Cathblog - You know what you like, but is it art?

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Artist John Paul, gouache and pastel, 120cm x 120cm, New Norcia Monastery art gallery

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What defines art? This is a philosophical question that has focussed many an argument in recent decades. If great art can be defined as art that makes a difference to how you perceive something, or the truth about something, then the winner of the recent Mandorla Art Award, John Paul, has produced a great work of art, writes Angela McCarthy.

The Biblical theme for the Award was taken from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians 4:4 – ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’. John Paul’s interpretation was a painting entitled Palm Sunday. John Paul said that he took it as an opportunity to move ideas around, to express in the language of Christian art what he understands by this verse from Galatians.

It evoked a storm from other artists and viewers so much so that at the end of the Opening Night celebration there was a group of around 15 people standing around John Paul’s work and arguing the point. Some labelled it as misogynist, some found it richly expressive and others found it somewhere in between. I found it remarkable in many ways.

The young woman at the front of the image is sensual and fecund and it was this part of the painting that many found distressing. She holds a basket of fruit, corn and bread, symbols of God’s bountiful blessings, she is arching towards Jesus who sits astride a donkey, not in a passive sense, but as the challenge that it was to the Temple leaders.

Echoing Zechariah 9:9 ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ he rode into Jerusalem and the challenge was not lost on them. The young woman has turned her back on the pagan image behind her and embraced the reality of Jesus’ presence.

Unfortunately, many of the critics did not look beyond the initial impact of the young woman at the front. There are other women there too. Two behind his shoulders following him, one of them adorned as one of the wealthy women who supported Jesus in his ministry. To the right there is a young girl holding a chicken, a symbol of new life, pointing to the resurrection to come. In the top right corner is his mother, the one who gave him birth and who watched him die.

In John Paul’s words: ‘Born of a woman, nurtured by her, freed by her and finally mourned by her.  If Mary loved her son and we are told that she did, then all women loved him. Her love came without conditions, without a quid pro quo caveat, not the stereotypical Jewish mother that we hear of today, but a genuine love that left him free to choose or not choose her companionship.’

In this painting his mother holds a crucifix, foretelling his death and she is grieving already. Many Christian works of art use the technique of placing many parts of the story in the same frame, not simply existing in a single moment of time.

Jesus has an arch over him that has symbols of the evangelists who recorded the events of his life, and the Jewish elder who is skulking away behind him. A bunch of olives hangs above Jesus, the ancient symbol of plentiful gifts from God, as well as fertility and stability – the characteristics that underpin a peaceful society. As it is what we now call Palm Sunday, the palms are evident but in Christian art they also denote a martyr. He already wears the crown of thorns and has the distinctively Jewish curl down his cheek.

John Paul has echoed the early forms of Christian art like the carvings on Roman and early Christian sarcophagi and northern Renaissance engravings. The absence of colour seems to allow the work to focus on the story and all the symbolic elements.

So, is this a great work of art?

Dr Angela McCarthy is a lecturer in Theology in the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Perth.

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