Wednesday, November 28, 2007

St. Josemaría Escrivá and the Iconography of Modern Saints

Matthew Alderman. San Josemaría Escrivá, Fundador del Opus Dei. Ink on Vellum. October 2007. Artist's Collection.

I was recently commissioned by a certain gracious lady in Vienna (the one with Strauss, not the one in Virginia) to do an image of St. Josemaría, my first international art commission, which was a great pleasure; I hope to present it here one of these days. The drawing above is a little follow-up piece I did for myself on a similar theme after completing the drawing and wanting to try a slightly different angle.

The project got me thinking about comparative lack of solid iconography associated with him and any number of other modern saints, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe, despite the wealth of possibilities inherent in their biographies. Why is St. Maximilian not shown with his two crowns rather than a few limp copies of The Knight of the Immaculate? Where is Gabriel Possenti and his smoking gun, and why is St. John Neumann not shown holding a charmingly medieval model of downtown Philadelphia?

Most representations of modern saints are really more portraits than true liturgical art, and while certainly it is appropriate to be faithful to a saint's true image when we have photographs, it is not enough to convey his presence symbolically. Some steps have been taken to endow him with attributes, and some of these--the rose, the simple cross used as a sort of logo by Opus Dei, guardian angels (what I used in my Vienna drawing as an attribute), or students and other members of the prelature clustered around him--are largely successful, but lack the compact elegance of a winged ox or a pierced heart that so characterizes the symbolism of the Western Church.

It seemed to me that the perfect symbol St. Josemaría would be the donkey, the symbol of his humility. Once, I'm told, when asked for a picture of himself by a disciple, he returned with a nice picture of a little burro. I can think of no better addition to the menagerie of the Church than St. Josemaría's donkey, alongside the lion of St. Jerome and the peacock of immortality.

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