Carlo Schembri, designer and artistic director, has been twice honoured in his prolific career spanning 25 years, by the commissioning of the design of the platforms and backdrops for 2 iconic stages of the visits to Malta of 2 Popes, HH Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and HH Pope Francis in April 2022.
The commissioning of the papal platform for Pope Francis’ visit originated 2 years ago, but was postponed due to the pandemic; things have changed since, not least Pope Francis’ health, which had deteriorated; thus, the brief had to be adapted to reflect and accommodate these changes.
Schembri’s approach to the design of the platforms is very personal.
He likes to look at what he designs, placing himself at the heart of it, he looks at it. Schembri wanted the Pope not to be detached from the faithful, the public. “I tried to place Him at eye level as much as possible, so that people would not have to look up to see Him, like a superstar on a stage, detached from His “audience” at the bottom of the stage, but to participate together with Him in the celebration of the Mass”. He also had to consider the people who would be on the platform, the Church hierarchy and others.
Schembri also took into account, the elements of the day, the time of day, the sun, the wind, the possibility of rain, the size of the crowd and all relevant logistics in general.
Pope Benedict’s visit in 2010 should be viewed in a different context. There was less awareness about the use of recycled materials, for example, it was still more of a “buzzword”; though, “I did use recycled wood - durable recycled cardboard, called OSB.
But when this April, Pope Francis showed His firm intention to visit the Hal Far Peace lab meeting with the migrant and refugee community hosted there, a stronger message needed to be delivered. “I was given artistic licence and I felt that it was more appropriate to apply this at Hal Far rather than at Floriana”.
He decided to create an installation in plastic, representing the sea waves with the installation of plastic bottles, "because our sea has more plastic than fish", and using the vibrant colours of our beautiful mediterranean sea - blue, turquoise, green, but he draws attention to the loss of migrants' lives by the "orange blobs" on top which is representative of what he refers to as “salva uomo”, life - saving jackets or rings?... but they are empty, “denouncing the strong message of loss of life!” This embodied the objective of Pope Francis’ visit, specifically to send us a message of compassion.
The description of the design of the platform for the Papal Mass and Angelus at the Granaries, Floriana, belies Carlo Schembri’s artistic raison d'être. He is both spiritual and minimalistic in his chosen hues of grey, white to Lenten purple, reflecting the Church Liturgy of the Lenten period; one could go on drawing parallels to his own description of his art and design styles, merging well-being (health and safety considerations for an ailing, ageing Pope; the practicality of the underground sacristy; a sensitivity towards the playful way that natural sunlight is featured together with comfort, including a little touch of tech-savvy awareness to allow those present that special successful selfie memento.
Indeed, Schembri reiterates that all the “theatrical” applications on the platform at Floriana were indeed biblical, including the flora used, all to reflect the “spirit of the objective”, which is the celebration of Mass.
Carlo Schembri demonstrated flair in the design of a special Chair of State for the occasion, (two in fact); this brings together his design and art in both the Spiritual and the Statal aspects of the Papal visit.
Carlo underscores that he does everything himself and on a voluntary basis. Statal chairs were first commissioned in 2010, for the Visit of Pope Benedict XVI, by then President George Abela. Pope Benedict’s visit commemorated the 1,950th anniversary of the visit of St Paul to Malta in AD60, so the brief focused on this connotation. The chairs were used at the Pope’s arrival ceremony at the airport.
With Pope Francis’ visit, President George Vella’s brief was to replace these chairs which had been used for several State visits during the last decade. The last time they were used was by HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 2O15 during the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting. It was decided that these chairs would be preserved at the Museum.
This time the 2 new Statal chairs are more generic in design; the Papal and Malta coat of arms are custom-made. After the Pope’s visit, the papal coat of arms would be removed and framed; this would allow the new Statal chair to be reused for other Statal occasions.
Schembri has stated that "Spirituality is a big part of (my) life"; in approaching these special commissions, with their diverse meanings and messages, he emphasises that this is not so much reflected in the practising of religion, but more so, in being in touch with oneself spiritually, “listening to yourself to help you understand and of course, listening to others, and, he emphases, “you should, of course, listen to your brief”.