As long ago as 1973, the authorities at Fátima had realised that the existing facilities were not adequate to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims, particularly on Sundays and other days of religious celebration.
In 1997, they opened an architectural competition for a modern building. The first stone of the resulting new church was laid on the day of the Most Holy Trinity, June 6, 2004, and the Basílica da Santíssima Trindade hosted its first service on October 13, 2007, on the 90th anniversary of the last of the Fátima apparitions.
The church was built to the design of Alexandros Tombazis, the Greek winner of the competition, and paid for by contributions made by the thousands of pilgrims over the years. This church is now the fourth largest Catholic church in the world, with 8,633 places and, unusually for a church, it has no windows. The circular building has a diameter of 125 metres, and it is 18 metres high. There are 12 lateral doors in bronze, dedicated to the apostles, and the main door at 64sqm, also in bronze, is dedicated to Christ.
The building is the centrepiece of a number of modern works to the Glory of God, such as exterior statues and other works by artists of various nationalities, including Portuguese, Italian, Slovenian, Polish, Cypriot, Canadian and Irish. The German contribution to this international artistic concept was A Cruz Alta by Robert Schad.
There was a previous Cruz Alta at Fátima, which was installed to mark the closure of the Holy Year of 1950/51. This Cross is 24 metres high and was located on the site of the proposed new church. It was removed and re-erected at the National Sanctuary of Cristo Rei at Almada.
Seeking a modern replacement, architect Tombazis remembered the strength and monumentality of Schad’s work, and asked him to create a cross more than 30-metres high to face the open space, which at times can accommodate 500,000 people.
It was decided to erect this cross away from the central axis and in front of and to the side of the new church, to give a vertical balance to the horizontal mass of the main church and to create a diagonal axis with the visitation chapel.
From a distance, the new building does not resemble a church, and the tall crucifix does the work of a spire as it may be seen above the rooftops of the town by pilgrims approaching from the motorway. Architect Tombazis welcomed the development of the cross into a simple and abstract crucifix, which brings a deeper meaning, and its rusty brown colour which blends perfectly with the off-white and beige of the other buildings at Fátima.
Robert Schad himself comes from a Catholic family, on whose children the appearances of Our Lady at Fátima and Lourdes made a great impression, since these apparitions had been witnessed only by children. He was also motivated by the realisation that most Christians today are not European, but South American and African, and his design reflects a simpler non-European expressive art.
The sculptor maintains that steel does not easily represent a human form and the thick high grade Corten steel will never rust through. Taking account of potential earthquakes and the velocity of the wind, the structure is anchored by 17 thick steel bolts. It would be impossible to build a 34-metre similar structure in any other material than steel, and Schad reckons that this crucifix is the tallest in the world.
The crucifix was designed and made within two years. And like all successful artists, Schad ensured that both the client (Tombazis) and the future owner (the Sanctuary authorities) were comfortable with his designs. It was manufactured in Porto, delivered by lorry in four sections in August 2007, and assembled and erected in just a few days.
The sculptor admitted that the challenge of creating a new crucifix, which would be acceptable to all believers who make the pilgrimage to Fátima, made him seriously explore his own cultural roots.
In this work, constructive rigidity and vibrancy, optical lightness and physical weight confront each other. This crucifix can be thought of as a monument for the overcoming of opposites in thought and action.
Now that the crucifix is standing, Schad says that it no longer belongs to him, and it has now become a public form, and belongs to the Catholic community, and he hopes that it will find a permanent place in the hearts of the believers.
On interview, Robert Schad did admit to one feeling of exasperation. Although the concept of the crucifix is now a public one, there are manufacturers of religious mementoes who have quickly grasped at the marketing opportunities for souvenirs of Fátima. It appears that you can now buy miniature Schad crucifixes, and Robert is not best pleased to see his artistic idea being pirated.
By Lynne Booker