shrine exhibit 'call to the beauty of god'

September 26, 2007

“The beauty of art is a call to the beauty of God,” proclaimed Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States, in his comments to the audience at the opening last month of “Redeeming Beauty,” an exhibit of contemporary Catholic art at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

Set up in the halls adjoining the shrine’s crypt church, the exhibit is scheduled to remain at the shrine until Oct. 14 and then travel to other U.S. venues, including Christendom College. The exhibit is sponsored by the locally based Foundation for Sacred Arts, which “seeks to stimulate a movement in the fine arts by inspiring those with artistic talent to create works of beauty, truth and goodness.” 

As Msgr. Walter Rossi, the shrine’s rector, noted in his welcoming remarks, the shrine’s founder, Thomas Shahan, dreamed that it would become a museum of sacred art as well as a place of worship. By coincidence, the 150th anniversary of Bishop Shahan’s birth was celebrated Sept. 11.

Some of the works by 36 living artists included in the exhibit have already found liturgical settings. 

Two relief panels of the Stations of the Cross by Sarah Hempel Irani are from a full set commissioned for Our Lady of Mercy Church in Potomac, Md. Henry Wingate’s painting of the Visitation is in place at St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, but is represented by a color study in oils. James Langley’s “Madonna of Marienfeld” is a color proof for a wood panel triptych commissioned for the Priory of St. Andrew’s Benedictine Abbey in Cleveland. 

As always in works of art, the physical presence of the originals outstrips even the best reproduction. 

No photo can capture the tenderness of the Child clinging to His mother in the tabletop-sized bronze “Madonna and Child” by Anthony Frudakis, enhanced by the perfect shaping of the space between the Virgin’s body and her divine Infant. In a watercolor study for the “Conversion of St. Paul,” Thomas Insalaco has created a dazzling illusion of supernatural illumination. Maria Laughlin’s four scratchboard pieces convey the humanity of the sacred figures in a surprisingly tiny format.

The works of art embody a principle framed in 1984 by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, when he wrote that “memory and hope are inseparable.” The artists drew upon past religious art for inspiration and then made their own work original — in the sense of a “return to the origins.” 

Some of the exhibitors evoked the deliberate timelessness of the Byzantine icon in which the artist’s personality is subsumed under a form that does not change over the centuries. Monique Sinclair’s “Christ Blessing” in mixed media on wood is a haunting example of an icon-like vision evocative of the face of Christ from the Holy Shroud. 

Archbishop Sambi underlined the power of images of the Incarnation (the Infant Christ in his mother’s arms), and the Atonement (the crucified Christ), the two central themes of Catholic art through the ages. Sculptor Karl Schiefer expressed both in two symbols — the dove of the Holy Spirit and the cross — in his limestone stele entitled “The Beginning and the End.” 

Shelly Cilek’s oil, “Mary and the Infant Jesus,” employs large areas of flat paint to create a simplified image that directly engages the viewer. At the other end of the style spectrum is “Regina Coeli Laetare” by botanical artist Margaret Farr, a watercolor that evokes 15th century book illuminations, where flowers and insects adorn a border around the Blessed Mother. As emotionally immediate as a news headline is the ceramic sculpture “Ethiopian Madonna” by Barbara Trauth, evocative of maternal protection when life itself is threatened. 

Variety also attends the images of the suffering Savior. Matthew Collin’s “Christ at Gethsemane” or “On the Road to Calvary” have the manly pathos of a 17th century Italian or Spanish painting, while Sondra Jonson’s monumental crucifix “I Thirst,” portrays a heroic Christ in a modern material, resin. 

Spiritual beauty does not exclude wit. Milo Duke’s “St. Luke Painting Mary” shows an artist in his studio filled with examples of 20th century cubism and abstraction — perhaps rejected as he responds to a higher calling. The “Parable of the Seed” by Jennifer Ward invites the viewer into a repertoire of modern-day metaphors for rocky ground, seeds by the wayside and fertile soil. Molly Kohlshreiber’s series of Gospel pictures in which hands play the major role is represented by “Wedding at Cana.” A touch of contemporary life — the waiter hoisting a tray in the background — sharpens the artist’s foreground focus on the water-to-wine miracle and its Eucharistic meaning. 

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Hamerman teaches Art and Catechesis at Christendom’s Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria.

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