Homeowners Find Divine Inspiration in Religious Art

Pam Pierce finds it in a collection of religious art. As an interior designer, Pierce works with color and pattern. When it’s time to go home, she wants somewhere neutral and quiet.

She started collecting religious art after her husband gave her a santo, a statue of a saint, which she said had a calming effect.

Pierce is one of a growing number of homeowners who are incorporating spiritual objects and images into their decor to bring a warm, calming quality to their lives.

Houston antiques dealer John Holt saw the trend grow. He opened his Montrose boutique, specializing in religious pieces from Spain and France, 20 years ago. At the time, he recalls, many Catholic customers would come looking for things that matched their beliefs. But as interest in Mediterranean-style homes grew, so did the number of people seeking religious artifacts for decorative, not devout, reasons. Today, John Holt Antiques caters to a mixed clientele.

“Some people like comfort food; I happen to love the art of comfort,” Sallie Ann Hart told photographer Peter Vitale in her new book. The divine house (Clarkson Potter, $60). Hart, Pierce and Carol Glasser’s homes in Houston are among the 30 homes featured.

Vitale lives in Santa Fe, NM, where he says religious artifacts — mostly Catholic — can be found almost anywhere you look. It’s a natural choice for the southwest, given its proximity to Mexico, where religious icons are abundant.

People thought some of these items were stolen from churches, Vitale says, not realizing that priests and private owners were actually selling them. “Most people’s collections are perfectly legitimate,” says Vitale.

Almost every owner he interviewed collects for aesthetic, not religious, reasons.

“I consider coins to be art,” Pierce told the the Chronicle. “I tire easily of paintings.” She says the santos give dimension, texture and structure to her 1920s home in the Museum Quarter.

Glasser’s house in River Oaks was Georgian with Spanish Colonial bones, decorated in shades of red, peach and teal. She’s moved to another house with a lighter, paler palette, but says religious art fits in just as well. Her favorite pieces are two angels she bought in Dallas years ago when she was in her twenties.

“I have to use antiques when I decorate because they give that sense of history and character,” says Glasser.

Hart was raised Catholic but does not consider herself devout. “I respect and value my faith,” she says. The dining room of his River Oaks home is painted red, with a striking wall of primitive South American crosses, a gilded Italian tabernacle and a wrought iron votive holder for 60 candles.

“Art is something that comes gracefully off the wall and speaks to you or not,” Hart says. “I just have this feeling of being uplifted.”

Hart says her collection seems more at home in Houston than in a former residence in Washington, D.C., where people would question her choice of art. Houston’s antique stores tend to carry more religious items than those in her East Coast hometown, she adds.

Holt, the antique dealer, also collects for interior decoration. “I have an apartment full of stuff. It feels like a church,” he says. Like Pierce, he finds his collection comforting.

Of course, for some owners, religious imagery is more than art.

Motivated by their faith, Dr. Louis Varela and his wife, Alicia, of Spring wanted to find a way to glorify God in their new custom home. They commissioned artists from Imago Dei to create larger-than-life murals above the front door, on the living room ceiling, and on a dome above the staircase.

The dome fresco, painted in optical illusion style, necessary scaffolding, 300 tiny brushes and a team of eight artists. It took three months to complete.

The Varelas, who belong to St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church, have also built a private chapel with a suite for visiting priests and a meditation garden. The water fountain awaits a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel.

For them, Alicia says, it’s about “keeping in mind that we’ve been blessed.”

At Imago Dei, Presidents Jeremy and Jamie Wells and their team of artists create custom murals, faux finishes, artwork and public works.

While much of their business is secular, Jeremy says, over the past five years more owners have started ordering religious pieces. He attributes the increase to business growth and a growing tolerance of all faiths.

“I think in general there’s more acceptance,” he says.

[email protected]