Artists, Patrons, Theologians, Ideas

by James Halstead O.S.A.

Creating religious art is a complex process. Religious insight and sensitivity, and the skills and temperament of the artist are four of the variables. In addition, patrons have their own ideas and aesthetics and, of course, the money. And when there are the theologians, we have our own ideas, tastes and interpretations of both common and not-so-common doctrines, of traditional themes and of moments in the tradition. Finally, the Holy Spirit is a co-creator in authentic art.

After i saw the icon of St. Vincent DePaul that Meltem Aktas did for the Vincentians at Rosati House in Chicago (see the August 1995 issue of E&A), I decided to ask her to do something on St. Augustine. Since I was finishing 25 years as an Augustinian and five years as prior of an Augustinian community - and since I thnk it is a good idea to keep artists working - I asked Meltem to do a triptych on St. Augustine.

Tasks for each What seemed easy at first became more complicated when the project began. Meltem knew almost nothing about Augustine. When she asked me about him, I told stories and was able to give her several books and articles about Augustine. Meltem's task was to learn a bit about him. When she asked me about the content of the scenes of the triptych, I had no answer. My task was to decide what scenes she might paint.

In our first meetings, we discussed the size and shape of the piece. Initially, I had thought of a travelling triptych like I had seen in Europe on many occasions. A small piece with three complicated scenes was what I was envisioning. Meltem hesitated. Complex scenes on a small surface? (Later I discovered that she was right.) How did I intend to use the icon? Did I really want a travelling icon? No, not really as I thought it through.

After several meetings and discussions, we decided on three scenes that I found especially intriguing: the youthful Augustine stealing pears from his neighbor's tree, Augustine at table with his friends and the older Augustine as pastor-scholar. After deciding on the scenes, we discussed their content. In the course of our discussions, we exchanged theological ideas: the nature and the allure of evil in youth and in older age, the Augustinian understanding of table and Eucharist in contrast to other understanding, and the place of study and thought in Christian life. These conversations were among the high points of the creative process. The finished icon reflects these discussions.

We also spent hours looking at books with pictures of North African men. We needed a model for Augustine. We were looking for a man who combined nobility, refinement, warmth, streangth and intelligence. In short, we were looking for an ideal mid-life Berber. After looking through many of Meltem's books, we found him.

Sketching and Revising

After selecting scenes, discussing ideas and finding a model, Meltem sketched. The first sketch I saw was the scene of the pear tree: a youthful body with a long neck, the right arm reaching for the pears, pears that - even in pencil drawing - were shaped most suggestively; a detached, ambiguous hand-guiding? restraining? helplessly present? (and whose hand is it?); a thistle at the base of the tree; and a tree woven into the North African hillside. I was pleased. In the final version of this scene, the tree wraps itself around the outstretched arm, and other pears lie at the base of the tree. I was most pleased.

By my third visit to her studio, Meltem had sketched the middle scene, both the table and its occupants, and the right panel, the aged pastor-scholar. I fell in love with the scholar on the right panel. What should the brash, thoughtful, poassionate youth on the the left panel look like after 50 years of living the Christian life? Like the old man on the right panel? Savor the old man on the right panel of the triptych; he embodies what a pastor-scholar hopes to become. But how does one get from the left panel to the right? The middle panel was critical. In the original sketch, Meltem had created a table with two characters, all sorts of fruits, foods and tableware on the table, and the North African landscape in the background. As I looked, the technical elements seemed fine.

Yet there were problems. Augustine did not look right. His hands did not communicate an Augustinian theology of Eucharist and table. The hatted head was very nice but it was not Augustine. And we realized two omissions: Augustine was bishop of Hippo, a seaport. There was no water in the triptych. Nor were there any women. An icon of Augustine requires water and women!

Water was easily added. The Mediterranean Sea now lies in the back of the center pane. We also added a mysterious woman to the background. Who is this pregnant woman that haunts Augustine? His mother? His long time friend and mother of his son? The holy women of Hippo? The Church? These two corrections were relatively easy. Getting Augustine right was more problematic.

I felt terrible guilt when Meltem took her eraser to the sketch. A beautiful face and head were disappearing. But Meltem smiled. We both knew she did the right thing. Augustinian table fellowship and Eucharistic theology are not medieval piety; something else was required.

Getting it Right

The re-drawn icon has several changes. We see Augustine's left hand warmly embracing his friend's shoulder while his right hand caresses the bread. With hands engaged in two dimensions of reality, we have Augustinian theology. Augustine's head, face and eyes were totally re-drawn. The position of the bodies in relationship to each other, the varieties of food at table, the empty places at table and the figures inviting the viewer to join the community at table are properly Augustinian. Augustine attending to both the resurrected Lord as well as his friends at a well-prepared table is also proper. One clearly sees in the icon that Augustine is of a different stature than his friend, but the friend feels neither less noble nor less powerful. The friend is empowered to invite.

Cooperation and respect were essential in creating "Three Scenes in the Life of St. Augustine." Meltem and I share a respect for the tradition; we did not create Augustine or Augustinian theology. They are gifts given to us. But alone, tradition does little. The learning, insight and skill for the artist and the learning and insight of the theologian are essential in the creation of religious art. Both need the other as equal partners. As for the patron? Quality work is not inexpensive. The artist ought to live as well as the rest of the Church, and we ought to be willing to pay for what is in reality without price.

James Halstead, OSA, PhD, STD, is on the faculty of DePaul University in Chicago.

E&A Magazine October 1998 Volume 11 Number 9
© 1998 Achdiocese of Chicago
Reproduced with permission

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