By Brittani Hamm
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — With only two months to design and construct the altar that will be used for the giant outdoor papal Mass next month, two first-year grad students at Catholic University have relied on state-of-the-art machinery to get the job done.
It’s the type of artistic technology that would have made Michelangelo and Bernini jealous.
“We don’t have much time to build all these things, so the more control and expedience we have, the better,” said Ryan Mullen, whose home church in Manchester, N.H., inspired part of the design. “With (this technology), it’s done. You know it works. It’s guaranteed.”

Mullen and his partner, John-Paul Mikolajczyk, of Staten Island, N.Y., knew the project would have been impossible to complete in such a short time without the help of modern technology. Computerized machines allow pieces to be contracted out, and the precision relieves some of the pressure by virtually guaranteeing the pieces will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s actually being constructed and fabricated in the most modern of technologically advanced ways, and only modern approaches to materials would allow the design to be what it is,” said Randall Ott, dean of Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning. “This is probably the first papal altar on earth done with laser cutting and computer routing technology.”
As a member of the committee planning the Mass, Ott helped organize a contest at Catholic University to design the altar pieces used by Pope Benedict XVI at a stadium Mass on April 17.
Mikolajczyk, 23 and outgoing, and Mullen, 24 and more reserved, may seem like an unlikely pair, but the former roommates paired up because Mikolajczyk understood the symbolism and Mullen knew the technical.
“Part of the intent of the design, at least as the students described it,was this idea of a very solid upper slab hovering, almost like a quality of aspiration or hope, above this very metal light tracery,” Ott said.
Although details of the altar’s design have been adapted, the basic form of their winning submission remains essentially the same: a solid top and an open bottom.
“The design was a fascinating mix of the hyper-modernistic and the traditional,” said Ott. “At first glance, it seems like a very traditional, iconic altar. Then you realize that the whole base of it is this incredibly light lacework.”
The designers added some iconographic elements in order to keep with tradition, but students knew the tiny details would not be visible from a distance. So their design aimed to be simple, yet dignified, Mikolajczyk said.
“It needed to be not just good, but worthy,” he said.
The pope’s chair will have a double back, so the tassels from the pope’s miter and his flowing vestments can be draped behind the first chair back. The pope’s coat of arms will be carved into the tall chair back made of solid white maple, and five crosses will be carved into the top of the altar, symbolizing the five wounds of Christ.
The wooden top of the altar will be built to allow the panels to shrink and expand. The filigree underneath will be crafted from one-inch thick sheets of aluminum that will create a spider web of metal around the bottom of the altar and pulpit, and be incorporated into the high back of the chair.
“I would love to have a piece of it here at Catholic U,” Ott said.
“That’s yet to be determined, I think, but I’m sure it will be used somewhere. It’s going to be a gorgeous piece.”
Copyright 2008
Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.
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