Peru – Centenary of the High Altar of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Lima
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27 March 2024

(ANS – Lima) – The centenary of the consecration of the high altar in the Crypt of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Lima was celebrated on 19 March, on the feast of St Joseph and in homage to Fr José Calasanz Marqués, then Provincial of the Salesians in Peru and Bolivia – now recognised as Blessed by the Church – on account of his name.

The high altar in the crypt was the first marble work in the history of the Basilica-Crypt complex, now officially recognised as a Cultural Heritage of the Nation. Until 1924 all the altars placed there (since the inauguration of the Crypt in 1917 and the Basilica in 1921) were temporary wooden works. Their installation meant the definition of a new standard in the construction of altars for the site, which from then on would have been made of this most precious material.

Since 2007, this work of art has given its name to the crypt, which has been renamed "Chapel of Mercy", precisely because of the sculptural group that dominates the altar.

Its author was Italian sculptor Antonio Bozzano (Genoa, 1858 - Pietrasanta, 1939), at the time a teacher at the School of Fine Arts in Pietrasanta, Tuscany. Although his previous works had been predominantly secular and not sacred, his fame as a sculptor of funerary allegories must have guided the choice by the Salesians who considered him a "universally esteemed artist". His name is engraved on the side of the base as "Prof. A. Bozzano – Sculptor Pietrasanta".

The work was donated to the Salesians by the "munificent cooperator" Josefina Cucalón Alvarado. She offered this altar in memory of her late parents Antonio Cucalón and Francisca Alvarado, engraving the date of its inauguration on one side: 19 March 1924. The benefactress died three and a half years later, on 13 October 1927, and her name and date of death were engraved on the other side of the altar.

When the crypt was inaugurated on 2 September 1917, it still had the temporary wooden main altar, probably made by the Lima-Breña School of Arts and Crafts. The final marble altar was sent by Pietrasanta to the port of Callao on a steamer.

After its arrival, the work of placing the altar began. In December 1923 the relief of the Resurrection of Lazarus had already been placed on the facade and in the first weeks of 1924 the missing elements were completed, including the placement of the Pietà that dominates the entire work. After the work, the Salesians observed: "[the altar] is all marble, in classic style, and admirably harmonises with the serious and devout atmosphere of the Crypt."

The consecration took place on 19 March 1924 during the feast of Saint Joseph, a few days after the first anniversary of the death of Fr Carlos Pane, the main promoter of the construction of the Basilica and the Crypt. The ceremony was conducted by Bishop Pedro Pablo Drinot y Piérola. And the first Mass was celebrated by the then Provincial Fr José Calasanz, later martyred in his native Spain in 1936 during the Civil War.

Two years later, the Salesians asked the Holy See to declare this marble altar "privileged", a title that thus allows the deceased for whose soul a Mass is celebrated there to enjoy a plenary indulgence.

Artistic description of the altar

At the base of the work there is a relief depicting the Gospel passage of the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus. The sculptor has placed eight characters, prominent among whom are Jesus in the centre of the scene; Lazarus before the Saviour at the moment of his resurrection, as described in the Gospel of John (Jn. 11:44); Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, who watch the scene behind Jesus with pain and surprise; and four other characters who accompany the protagonists of the story. A few years later, in 1929, the Salesians in Lima wrote of this work: "It is of considerable value and you can admire the expressive naturalness of the characters who witness the miraculous miracle of Jesus."

The tabernacle is located at the centre of the structure. Its entrance is accompanied by two columns with Corinthian capitals and a sculptural representation of the Holy Spirit. The entrance is preceded by concentric semicircular arches and is guarded by a bronze door with a Eucharistic allegory in relief consisting of a chalice resting on a crown of thorns, from which the consecrated host with the "IHS" Christogram shines brightly.

At the top is the Pietà, a recurring iconographic motif in Christian art consisting of the Virgin Mary with the body of her son Jesus resting on her: it is the highlight of the entire work. It is a sculpture 1.78 m wide and 1.55 m high. To it was added a cross with shroud, also in marble, 2.19 metres high. Later, in 1929, two praying angels were also added to the sides of the Pietà.

And about the face of the Virgin, the main element of the whole, the Salesians wrote in "El Pan del Alma" magazine in March 1924: "The Mother, in an expression of immense pain, has nothing of the spasmodic theatrics so abused by the Impressionists: in her eyes fixed on humanity, ‘wearied sorrow,  heavenly calm’ in a sublime sacrifice for an era of justice and truly evangelical charity, is transparent to the core."

Text and research by David Franco Córdova,

Salesian history expert in Peru

Source: Salesians of Peru

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