Where Angels Tread: The Art and Architecture of Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas, Nevada

By Patricia M. Kirtley and William M. Kirtley

ABSTRACT

Las Vegas is an adult amusement park with incredible culinary delights, potent alcoholic libations, and gaming that promises the possibility of instant wealth. Here, Googie style buildings, like Guardian Angel Cathedral, feature upswept roofs and geometric shapes. The Cathedral’s religious art challenges viewers intellectually and spiritually. One stained glass window even depicts several Las Vegas casinos. This paper analyzes the Cathedral’s art and architecture from a sociological viewpoint.

Keywords: architecture, art, casino, cathedral, Moe Dalitz, Guardian Angel Cathedral, Googie, Las Vegas, mystic realism, Piczek, popular culture, sociology of religion, stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross, Paul Revere Williams

 

Introduction

The once marvelous Googie architecture

—Outsource Plan Architecture Solutions

Everything is possible in a study of popular culture. Research into the origins of Googie architecture led to a better understanding of the definition of popular culture. A reference to Guardian Angel Cathedral, a Googie style church, as “The Church of George Jetson,” prompted a YouTube search that found the introduction to the 1962 TV show The Jetsons. It depicted department stores, schools, and office buildings drawn with brilliant colors, daring shapes, and gravity-defying signage (The Jetsons). A visit to the Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas confirms that this building is a classic Googie edifice, housing vibrant mosaics and luminous stained-glass windows. Reflection on the entirety of the artwork on display is personal, inspiring, challenging, and charismatic.

Googie’s relegation to low culture by professional architects is a perfect example of theorist John Storey’s second definition of popular culture. It is “residual culture” – that is, “what is left after we have decided what is high culture” (5). The elite have the power to set standards. They consider popular culture inferior, and thus, a marker of status and class. The arbiters of taste and culture assigned a lowly status to Googie for three main reasons. First, they considered this futurist style crass, garish, and commercial. Second it did not follow the rules laid down by the architectural establishment. Third, they believed a style typified by coffee shops, fast food restaurants, and car washes could never aspire to the level of excellence of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, who created significant structures that blended into the community and the environment.

Googie architecture gravitated from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and around the world. This style reached its highest expression in airports and churches, like the LAX Theme Building and the Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas, both designed by architect Paul Revere Williams. Googie demonstrates an ability to surprise, challenge, and inform. The brilliant mosaics and radiant stained glass windows of the Las Vegas church are exceptional examples of a type of ecclesiastical art called “mystical realism.” The two talented sisters who created this art, Isabel (1927–2016) and Edith (1919–2014) Piczek, viewed it as a roadmap to salvation.

A huge mosaic of four guardian angels invites pilgrims into the Cathedral.

The most remarkable feature of this edifice, from the standpoint of popular culture, is the South Sanctuary window to the right side of the altar, entitled “The Cosmic Christ.”

The lower section of the window depicts famous past and present Las Vegas casinos, including the Hilton, the Stardust, and the Landmark (later the Stratosphere). Closer inspection reveals a deeper message of inclusion: everyone is welcome here. All professions are part of this kingdom: scientists, engineers, farmers, healthcare professionals, teachers, poets, and performers. Harlequin stands in the lower right quadrant of the window, holding masks of tragedy and comedy, an apt representation for a city billing itself as the entertainment capital of the world. Other stained glass windows in the Cathedral tell stories from the Bible or depict the Stations of the Cross.

The authors of this paper used the tools of participant observation to discover the mysteries and beauty of Guardian Angel Cathedral. They attended services, examined relevant theory, analyzed documents, and interviewed clergy and parishioners. They discovered the Cathedral embraces a unique community bound by sacred rituals, symbols, beliefs, organizational structures, and inspirational art. Functional sociologists emphasize that architecture and the art of the sacred binds worshipers into a unique community. The soaring A-frames of the Cathedral’s Googie architecture signal to congregants that this is a holy place in a city noted for the profane. The murals, mosaics, and stained-glass windows instruct pilgrims on how to treat each other, and describe a unifying plan of salvation. Those who wish to view the art of the Cathedral for themselves can find images at http://www.gaclv.org/aboutourcathedral.html.

Guardian Angel Cathedral offers several gifts as an object of analysis. It provides a quiet contemplative space away from the gaudy neon lights and temptations of the strip. Its religious art carries a total message that challenges viewers intellectually and spiritually. This paper demonstrates how Googie-style architecture attained its highest expression in the Guardian Angel Cathedral of Las Vegas. This building provides sacred space for riveting art that enhances the experience of worshipers and encourages them to strive for profound meanings.

Googie Architecture

Phony, dated, childhood oriented trash

— Hess (170)

Investigating the origin of Guardian Angel Cathedral raised the question of who was its architect and why did the builders choose this location? The answers to these questions led to exploration of Googie’s history, meaning, and relationship to popular culture. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu asserted, “if you want to understand the tastes of someone, you should consider their dislikes.” The disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings that fit or harmonized with a particular time and place. No wonder they found Googie garish, tacky, and commercial. Googie cried out for attention. Critics were thankful Googie lasted about twenty-five years before falling out of favor (Budds 3). Architecture writer and critic Douglas Haskell was the first to use the term “Googie,” after the nickname of Lillian K. Burton, wife of a Los Angeles coffee shop owner, to describe this modern or Atomic Age architecture (Holub 1).

