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Father Bernard: Baoro Church Murals

ArtWay Visual Meditation May 15, 2022

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Father Bernard: Baoro Church Murals

Hearing the Murals’ Voice

by Father Carlo Cencio (builder of the church)

The inauguration ceremony of our church in Baoro, a town located in the Central African Republic prefecture of Nana-Mambéré, took place on March 9, 1975, when the church walls were white, dry and clean…

But I felt that those walls were too quiet and many illiterate Christians were simply going to hear the words of the priest without really “seeing” something of the Gospel. Every old church had drawings and beautiful frescoes telling about the Gospel miracles and stories. Something had to be done in ours too. I got the advice to go to Carnot to admire its parish church. It had been newly built, as the beautiful old building in Romanesque style had become too small.

As soon as I stepped in I started to look at the paintings thoughtfully, hearing their voice through their basic linearity underpinned by strict geometric patterns. There was only the essential, yet you could understand the meaning. It was the Gospel of the poor, the Bible of the illiterate. I got excited and I told myself: how about doing something similar?

So I set off for Berbérati to look for the painter. Father Bernard, an unpretentious, friendly and kind artist did not turn down my request. He said he would come and it did not take him long. It was 1977. He stayed with us in Baoro for about a month and made the murals with very few materials, colours and expenses… making those walls talk, especially the central altarpiece, where he had painted the Holy Family with Baby Jesus in the middle receiving the gifts of faithful African Christians.

He sketched all the Gospel characters with sharp, almost geometrical lines, without indulging in frills, using three colours: red, black and the white shade of the wall with a large yellow background in the middle of the wall behind the altar that stands as a heavenly halo surrounding the Holy Family.

The common aim of all pictures or symbols is to recall some key episodes from the Gospel to commit them to the memory of catechumens or long-standing Christian believers. Despite being graceful, the characters’ movements are indeed stylised and geometrical. They speak without resorting to mannerisms or emotional effects. All is “reality”, all is “faith”. Father Bernard told me that he was not the inventor of this style of painting.  He had found it in the work of artist and theologian, Fr. Engelbert Mveng (1930-1995), in Cameroon and in some other places. He felt it was an expressive style, quite simple to perform.

On the left and right of the sanctuary there is a wall filled with nine boxes with images of the Gospel story and the life of Christ.

Starting with the left wall when entering the church, we see: 1. The Annunciation to Mary, 2. The Annunciation to Joseph in a dream, 3. Mary’s visit to Saint Elizabeth, 4. Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, 5. Mary’s Maternity, 6. The Three Wise Men, 7. The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, 8. Mary and Joseph, with the Child Jesus, are forced to flee their homeland to escape Herod’s persecution and 9. The Baptism of Jesus.

On the right wall we see: 1. The Last Supper, 2. Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, 3. Arrest of Jesus, 4. The Crucifixion, 5. The Resurrection, 6. The Emmaus Disciples, 7. Thomas’ finger in the wound of Jesus, 8. Ascension of Jesus and 9. Pentecost.

Father Bernard made those walls talk with good taste and also African people started to feel at ease with those images of those miracles and mysteries they hear about in catechism and sermons.

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Image 1, 3, 4 , 5 and 6: Father Bernard Bois: Baoro Church Murals, 1977, Baoro, Central African Republic.

Image 2: Father Bernard Bois: Murals in Carnot Church, Carnot, Central African Republic.

For a discussion of murals by the artist and theologian, Engelbert Mveng (1930-1995), in Cameroon (referred to above), click here

Father Bernard Bois was born in 1934 in Albanne (Savoie), France. In 1964 he was sent as a Capuchin missionary to the diocese of Berbérati in the Central African Republic. He began his ministry as a vicar at the cathedral of Berbérati (1964/66), then as parish priest at the parish of Bozum (1966/70) and was then parish priest at the parish of Carnot-centre (1970/75). To support the mission Father Bernard used his talents as a carpenter, a profession he learned from his father since his early childhood. He especially liked to make the furniture. Father Bernard also knew how to handle the brush of a painter. He decorated four churches and the chapel in Nadugbé. It was above all at the cathedral that he made his masterpiece. For five months perched on trestles, he made this quite ordinary building a house of God where it is good to gather to pray. In 1997 he returned to France.

Father Carlo Cencio was born in 1939 in Italy. He came in the Central African Republic in 1971. On December 16, 1971, Fathers Nicolò Ellena, Marco Conte, Agostino Mazzocchi and Carlo Cencio arrived in Bozoum in the parish of San Michele to help the Capuchin friars and then succeed them. This was the beginning of the Mission in Central Africa of the Discalced Carmelites of the Genoa Province. In 1973 Fr. Carlo founded the parish of the Child Jesus in Baoro. In 1991 he returned to Italy.

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