Our guest blogger Larry Racioppo is a lifelong Brooklynite and photographer who has documented Brooklyn and New York City for over 40 years. The Brooklyn Collection holds a collection of Racioppo's work and recently hosted a retrospective exhibition devoted to his career in conjunction with the release of his book Brooklyn Before. Racioppo was raised in a Catholic Italian-American family and has been documenting Good Friday ceremonies since 1974. Here, he shares some of that work and muses on Catholic iconography and community in general.
We did not have art in our home. But we did have an oversized, richly illustrated and rarely opened family bible. The Last Supper was one of the illustrations. I didn’t learn until much later that the original work was a mural painted by the famous artist Leonardo da Vinci for the Sforza family mausoleum in Milan, Italy. I had no idea that Leonardo began the mural in 1495 and didn’t finish until 1498.
I was, however, quite familiar with paint-by-number kits and jigsaw puzzle versions of the Last Supper.
An internet search shows that both high and low end reproductions are still in demand. Sears alone offers over 500.
Over the years, I‘ve found depictions of the Last Supper on building walls, in kitchens and living rooms, as components of home altars and on the floors of abandoned apartments.
But I’ve found only one church—St. Joseph Patron in Bushwick—that has included a scene of the Last Supper as part of its Good Friday ceremonies.
I’ve been photographing Good Friday processions and related ceremonies since 1974. My Aunt Angie (Angelina) Piccolo called that year to tell me that her parish St. John the Evangelist, 21st Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, Brooklyn, was staging its first reenactment of ‘The Way of the Cross’. The Church’s newer and more active Latino parishioners were the driving force behind this procession. But the community at large eagerly participated, or at the very least came out to watch. [Editor's note: the New York Times wrote about this procession, and Racioppo's documentation of religious ceremonies in general, in 2013.]
I have not photographed on Good Friday for the last several years, but have been working on a book of photographs combining official Catholic rituals and sacraments with personal and vernacular religious expression. This work connects me to my family – the departed generation of my parents, aunts, uncles and to a Brooklyn neighborhood long gone. Everything was simple for a Catholic child in the 1950’s. All the answers to life were contained in a few books, and reinforced by our families and schools.
Easter season began on Ash Wednesday and lasted 40 days, including Palm Sunday. My cousins and I made our own simple crosses from the palm distributed at mass that morning. Sometimes our parents purchased more elaborate ones from local street vendors.
Only Christmas rivaled Easter Sunday as a glorious day for Italian-American Catholics in Brooklyn. We wore our new clothes to Church and afterwards to celebrate at my grandmother’s apartment on 6th Avenue and 18th Street. Somehow 30+ adults and children squeezed in for an all day feast.
I relived some of this warm feeling on Good Friday in 1980. On the way home after photographing the Procession at St. John’s, I stopped for a cup of coffee with my Aunt Kitty (Concetta) who still lived on 6th Avenue. My Aunt Angie, her husband Dom and brother Nick were there along with my Uncle Nick’s best friend ’Ski’ whom I’d known since childhood. I realize now that I never learned his first name or full last name. When Nick was a boy, South Brooklyn had a large Polish-American population. As folks moved away, one Polish specialty store - Eagle Provisions - remained until 2015.
Always a ‘live wire’ Ski told old stories that day punctuated with animated gestures and he eventually broke into an old song that my aunts and uncles knew well. I miss these people and those emotionally connected times more than I ever thought I would.
This post is dedicated to my mother’s youngest sister Angie, a loving wife, mother, grandmother and aunt, who ‘walked the walk’ as a devout Catholic with a social conscience.