The role of Religion in Divine Beauty

My recent series of work called Divine Beauty deals with religious iconography. I was raised Catholic and for most of my elementary school years I was required by the Catholic school I went to–St Leo’s the Great–to attend mass daily. I accepted this as my lot in life. The parish was an early product of suburban sprawl, having quickly acquired a large congregation long before it had a proper church. Services were held in the basement of the school, though on Sundays you could also attend outdoor mass, which was like a drive-in movie except you sat in your car facing an elevated glass-enclosed alter with your windows open listening to the proceedings over loud speakers. It was especially enjoyable in the rain because you had to close the windows and watch the action through water-streaked glass, leaving no clue as to what was going on. As the congregation rapidly grew, the school’s gym/auditorium was pressed into service as another makeshift auxiliary chapel with worshipers sitting on the basketball court in metal folding chairs facing a stage. It was like a high school play performed in Latin. But the cavernous L-shaped basement chapel was the primary house of worship. It was a mid-twentieth-century concrete version of the Roman catacombs: dark with heavy poured-concrete columns, low ceilings, orange painted pews, and rows of flickering votive candles. The few existing metal grille-covered windows were at ground level well above worshipers’ heads. Next door was the school’s cafeteria, and next to that was an 18-lane public bowling alley–all subterranean.

Framed paintings representing the Stations of the Cross were spaced evenly around the basement perimeter. Once a year we would endure the hour-long reading of the Stations, a thankless job relegated to second-in-command Father Knalber. The boys would wait with anticipation for station number 13, “Jesus’ body is removed from the cross,” because the reading included the words “…and she pressed him to her bosom.” It was all we could do to conceal our laughter from the piercing gaze of the ever vigilant nuns. Other religious art was distributed throughout the church and school. The parish pastor, Father Snider, had quite an art collection, and during his years at St. Leo’s there was always something interesting on display to capture our imaginations. There were also religious images in our catechisms and on the holy cards (like baseball cards only with saints) the nuns gave out as rewards for good behavior. Years of daily indoctrination left me with a genuine deep-rooted attraction to religious iconography. I didn’t realize this when I started the Divine Beauty series, but an exhibition I recently had at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst NY, caused me to reflect on the role religion has played in my artwork over the years. I hadn’t previously noticed this, but certain themes and stylistic conventions reappear with some regularity.