Mysteries in stone

(No.6, Vol.4,Jul-Aug 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The statue of the Sorrowful Mysteries. Photo: Ha Vu Trong

Heritage sites dedicated to the Holy Mother Mary in the world have become pilgrimage sites for faithful Catholics like (the French) Lourdes, (Portuguese) Fatima, (Spanish) Plaza del Pilar, and (Mexican) Guadalupe, etc. In Vietnam, a few kilometres from the town of Quang Tri in Hai Lang District and about two kilometres outside National Highway 1, one comes across La Vang, which has long since become the most important sacred land for pilgrimage among Vietnamese Catholics. At the end of the eighteenth century, with the king’s royal decree banning the religion, Catholics sought refuge there. They believed that the image of a woman cradling a child appeared to protect them, and they took her as an emanation of none other than the Holy Mother. Today, every year, La Vang receives over half a million pilgrims.
The La Vang Temple was built in 1928. The important period in the construction of La Vang took place from 1961-1963, by the decision of the Episcopacy of South Vietnam, which recognized La Vang as the National Centre of the Holy Mother. From the level of a shrine, La Vang was elevated with the approval of the Vatican to a basilica. This period of construction was marked by the dismantling of the earlier French priests’ models that were heavy with Westernized characteristics in order to move towards subjects and structures that were symbolic of ideas from the native culture. In terms of the design plan, there were contributions from renowned experts of the time, such as the architect Ngo Viet Thu and his design for a sanctuary with three artificial banyan trees (made of concrete and steel rods) 21m high lying upon a polygonal stone hill and a stone terrace leading upwards so that the faithful could stand and pray—thus recreating a scene based on the oral tradition of ‘the Holy Mother manifests on a patch of grass beneath a banyan tree.’ Below the centre of the sanctuary is an altar made of marble from Ngu Hanh Son (‘Five Elements Mountain’, a.k.a. ‘Marble Mountain’) and a statue of the Holy Mother, situated high at the centre of the main sanctum, bestowing beneficence. Nevertheless, this sanctuary with three banyan trees had just started the work of completing the cement and steel rod components when it came to a standstill at the end of 1963. Over 40 years passed while the sanctuary remained in its unfinished state.
The group of statues of the Fifteen Mysteries on Rosary Square may be regarded as an assortment of sculptures of top-tiered value in the history of Vietnamese modern art.
During the reconstruction of La Vang Temple, the assortment of statues on these holy grounds were the creative project of Le Ngoc Hue (a.k.a. Bernard Hue, born in 1936 in Hue), along with the effective collaboration of his talented student, Mai Chung. At that time, Le Ngoc Hue was a professor at the Hue Vocation College of Fine Arts. Having just graduated and returned from the Montpelier Fine Arts College in France in 1961, he breathed the fresh air of Modernism into Vietnamese sculpture. The collection of statues was carried out from 1961 to 1962 and included 15 statues on pedestals that were made of synthetic materials from white cement and laid symmetrically along the two sides of a stone paved path and scattered about a carpet of grass leading from the three-entrance gate into the premises of Rosary Square.

