Tommy Canning recently completed a mural in the sanctuary of Sacred Heart Church, Griffith. An interview with him was published in AD2000 last February, and in a lengthy article last month, he described what this beautiful work set out to achieve. In this article, he explains how religious art can strengthen our spiritual life, and prompt us to reflect more deeply on what we see.
"In order to depict Christ, one must live with Christ" - Blessed Fra Angelico.
These profound words of the patron saint of sacred art, Fra Angelico, perhaps best describes my personal experience and life during the many hours and months of work when I was blessed to paint the sanctuary wall in Sacred Heart Church, Griffith.
To be able to work on such a painting while in prolonged and close proximity to Our Lord in the tabernacle was a unique privilege that words fail to adequately describe with any force or accuracy.
Icons, which are customary in all Eastern Orthodox churches, are often called "windows to heaven" because they offer us a glimpse of what awaits us in eternity with Christ. No less too was this my motivation and intention to achieve with this painting, a labour of love from November 2013 to May 2014.
The word icon is derived from eikon, the Greek word meaning "image". An icon can be defined as an image created for religious veneration that provides a space for the mystical encounter between an individual and God. Icons usually represent Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and angels.
Since the sixth century, they have been regarded as a means of assisting worshippers make their prayers heard by the holy figure represented in the icon.
Sacred art mediates. It does more than offer a fleeting aesthetic experience. The way it is painted and used initiates us into a relationship with the person or realities depicted. It is original in the deepest sense, in that it penetrates to the origins of things.
Sacred art participates in what it represents. The icon is the fruit of raw materials being gathered together and made into something better still by priestly man and then filled with divine grace.
Sacred art helps change our way of seeing the world - metanoia. In unveils the inner beauty of things and reveals them as gifts and not mere objects.
Sacred art is always liturgical, always part of a way of life. The Russians have a term meaning "the art of liturgical living" - bytovoe blagochestie.
Sacred art can be prophetical. At its best, it gives new insight, brings out the best in a given time and culture, reveals God's providence, and is the living word of God.
Sacred art reveals the inner essences of things. It is never naturalistic, but aims to be realistic, using abstract means to reveal not only the visible outer form of things but also the invisible realities, what the Fathers called the logoi of things.
Sacred art affirms and incorporates elements of its mother culture. It is in fact a child born of the union of the eternal God with a particular human culture rooted in time. This explains both authentic art's timelessness and its dynamic quality.
On the personal level, and as I have striven to do for many years, artists of the sacred must have a strong spiritual life. As well as acquiring the necessary skills, they should try to know by direct experience the Saviour and his saints whom they are depicting. They need to be active in the Church, to experience for themselves the communion of the saints.
Humility is needed. True artists are servants. They desire to know the beauty of God and convey this to others through their art. To reflect divine beauty an artist needs to strive in his or her soul to become beautiful; to attempt to incarnate divine love in inanimate matter the artist needs to love ardently. The great mystic and poet of the fourth century, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, tells us that true beauty leads us beyond itself to its source, to God who is Beauty:
"The person who gazes on divine beauty marvels at what is continually being revealed to him and never ceases desiring more. What he awaits is even more magnificent and more divine than what he sees."
The upper part of the mural in Sacred Heart Church, Griffith, portrays what Sister Lucia, one of the three children to whom Our Lady appeared at Fatima, described as her "last vision" of the Holy Trinity. It occurred years after the apparition at Fatima, at a time when St Lucia was a cloistered sister.
In her vision, Lucia saw a "cross of light reaching to the ceiling". This might signify that God's love is poured out on the world through the sacrifice of the Son on the Cross. It also proclaims that every Mass is a re-enactment of the sacrifice on Calvary.
In addition, it may be a symbol of the illumination which is going to come upon the whole earth, when we see our souls as Our Blessed Lord sees them, accompanied, say some Catholic mystics, by an illuminated Cross in the sky.
With the illumination of consciences, there will also be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to equip the Church for the "final confrontation" with the powers of darkness of this era who refuse the grace of the illumination. This outpouring will increase until the culmination of this purification, when the Spirit will come like fire to renew the face of the earth. And thus, the Spirit is also pictured above the Cross.
But what of this Cross? It is thought that what Sr Lucia saw was a prophetic image of the Church about to enter her own passion, symbolised by the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass in the chalice and host. The blood which fell came from "the face of Christ". And we, the Church, are indeed the face of Christ to the world.
"The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection." ( Catechism of the Catholic Church, 677)
Below it, angels are portrayed in reverend prayer before the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament, just as in Heaven angels are in perpetual prayer before the throne of the Most High.