Haskell wrote a devastating critique of Googie in the February 1952 issue of House and Home Magazine. He wondered if ambitious mechanics, rather than architects, drew up the plans for the “spicy goulash” of Googie (86). He declared, “It looks funny, but I guess the guy has a right to do it that way if it attracts attention to his business” (86). He criticized Googie for attempting to surpass the work of the revered Frank Lloyd Wright “with no canons save that it looks modern and organic” (86). Other architects simply dismissed Googie as “atrocious design” (Hess 170).

However, to lovers of Googie like architectural writer Alan Hess, “Popular culture gained a new vitality, reshaping the landscape” during the period from 1945–1965 (29). Googie, an iconoclastic, unabashedly commercial style, developed from two post-WWII phenomena: the advent of car culture and the beginning of the Space Age. In 1913, Los Angeles completed the California Aqueduct, conveying water to the city from hundreds of miles away. Nearby communities joined the city to acquire enough water to survive and grow. A patchwork of small towns grew into the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States.

A system of streetcars connected the various suburbs of Los Angeles in the early part of the twentieth century. However, with the advent of universally owned automobiles, Southern California became a maze of freeways. The surrounding communities had developed an identity, a central core of banks and government buildings. Other services followed their customers to these new residential areas, lured by easy access and cheaper rent than downtown.

The owners of these businesses commissioned architects to design buildings and high-flying signage to attract the attention of drivers, prompting them to exit the freeway and patronize local businesses. Design writer Diana Budds in her lively blog, “How LA Got Its Grooviest Architecture,” noted, “Signage is where many Googies sing. Their architects experimented with custom typography, abstract symbols like dingbats and starbursts, neon lights, and more” (5).

Googie architects used vibrant colors, bold designs, a myriad of materials, and pulsing elevated signs decorated with cosmic rays to call attention to their buildings. Googie spoke to average people in their ordinary life as they frequented coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, bowling alleys, and car washes. Commuters knew the trademark golden arches meant a cheap, fast, and predictable meal (Outsource Plan Architecture Solutions 1). Customers easily recognized the proliferating franchise outlets from the road because each carried the same design features.

Space Age themes fascinated the public. During the 1950s, space travel became a reality. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite to achieve Earth orbit in 1957. They shot Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations made the “Space Race” a national priority. Googie style signs reminded citizens of this contest with its sharp and bold angles, suggesting the aerodynamic features of a rocket ship. Mushroom clouds, billowing above the Nevada Test Site sixty-five miles away, shocked the residents of Las Vegas, and served as a dramatic reminder of the extraordinary power unleashed in the Atomic Age.

Googie architecture proliferated in the US and around the world. Notable examples of this style are the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, Seattle’s signature landmark Space Needle, Dulles Airport in Washington, DC, and the early Tomorrow Land in Disneyland. International examples range from steel lattice structures like the Osaka Tower and Beppu Tower in Japan to concrete towers like the Fernsehturm in Berlin and the Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls, Ontario. In Googie Architectural Design, Howard Holub described these buildings as “Jetson-esque because of their modern architecture and flashy designs” (1). The animators at Hannah-Barbara drew inspiration for the Space Age buildings in the Jetsons cartoon from the Googie structure in which they worked, the Hannah-Barbara building.

Coffee Shop Heaven

Alan Hess, author of the authoritative book, Googie Redux, and a devotee of this “Ultramodern roadside architecture” noted, “One of the primary legacies of Coffee Shop Modern lies in an unexpected place: the Las Vegas Strip” (158). The signature “Welcome to Vegas” sign with its starburst on Las Vegas Boulevard continues as the most famous enduring Googie artifact. The starburst on this iconic sign is in the form of a high-energy explosion, an example of non-utilitarian design. The star shape has no actual function and merely serves as a design element.

Googie style soon spread to Las Vegas where many of the same architects who designed Googie coffee shops in Los Angeles drew up plans for hotels and casinos. Googie-influenced casinos, like the Mint, the Sands, the Stardust, and the Desert Inn, have long since fallen victim to implosion and destruction. However, the Stratosphere, now called the Strat, still stands as an overpowering symbol of Googie architecture.

Other examples of Googie appeared along Charleston Boulevard and Maryland Parkway. Motels from the early days of Las Vegas, like the Tod, Yucca, and Sky Ranch, displayed Googie signage and architecture (Googie Architecture in Las Vegas, Part I). Today, these buildings are in transitional neighborhoods, dilapidated and for sale or lease. Many examples of Googie are now repurposed coffee shops, like Tacos Mexico, the Cleaner, and Title Loans (Googie Architecture, Part II). Most of these buildings have fallen to the wrecking ball since these two YouTube videos debuted in 2012. Hess noted, “Around 1970 commercial architects gave up building the future and largely began to build the past again” (176). After two decades of robust popularity, tastes changed. Instead of grabbing attention, roadside buildings strove to blend in. Googie style became unfashionable and numerous examples were destroyed. Yet, when one observes the yellow directional arrow common to the In-N-Out burger chain or the neon-lit stalls and barrel vaults of Sonic restaurants, it is clear Googie lives on, especially in the fast food business.

