Biography of Brother Joseph Carignano, S.J. (1853-1919)
A native of Turin, Italy, Brother Joseph was acquainted with the rich traditions of church painting in his native country and the long history of the teaching function of church art which flourished there. As far back as the plan of Bernini in St. Peter’s, the idea of presenting the totality of the Catholic Church’s teaching through a combination of artistic means (architecture, painting and sculpture) in a beautiful whole (what Italians called un bel composto) was held as a high ideal.
At age 20, he entered the Society of Jesus to become a lay brother. The Mountain West and California missions of the American Jesuits were under the Turin Provence and in 1899 Brother Carignano was assigned to the Pacific Northwest. He worked throughout this region as a cook and an artist for several years. His art enriched schools, missions and convents as far north as Alaska.
Brother Carignano used many forms and devices learned from early Renaissance painters: the feathery trees, the oval female faces, the vine scrolls, the painted pilasters and the shadowed porch effect which frames the murals on the side altars.
His figures, landscape details and the particulars of classical costume clearly belong to antique sources so often used during the early Italian Renaissance. He adapted those elements to his own style, conveying the messages of Christianity as he understood them.
In 1901 the Jesuits assigned Brother Carignano, then age 48, to paint the interior of St. Francis Xavier Church, including murals and Stations of the Cross.
In preparing the interior surface of St. Francis Xavier Church for Painting, Brother Carignano first applied a light and delicate background color of pale rose to the plaster walls. For the wainscoting and pillars, a vibrant turquoise handles in a trompe-l’oeil manner to represent marble reveals both the Italian taste of the painter and an instinctive understanding of the need to emphasize the architectural details, such as the ornate capitals and deep cornices, with gold leaf to sparkle against the delicate pastel ground. He used filigree designs of foliage forms to frame the divisions of the wall spaces and paintings. In this awareness of the wall as more than merely a surface for paint, Brother Carignano sought for an artistic unity as well as a theological summation.
Brother Carignano used egg tempera, a medium that lends itself to the modeling of simple forms, on the plastered walls. With large areas of color he created a balance of figural and architectural masses. A bowl-like landscape or horizon fills the distant background, creating a design open on the sides. The viewer’s eye moves easily from one figure to another and from one mural to the next. Blue tones coordinate the backgrounds in an airy, cloud-like manner, effecting a great distance between the horizon and the foreground figures. This brings the figures to the edge of the mural where they nearly fill the height of the mural and can be clearly viewed. The figures are draped in large masses of simple forms which make them look solid and earthy. Their gestures are graceful and peaceful. Brother Carignano’s people are ordinary, but they are ennobled by their serene expressions and postures.
Brother Carignano completed the 66 murals during an eighteen-month period in 1901-1902. Over a period of four years he painted the Fourteen Stations of the Cross in oil on canvas.
On October 16, 1918 Brother Joseph Carignano suffered the first of three strokes. He died in Yakima on February 5, 1919 at the age of 66, and his Requiem Mass was chanted in St. Joseph’s Church. Brother Carignano was buried at St. Michael’s Scholasticate in Spokane, Washington. His obituary there fittingly quotes Hebrews XI, 4: “Being now dead he yet speaks.”