a fresco to be placed in the dome of the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

He acknowledged that painting flat images onto curved spaces has been difficult, and pointed out that time and resources prevent the dome images from being painted like the Sistine Chapel, which took years to complete.

Mr. Carpenter can relate to the intricate artistry that Michelangelo created inside the Vatican. He can even imagine the artist painting today, maybe using newfangled tools of modern artisans like lasers and CAD programs.

And then there is the payoff, whether it was 500 years ago or today.

“The reward is the oooohs and ahhhhs you get from the people,” he said. “Just seeing the work we do and then seeing the reaction to the work we do makes it all worthwhile.”

Mr. Carpenter, who manages the EverGreene field team, said all EverGreene artisans have degrees in fine arts and are accomplished artists in their own rights.

“It’s was an amazing crew. They specialized in large murals,” he noted, pointing to what seems like a contradiction in terms: construction art. “It’s odd. You wouldn’t think commercial artwork is conducive to art in a construction setting. The saying is measure twice, cut once. Well, we measure 10 times. Make it correct. Make it beautiful. And meet the deadline. Part of what we do is getting the job done on time.”

Now that it’s finished, the 20-year EverGreene employee described the cathedral work as “very gratifying” and called the dome artwork “breathtaking.”

As complex as construction art can be, Ms. Sottile said it also is important to know what construction art isn’t. She noted that the success of a project depends on knowing what works and what doesn’t.

“Jeff Greene, who founded this company, has studied paint and materials. So we have an understanding of the materials used and the materials we’re painting on,” she said. “It’s just through knowledge of materials and technique. It’s a recipe. It’s understanding the pathology of paint; what makes paint fail,” she said. “We have to understand why and how materials react with each other and how they behave.”

EverGreene artists lay out their materials for the cathedral dome artwork. The artisans worked for weeks inside the cathedral dome placing the artwork.

EverGreene’s designs for the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus are originals, collaborations between the diocesan liturgical team and members of EverGreene’s ecclesiastical artwork division. By the time the cathedral is dedicated on March 3, EverGreene will have spent a year and a half creating 35 figures for the dome.

“It’s quite a lot of artwork. It’s been an all-hands-on-deck group effort,” Ms. Sottile reflected. “Always with religious artwork there’s an iconographical vocabulary. We know how to read iconography. Yes, we know who Mary is, and Jesus, of course. But we also know the saints.”

The diocesan team was applauded by Ms. Sottile for their dedication to the ecclesiastical art project.

“They were extremely intentional on the themes and imagery, and they worked extremely closely with us. Our job was to articulate their vision visually. When James McCrery was designing the cathedral, he had this in mind.”

Ms. Sottile is an art historian by training with a focus on ecclesiastical art of the Medieval and Renaissance periods. She has been with EverGreene for 10 years, serving the past four years as director of EverGreene’s sacred space studio. She’s also Catholic and has two master’s degrees, the most recent in theology.

“There’s always more to learn about theology, art, architecture, construction, and materials,” she said. “To get to do work that elevates you and brings others to God is a blessing. Give glory to God in the artwork and architecture.

Ms. Sottile is convinced she has the best job possible, working at the intersection of faith and fine art.

“I get to work on truly remarkable churches, and this is truly a special, remarkable cathedral. It’s not just decoration. It has a function in the faith life of people. It’s a beacon,” she said.

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