Today’s architects study Googie for insight into new materials and construction techniques. They use exposed steel beams and glass as a design element to create structures that defy gravity. They recognize it as the popular style of a particular period that demonstrated the possibilities of the future. The critics detested Googie, but never found it boring. Its adherents found support among people who realized Googie’s contribution to the history of suburbia and car culture. They see Googie through the eyes of nostalgia: bright, shiny, challenging, and the wave of the future. They seek to preserve some of the remaining examples of this style by placing them on the National Register of Historic buildings.

The Church of Saint George Jetson

According to French sociologist Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, Las Vegas is the “absolute advertising city,” where consumers can find a greater variety of large-scale reproductions than in any other place (91). Cascades of pulsing neon lure gamblers to casinos. A pyramid, a castle, and replicas of architectural delights in Venice and Paris beckon those with money to spend. Hucksters prowl Las Vegas Boulevard preying on gullible tourists. North on Las Vegas Boulevard, past the upscale Fashion Show Mall and Steve Wynn’s Encore, is a narrow curving road. At its end lies a unique Roman Catholic Cathedral. How it found a place amidst the glitter and excess of the Las Vegas Strip makes for a fascinating story that features a nod to the theme of Las Vegas and the mob.

The Viatorians, a Catholic teaching order dedicated to education, opened Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas in 1954. The following year they built a church on the site of the city dump. It proved untenable and the city condemned it within six months after its completion. Rev. Richard Crowley established excellent relationships with casino owners. In 1958, he began celebrating a 4:30 PM Sunday Mass in the showroom of the Desert Inn Hotel, especially for hotel workers: cooks, waiters, bartenders, and musicians in ballrooms littered with the detritus of Saturday night revels. Crowley convinced the moguls that a church on the strip was good business for their Catholic employees and patrons whom they did not want wandering too far from Las Vegas Boulevard (Cathedral Celebrating 1).

Crowley asked Morris Barney (Moe) Dalitz, a Jewish gangster known as “Mr. Las Vegas” for his philanthropic work, for help. Dalitz donated a narrow strip of land on the edge of his property, the Desert Inn, for the church (Viatorians Celebrate 1). He also spearheaded a fundraising effort to build the church and hired Paul Revere Williams, an architect he had worked with on the Royal Nevada Casino, to design the church. Williams had gained a reputation designing elegant stylized homes for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball in Los Angeles. He was the first African-American elected to the prestigious American Institute of Architects.

The Bishop of Las Vegas-Reno consecrated the church as a Shrine on 2 October 1962. Bishop Norman McFarland designated it a Cathedral in 1977. The Piczek sisters worked on the Church’s murals, paintings, and stained glass for over ten years. The Cathedral underwent an extensive remodel in 1992.

Modernistic writer Ken Macintyre wrote in Atomic Ranch Magazine, “this unlikely beacon of midcentury Googie … did not go unnoticed and raised a few eyebrows at the time” (1). Steven Schloeder, who specializes in Catholic Church architecture, continued the criticism of Googie style by the arbiters of high culture. In his blog, he questions, “How far architects should go trying to speak to the age?” (1). He argues the design was dated, not a model for replication, and the A-frame architecture was too mechanical to carry the weight of “something intended to speak of the transcendent” (1). He described the Cathedral as “a poor cousin” to the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel” (4). He observed, with more than a hint of condescension, that architect Paul Revere Williams was “a good stylist, and obviously a keen observer of fashionable architectural publications” (3).

Schloeder said some good things about what he called a “reasonably good piece of Atomic architecture” (3). He described the interior of the church as a simple and elegant hall church with “a strong sense of rhythm, proportion, and integration of architectural form, liturgical appointments and sacred art” (3). He commented that the triangular windows depicting scenes from the Stations of the Cross provide abundant light and the dark, dense, stained glass windows cut the harsh glare of the desert sun to create a luminous interior. Schloeder’s main complaint was that a guard would not allow him to enter the sanctuary to photograph the stained-glass window depicting Las Vegas casinos.

Guardian Angel Cathedral and the Air Force Cadet Chapel, as Schloeder pointed out, show many similarities (4). Both feature Googie style at its finest, including highly engaging triangular stained-glass windows. Seventeen soaring spires highlight the Cadet Chapel. Guardian Angel Cathedral, a much smaller structure, showcases twelve. Pundits criticized the style of both edifices, although the Cadet Chapel eventually earned several prestigious awards (Mulder 4). The chapel at the Air Force Academy raises the spirits of the cadets and enlivens a utilitarian campus. Though often overlooked, Guardian Angel Cathedral remains a place of peace and energizes those who discover it.

Williams’ soaring triangular exterior gives the Cathedral presence in the face of the dominating chocolate brown twin towers of Steve Wynn’s hotel casino resort located next door. The Cathedral accommodates 1,100 congregants, ninety percent of whom are tourists (Cathedral Celebrating). Above the entrance, a bold colorful mosaic depicts a central guardian angel along with three angels representing Penance, Prayer, and Peace by Edith Piczek. The interior design provides angular spaces for bright, glowing, stained glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross by her sister, Isabel. Williams designed the Cathedral in traditional cruciform shape, with a transept leading to a Marian Chapel and a Blessed Sacrament Chapel. A main aisle and two side aisles allow passage to the rear of the church.

