Master woodworker's craft on display at the cathedral

Friday, Apr. 13, 2018
By Gary Topping
Archivist, Diocese of Salt Lake City

The Cathedral of the Madeleine is a place of many mysteries, and one of my greatest pleasures in more than 30 years as a parishioner and 17 as diocesan archivist has been the gradual solving of many of those mysteries. (To be sure, others remain). One of these solved mysteries is the identity of the artist who did most of the woodcarving during the redecoration of the cathedral during World War I under the direction of the Right Rev. Joseph S. Glass, second Bishop of Salt Lake.

The most basic mystery during my study of the life of Johannes Kirchmayer (1860-1930) has been his actual name. He appears in cathedral records as “I. Kirchmayer,” and I originally followed my predecessor as Cathedral historian, Bernice Maher Mooney, in misidentifying him as “Isaac” Kirchmayer (there aren’t many other common male names that begin with “I”).

It was not until the appearance of F. Shirley Prouty’s 2007 biography of Kirchmayer, her great-great uncle, that we found he was giving his name in a Latin spelling (the Latin alphabet has no “J”), perhaps because “I” is easier to carve than “J,” though his talent could easily have surmounted that difficulty.

Kirchmayer was born in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, the site of the famous Passion Play, which the villagers produce every 10 years as an expression of their gratitude for having been spared an outbreak of the plague in 1634. Kirchmayer himself played minor parts in the play in 1870.

It was in art, though, rather than drama, that he exhibited a precocious talent that he pursued first under local teachers, then through scholarships in Augsburg and Munich. By then, Oberammergau could no longer contain him, and he emigrated first to Paris, then to London, and finally to New York City, where he arrived in 1880 as a 20-year-old.

His talent opened doors. He worked his way up in the ranks of an architectural firm but before long struck out on his own, working as an independent contractor. Although he worked on all kinds of projects, religious and secular, church ornamentation became his specialty, no doubt because of his early immersion in the religious culture of Oberammergau. Oddly, his biographer has been unable to ascertain just what his own religion was, if indeed he had any. He would have been baptized a Catholic, but he became a Mason, which was prohibited to Catholics. He decorated more Episcopal churches than Catholic, and he was married by a justice of the peace.

By 1889 he took out American citizenship, embracing his new identity so enthusiastically that he preferred to be known as John rather than Johannes.

Woodcarving for Kirchmayer was more than just an exercise in artistic technique; rather, it was an attempt to bring true individuality to a piece, whether it was a flower, a squirrel or a human being.

“If it is a saint I am to carve,” he explained, “I read the history of that saint until I know just what kind of man he was.”  

And what a virtuoso Kirchmayer was! Asked what he did whenever he made a mistake, he replied that he never made mistakes: “It is easy to work quickly when you know what you are doing.”

When Bishop Glass brought Kirchmayer to Salt Lake City to do woodcarving on the redecoration of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, he did so at the recommendation of the redecoration architect John Comes, who had worked with Kirchmayer on other projects in the eastern part of the country and was a huge admirer of his work. Almost a century later, we can still count ourselves fortunate to be the beneficiaries of his craft.

Gary Topping is the archivist for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

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