The statues of the Joyful Mysteries
Photos: Ha Vu Trong

In 1972, Rosary Square was upturned and holed by bombs and gunfire. A number of the statues of the Fifteen Mysteries in the collection were devastated. Only the three artificial banyan trees on the Holy Mother platform still stood firmly intact. Since 1995, Rosary Square has been rebuilt close to its original state with a surrounding barrier, grass field, horticultural plants, and high-voltage lights. The path is also a palanquin pathway lined with bricks that runs straight from the three-entrance gate up to the ritual platform.
Le Ngoc Hue’s themes for the fifteen statues correspond to contemplations of the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, which consist of the Five Joyous Mysteries, Five Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Five Glorious Mysteries. This theme is especially fitting for holy grounds dedicated to the Holy Mother in comparison to the conventional theme regularly seen on virtually all church premises, the ‘Fourteen Views of the Crucifix.’ ‘Rosary’ means a ‘garland of roses.’ Every word of the prayer ‘Hail Mary’ or ‘Ave Maria’ is like a pretty rose that combines into a basket of flowers or crown to present to the Holy Mother. Reciting the ‘Hail Mary’ is a contemplation that follows the order of the Mysteries or actual life events, suffering, death, the glory of Jesus Christ and the participation of his mother Mary.
In artistic terms, the group of La Vang statues, for the first time on a large scale, conveyed a modern abstract style founded on Vietnamese sculpture. Here was the combination of streamlined and stylized geometric forms that achieved a level of both abstraction and realism, as well as that of the modern Western artistic movement that tried to recreate the primitive art of world cultures. The purport of the collection of statues still retains a symbolic character and suggestiveness that draws closer to the masses and contemplative faithful on pilgrimage. Thus, the statues could not achieve a degree of ‘pure’ abstraction like in the works of master sculptures such as that that the likes of Brancusi, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth. The notable thing here is that not only did Le Ngoc Hue stylize the forms, but he also endeavoured to bring lines into the sculptures so as to create a light/dark shading effect between the pieces and shapes with a cadence full of poetic flavour—just as if they were a vehicle to lead one’s vision to focus on the inherent significance of each statue upon contemplation.
In the prayers of the rosary that are recited daily, the Fifteen Mysteries are divided into three sets. In each set are five different topics to contemplate (each topic is recited with ten ‘Hail Marys’). In order to supplement these contemplative Mysteries, people match them with a model virtue for each of the Mysteries (such as humility, universal love, penury, and immaculateness). Based on this, each ‘set,’ in terms of sculptural form, succinctly captures the conceptual pith of each topic:
1.The Five Joyful Mysteries: Contemplating moments in the life of the Holy Mother Mary; these are topics rich with emotions and intimacy, such as the scene in which the angel [Gabriel] reveals the news [that Mary would conceive the Son of God] or the feelings universal among women [like childbearing] and the love between a mother and child. The sculptures primarily use arrangements and curved lines that are full of femininity as well as round, gentle and harmonious forms as when movements and clothing glide rhythmically in circles.
2.The Five Sorrowful Mysteries: This series of statues primarily utilizes a model of geometric shapes that establish bold and powerful dispositions truly appropriate for portraying the anxiety and agony in both the body and the heart of Jesus Christ during his travails such as the scene of his prayer in the Olive Garden [(Gethsemane)] and the scene of his punishment and suffering when being nailed [to the cross].
3.The Five Glorious Mysteries: Mirthful, sublime and reverent, these topics’ sculptural forms, from here on, involve few harsh characteristics. Aside from the statue ‘The Resurrection of the Lord Jesus,’ which retains a style of disposition and expression that unifies with the Five Sufferings, the remaining statues return to forms of an abstract character with round features replete with femininity in order to portray immaculateness, especially in the statues that represent the Holy Mother.
It must be recalled that Le Ngoc Hue had been on the committee of experts on fine art during the 1st Fine Arts Exhibition that included 22 countries and was organized in Tao Dan Park in Saigon in October 1962. At the exhibition, Le Ngoc Hue and Diem Phung Thi were the two most important Vietnamese whose works participated. The two coincidentally united through the image of spiritual pillars oriented towards a desire for peace, the family and the ancestors: Le Ngoc Hue with his ‘Pillar of Peace’ and Diem Phung Thi with his ‘Pillar of the Divine Creature,’ which can be likened to totem poles or the sepulchral statuary pillar houses in the Central Highlands, which day and night stand vigil between the living world and the other world, the abode of the ancestors. There is nearly no information about Le Ngoc Hue’s artistic activities from the year 1963 after he went to France.
The works that Le Ngoc Hue left behind for the world, despite having been over such a short time span, will continue to shine for a long time because they bear a Christian spiritual value of experiential morality and that of modern art. The collection of statues is rosa mystica—fifteen marvellous roses that garner human emotional states, from the woeful to the sublime, and transcend worldliness through the redemption of religion and art. Moreover, the statues lie in a space and time that coalesces the essence of the spirit through history’s vicissitudes. For this reason, it is no coincidence that Quang Tri was the place that for 21 years separated the North and South at the 17th parallel; the place that experienced the vicissitudes of the 200-year conflict between the Trinh and Nguyen regimes; the place that was given the appellation ‘Road of Melancholy’ during the war of 1946-1954; and, finally, the place that bore the worst devastation during the 1960-1975 period with the ‘Highway of Terror’, not to mention ancient cities that were left without a single brick laid upon another… but then [ultimately Quang Tri] became a place that garnered the essence of artistic sublimation.

By Ha Vu Trong
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