Those who visit this church cannot ignore the impressive and unusual windows that illuminate the Cathedral physically and spiritually. The Cathedral’s east-west orientation ensures that sunlight constantly changes and interacts with the windows. The interior lighting also enhances the experience of visitors. Michael Garris, the lighting and sound engineer for the church, designed an indirect lighting system made up of extremely narrow and shallow troffers to augment this natural effect, giving the interior an overall light value of fifteen candlepower. Similar lighting backlights the mural behind the altar (Williams 1). These luminous sources fill the interior with light conducive to prayer and meditation.

The Art of Guardian Angel Cathedral

Religion, like art, lives in so far as it is performed.

—Turner (85)

 

Years of collaboration and common beliefs about art and religion forged the aesthetic partnership of two sisters: Edith and Isabel Piczek. Both artists worked in murals, mosaics, and stained glass. Isabel became an internationally known physicist, recognized for her study of the Shroud of Turin. Author and archivist, Monsignor Francis Weber, a friend of both artists, noted on Isabel’s passing, “The unassuming sisters” saw their vocation as a “cultural and religious mission” to implant their authentic artwork on the soul of the observer (1).

The sisters’ birthplace was in the town of Hatvan, Hungary. Their father, Zoltan Piczek, was an accomplished artist. The siblings displayed artistic ability at an early age, and graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. They fled the suppression of the communist regime after World War II, first to Vienna and then to Rome. The two sisters won a contest in 1949 to create a mural for the Pontifical Bible Institute, an unprecedented honor for women artists. A Canadian bishop encouraged them to emigrate and they established a studio in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Their works appear in over 450 buildings in seven countries (Uribie 1). On Edith’s death, Angelus writer, Heather King, quoted Edith as saying, “The artist is creating visual representation to see the sacred in each of us, to show the love of God through art for the Church” (1).

Isabel’s obituary related an experience that occurred while she was working on the art in the Guardian Angel Cathedral, Las Vegas. A young man approached her and asked how he could learn to paint large murals. She told him, “You cannot learn it. It was a gift from God…. a gift that comes with a very high price. Once you are born with this gift, your life and your choices are all set” (“Obituary”).

Mystical Realism

An understanding of mystical realism is essential to fully appreciate the Piczek sisters’ art. German sociologist Niklas Luhmann believed that religion regulated the relationships of people with the world in a comprehensive and ultimate meaning (Cipriani 242). The Piczek sisters interpreted reality through mysticism. They understood that believers can attain knowledge into the mysteries of faith, through intuition and communication with the Divine. Their philosophy of religion permeated their art. They believed Divine entities are not accurately described in terms of space, matter, time, or causation. Realism, to them, meant art informed by their philosophy (Piczek 1).

Like a graphic novel, each frame in Isabel’s series of windows on the Stations of the Cross narrates the story of the sequence of events leading to Christ’s death. Once people learn the pattern, any person, regardless of their religious background, will profit from taking the time to scrutinize the windows. The figures in Isabel’s windows remind the viewer of the somewhat abstract style found in adventure comics. Isabel Piczek provided an excellent example of what comics theorist Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, described as an artist stripping down the essential elements of a figure to “amplify through simplification” (30). She exposed the carnal aspects of humanity in her portrayal of “Flesh,” as hulking, hunched, and hateful, with a beetled brow and a smirk of self-satisfaction.

Russian existential Orthodox Christian philosopher Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874–1948) provided an excellent description of the art movement known as Mystical Realism in his article, “Decadentism and Mystical Realism” (1904). He contrasted decadentism, an artistic movement centered in Western Europe that followed an aesthetic of excess and artificiality, with the mystic realism of Eastern Europe that holds that entities are not accurately described in terms of space, matter, time, or causation, but only in relationship to God’s Divine plan.

Berdyaev explained mystical realism through a devastating critique of decadentism. He described decadentism as a bad joke, an illness of spirit that cannot distinguish the light of the moon from that of a streetlamp. Mystical realism, on the other hand, is a joyful encounter, healthy thought striving for a new way of being. Decadentism is vulgar. It confuses mysticism with aestheticism. Mystical realism bridges the gap from aestheticism to accepted and experienced beauty. Most importantly, decadentism is an expression of love without object. It does not unite with the divine. Mystical realism is love with an object uniting man with God through the incarnation of the Word into flesh (Berdyaev 8).

The humility of both sisters and their sense of community reflected their belief in mystic realism. Sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) helps one understand the concept. He defined mysticism as the belief that people attain union with the Deity or the Absolute through contemplation and self-surrender. He noted, “The mystic is constantly striving to escape from activity in the world back to the quietness and inwardness of the god” (M. Weber H.2.f). The Piczek sisters believed knowledge lies not in facts and doctrines, but in the perception of the overall meaning of the world. They judged their function as liturgical artists as guiding the viewer on a journey toward a unified understanding of the world, based on the conviction that Christian brotherly love leads to unity in all things.

