For a long time, I was guilty of not really seeing what was around me. I sat in church pews for christenings, weddings, funerals and midnight Mass, but was not paying attention to my environment. This changed when I travelled to Europe to see the Old Masters and to visit Westminster Abbey, Notre-Dame-de-Paris, the Florence Cathedral and St. Peter’s Basilica. In contrast, back home, I walked right by the many churches on the Island of Montreal, never thinking of entering them.
Then I discovered Guido Nincheri.
Like many people, I first heard of Nincheri when I learned there was a church in Montreal with a fresco depicting Mussolini. Like most, I was somewhat surprised and wondered why, but went no further into the story. It was only in 2004 that I discovered the man behind the fresco, when the artist’s great-granddaughter, Tracy Boccini Nincheri, a childhood friend of my husband, became one of my dearest friends. Looking back, I realize that in many ways, Nincheri has been part of my life for the last 13 years, long before I sat down to write about his life and art.
Tracy’s father, Roger Boccini Nincheri, has been spending his retirement years photographing and interpreting the work of his grandfather, arranging conferences, offering tours of the studio and churches and talking about Guido Nincheri at length to anyone who was interested. He told me stories about his nonno, and the life he had led in order to practise his art. From the start, everything about Nincheri’s art interested me. I have an MA in medieval studies, with a focus on literature, and I am particularly fond of symbolism and allegories. Like medieval texts, Nincheri’s art has many levels of understanding, and I find exegesis appealing. Even though the stories I was interpreting were now visual stories found in the art, instead of literature, Nincheri’s art gave me the same intellectual thrill I would experience from reading a good allegory.
Then I encountered the beauty of the work.
In 2004, I visited Nincheri’s art studio for the first time. Although it was by then unoccupied, it still belonged to the Nincheri family and someone had to be present at least once a week for insurance purposes. That fall, the Nincheris were taking a trip to Italy and they asked me to do the weekly visits in their absence.
A week or so before their departure, I met Roger at the studio situated at 1832 Pie-IX Blvd. in Montreal’s east end. When we walked into the main hallway, the old building was dark, cold and uninviting. That changed when we entered the first room on the left. There appeared a completed, but undelivered, large stained-glass window, with light streaming through it, depicting the Virgin resisting temptation from three demons. The window is called Mater Purissima – Mother Most Pure – and it is one of the prayers of the Litany of Loreto, whose iconography Nincheri redesigned. The sun lit up the pale green of the frame, the rich blue of the Virgin’s cloak, the gold of the jewels and I was absolutely dazzled. Then I took in the muscular details of the devils, the movement in the water, the pleats of the Virgin’s dress, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the work. I was able to examine the window up close rather than gazing up at a distant object installed in a church and I was instantly captivated by Nincheri’s genius and talent. This was not a medieval window with stiff, lifeless characters. For me, this was a painting – a painting full of life and fluidity that employed glass and light rather than paint on a canvas.
Although I can’t truthfully say that I was filled with religious devotion, I did get a sense of how beautiful religious images can arouse piety. Certainly, something in me did stir: admiration and a sense of peace brought about by looking at a beautiful, balanced, perfect artistic creation – a sense that there is much that is right in the world in the face of such a magnificent work of art.
From the book The Art and Passion of Guido Nincheri by Mélanie Grondin, Copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of Véhicule Press.
Mélanie Grondin is a writer, editor and translator living on the South Shore of Montreal. She holds an MA in medieval studies from the University of Leeds (UK) and is the editor of the Montreal Review of Books.
St. Anthony of Padua Church, Ottawa
Nincheri did paintings and decorations, but was best known for his stunning stained-glass windows. When designing a window, Nincheri would visit a church at different times of day, in different lighting, and hold up a range of coloured glass to see how the light danced within. This window, showing St. Anthony of Padua’s vision of the baby Jesus, faces the southeast. When I visited the church in late February, around 10 o’clock in the morning, I caught the sun bursting through the window just as Jesus appeared to St. Anthony. Dazzling. I felt as though I were personally having a vision–exactly as Nincheri intended it.
Nincheri as Famine (self-portrait), Saint-Léon-de-Westmount, Montreal
Saint-Léon-de-Westmount Church is one of Nincheri’s most accomplished works. It is one of the few churches where he was able to create a harmonious whole by using the full range of his skills: architecture, fresco painting, stained-glass windows and furniture design. On the dome ceiling, the artist painted Heaven as described in Revelation. The Apocalypse, however, wouldn’t be complete without its Four Horsemen, and Nincheri painted them on the transept ceiling below the dome. Nincheri probably chose Famine as his self-portrait because of his memories of extreme hunger while studying art in Florence, years earlier.