WITHIN weeks of Wedding Cake opening at Waddesdon Manor, Joana Vasconcelos was received at the Sistine Chapel by Pope Francis, one of 200 artists invited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s Collection of Modern Art.
Vasconcelos embraced Catholicism as an adult, viewing its traditions and iconography as an inextricable element of her native Portuguese culture, which inspires her work. For a visit by Pope Francis in 2017 to Fatima,the artist’s 26-metre-tall, glow-in-the-dark-rosary, Suspensao, suspended above the Basilica of the Holy Trinity, was illuminated for the first time.
Set among trees, Wedding Cake is a 12-metre-high sculptural pavilion, in the form of a three-tier wedding cake, clad in intricately decorated, ice-cream-coloured ceramic tiles. A spun-sugar basket of historic references and styles, Wedding Cake pays homage to Lisbon-born St Anthony of Padua, a saint whose intercession is associated in Portugal and Brazil with matchmaking, and with helping humble girls to find a trousseau and a dowry. On the eve of St Anthony’s Day, 12 June, Lisbon Cathedral provided Santo Antonio weddings for 16 financially struggling couples, followed by a procession through the streets.
Inside the Wedding Cake, multiple statues of St Anthony, outstretched arm bearing a book with an infant sitting on it, surround the visitor. The saint is set against sunshine-yellow embossed tiles, and illuminated by white ceramic putti, their arms wrapped around horn candlesticks, supporting pistachio green candles. Overhead, a dome of sky blue tiles, with golden stars in relief, is open at the centre to let in natural light. Vasconcelos has said that she wants Wedding Cake, used as a wedding venue, to be a “Temple of Love”.
Concealed staircases on either side take visitors to the next tier, and then two narrow sets of spiral staircases lead to the top layer, where the ascending duo transform into the two figures on top of a wedding cake. From the top tier, Vasconcelos’s 2015 work Lafite, two giant candlesticks made from illuminated Château Lafite Rothschild magnums, are visible by the lake. Near by, the ornamental Dairy, built from 1885 to house Baron Ferdinand’s prize winning herd, illustrates Wedding Cake’s lineage in the Manor’s fondness for follies. The Dairy has vistas of water, rocky grottoes, and winding paths.
Waddesdon Manor’s highly ornamented stone façade is echoed in the dolphins, mermaids, mythological creatures, and balustrades cladding the Wedding Cake. The pavilion’s 365 square metres of intensely coloured ceramic tiles play on Waddesdon’s famous collection of Sèvres and Meissen porcelain. Ceramics also suggest the tiles of Lisbon’s Baroque architecture. And the intricacy and impact of the Wedding Cake’s construction recall the elaborate hospitality of the 19th century, embodied by Waddesdon’s original purpose as a place for entertainment and house parties. Wedding Cake’s material and scale fits its setting.
Vasconcelos’s work challenges the idea that only noble materials, such as marble or bronze, can be used to embellish grand structures. Through everyday substances and handmade objects, she has made a work that is playful and uplifting, and one in which deep reverence for Christian traditions takes unexpected and delightful forms.
Joana Vasconcelos’s Wedding Cake is at Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, until 26 October. waddesdon.org.uk