The sisters’ art takes observers from fragmentation and division to unity and synthesis. It is centered on man and his connection to God through Christ. It features intuition, light, knowledge, and spiritual mystery. It portrays harsh figures like Power, Flesh, and Despair and explores the abstract reality of the seven sacraments. It celebrates the victory of Christ and man’s place in the new creation. This new age of man identifies Christ as the founder of Christianity and a monumental unsurpassed image of man. The art presents worshipers with a well-ordered unity with everything overlapping, and simultaneously a paradoxical structure. The artists noted, “the destiny of man is happiness – your happiness and is created within you, by you” (Guardian Angel Church Bulletin 9 April 2017).

Entrance Mosaic – Edith Piczek was the creative artist of the 1,600 square foot mosaic over the main entrance to the Guardian Angel Cathedral. The Favret studio in Pietrasanta, Italy did much of the stonework. Writer Sandra Hemmerlein ompared the figures in the mosaic to comic book super heroes in her blog, “Avoiding Regret.” Below the eye of God, rays of grace and power fall upon a large guardian angel, a strong compelling companion for man, ready for action, with his hair flowing behind him. One hand reaches toward God and the other touches the world of man indicating a communication between God and man. Three smaller angels, portrayed below, signify Prayer, Penance, and Peace. Penance stretches out his hand asking man to express remorse. Prayer kneels, prepared to transmit man’s prayers to God and accept His reply. Peace is the guardian and companion of man in the quest for serenity, inspiration, and joy. The four angels stand eager to help and encourage pilgrims on their journey to eternal life and happiness.

Stained Glass – The 1,000-year-old art of stained glass is complex and esoteric. One needs the palate of an artist, the skill of a craftsperson, and the knowledge of a chemist. The artist conceives an idea and draws it out in the minimal cleanliness of a “cartoon,” a charcoal sketch. The basic material for the windows is glass, colored when molten by the addition of various metallic salts. After these pieces cool, the artist arranges them in the pattern outlined in the cartoon, binds them together with strips of lead, and supports the artwork with a rigid frame.

The most obvious property of glass is color. The color of stained glass results from light radiated through the glass and changes depending on the angle of the sun and atmospheric conditions. Isabel Piczek used variations of hues, tints, and shades to create a living animated expression of the personal vision that captivated her soul. The closest comparison to Isabel’s work is the color and light emanating from the stunning stained-glass windows of Russian born Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985) that decorate the churches of Europe and the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Isabel Piczek was the lead artist for the dazzling luminous stained-glass Stations of the Cross located in the twelve triangular niches of the church. Thick rough lead binds the flat broken pieces of glass together. Isabel’s stained glass features a severe and spartan approach to human figures. They are high in quality and imbued with pathos and strong personality, entirely at home within the building. Isabel gave great attention to composition, content, and impact, including gestures and facial expressions of the characters in the various scenes. A reoccurring theme of “choice” runs through Isabel’s windows. Small scenes emerge almost as flashes of memory within many of the windows that portray Old Testament Biblical characters making difficult decisions.

The story emerges when one puts the pieces of the puzzle into a sequence that shows a progression of events like a comic strip or a graphic novel. McCloud insists this method works whether it is “stained-glass windows showing Biblical scenes in order, to Monet’s series painting” (20). A tacit invitation permeates each window inviting the viewer’s internal response, an inducement to reflect and ponder. What is presented is impressive, but what is implied is elusive. The viewer’s first impression of the Cathedral windows is meaningful, but deeper meditation reveals a parsing of mysteries both historical and personal. As a result, the impact of these artworks comes from an appreciation of the artistic composition the viewer sees, but also the response of one’s own conscience confronting one’s moral compass.

Introduction To The Message – In order to fully grasp the message of the Piczek sisters, it helps to view the murals, mosaics, and stained -glass windows of the Cathedral in a certain sequence. First, grow accustomed to the explosion of light and color radiating throughout the Cathedral. Then proceed toward the main altar and investigate the stained-glass windows in the side chapels. Second, start with Station I on the right side of the main altar and follow the Stations of the Cross to the back, moving to the left side of the Cathedral, and returning to the front. This meditative circuit generates energy that finds its fulfillment in the third part of the sequence, the north and south side sanctuary windows and the altar mural. Last, depart down the main aisle, filled with energy, hope, and guidance.

The Marian Chapel – The bright airy Marian Chapel to the left of the main altar features a beautiful wall of small stained-glass windows cataloging specific events in Mary’s life, such as the Annunciation and the Marriage Feast of Cana. For many, this is a special place dedicated to reflection on the mother of Christ. Above a small altar, is a stunning mosaic depicting a figure of Jesus as a young boy standing before Mary. Both figures welcome visitors with their arms extended wide in altruism and invitation. Many Christians find solace in meditating on Mary as a conduit to the Divine, especially since she experienced the trials and distresses of normal family life. Here is comfort and consolation.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel – The Eucharist is kept in a tabernacle in its own chapel to the right of the main altar. The mosaic in back of the altar features Christ with his arms outstretched surrounded on both sides by angels and humans who stand and kneel. When Piczek tells stories from the Bible, they suddenly become light. The small stained-glass windows decorating the chapel wall depict the corporal works of mercy outlined in Matthew 25:36-46. “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (The Holy Bible). A reoccurring theme in the background of each window features people shunning or ignoring those in need, lessons often portrayed in medieval stained-glass windows for those who could not read.

