Saturday, July 19, 2008

How Divine Are You?

A "real" space in Madrid

I went to Spain in the early 1990's to do a half dozen special events in connection with the IMF annual meeting. My clients needed me to find the venues, the caterers, and do the decor.
It was a great project, and while I was there I fell in love with the lifestyle of the Spanish people.
The caterer I hired turned out to be the Julia Child of Spain, and she opened her home and family life to me, and introduced me to many of the vendors I ended up using. She also introduced me to her friends, who were fascinated with my project. One couple owned a 16th century home in Jerez, and also a
finca (a country house) that was a converted olive mill (pictured on the right is an altar in that home). When I first saw these wonderful places, I breezily asked, how long have you been living here, and was mortified when my gracious hosts informed me that their homes had been in the family since the 16th century. Duh. Americans don't have that sense of history!
One of the things I like in Europe, whether it's in Spain or Italy or France, is the way divine objects, crosses, saints, milagros, and ex votos are used in a very natural way. I'm Catholic, but I was very much lapsed as a young adult. I thought the cross hanging over my grandmother's bed in her bedroom was corny. Using religious articles for decoration in my home never crossed my mind as something I would want to do. That is until another Catholic girl with the very Catholic name of Madonna started

wearing crosses and the Star of David as a hip and cool fashion
accessory. Soon thereafter, it seemed like crosses, angels, and church candle holders started to creep into the decor of the uber arty cool people. An abandoned church in New York became a famous disco called Limelight. Antique dealers were being arrested for stealing cemetery art in the form of crosses, and sculpture. Everyone was wearing crosses too - earrings or necklaces or bracelets, and imprinted T-shirts, and it did not matter if you were Christian, Jewish, or from Mars.
As a first year art student, my art history professor gave me the assignment to write a term paper about the significance of the cross form in global art. I groaned. But in the pursuit of reference material for that paper, I came to appreciate the art of the cross. I started collecting them, and kept them in a boxes for years. When we moved to New Orleans, they found their way out of storage purgatory, and up onto the walls of our home here. They fit in so well with New Orleans style where voodoo, gris-gris, and Catholicism are a part of everyday life.
Fish is still served on Fridays here, and people talk to St. Anthony and St. Expedite on a regular basis, and bury statues of St. Joseph when they need to sell a house.
So it is no surprise that divine or devotional objects have found their way into the mainstream of decorating. Certain places like New Orleans and Santa Fe (and Mexico which made Day of The Dead objects popular) seem to exemplify the style of living with spiritual objects. But shop at any Tuesday Morning, Stein Mart, TJ Maxx, Pier One, Target, Wal Mart, Cost Plus World Market, any place where decorative accents are sold and you will find icons of the Catholic faith on the shelf next to a bevy of Buddhas. Does this make us all more spiritual? In a way, yes, because living with these objects does produce some kind of aura.

There is a new book coming out this fall by photographer Peter Vitale HERE Peter and I go back a ways. We worked together on some projects, and I always loved him as person and as an extraordinary talent. He has lived in Santa Fe for a number of years. His accomplishments are steller, and you can check out his web site HERE
One of his regular gigs is doing photography for Veranda magazine. I was so happy to see his own home featured in the December 2007 issue, and that he did the photography too! His home is beautiful and perfectly decorated. What really thrilled me was to see how he lives with the devotional objects he has collected over the years.

This is a shot in Peter Vitale's home
He has a huge collection of French antique
heart shaped ex votos or milagros
Here they are displayed on Roman marble bust (A.D. 100-400)
The flowers are just gorgeous too!

Another photo from the home of Peter Vitale
A 19th-c saint's crown and processional cross
sit on a 19th-c Mexican table
The fab chair is Robsjohn-Gibbings

A close-up of Peter's antique French
heart shaped ex voto collection
I love the jeweled ones!

This is Peter's living room
The daybed is a gift from Billy Baldwin!

The shoot was done for the Christmas issue,
but I am sure Peter lives with his
beautiful divine objects year round -
I love the Peruvian chair,
and the colonial figure of the Christ Child.
The French table runner is so luxe!
The square wreaths are beautiful
(with the heart shaped ex votos)

Do you have to have the precious items that Peter Vitale arranges in such a sophisticated way in order to enjoy your own version of divine living? Of course not! Just about everybody on Rate My Space (the web site for regular folks who decorate and show off their efforts) has a cross hanging on the wall. I first posted a little picture essay there, about devotional objects used in the home, and the reaction was a bit controversial. I have my huge cross collection hanging in a bedroom, and some people found it creepy. No one has ever lost a night's sleep there! I asked my interior designer friend Michael Pelkey if I should hang a curtain over them, so it could be closed if it bothered anyone. He laughed, well actually cackled, and said "f**k 'em, it's your house and it looks great!"
I had the collection back in storage again, because we moved to a smaller house, and I didn't have one inch of extra wall space left to hang them. The bedroom had some ditzy mirror and candle sconces that Michael shamed me into removing. Voila! A nice big blank wall!

