A priest and an artist met by chance in an empty church one winter evening.
But maybe it wasn’t chance. Maybe it was Providence that brought them together and inspired a project that would give glory to God and praise to Christ’s mother.
It was a project of faith that was the fulfillment of the priest’s vision and the artist’s inspiration — a 1,000-square-foot mural on the vaulted ceiling of the chapel at the Church of the Assumption, with paintings of Our Lady’s Assumption and her coronation on either side, and hosts of angels giving heavenly praise. The work is so moving that some parishioners are brought to tears upon seeing it.
When Father James Sullivan arrived in Ansonia in 2015 and saw the rectory chapel, he made a commitment to renovate the space, built in 1955. Yet even he, a contractor for 25 years prior to his ordination, never realized where it would ultimately lead.
A year later, while he was planning the project, he met a man admiring the Stations of the Cross in the church. The man was Paul Armesto, a classical painter and muralist, whose works include some of the largest oil paintings in the world, displayed in churches from Costa Rica to New York and New Jersey.
“If I didn’t meet him that day, we would have had white sheet rock on the ceiling,” Father Sullivan said. That encounter began their collaboration in what the priest calls an act of prayer — for the artist and himself.
Father Sullivan says the chapel ceiling was a blank canvas for Armesto’s artistic genius, which began to flower from a preliminary sketch.
“When I saw his incredible drawing,” Father Sullivan recalled, “I knew we had to go forward.”
The work began last June when Armesto, the cousin of music director Tony Burke, moved into the rectory and prepared the ceiling for three days by applying rabbit skin glue with a 1-1/2-inch brush, followed by a mid-tone gold base.
During the three months Armesto worked on the mural, he often lost track of time, and when Father Sullivan looked in late at night, the artist would still be standing on the scaffold, painting and repainting, occasionally until 4 a.m.
The face of the Virgin took four days to complete. His efforts paid off.
“For Paul, it’s the most beautiful face of Mary he’s ever done,” Father Sullivan said. It radiates a multitude of emotions — from joy to sadness, from longing to love.
“I absolutely think she was guiding me,” Armesto says. “While I was painting, I was surrounded by an unexplainable presence, a spiritual presence.”
For Father Sullivan, the explanation was obvious: “God was moving him.”
“Paul understands art and theology,” he added. The mural is replete with religious symbolism. Because Assumption is historically an Irish Catholic church, Armesto introduced Celtic elements. One angel holding a harp is wearing a green cloak and an orange vest with white sleeves, the colors of the Irish flag.
In the coronation scene, an angel is giving the Virgin a bouquet of 12 white roses, symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel. The rose she is holding is red, symbolic of the sorrowful heart of Mary.
Even the number of angels has meaning. On each side, there are eight, a number that represents “superabundance.” Significantly, the baptismal font and the church columns have eight sides, and the eighth day is symbolic of the Resurrection.
The Holy Spirit, a dove over the altar, moves from darkness into light, symbolic of Christ conquering the darkness, and at the back of the chapel a six-winged seraph holds a banner that says, in Latin, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.”
However, the most meaningful symbols for Father Sullivan are three baby angels, who hold the train of the Virgin’s gown and are being led to Christ. When he saw them, he was moved by their expressions. While in meditation, he understood their spiritual significance.
“To me, the baby angels represent miscarriages, still births and abortions,” he said, noting that, over the past year, there were three funerals in the chapel for still-born babies. “Many people who experience the sorrow and despair of losing a child believe their son or daughter is in heaven.”
On Armesto’s final night, he climbed the scaffold to add one last detail. In the clouds, looking down on the Virgin being crowned, is the smiling face of a baby, who seems to be saying to his parents, “It’s all right. I’m OK. I’m in heaven.”
Paul Damian Armesto was born in Paris and spent his early life in France. His father, who worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and his mother was from Costa Rica. Armesto, who speaks fluent English, French and Spanish, was inspired by his parents’ love of classical music, literature and art.
He had innate artistic talent, and at 3 was drawing on the walls of his home. While attending Catholic school, he visited Brittany and discovered “the power and mysticism of the sea,” which became a dominant theme in his art. Very soon, he was painting seascapes, ships, landscapes and animals.
A defining moment occurred at 16, when his father asked him to listen to the “St. Matthew Passion” by Bach.
“Even though I was a teenager,” Armesto recalled, “I was thrilled by it.” This introduction to classical music developed into a love of the 18th century and an appreciation of religious themes. Soon afterward, he painted the crucifixion.
When his father retired, the family moved to Costa Rica, where he met his mentor, classical painter Alberto Ycaza, who helped him perfect his skills and taught him the techniques of the masters.
Eventually, an artist contacted him about collaborating on a project for the church of La Virgen del Pilar in Tres Rios. Armesto, 29, took the lead and painted six walls, which showed the founding of the town by Franciscans, the history of the Virgin of the Pillar, the discovery of America and the missionary work of St. James.
He did work for three more churches in Costa Rica, including the largest painting, a mural 55 yards long at the Church of San Diego, which has scenes of Abraham and Isaac, Moses parting the Red Sea, the Trinity and the Virgin Mary. The project took 2 1/2 years to complete.
In 2012, Armesto moved to Manhattan with his wife and daughters to begin a new life, but the early years weren’t auspicious. He recalls struggling financially and asking God, “OK, you wanted me to come here. What do you want?”
The answer came. After approaching the pastor of the Church of St. John the Baptist, he was commissioned to do murals on three walls, depicting the coronation of the Virgin, Padre Pio, St. Francis, St. Bernard and nine angels. He later did projects at St. Brigid and St. Emeric in Manhattan and St. Thomas in Somerset, N.J.
Despite the praise he has garnered, Armesto is humble and says his art has one ultimate purpose: “To praise God, who is the only Artist, the Creator.”
“Religious art,” he said, is meant “to uplift you, to inspire you, to teach you. Art should elevate humanity because we are made in the image and likeness of God.” He is emphatic in his belief that much modern art debases man and “many artists are offending the Church just to get known.”
Armesto recently completed a painting of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius after the Resurrection. According to John’s Gospel, Christ appeared to seven disciples, two of whom are unnamed. Armesto added a third woman and depicts them as Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas and the Blessed Mother, all of whom stood at the foot of the cross.
The renovated chapel in Ansonia was a labor of love for many people. Father Sullivan, who served as general contractor, recruited parishioners to do much of the work, and a new altar is being built in his brother John’s workshop.
Armesto designed the chapel entrance, which includes 2-inch-thick mahogany doors. The lighting was updated, and porcelain tile has replaced the carpeting. Stations of the Cross that nuns in Litchfield gave Father Sullivan hang on the walls.
The chapel, which will be open until 10 p.m., will be used for daily Mass, small weddings and funerals.
Father Sullivan emphasizes the spiritual importance of the renovation by quoting Pope Benedict XVI: “Beauty lifts the heart and points to God.”
Benedict, who spoke about “the way of beauty” as a path to the Divinity, said, “A work of art can open the eyes of the mind and of the heart, impelling us upward. Some artistic expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty. They help us to grow in our relationship with him. These are works that were born from faith and express faith.”