The Way of the Cross

Christian pilgrims, after Jerusalem’s conquest by Muslims, retrace fourteen events of Christ’s last day on earth in a mini-pilgrimage called the Via Dolorosa. Only eight of the fourteen stations have scriptural foundations. Today, it forms part of Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist liturgy. This devotional may occur indoors or outdoors. It features prayers, meditation, and a short lesson at numbered stations, most often marked by icons or images. It usually takes place on the Fridays of Lent. The stained-glass windows of Guardian Angel Cathedral portray a unique version of the Stations of the Cross, as is the artist’s occasional placing of two stations in one window.

Many worshipers revere a more traditional expression of Christ’s last hours, focusing on His heartrending sacrifice, suffering incredible pain, agony, and humiliation as the price of Redemption. They find it difficult to accept the Piczek sisters’ interpretation of this devotion. The artists do not deny the torture of Christ’s last hours. They focus on His incredible determination to offer horrible suffering as a gift of love and deliverance for all mankind. In these windows, Christ sees beyond the sacrifice He must make, and displays the consummate example of love, strength, and courage. The title of each station demonstrates the connection to Isabel Piczek’s belief in mystical realism.

Station I – Christ’s journey begins at this station. “Look at the Man” is a startling contrast to the traditional version of the Stations. Isabel Piczek replaced the long-established scene of Jesus condemned to death with a striking masculine depiction of Jesus. He is strong, bold, and surrounded by fiery red flames of love, emerging from the dark world of primitive creation. A jagged figure of Human Weakness washes His hands, an homage to Pontius Pilate. Evil Will, Dark Mind, and the confined angular caricature of Flesh stand in condemnation of the promised Messiah. The hand of God in the dark apex of the window, references the Ten Commandments, symbolizing the connectedness of the Old and New Testament.

Station II – “Freedom and Obedience” covers the left and top two-thirds of this two-part window. In the traditional version of this station, Jesus is given his cross. In Elizabeth Piczek’s rendition, a flaming red Jesus accepts the cross, the result of His choice to obey God’s will. The artist portrays Jesus as a super-man, with powers beyond the universe. Two false types of obedience, fear and mechanical, stand forlorn in the background. A barefoot shepherd, Moses, appears in the lower left corner of the window. He contemplates the burning bush recorded in the book of Exodus. This phenomenon attracts Moses and a voice informs him God designated him to lead the tribe of Israel out of Egypt. Moses’ obedience is a harbinger to that of Christ’s.

Station III – “Freedom and Love,” traditionally named “Jesus Falls the First Time,” occupies the bottom right third of the window, separated by an electric blue arrow from the previous station. Bright reds and orange colors call attention to a radiant and acceptant Jesus. Adam and Eve stand above Christ, symbols of man’s rejection of God’s will. Three evil villains emerge from a dark cave to push Jesus down. They represent Pride, Pomp, and Self, products of man’s darkened intellect after the fall from God’s grace.

Station IV – “The Woman of Hope” is significantly different from the conventional version, “Jesus Meets His Mother.” Mary, depicted in blue, walks by her Son’s side as He drags the cross. Her radiant face expresses strength and hope for Him and all mankind. In the apex of the triangular window, a woman crushes the head of a snake, a symbol of her power over evil (Genesis 3:15). Behind her, a depiction of the Ten Commandments links this scene to the Old Testament. Malevolent caricatures of Political Power, Hypocrisy, Anger, Despair, and Mockery surround mother and son. The next window also contains two stations.

Station V – “Human Oneness” traditionally depicts Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry his cross. Simon clasps both Christ and the cross in his arms in a heartfelt gesture of love, representing the oneness of the Divinity and all mankind. Simon represents all men who “join Christ on the Way to Hope” (Piczek 8). The rough-hewn figure of Flesh, trapped within a small dark cave of his own making, mocks Simon’s sacrifice with a sardonic smile. Cain and Abel appear in the lower right corner of the station, portraying the Old Testament presence of strife in mankind.

Station VI – “The Mystery of Man” is conventionally labeled “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus.” There is no mention of this incident in the scriptures, but tradition reveals that this woman of Jerusalem, moved by Christ’s suffering, used her veil to wipe His face. A miracle occurred as a result of her kindness when her veil bore an image of Christ’s face. Veronica kneels at the feet of Jesus, a reminder that human nature bears the imprint of God’s face. The huge haunting eyes of God emerging from the burnt umber darkness form the centerpiece of the window. This station provides the viewer with the opportunity to witness the dramatic effect of the bleeding color of the glass to emphasize the determination of the Father’s love in the fulfillment of His promise.

A small insert on the bottom right of the window portrays the ancient story of the widow Ruth, who chooses hard labor in the fields to care for her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, even though Ruth does not share her ardent faith. As a result of her humble sacrifices, Ruth meets and subsequently marries Boaz, accepts his faith, and thereby provides the lineage to David, and eventually Christ.

Station VII – “The Future,” more commonly known as “Christ’s Second Fall,” shows man achieving a great forward thrust into impending times. Resistance to this path begins in the apex of the window, with idolaters worshiping a Golden Calf, a symbol of sins of the flesh. A pyramid of stylized faces opposes Christ’s movement toward wholeness. Gluttony, a symbol of wasted love, pours a jar of wine on the ground. Brutality chokes another figure. Vanity kisses her own image in mirror. Laziness, skulking in the background, represents indifference. Jesus, pictured at the bottom of the window, has fallen under the burden of atoning for man’s sins, yet His face mirrors understanding as He offers his mercy.

