The 800 guests--including 400 Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus--will be assembled in the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Toyko on Wednesday afternoon waiting for Pope John Paul II to slip in from backstage.
But when the main curtain is raised, the focus will not be on the pontiff. Instead, the spotlight will be on five huge canvas paintings--unveiled for the first time--by Los Angeles artist Isabel Piczek.
The 16-by-7 1/2-foot panels in vivid acrylic colors and suspended by cables from the ceiling portray symbols of the five faiths represented at the Pope's meeting with non-Christian religious leaders. The paintings are a blend of motifs that unite the faiths but preserve the individual integrity of each.
"The theological idea is that no religion is isolated, but each somehow affects all of the others," explained Father Vivian Ben Lima, associate pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Covina and a consultant for the project of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Piczek's liturgical works adorn more than 400 churches on three continents. During the last three months, the Hungarian-born artist often spent 14 hours a day painting atop the wood scaffold in her Echo Park studio.
The "aura of divine light" is reflected in crisscrossing lines in the panels; the elements of earth and water are also used as coordinating themes, and "vibrant orange" symbolizes a "divine embrace, bringing the faiths together," the artist said during an interview.
The center panel depicts the cross in red and gold, representing the blood and divinity of Jesus Christ. Surrounding the cross is the gray shape of a chrysalis, which Piczek said represents the "abstract idea" of Jesus' shroud and death, as well as his Resurrection.
'The Sacred Sound'
The "OM," depicted on the Hindu panel, is "the sacred sound" of "cosmic reverberation that permeates all of creation," Lima explained. Buddhism is represented by the "Dharma Chakra," or Wheel of Life--symbol of "the never-ending cycle of reincarnation" and the eightfold path to enlightenment taught by the Buddha. Saffron, the color symbolizing sanctity for the two religions, is used heavily on these panels.
The menorah is the symbol of worship for the Jews, and Piczek has painted the seven-branched candlestick in dark blue, which predominates on this panel. Islam is portrayed by the Muslim minaret, which evokes the call to prayer--one of five pillars of Islamic worship of Allah. Green is the dominant color.
"Each symbol is similar in size and at the same level, with strong colors chosen to complement each other," Piczek explained. "And the panels will be suspended as if they are flying in the air" above the stage.
"I'm proud that the paintings are a project in the fine arts and will remain as a collection after the event," Piczek said. "That the fine arts rather than commercial art was chosen . . . is an indication of the growing cultural Renaissance that is coming to Los Angeles."
The interfaith paintings are not the only works the prolific artist, who possesses a keen knowledge of theology, has made especially for the Pope's Southern California visit.
Piczek, 49, has created a 5-by-7-foot mosaic showing John Paul greeting Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-Century founder of the California mission chain. The ceramic tile production will be seen by the pontiff when he meets with the U.S. bishops at the San Fernando Mission on Wednesday.
First Exhibit at 11
Piczek, who held her first exhibit at the age of 11, has also painted a mural background for a statue of Our Lady of the Angels, which will adorn the living quarters of Archbishop Roger M. Mahony at St. Vibiana's Cathedral rectory. The Pope will stay there during his two days in Los Angeles.
When she was 13 years old, Piczek and her sister, Edith, also an artist, escaped from behind the Iron Curtain and literally "painted" their way across Europe, finally reaching Rome. There, they won the prestigious Galleria di Roma prize for painting and were commissioned to do a large fresco at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. The Piczeks came to Los Angeles and opened their studio in 1957.