Michael Kenna’s ‘Confessionali’

Over the past ten years, between 2007-2016, Kenna has worked on a project documenting the catholic confessional booths of Reggio Emilia, Northern Italy.

Of this project he has said:

“Confession is one of seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic religion. As a boy, growing up in a Catholic family in Widnes, England, I would go into a dark confessional box in my local church of St. Bede’s every week to confess my sins to a priest. An exact definition of sin would take up this whole introduction, but basically, in the Catholic religion, a sin is any deliberate action, or even thought that goes against God’s wishes. The opening words of the confessional ritual never varied – ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been one week since my last confession’ – sometimes it would be two or three weeks, but my parents tried hard to make sure it was never a whole month. After listing whatever sins I could remember, or invent, I would receive a penance from the priest – usually a series of prayers: Hail Marys or Our Fathers. Then I would be granted forgiveness or absolution. I would feel greatly relieved leaving the church – I was never sure if it was because I was forgiven, or because I didn’t have to go through the ritual again for at least another week.

The concept of being a sinner and seeking pardon is a fundamental aspect of Catholicism. The first sacrament, Baptism, given to infants, removes the stain of Original Sin. The last sacrament, known as The Last Rights or Extreme Unction, provides for the forgiveness of sins. As an Altar Boy (somebody who assists the priest during the sacramental rituals) for many years, I vividly remember learning and avidly reciting the Confiteor in Latin, long before I had any idea what it meant.

‘Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et tibi Pater: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et te Pater, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum Nostrum.’

When the Latin mass was finally translated into vernacular languages in the late sixties, my recitations became English: ‘I confess to almighty God, to Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to Blessed Michael the Archangel, to Blessed John the Baptist, to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the angels and Saints, and to you Father: that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, Blessed Michael the Archangel, Blessed John the Baptist, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray for me to the Lord our God.’

My early religious experiences in my home town and later in a Catholic seminary boarding school, greatly influenced the photographic work I have since pursued. As a growing boy, I spent hours in our local church praying and listening, intrigued and absorbed by the light on the altar which symbolized that God was at home, hidden in the tabernacle in the form of the host, a wafer of bread, which had been consecrated during an earlier sacred mass. As a photographer, I have long been fascinated by memories and traces, stories that have unfolded over time, atmospheres that are left behind, remnants and remains. These images of confessional boxes in Northern Italy symbolise what I continue to search for – the invisible within the visible, the intangible contained in the tangible, the illusion of reality. If words, thoughts and emotions could be made visual, these containers of memories would reveal a multitude of densely packed hidden secrets, confessed, exchanged and discarded, in return for some prayers and a priest’s blessing and forgiveness.”

– Michael Kenna

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