Valorie Hart Designs
Crosses on the bedroom wall

The other thing that seems to naturally occur in most homes, is a place that becomes a little altar or shrine. It might happen on a mantle, or a dresser top, or in a niche. It may not contain religious articles, but little things that you like: photos, mementos, found objects. This gathering place can become a catch all that takes on a personality and a life of its own. Here in New Orleans lots of people have altars. It doesn't mean you're a voodoo queen sticking pins in a doll, or that you're necessarily religious or even a practicing Catholic. People just like to live with their statues of saints, and their crosses, and their good luck charms. My own altar started innocently, and it was quite small. I have a 19th century corner table from Mexico that fit into an odd little corner in my book room. Once I started it, I just kept finding things to put on it, and people also gave me little trinkets too. It's kind of out of hand, but I love it, and just can't seem to edit it out our lives. We've been told that our house was safe and sound during Katrina because my gris-gris altar is very powerful (in a good way).

Valorie Hart Designs
Gris-gris altar

Gris - gris altar close up

Valorie Hart Designs
I also have these lovely ladies in my bedroom...

Valorie Hart Designs
...and a collection of portraits
of women saints hanging in
the walk in closet/dressing room

There is another great book by Mary Emmerling called The Art Of The Cross HERE
She also has lived in New Mexico, and I think her homes and books were very much influenced by living with the culture of devotional objects and architecture so identified with Santa Fe. I wish I had had this book when I was doing that term paper! I keep a copy of it in the bedroom with the crosses, just to help those who don't understand them LOL! I'll add Peter Vitale's book when it comes out.
What do you think? Do you use divine objects with ease in your home? Send me some photos!

From The Art of The Cross

Aren't these boots wonderful?
From The Art of The Cross

A precious santo
From The Art of The Cross

A fabulous silver charm bracelet
From The Art of The Cross

An antique Mexican table
very much like mine!
If only I had this restraint!

This image is interesting -
As much as I like the divine home,
I hate this creepy room
There's no wimsy or editing of the
religious articles - it's too much


mrsben said...

Oh, I remember the controversy about your 'crosses'. I doubt if you recall, I defended you.

Actually years ago prior to when my dtr. was married, I started her off on a small collection which she herself has added to. Not sure though if she has them in her new home. (Must check the next time when I'm there.)

When I have browsed RMS spaces, I have noticed that many New Orleans natives have a tendency to decorate with religious symbolism.
Do you have any idea why? Also, with no intention to offend; the phrase 'less is more' appears not to be in their decorating vocabulary. To me the style and overdulgence reminds me of French Canadiana (reason why I can identify it so quickly).

Cote de Texas said...

So beautiful - what a wonderful post! I was wondering if you were going to mention Mary E's book. I got an autographed copy of it for Christmas from my sister in law - a rather bizarre gift for a Jewish girl, no? hahahah!!!!

Beautiful - and I love your altar!


Visual Vamp said...

Mrs. B I do recall your kindness to me at RMS! Thank you! Yes NOLA folks love their stuff. This is a Creole port city where the treasures of the world have poured in for the last 300 years. People love their homes, love color, love to entertain (drink, eat, cook, converse), love to shop, love to fill their homes with beautiful things that get passed from generation to generation. Until RMS I was not aware how different from the mainstream we decorate here LOL
The French bon vivant influenece for living with style is very much alive as it was 300 years ago - as is the colonial Spanish influence.

Visual Vamp said...

Hi Joni, Yes Mary's book is so charming! I love that you gave it to your sister! I have a friend who uses the Star Of David, as I use my crosses! It's another great point of view of divine living. I think Peter Vitale's book is going to be spectacular. And...please send me something for my altar :-)

Topsy Turvy said...

Peter Vitale's book looks great! I love his house, and am a fan of Spanish colonial interiors.


Maryam in Marrakesh said...

I desperately want these books. I am an atheist but obsessed with divine objects. I have 15 processional coptic crosses, a huge collection of Islamic prayer beads, a collection of antique Buddha hands and more and more. I spend hours on ebay just looking at the santos.

Visual Vamp said...

Dear Topsy and Maryam, Thanks for looking in AND leaving a comment! Yes Peter is a fantastic talent, and I know his book will be as great as he is :-) And Maryam. your divine collection, sounds, well just divine!
You can get The Art of The Cross on amazon of course, or I would be happy to get a copy for you and send it...