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Retro splendor adorns basilica altar

New, massive artwork at San Juan mission recalls grandeur of an earlier time.

March 17, 2007|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

A $2-million, golden altarpiece that stands more than four stories tall within the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano will be unveiled today at an afternoon Mass.

On Friday, as workers hurried to apply finishing touches to the lighting of the Grand Retablo, worshipers entering the basilica froze upon viewing the altarpiece for the first time. One woman with rosary in hand stood for several minutes, staring in amazement as tears rimmed her eyes.

The grandeur of the 16-ton piece of art, made in Spain by 85 craftsmen, makes it the focal point of the basilica and provides a link to the mission's past.

The 400-year-old altarpiece in the Serra Chapel -- the original mission church -- was also built in Spain. But it is dwarfed by the Grand Retablo, which is 44 feet high and 29 feet wide. The structure took 10 months to construct and is bolted to a seismic-proof steel frame anchored 14 feet in the ground.

The new altarpiece, representing a religious splendor from ages ago, would be at home in a 16th century European cathedral. Its golden sheen is the result of 24-karat gold flakes applied through a centuries-old method. Featuring statues of 50 swallows and Father Junipero Serra, the altarpiece is crowned by a depiction of the Holy Trinity -- Jesus on the cross being received by God the Father and a white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

"This is done for the glory of God, so we try to use the best materials," said Manuel R. Suarez, project director for Talleres de Arte Granda, the Spanish company that built the altarpiece. "This is a flagship project for us in the United States."

The retablo, Spanish for "behind the altar" or "behind the table," is constructed from Brazilian cedar coated with a liquid made from rabbit skins, Suarez said. Next, seven thin plaster coats are applied and covered with a liquid from fish skins. The final application is of super-thin layers of gold that are brushed on the wood and then rubbed with a pencil-like instrument with an agate tip.

Suarez said Spanish craftsmen have been using this process in the construction of retablos since the 15th century.

The cost of the retablo was covered by Arthur and Gaye Birtcher and the estate of Velma O'Brien, who died Jan. 2 and had lived in Newport Beach. Arthur Birtcher, who lives in San Juan Capistrano and is a Catholic convert, said his family is devoted to San Juan Capistrano mission.

"My wife and I have been spiritually and emotionally in love with the mission all of our adult lives," he said. "We simply wanted to give something back to a place we care about."

The mission will hold its annual return-of-the-swallows event Monday, when two special Masses will celebrate the installation of the altarpiece. The Grand Retablo will be formally dedicated July 21 by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.


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