Station VIII – “The True Mother,” formerly called “Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem,” reflects a tender and powerful concept of motherhood. The focal point of the window is Mary, who offers up her son to God. Christ is crowned with thorns and holds on to his cross. He blesses a group of lamenting women. An insert on the right portrays the Old Testament fate of two women who consider dividing a newborn baby under the judgment of Solomon. This serves as an example of enduring love and sacrifice. The two stations in the next window depict compelling versions of reality.

Station IX – “Peace” is also known as “Jesus Falls the Third Time.” The lower left side of the window presents a fallen Christ. He kisses the earth as a sign of accord with God’s creation. In the background, stand an assembly of assorted accusers and tormentors exhibiting deterrents to Christ’s message of salvation. Wealth clutches his ill-gotten gains. Power wields a sword. Medals and ribbons bedeck Status. A slashing blue lightning bolt separates “Peace” from “Poverty.”

Station X, “Poverty” – The upper right side of the window shows Christ destitute, stripped of his garments. Greed steals His cloak. Misery begs for His possessions. Anger and Hate fight over His garments. Behind Jesus, the Ten Commandments envelop the unfinished tower of Babel indicating the extent of God’s plan of salvation. David battles Goliath in the lower right corner, referring to Christ’s monumental struggle to overcome the negative forces of the outside world.

Station XI – “The Birth of a New Humanity” emphasizes Christ’s sacrifice. “His cross is turned upside down and glowing with flaming colors” (Piczek 11). Three stark, darkly evil forces of man’s nature: Pride, the World, and Flesh, hammers in hand, nail Christ to the cross. Mary, John, and Mary Magdalene stand in silent witness. The small inset of Abraham about to offer his son, Isaac, reemphasizes the Old Testament surrender of the son to his father.

Station XII – “The Victory and the New Cosmos,” occupies the left two-thirds of this dual window. Piczek gives a new optimistic slant to this station. Only His feet are nailed to the cross, his hands fly free. Christ as victor is surrounded by bright circles of red and orange. Yellow rays of light emanate from the wound at his side. He restores order to the universe welcoming the good thief into his heavenly reward. The bad thief, his hand nailed to the commandments he defied, lies sprawled below Christ. Above the bad thief is a depiction of the blinded Samson, from the Old Testament, who also sacrificed his life bringing down the Temple upon the Philistines.

Station XIII – Isabel Piczek shows a more fulfilling and imaginative message in her poignant station, “The Universal Mother,” than in the traditional representation of “Jesus Taken Down from the Cross.” Mary, serene of face and dressed in shades of blue, welcomes the lifeless body of her son. Mary extends her arms in acceptance of His sacrifice. Above her, Moses holds the Holy of Holies, a sign of God’s covenant with man. Danny Thomas, comedian, philanthropist, and long-time Las Vegas performer and his wife, Rose Marie, donated this window.

Station XIV – “The Sealed Energy,” conventionally called “Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb,” occupies this station. Cadmium lemon and white energy emanate from inside Christ’s tomb. The center of the picture is the outline of a large gold baptismal font. Christ rests on a red sarcophagus symbolizing baptized mankind. The white figure above the True Man demonstrates emerging intense feelings of hope and resurrection. The eschatological image of the Church in the form of Mary appears above Christ. At the top of window, Noah’s Ark represents the future church ringed with rainbows.

The Promise Fulfilled

Having completed the devotional circuit of the stations, viewers approach the sanctuary area of the church. Two adjacent side windows frame a brilliantly colored mural on the rear chancel wall.

The North Sanctuary Window, “The Christ of Surrender.” A white shroud loosely drapes the Risen Christ’s shoulders, demonstrating his inclusive offering to all mankind and uniting the complex theme of this window. Christ’s arms extend wide in total acceptance. Two streams come from His side: one of water and one of blood, symbolizing two types of sacraments. On the right side, the blue stream represents the sacraments of the priesthood of man with three figures portraying Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders. The red stream denotes the sacraments of blood including the sacraments that refer to healing with the Anointing of the Sick, with Penance for Reconciliation, with life in Matrimony, and with love in sharing the Eucharist. At the base of the window, a blue partial globe exhibits a simple connection to the earth and its inhabitants.

The South Sanctuary Window, “The Cosmic Christ, Lord of the Universe.”

The casinos depicted in this window are inclusive references to the Las Vegas Gaming scene. Once again, viewers need to look below the surface. The Cosmic Christ, arms outstretched, welcomes all people and their labor. The casinos in the right lower corner of the window remind us of the people who directly work in gaming: croupiers, pit bosses, and maids. The many other professions depicted reflect the work of the larger community. In the window, humanity stands before Christ, caught between His work and the earthly pleasures of the world. Mankind can resolve this dichotomy only by following Mary and touching the depths of Christ’s heart through total acceptance. At the lower right, the Harlequin, bearing the masks of comedy and tragedy symbolizing the passing quality of earthly life, implies the façade of reality, asking challenging questions of all mankind, regardless of profession or geographic location.

