You’re hit upon entering by everything from modern technological innovations to traditional works of fine art; displays of hosts and sacramental wine; Baby Jesuses, life-size saints statues, and manger scenes. Then there are the prayer cards, religious-themed gadgets, sound systems, lighting and heating for churches…and, of course, the intoxicating aroma of incense.
This is Koinè, and it springs to life every two years in Vicenza, a lovely Italian town not far from Venice in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It is an international exhibition of liturgical objects and religious items, a sector that is, world-wide, worth an estimated 40 billion Euro annually.
At Koinè, which concluded its 17th edition earlier this month, one can explore everything that the religious-goods industry and craftshops make available to parishes, dioceses, and religious communities all over the world. This year’s event featured more than 300 exhibitors from 17 different countries.
One much-visited stand at Koinè this year was that of the company Bells Giacometti of Legnaro, near Padua, active since 1925. Enzo Giacometti is the engineer who, with a colleague, patented the “bellpad,” a system that protects bell towers from earthquakes. Typically, the bells, as they are heavy, hoisted on top of the bell towers, amplify the power of the shock.
“With this, our system, the earthquake rocks the bell tower, but the bells stay still,” Giocometti explained, demonstrating the operation with a pen. “Indeed, they go in the opposite direction to the direction in which the bell tower is swaying in order to minimize the shock and potential damage.”
Across the hall, a booth dedicated to liturgical vestments displays the chasuble that Pope Francis used when celebrating Mass in Georgia last year. In Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city, there is a kind of embroidery cooperative called “Tanadgoma.”
“The women of the city are very good at embroidery,” explained Sister Anna Maria Crivello, an Italian missionary who has lived in Georgia for 20 years. “Typically, they learned from their mothers and grandmothers, but after the fall of communism in the 1990s, they needed help to develop this activity, and we have given it to them.”
In this way, said Sister Anna Maria, women can earn money and help keep their families from emigrating abroad, where they risk becoming victims of human trafficking. And bringing to life the Pontiff’s vestments for the papal Mass was a beautiful opportunity for the women, who are Orthodox Christians, to get to know the Pope and the Catholic Church better.
“It was also a satisfaction in economic terms, and this is important in a poor country like Georgia,” the sister said.
The crafting of sacred objects and articles for the liturgy often reflects ancient traditions of small towns or counties. A typical example is the wood-carving from Val Gardena, Italy. During the exhibition, at the stand of the Ferdinand Stuflesser Company, a life-sized sculpture of Jesus took form under the gaze of visitors.
The artisan, Stefano, told me while sculpting that in order to be a good sculptor, “we need, first of all, a natural talent, then a lot of practice. I learned from my father, obviously a sculptor.”
“Three or four centuries ago, in Val Gardena during the winter, the farmers could not work the fields, due to the snow,” explained owner Robert Stuflesser, recounting the origins of his family’s business. “So they started to carve wood, in the beginning creating toys, in particular, then religious subjects. Today, we sell them all over Europe, America, and even in Australia.”
The stand neighboring Stuflesser’s sold equipment for broadcasting Mass live on a parish’s website; a little farther on, another exhibitor presented a heating system designed to be placed under church floors beneath pews.
Velia Faso is the sales director of Roman, Inc., from Bloomingdale, Illinois, present for the first time at Koinè this year.
“Our products are made in China from a company that employs sculptors who studied in Florence,” she said. “We sell mainly sculptures and objects for the cribs [Nativity scenes], many items treasured in the United States, where the best-selling devotional items are also, of course, crucifixes, statues of the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, Sleeping Joseph, St. Anthony, St. Francis, and St. Michael.”
Another stand sold candles and candlesticks from Ukraine. “Visitors are very interested in how we produce candles only with pure beeswax,” Andrew Doroshenko said of his family’s business. “We are expanding our market opportunities outside the Orthodox countries, to countries of the Catholic tradition.”
Holy City is a company that started in India in 2000 as a small store, and has transformed into a prospering family-run company, according to Jefin James, whose parents started the business and who is responsible for their international sales.
“We sell Christian devotional items all over the world,” he said. “So, as our customer base grew outside India, there was a need for us to let people from outside India know our items in detail. Furthermore, we have gained more and more insight into each country’s important devotional objects.”
As for the Indian market, “Christian people give great importance to Christian devotional items and they buy the best-quality items they can afford,” he said. “Since there are only a small percentage of Christians in India and most of the Christians are concentrated in certain areas of the country, people living in areas with smaller Christian populations have greater difficulty buying devotional objects. But with improvements in transportation infrastructures and online shopping, we are able to send items to people and churches anywhere in the country easily.”
Koinè is an important event for retailers in the industry. For John Vogelpohl, president of Meyer-Vogelpohl, from the USA, this venue in Vicenza “is an excellent opportunity to meet the producers, create new contacts, and get to know their companies.”
“The range of products on display is very large and very high-quality,” he said.
Christine Park, CEO of Santa Cristina, from South Korea, explains that “since our company imports about 80 percent of the goods sold in the Korean market from Italy, it is very important to participate [in Koinè]. The quality of production is very high, and at the event are the best manufacturers in the sector.”
Koinè is organized in collaboration with the Diocese of Vicenza, the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Italian Bishops’ Conference. The goal is to develop the market, but also to further research and foster an exchange of knowledge about design, maintenance, and functionality of religious items and sacred spaces. The program of events included a very busy seminar on new guidelines regarding acoustics in churches.
Engineer Francesco Martellotta, professor of environmental and technical physics at the University Politecnico di Bari, participated in the seminar.
“We first summarized the basics of acoustics, then we described our research experiences in order to obtain guidance on how to optimize the acoustics of the churches,” he explained. “The problem is that in many churches it is hard to follow a song or celebrant, because we often think that the sound is less important than the aesthetic, formal, and architectural aspects…but this is an error which then requires more expensive solutions, and they still are inadequate.”
A dialogue between art and the liturgy, between art and faith, animates many of the stands and stations at Koinè, and this involves designers, architects, liturgists, and artists. A group of designers and painters, including young students from the Academies of Bologna and Venice, were behind one of the most interesting exhibits at Koinè; they reinterpreted the traditional iconography of ancient saints—John the Baptist, Anthony, Catherine of Alexandria—or made drafts of holy cards of recently canonized saints, such as Kateri Tekakwitha.
“Some holy-card printers have told me that holy cards of this type never sell,” said painter Gianni Cestari. Most consumers prefer more traditional depictions of the saints, he said.
“Now we should see what impact these new holy cards will have on the public,” said Msgr. Fabrizio Capanni, official of the Pontifical Council for Culture, as he presented the exhibit to Koinè attendees. “Even if people prefer traditional models, I think we can and must innovate in order to link the past to the future.”
In addition to prayer cards, candles, sacred vessels, and traditional devotional objects, there are also T-shirts, mugs with images of Mary or saints, cushions, key rings, and much, much more. For all these objects, commented Msgr. Giancarlo Santi, president of Koinè Research, “the important thing is to find an equilibrium between the tradition of the past and the innovation of the future.”