Liturgical Artist Paints With A Divine Purpose Emanuel Utti Does Restoration In Area Churches.

Posted: August 14, 1999

For more than 50 years, Emanuel Utti has navigated scaffolding with paints and brushes in hand.

He has lain across planks just below a church ceiling while reaching over his head to gild a saint's halo, or brushstroke an angel's wing.

Utti, 65, is a liturgical artist who believes that his work - restoring religious art - is, in some ways, a calling from God.

``I think, when people come to church, the paintings should inspire them,'' Utti said, as he sat in a pew at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church in Media.

Above him, his son, Christopher Utti, 26, thumped from plank to plank on scaffolding two or three stories in the air.

He is his father's apprentice, in line to carry on the legacy.

``He's the master,'' Christopher Utti said. ``Someday I hope to be as good as him.''

Emanuel Utti is one of only a handful of liturgical artists who cling to the ancient craft of restoring traditional religious paintings and artwork.

In addition to cleaning up and restoring the works, Utti does original oils at his home studio in Lafayette Hill. He then rolls up the canvases, takes them to the church where he is working, and glues them onto the wall.

For Nativity, where he has been working for six weeks and hopes to finish soon, three round paintings, each about eight feet in diameter, will be placed above the church's three altars. They will depict Mary as a child with her parents, the Holy Family and God.

Some of his subjects come straight from his imagination. Others he copies from the masters, copying closely or taking inspiration from a pose or gesture or a particular color.

``Many times I combine elements from different classical paintings to create one new painting,'' Utti said.

Most of his work is in Catholic churches in Philadelphia and its suburbs, but Protestant churches have also called on his special skills. He also does secular work - for the Bicentennial, he redid all the gilding in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Utti started his career at age 16 as an apprentice to Mario Sgambati, a leading religious painter in Philadelphia. For seven years he studied and performed all sorts of tasks, even serving as the model for the figure of Christ in Sgambati's painting above the altar of St. Mary Magadalen de Pazzi Church in Philadelphia.

Under Sgambati's tutelage, Utti learned to paint figures, and to gild, grain, marbleize, do foliated scrolls and do trompe l'oeil moldings, in which the details are made to look photographically realistic.

Sometimes he will copy famous prototypes, such as Michelangelo's Pieta. ``Religious art should be somewhat familiar so people will connect with it,'' Utti said.

``What he does has great value from a devotional view and a historical view,'' said Msgr. Louis A. D'Addezio, director of general services and special projects for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

His work also has great value to the community.

He went for a year without painting after his oldest son of seven children, David, died. David, who had been his apprentice before Christopher, died in 1993 at the age of 28.

``Bishop [Louis A.] DeSimone said a special Mass for David and afterward told me that I should go back to work,'' Utti said. `` `We need you,' the bishop told me.''

Utti's oils and restorative work can be found in dozens of churches, including St. Patrick's in Norristown and Our Lady of the Assumption in Strafford.

Fittingly, he was also called upon to restore the original art work in Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Bridgeport, which had been painted by his teacher, Sgambati. Another major project was at his own parish church, SS. Cosmas and Damian in Conshohocken, where he painted 70 original panels in the ceiling.

The most difficult part of his job, he said, is determining what materials were used originally so he can replicate them.

``A lot of work was done with lead as the base of the white paint,'' Utti said. ``It turns black and there's not a heck of a lot you can do. Usually you have to just redo the entire piece.

Next year, he may ``semi-retire'' because, he said, he's not as nimble-footed as he used to be.

When he does, he will continue to devote time to liturgical art. He would like to catalog all of the archdiocese's artwork.

``That's something that's never been done and would be a huge undertaking,'' Msgr. D'Addezio said.

But for Utti, it would be a pleasure.

``Many works have been damaged or destroyed because no one was aware of their worth,'' Utti said. ``It's a great pity.''

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