The Archdiocese of San Salvador fumbled into controversy on Friday, December 30, 2011, when a work crew unceremoniously took hammers to the colorful facade of the San Salvador Cathedral, in whose crypt Archbishop Romero is buried and which was visited by President Barack Obama earlier this year, and by Pope John Paul II in 1983 and 1996. The decision to destroy the artwork decorating the facade, created by leading Salvadoran artist Fernando Llort was immediately criticized by Llort’s family and foundation, and condemned by the Salvadoran government as the destruction of a national heritage piece (it represented the Salvadoran peace accords, whose 20th anniversary is being celebrated next month).
Photo: Before and after. What the Llort piece used to look like, and what was left of it after being put to the hammers.According to Church officials, Llort’s tile mosaic was removed to make way for new decorations featuring the Divine Savior of the World (the Transfigured Jesus—San Salvador’s patron saint) and a bronze statue by an undisclosed artist, with which the Llort tiles did not match. Additionally, Church officials have said that Llort’s tiles were eroded and were coming off. Even to many who would have accepted that explanation (Llort’s tiles were not universally loved), the process did not sit well. Most Salvadorans were surprised when the unannounced plan was implemented on Friday, and the Llort foundation lamented the fact that they were not informed, much less given the opportunity to salvage the artwork. Instead, Llort’s children found themselves rummaging through piles of the shattered fragments of what they insist had been Fernando Llort’s central work.
Oddly, even the Cathedral web site extols the praises of Llort’s frontispiece. “Outside the Cathedral,” the web site boasts, “the facade has attained a very special importance.” The text comments on the specific styles of the facade, chosen for their local cultural significance. “As an element of contrast,” the narrative goes on, “that certainly brings a unique personality to the Cathedral, you can see a large ceramic mural created by Fernando Llort and his workshop ‘The Tree of God,’ which constitutes the most significant point of reference in current Salvadoran art.” Um, it did anyway, until we inexplicably and suddenly smashed it to bits.
To compare the actions to the Taliban’s destruction of the 6th century Buddhas of Bamiyan would certainly be overstating the case, but the example faintly crosses one’s mind as a reference point for a clerical lack of perspective. This is a Church which, as John Paul said during his 1996 visit, is “intimately allied with the joys and hopes of the Salvadoran people.” Archbishop Romero is buried here, and the Crypt where he is entombed was recently called the Sanctuary of the Salvadoran Martyrs. Salvadorans watched the Old Cathedral burn to the ground in 1951, and they have literally had to wash blood off of its steps because of massacres there in the 1980s. It seems the place deserves more reverence.
* * *Afterword. On Sunday, January 1, Archbishop Jose Escobar gave the Church's long-awaited explanation for its actions. After apologizing to Llort for any hurt feelings and offering to have a smaller scale replica of the tiles installed inside the Cathedral, Escobar said that the removal was unplanned, but made necessary after a routine clean up and paint operation revealed that the tiles were irreparably damaged and were falling off, threatening the safety of passersby. On Tuesday, January 3, Llort held a press conference in which he said he accepted the archbishop's apology, but wanted a detailed technical explanation and the pieces back. For its part, the Funes government said it was going to court to press to make the Church restore the mural.