Haiti: Lost artistic treasure

The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince

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Photo: Private collection

Murals in the apse of the Holy Trinity cathedral in Port-au-Prince.  From left to right:  the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Ascension

Once there was a church, the pontifical of the Anglican Church of Haiti.  Its architecture was simple but, in the 1950’s it is there that took place the greatest project of Haitian religious art;  and since, the cathedral Holy Trinity, as it was called, has become one of Port-au-Prince’s major landmarks.

  

The idea of decorating the church was submitted to the Bishop of the time and got his total support.  Because of what we might call a split allegiance to Christian religions and Voodoo, because many divinities of the voodoo pantheon are represented by images of Christian saints, works of art by Haitian artists were banned from churches.   As a matter of fact, not long before, a mural, painted in a chapel in the outskirts of the capital city, was destroyed the day of its unveiling by order of the Catholic Bishop, then a French national.

  

For the Holy trinity project, nine artists were selected, all from the Centre d’Art, in operation since 1944, providing support for artists both trained and untrained.   Those selected, however, were all self-taught intuitive painters, with individual styles and a particular vision of the work and of the scriptures.  The feat was to have these artists, accustomed to small formats, to do mural size works.  Well, they did, and what they accomplished was the greatest achievement in the history of Haitian art.

  

The first three murals were done in the apse of the church, representing three important moments of Christ’s life:   the Nativity, painted by Rigaud Benoit, the Crucifixion by Philomé Obin and the Ascension by Castera Bazile.  All three placed the scenes in Haitian surroundings of their time, with Haitian people witnessing the events.   The project was executed in thirty days and got so much acclaim that Time magazine published pictures of the paintings in color which, in turn, encouraged philanthropists to finance the paintings in the transept.  Added to those, Stations of the Cross were created by Jasmin Joseph, who had mastered the technique of ceramic.

  

I was particularly found of these murals, because of their beauty, of course, but also because they were the subject of my first art appreciation class.  I was then a sixteen year old bilingual lad and was asked to make guided tours of the murals for hundreds of tourists, mostly coming on cruise ships, twice a week.  Out of this experience came my admiration for those painters and a taste for the arts that was going to determine my professional career. 

  Sadly, an earthquake destroyed the church and only sections of the walls remain with fragments of the murals.  Having gotten over the first shock, I can now express my gratitude to the many people who, like me, are devoting time and efforts in the hope that those fragments could be saved, along with other precious elements of the country’s artistic heritage, that have proven, over the years, the extraordinary creativity of the Haitian people.