Saturday, March 26, 2011


It seems I've been updating this blog infrequently as of late. Part of the reason for that is that I haven't been doing much writing recently. I do have a big project planned for the future, but it's still in the planning stages. There are maps that need to be drawn, timelines and bloodlines that need to be created. More details to come.

In the meantime, I have a tumblr now:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Demons in the Fresco

When one is a writer of fiction, one must always keep the eyes and ears open at all times for new ideas and sources of inspiration. Really, I've found it's almost impossible to turn the writer "off." I recall reading some years ago how, when Neil Gaiman's first child was being born, the writer in him kept bugging him to memorize all of the details, in case he ever wanted to use the memory of the event as material for a novel. It's something I can relate to, and I'm always looking out for fresh sources of inspiration. Sometimes I find these ideas in the most unexpected places (one of my most recent stories, "The Yellow Notebook," was inspired by the schizophrenic contents of a very odd yellow notebook I saw a customer flipping through at work late one evening during a closing shift). My most recent short story, "The Demons in the Fresco," was inspired by another story, this one concerning a fresco in one of my city's many churches.

The city of Woonsocket, my hometown, doesn't have a whole lot going for it, but it does have some quite beautiful old churches, many of which were built in the late 19th century by the French-Canadian immigrants who flocked to the city in great numbers when it was first founded in the hopes of landing jobs in its burgeoning textile industry (I myself am descended from these aforementioned French-Canadians). Last summer I began researching many of the old churches and cemeteries of my hometown, including one St. Ann's Church. Having been raised as a Catholic, I've never been quite able to exorcise my appreciation for Christian art and literature, the pomp and ritual of the Liturgy, or my love for many of the old churches associated with that religion. Although I'm exceedingly liberal on social issues, when it comes to ecclesiastical architecture I'm very orthodox and I don't really care for modern churches at all. St. Ann's Church is a real gem: it's located right next to the building where my therapist's office is located, and even though the church was closed by the Diocese of Providence in the year 2000 these days one can still tour the church on Sunday, as it is currently maintained by a non-religious affiliated, non-profit corporation known as the St. Ann's Arts & Cultural Center, who are dedicated to restoring and preserving the church. I'm kind of sad that I never really attended Mass at this church during my childhood, as it really is quite beautiful... though I think I may have attended a funeral Mass for a relative at one point in the mid-to-late 1990's.

Prof. Guido Nincheri

The church itself is 200 feet long and 118 feet wide, built on a granite block foundation, its main body constructed of light-colored brick with cement stone trimmings. Like many old churches, its built in the form of a large Roman cross, in the Modern French Renaissance style. Its architecture is Romanesque in design, inspired by the 16th century architects Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (who is perhaps best known for his Jesuit Church of the Gesù in Rome, the interior of which clearly influenced that of St. Ann's) and Andrea Palladio. The roof of the church is covered with slate and copper trimming, while the front is flanked by two 160 foot tall towers, each of which is topped by an eight foot tall copper gilded cross (the tower on the Locust Street side had a belfry which housed three giant bells). Construction on it began in 1914, and it was opened to the public in 1918. Over the years it was gradually added to: between the years 1923-1925 40 stain-glass windows were added to the church, and between April of 1941 and the Fall of 1948 the interior of the church was painted by an Italian hunchback named Prof. Guido Nincheri, who ended up painting the entire church using the buon fresco technique. He ended up doing over 200 different fresco paintings for the church, featuring over 600 characters.

This is what you see when you first enter the church nave. Pictures don't really do justice to how large the inside of this church is. It's almost dizzying, really, and in terms of square footing its interior is actually slightly larger than that of the Sistine Chapel. In its day the church could hold 1,300 people, and the ceiling vaults are over 65 feet high. And everywhere one looks is Prof. Guido Nincheri's art, which illustrates scenes from both the Old and New Testament of the Holy Bible. In effect, to gaze around this church's interior is to look at one of the world's largest illustrated bibles. The church's art tells a story: it's a building you can read.

