Since the beginning of time, humans have felt the need to use the secular to express the divine.

From shamanic cave paintings to the pagan Golden Calf of the Israelites, from the slabs of Stonehenge to the storytelling panes of Notre Dame Cathedral’s windows, from the calligraphic decorations in Islamic sacred art to the familiar rotund form of the Buddha, religious art has captured the imagination of people spanning time and geography. It’s been used for many purposes: to teach the masses, like the Biblical scenes designed to educate the illiterate in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel; as aids or props in worship, as in African tribal masks; as a means of propaganda or social commentary or in some cases, simply to capture the beauty of the divine, designed to evoke reverence and awe.

Just across the Binh Trieu Bridge in Thu Duc lies the massive Fatima Binh Trieu Church. Named after the Statue of Our Lady Fatima which commemorates the appearance of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in Portugal in 1917, the red and rose-colored brick church has its own miraculous origin. Legend has it that a replica of the Statue of Our Lady Fatima was on international tour, stopping in Vietnam in 1962. When the truck carrying the statue got to Binh Trieu, the motor died. Mechanics were summoned but after two hours could find nothing wrong with the truck. After a round of prayers, the engine miraculously started again, which was taken as a sign that the Virgin Mary wanted a holy site built in the then undeveloped area. The church (which is currently being renovated with projected completion in two to three years) houses a three meter tall replica of the Statue of Our Lady Fatima and serves a Catholic community about 5,300 strong in the surrounding area, and attracts thousands more pilgrims annually.

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The road that leads to the church is lined with shops selling religious paraphernalia of all kinds, including Thien An Art. Founded by Nguyen Thanh Lam in 1999, Thien An Art makes Catholic devotional art for galleries, churches, organizations and private homes both in Vietnam and abroad. The showroom is filled with wooden sculptures of Jesus, Mary and various saints, many seemingly emerging from the wood, left in its natural state.

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“Different from other materials, wood has life. It’s organic,” says Lam. “Only when it’s completely decomposed does it lose its characteristics. But until then, it’s still living, breathing, changing. Stone is lifeless, cold. Steel is rigid. Composites are man-made. But when you make a statue out of wood, it’s like you’re working together with God. For a tree to grow, it takes more than a month, more than a year. The trees we use are 30 years old or more. It’s not common to hold something in your hand that’s decades, centuries or even millennia old. Life today moves at a rapid pace, but wood is timeless.”

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For Lam, his devotional art business is a happy marriage of his fine arts background and his devout Catholic faith, passed down over many generations. His workshop is in nearby Thanh Da, employing dozens of artisans. “Most of them come from a disadvantaged background,” says Lam. “Some are illiterate. I train them all personally over the course of three years or so. Catholic art is different from Buddhist art. The Buddha is stylized, represented as a rotund man, whereas Catholic art follows the European style. There’s some knowledge of math and anatomy involved.”

In amongst the statues with distinctly Western features, is a single Asian Madonna and child, the mother figure wearing a Vietnamese ao dai. “Vietnam is a maternal society. The Vietnamese have an affinity for the gentle mother figure. Together with the ao dai, it speaks of femininity. Personally, I like adapting the statues to our culture. The ideal figure is usually drawn at eight heads tall. A Vietnamese figure is less, at seven heads. Vietnamese versions are popular as gifts to foreigners, but mostly, the Vietnamese still prefer statues with Western features. It’s what’s familiar. Creativity is one thing, but this is a business. We still have to make whatever sells. That said, I still believe in miracles. Over the years, we’ve suffered so many losses and had so many problems with the land, paperwork, expenses. When it looked like I wouldn’t have enough money to pay our expenses and pay the workers, someone would  come and buy something at the last minute. If that’s not a sign that the Virgin Mary is looking out for us, I don’t know what is.”

“I know that in the end, these are only statues, just a piece of wood. But it represents your faith. At the end of your life, when you’re sick and no doctors, science or money can help you, it becomes a choice between zero and one. I choose one, because my faith makes me happier than those without. Like the Good Book says, ‘Happy are those who do not see, yet believe.’”

 

* Images by Ngoc Tran.