Homecoming Edition: The Cathedral of Learning, painted from all angles

By Emma Kilcup / Staff Writer

From the farthest parts of South Oakland to the streets of Bloomfield, the Cathedral of Learning can be seen standing tall  above the medical buildings and trees as not only a symbol of the University of Pittsburgh, but as an essential landmark of the city itself.

Hidden on the seventh floor of Alumni Hall is, “One a day: 365 Views of the Cathedral of Learning,” a collection of the many perspectives that the people of Pittsburgh — students, workers, visitors and natives — see the Cathedral from. The collection features paintings of Cathedral views from each day of the year, though the production of the paintings ocurred over the course of two years, from 1997 to 1999. 

The collection spans an entire wall and is backlit, giving a glow to the hall. The dedication plaque explains the significance of the paintings as a “meditation on time, as well as powerful evidence of one individual’s persistence.” 

While the views represent the many neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, the artist himself is  not a native. Felix de la Concha, originally from Leon, Spain, came to Pittsburgh for his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Ana Merino, who was studying at Pitt.

De la Concha and Merino lived on Friendship Avenue in Bloomfield during their time in Pittsburgh.

“When I accompanied Ana on her walk to the University, we saw the Cathedral emerging from different angles,” de la Concha said. “So many perspectives have that gothic tower, contrasting with the buildings in the different areas.”

At a certain point, de la Concha decided that he was interested in recording the changes of everyday: the light, sensations and unpredictability of Pittsburgh weather.

“365 Views finds a dialogue with the weather. It’s a testimonial of a moment in time,” Merino said.

Both de la Concha and Merino were attracted to Pittsburgh after emerging from the notorious Fort Pitt tunnel and seeing the view of Downtown. They both loved the distinct architecture and European influence of the different neighborhoods: the Italian vibe of Bloomfield and the Polish influence of Polish Hill. 

“I’ve been to many places in the U.S., and I have to say, Pittsburgh is one of the most special places. And it seems to be a secret. [De la Concha’s] paintings transmit that magic,” Merino said.

Merino, who taught classes in the Cathedral, loved the nationality rooms. She thought they had a “very special flavor.” To her, the Cathedral is a symbol of knowledge.

“Pittsburgh has a unique opportunity to develop intellectually,” Merino said. “Knowledge is part of society, and we have to claim it.”

De la Concha’s collection of Cathedral views was first exhibited at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1999, but was donated to Pitt in 2001 by members of the Board of Trustees, Milton and Sheila Fine. De la Concha has had collections featured at other museums around Pittsburgh, such as “A Contrarreloj. A Race Against Time” at the Frick Art & Historical Center and “Fallingwater en Perspectiva” at Concept Art Gallery. While Merino teaches at the University of Iowa, de la Concha has continued his art in Iowa City. On September 17, his latest exhibit, “Painting Iowa A Pleno Sol,” opened at Instituto Cervantes in Chicago.

Sam Berkovitz, the owner of Concept Art Gallery, describes De la Concha as “one of the most gifted painters” that has graced his gallery. He describes the Cathedral Collection as conceptual.

”It is as much about the Cathedral as it is about the passage of time. You can see the different conditions when you look at it — weather, time, the span of seasons,” Berkovitz said.

De la Concha began his project as a personal diary and soon realized he wanted to capture the changing conditions of the whole year. Though he had to return to Spain to prolong his visa before committing to an entire year, he made sure to paint each season continuously. He saved winter for his return, when he braved the cold and elements of the city each day, even on holidays such as Christmas.

“When I move, a project evolves from the places I go. I did these paintings as daily accounts, to capture whatever happened in that day. But I had just a few hours since light moves and things change — I had to capture that moment that wouldn’t happen again,” De la Concha said.

The Cathedral is the grand focus of some paintings, but in others it forms only a faint part of the background, smudged by the gray Pittsburgh winter. Some perspectives have the foot of a statue, a gas station or a street sign at the front and center. They are also noticeably devoid of daily life. There are only — spotted as of yet — three cats and two people captured in the 365 paintings. Whether or not it is the focus, the Cathedral’s integration in each painting shows its relation to even a distant gas station sign in East Liberty. 

“I like how it shows that Oakland is part of the bigger Pittsburgh community, how the University of Pittsburgh is part of the whole city,” Sarah DeMaria, a Pitt alumna, said. 

DeMaria studied history and political science at Pitt. As a student she enjoyed seeing the Cathedral when walking across the Hot Metal Bridge from the South Side or walking into central Oakland from Allequippa Street.

“I love the view most when walking from upper campus during the fall, with the colors of the trees,” DeMaria said.

For students, the Cathedral serves as a beacon of light that brings them home from ventures to other neighborhoods of the city. Senior political science and philosophy major Elizabeth Crivaro recalls walks from Shadyside as a freshman when the only familiar thing in sight was the Cathedral’s gothic architecture.

“It’s the thing you look out for, the indicator that you’re back to normalcy,” Crivaro said. “When I returned from study abroad, I saw the Cathedral from the Parkway. I felt like I was back.”

De la Concha helped to assemble the paintings in Alumni Hall and chose the horizontal progression so that people could read the collection like a book and see the compilation as a whole, with the blocks of different lights and different seasons.

“Looking at the paintings, I have a connection to the experience of what happened that day, the weather and personal things. For me, it is a way to remember,” De la Concha said.

For Pittsburghers, the Cathedral is part of the backdrop of everyday life. But visitors come to appreciate the relic of 1920s Pittsburgh, which is both the second tallest academic building in the world and the second tallest gothic-style building in the world. As Berkovitz put it, sometimes these visitors can help us rediscover that beauty.

“It takes an outsider to see the beauty of an area. This is a case of that,” he said.