I first took a tour of St. Ann's in mid-summer 2010, then again in October of that same year (the second time to jot down notes and take some pictures). Both times the tour's guide told me some very interesting information about the stories behind the frescoes. Consider the above fresco, "The Original Sin," depicting the Serpent tempting Adam & Eve to eat forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Graden of Eden. This fresco can be found in the ceiling arch of the church's south transept (like most of the church's ceiling art you have to crane your neck to see it), and the guide told us how parishioners, back in the day, had objected to Adam and Eve's nudity. To appease the philistines, Prof. Nincheri had added a few strategically placed leaves to the fresco. However, he supposedly flew into a rage when the pastor requested further leaves be added, to the extent that he demolished the scaffolding and stated that if the St. Ann's parishioners wished to further cover up Adam and Eve's nudity, they could do it themselves! Apparently students of the church's school were forbidden to gaze up at the "racy" Adam & Eve fresco, and those caught doing so by nuns were punished in class on Monday morning. Some clever boys would smuggle in little pieces of glass or mirrors which they would then use to secretly admire the artwork. The guide also mentioned how the church was supposedly haunted, and that female voices could sometimes be heard whispering in the choir loft, which delighted me to no end, given my love of the supernatural and things that go bump in the night.

By far the church's largest and most impressive fresco is the one painted within the large central dome located on the ceiling above the church's crossing, entitled "The Last Judgment." What makes this piece of art so interesting is it's one of the only frescoes in the church that depicts demons (angels, on the other hand, are in abundance: over 400 of them can be seen depicted in the stain-glass windows, the frescoes, on the ceiling, the walls, and the arches). The three demons in question are at the bottom of the fresco. Two of them have faces that can clearly be seen. The guide mentioned how many of the Biblical figures and angels in the frescoes were modeled after real-life parishioners, who would pose for the artist for 50 cents and a peanut butter sandwich. The St. Ann's Arts & Cultural Center have managed to figure out which fresco characters were modeled on real-life parishioners... with the exception of the demons in the fresco. The story goes that one day in the mid 1940's Prof. Nincheri visited a nun's seventh grade class and asked her to show him who she felt were the two most wicked & mischievous boys in the class. It was supposedly these two boys who served as the models for the demons, though to this day the identity of the two boys is unknown, and even though the St. Ann's Arts & Cultural Center placed an ad in a local newspaper a couple years back asking if the models would identify themselves, no one stepped forward to admit it. It is one of the unsolved mysteries of the church.

detail of the demons in question

Naturally, once I heard that tale, I thought, "Man, that sounds like the perfect set-up for a horror story." So I began doing tons of research into the church. I started working on the story in early January 2010 and finished it on the last day of February. That's the first draft... now I just have to type it out (groan). The finished result is kind of a cross between H.P. Lovecraft's short story "Pickman's Model" and J.K. Huysmans' novel The Cathedral, and it's dedicated to the Johnny Dixon horror novels of John Bellairs, which I read voraciously in grade school: the Dixon mysteries were aimed at younger audiences and were steeped in an atmosphere of Catholicism, even though Bellairs himself was an atheist. Of the many short stories I've written over the years, this one by far was the most difficult for me to write, and at 40 pages is almost a novella! I ended up changing some details though: in my story the city of Woonsocket becomes the City of Thundermist, while the church is renamed St. Durtal's Church (another nod to Huysmans). Having said that, aside from a few minor details and cosmetic changes, the church described in my story is pretty much St. Ann's Church.

Further photos:

St. Ann's Church, seen from a distance.

This is what it looks like when driving to St. Ann's Church. The building in the immediate foreground and to the left is where I see my therapist. His office looks out directly onto the church itself.

A photograph of the rectory side of St. Ann's Church, where the large stain-glass window of the north transept can clearly be seen.

A look towards the main entrance of the church. The large frescoes on the ceiling of the nave depicts scenes from the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, including his baptism by John the Baptist, his transfiguration on the mountain, the feeding of the 5000, the agony in the garden, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Directly above the doors leading into the foyer is the supposedly haunted choir loft.

The church's sanctuary. The artwork in the dome above the sanctuary depicts scenes from the life of St. Ann herself.

The south transept (also known as its "Locust Street side" due to the fact that this side of the church is flanked by a street called Locust Street).

The church's north transept (its "rectory side").

Here's a link to the webpage maintained by the St. Ann's Arts & Cultural Center: (click on the "Facility" tab if you want to have a virtual tour of the church). Those interested in further information should check out the book Towers of Faith and Family: St. Ann's Church; Woonsocket, Rhode Island, 1890 - 1990, which was edited by Paul A. Bourget and published by St. Ann's Church itself. A few of the pictures in this blog entry come from that book: the rest of the photographs were taken by myself.