The Milanese photographer Louis De Belle was raised Catholic, and he’s long been fascinated by the materialistic side of religion. In his latest self-published book, Besides Faith, De Belle took his camera to the CES of religion: The 17th annual Koinè International Exhibition of Church Furnishings, Liturgical Items, and Religious Building Components.
Although it takes place in Venice, and 85% of its 13,000 annual visitors are Italian, the Koinè expo isn’t devoted exclusively to Catholic merchandise. As De Belle’s photos show, amongst the rosaries and Madonna statues Koiné dealers hock Thai silk chasubles and Greek Orthodox reliefs. Still, Roman-Catholic tchotchkes are a major focus of Koinè, and it shows in De Belle’s photos.
De Belle says he was initially nervous about going to Koiné, which is not open to the public. After securing a press pass, though, he discovered that the exhibitors at the show were eager to be photographed. “The atmosphere is rather bizarre,” he notes, calling it a “non-place” and a “neutral dimension.”
What makes De Belle’s photographs so much fun is the way they linger on the weirder artifacts Koiné has to offer, such as a glass holographic head of Saint Pio, the controversial Capuchin monk who, in the early 20th century, regularly exhibited supposed stigmata on his hands, feet, and side, corresponding to Christ’s crucifixion wounds. Another image shows a shelf full of golden chalices like a Kmart for Holy Grails, and a display of dozens of Nativity Baby Jesuses of all shapes and sizes–including a visualization of the Messiah’s growth in utero.
De Belle’s personal favorite discovery, though, was an electronic rosary, marketed to people who have arthritis. “You just press a button and pray along,” explains De Belle, noting wryly: “Devotional objects and figurines have no limits, especially in Italy.”