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Arts & Culture

Muralist Paul Armesto's 'Old-School' Technique On Full Display In Waterbury Church

You might say muralist and painter Paul Armesto is a throwback to the past. Rather than using modern means to create his mostly religious works, Armesto has steeped himself in the classical style, adopting the techniques and even materials of the Renaissance masters, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. For the last several months, Armesto has been working on a giant mural for the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury.

The basement of the basilica is immense. Right now, it’s a construction site, and in a few months the space will be the church’s new parish hall. Amid the stacks of drywall and scaffolding is a man gently brushing paint on the largest indoor mural I’ve ever seen. It’s a depiction of “The Wedding at Cana,” and it takes up almost an entire wall. According to the Bible, it was here that Jesus performed his first miracle: changing water into wine. In the center of the mural is Jesus, behind him is his mother, Mary. Surrounding Jesus is a host of characters -- servants, followers of Jesus, friends and family of the bride and groom, as well as some hidden symbolism -- Easter eggs if you will -- placed there by the mural’s artist, Paul Armesto.

“So, I’ll give you an example. Here you have over the door Father Time, and to show how the Gospel inspires forever, you have Father Time with the broken hourglass, to show the atemporal aspect of the work,” explained Armesto.

Also hidden in plain sight, on the flag of a crusader in the mural, is the cross of the Knights of Columbus. The founder of the men’s Catholic organization, Father Michael J. McGivney, grew up in Waterbury and preached his first homily at Immaculate Conception. McGivney was beatified last year by Pope Francis, meaning the priest is just one step, or more precisely one miracle from becoming a saint. Father Jim Sullivan, rector of the church, said commissioning Armesto was a crucial part of making the Blessed Michael McGivney Parish Center a special place.

Video by Tyler Russell

“I didn’t want it to be just a stale, stagnant church hall,” Sullivan said. “I want it to have life and beauty, something that lifts the heart, we are created for that. And so all of the artwork that Paul is going to be doing here over the next six months, we hope that when people come in here they will feel like just a dignity and a beauty, not just about the space but their own human dignity.”

Armesto’s work has two distinguishing characteristics. First, his murals are huge, some of the largest oil paintings in the world. He once painted a mural for a Catholic church in Costa Rica measuring 54 yards long.

“Painting is like music for the eyes,” said Armesto. “The size of the painting is like the volume in music - the bigger the louder. It is important and I believe it makes a difference.”

The other characteristic that sets Armesto apart from most other muralists is that he paints in the classical style. “The Wedding at Cana," for example, has all of the trappings of a Renaissance painting: symbolism, realistic-looking human characters seemingly in motion, an idyllic setting and the juxtaposition of the archaic and the contemporary.

Armesto says that early on in his training, he gave up painting in the modern style and dove headfirst into learning everything he could about Renaissance painting. He worked for a time with a master of the style. Armesto not only follows the style and techniques of the old masters, he even uses the same materials, as much as he can.

“I am following with most of the materials that are available, some of them are not used anymore, like, for example, the type of white that was used, lead white, is not used anymore because it contains lead. Overall, it’s pretty similar. I mean, I’m using glazes, layers, and that’s what was used in the past. I’m also using the golden mean for composition, so that was also one of the rules of classical art.”

Armesto’s dedication to the past goes beyond technique. He said the broader philosophy of classicism is a big part of his work.

“The classical ideals, to put it in a nutshell, is balance,” explained Armesto. “Balance between the rational and the emotional. What they did in the Renaissance is bring back that philosophy and pair it with what was contemporary in those days. What I believe should be done nowadays is a second Renaissance.”

But Armesto insists that a “second Renaissance” does not mean trying to reproduce the past.

“I am combining it with positive aspects of art in the modern era," he said. "I am not repeating what was done. I am not trying to compete with the old masters, I am trying to preserve the positive from the old masters and combine it with something new.”

The mural will be the centerpiece of the new parish center under construction. Sullivan says he’s delighted to have such a creative person as Paul Armesto in his midst.

“He works all crazy hours. He paints when he feels moved. He truly is an artist of the heart,” said Sullivan. “Everything he does just touches the heart. You are not just looking at a stale piece, a piece that does not have movement or life. I find myself sometimes just looking at his art and I have to admit getting teary-eyed. His art speaks.”

Paul Armesto is just about finished with “The Wedding at Cana,” but his work at the basilica in Waterbury isn’t over. He’s been commissioned to paint some decorative accents in the new parish hall, as well as a larger work - a depiction of the authors of the four gospels in the Bible that chronicle Jesus’ ministry: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for a small chapel in the basement.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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