Sanctuary Mural – “The Final Beginning.” The images in the mural over the main altar are far different than the figures adorning traditional Catholic Churches. Souls ascend with Christ at the Resurrection. Bright, cosmic, energy-filled triangles of light and dark create a soaring, galactic world. The central, risen body of Christ bursts forth as a spirit engulfed in flame, arms stretching skyward in recognition of the redeemed and recreated world of man. A central figure below Christ represents risen mankind, whose salvation is forever intertwined with Christ’s Resurrection.

The mural shows man running to life. It follows the upward thrust of the station windows joined by the sanctuary windows, culminating in the Resurrection. A red and orange fireball of light surrounds Christ, who dominates the center with arms outstretched to the corners of the composition. Triangles of energy from the power of the Holy Spirit surround him. Christ’s five wounds give off light.

Groups of human figures surrounding Christ portray the senses that express perception and love. All of these groups are parts of Christ’s Mystical Body and have compelling roles in fulfilling the vision of Redemption. Each participant in Christ’s mission will belong primarily to one of these groups. On the left in front of a modernistic eye-shaped background, the top two figures in blue focus carefully, typifying vision and its extension, Truth. Below these, two figures in magenta reach out in a digital milieu, searching for Knowledge.

On the top right the artist pictured a couple in blue and red before a stylized mouth personifying taste and its extension, Wisdom. Below, in bright green, the artist painted a simple large ear encompassing a couple demonstrating hearing and its extension, Counsel. On the bottom right in earth tones, the artist features an outline of the human face emphasizing the nasal area to present smell, the extension of Justice. The mural puts everything together, the new cosmos, spiritualized man, angelic powers, and the material universe.

Conclusion

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

—Dr. Seuss

Popular culture disdains the power of elites to determine what is good and bad in matters of taste. Moreover, popular culture is fun, especially in Las Vegas, where people expect the unexpected. Life on the strip can go from trivial to profound, tempting to repulsive in a heartbeat. Turn the corner at the Encore Casino-Hotel, walk a block, and there is a Roman Catholic Cathedral adorned, not in neon lights, but with a striking mosaic featuring guardian angels.

It’s a story out of Sin City’s flamboyant past. A Jewish mobster named Moe, who boasted he was never convicted for a crime, ceded the property, hired the architect, and led the fundraising drive for a parish church for casino workers and visitors. Architect Paul Revere Williams chose Googie style for the church. The architecture of the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel undoubtedly influenced his design. This suited the location, a long narrow strip of land adjacent to a huge sprawling casino-hotel, and provided a home for creative art steeped in mysticism.

The music for Sunday services is superb, performed by talented individuals, as behooves the entertainment capital of the world (Sunday Mass from Guardian Angel). A visit during a quiet moment during the week rewards the visitor with solitude and a chance to view bright meaningful mosaics and stained-glass windows. Viewers find levels of mystery in these windows and they appreciate their vibrant color.

What do the windows convey? It is different for every person. Visitors have the opportunity to go further and dig deeper each time they visit. The Piczek sisters, creators of the art, wanted to lead viewers on a transformative spiritual journey, describing their art as mystic realism: mystic in the sense of a religious experience and realistic as opposed to abstract. Sociologist Max Weber defined mysticism as the belief that one attains union with the Deity or the Absolute through contemplation and self-surrender (H.2.f.)

The two resourceful and artistic women who provided the art for this place of worship were driven by total dedication to their Christian faith. Each individual window tells its own story of Christ’s final journey; yet, taken together they impel the viewer deeper into the positive concept of Redemption. The entire experience includes the role of each participant in the exuberant challenge of the whole. Visitors enter the main entrance, proceed to the front of the main altar, turn right to discover casinos and much more in the South Sanctuary Window, and then circumnavigate the numbered windows identifying the Stations of the Cross. As people progress, the message becomes simpler, more potent, and intensely personal.

At the completion of this circular rubric, participants find themselves once more in front of the altar. The North Sanctuary Window to the left refers to the basics of faith. The central mural behind the altar reduces the message even more, representing a profound, elemental, and multifaceted meaning for each of the five senses of humankind in service to the deity. The mural itself displays a cosmic motion, binding all of the artwork together from the back of the Cathedral to the front, in a complex, yet simple, message of devotion.

This sense of movement caroms once again and sends its energy out to those who participate, even if they fail to comprehend the total message the Piczeks created. Most of the Catholics who attend services here are visitors. Each Mass ends with a special blessing for them as departing pilgrims. “On your journey home, remember, life is a journey; you decide to be a pilgrim or a tourist. Upon entering this sacred place, you have become a pilgrim. May the blessings of the Journey remain with you always” (Guardian Angel Cathedral Bulletin 14 April 2019).

As the vitality of the charismatic power of devotion carries visitors down the main aisle and out the church doors, they pass outside under Edith Piczek’s mosaic above the entryway, which features angelic companions who will aid the pilgrims on their way. The large central figure conveys a simple linkage between earthly reality and celestial presence. Three smaller sentinels remind worshipers that here is reconciliation, communication, and peace of soul. Amid the cacophony of clanging, spinning, and colorful machines and the groans of disappointment at felt-covered gaming tables, there exists an oasis of reflection where pilgrims can imbibe an elixir of peace and contemplate the soaring comfort of acceptance and hope.

 

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