In 1924 Ángel Zárraga was called upon to decorate the walls of the crypt at Notre Dame de la Salette. The building was erected by the architect Pierre Sardou in la Cité--Jardin en Suresnes (hauts de Seine) as part of a postwar program launched by Cardinal Verdir to encourage the construction of new churches in the suburbs of Paris. They numbered more than one hundred. However, the church that was projected to rise above the crypt was never built, except for a cement cupola that was added in 1955.
Under the sponsorship of the "Works of the Cardinal," Zárraga decorated the Chapelle des étudiants in Paris's Citi Universitaire. He was chosen in 1937 among thirty-five candidates from all over the world.
Zárraga had already devoted himself intensively to researching the fresco and encaustic mural painting techniques, since he had already agreed to work alongside distinguished French and foreign sculptors, stained-glass artists, goldsmiths, and architects who were tirelessly involved in the reconstruction of Catholic churches in France after the destruction of World War I.
As a church decorator, he was considered an heir to the great Renaissance masters and was acknowledged as one of the outstanding religious painters of the 20th century. The Suresnes Chapel, for instance, was compared with Fra Angelico's frescoes at San Marco in Florence.
Zárraga professed a great devotion to Our Lady of la Salette, who appeared to the humble shepherds Maximin and Mélanie in 1846 in order to deliver her message to the world. This occurrence prompted the construction of one of the great sanctuaries devoted to Mary on the heights of the French Alps.
Suresnes is sadly remembered as the place where, during World War II, Germans executed 4500 members of the French Resistance. The town's center was reconstructed after the war, but the murals disappeared.
The murals were created using the encaustic method and were widely praised, which ushered in a third phase in this painter's life, as a muralist, although it should be noted that previously he had decorated the walls at the Castle of Vert Coeur in Chevreuse, near the Palace of Versailles.
He decorated the chapel on the hill of Suresnes with the trilogy of the Marian dogmas: to the left, The Annunciation, to the right, the Assumption, and in the center the Coronation of Mary. He achieved the goal of creating a peacefully serene environment with his use of color. Zárraga himself declared, "All great art is religious." For him, working on the walls of a church served to uplift the spirit and to spread the teaching of immortal truths.
Mary, in the Old Testament, is the woman in Isaiah's prophecy: the new Eve who would bring salvation to the human race by giving birth to Jesus Christ, the Savior. After having completed her mission on Earth, Mary was assumed in body and soul to the heavenly glory after her dormition through the power of God.
Zárraga did several preliminary panels for this trilogy, using very rich materials and subtle and delicate colors.
Of these paintings, the ones belonging to the Cámara Mexicana de la Industria de la Construcción in Mexico City are well known. These, along with other important works, were donated to that institution by the painter's brother, the architect Guillermo Zárraga.
He painted these panels with straight and curved lines that harmonize with the sensual geometric style he inherited from his training in Cubism. In approaching these sacred themes, Zárraga reveled in the use of inimitable shades of blue, about which he wrote, "Blue pleases poets because it is immaterial and heavenly. Light blue speaks to us of its purity, of ethereal things; dark blue has the imposing melancholy of twilight."
It was precisely at the country estate of his brother Guillermo, a place called Casablanca, where Zárraga wrote an important treatise on religious art in 1943 for the journal Ábside. His words reveal his profound religious sentiment and the impact that the old masters of religious murals such as Fra Angelico and Giotto had on him, as well as the murals executed by Eugène Delacroix in the Chapelle des Anges in the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris.
Ángel Zárraga decorated several Catholic churches in France from 1924 to 1941.
Maria Luisa Novelo Quintana
Huixquilucan, Mexico, April 2007