The work of visual artists as a way of Dominican preaching 

Photo: Dominic White OP, Cambridge (Group of Dominican Artists at Kunst Station St. Peter, Cologne, 12.4.2019) 

[14.04.2019] Every year thousands of people come to see the frescoes of our brother Blessed John of Fiesole, Fra Angelico, at San Marco in Florence. Perhaps the majority of visitors are not Christians, with no interest in attending a Mass or reading the Bible. Yet something touches them in our brother’s frescoes. The experience may start a deepening in their lives, a journey unconsciously and maybe later consciously towards faith in the Risen Saviour that Fra Angelico depicts like a dancer on Easter morning.

But we Dominicans are not the keepers of a museum. Just as we have the Angelic Doctor, our brother St Thomas Aquinas, and drawing on him we write new theology to speak Christ to the people of today, so Dominican artists in all media continue the work of Fra Angelico in preaching through contemporary art. Yet the work of Dominican artists, visual artists in particular, is not always understood in the Order as preaching. So the Socius for North-Western Europe, fr Alain Arnould, who himself has been an artists’ chaplain, the Socius for the Apostolic Life, fr Orlando Rueda Acevedo, former architect, and theologian of aesthetics fr Ulrich Engel (Institut M.-Dominique Chenu Berlin; PTH Münster), called a meeting of artists from among the friars and sisters. From 10th to 13th of April we were warmly hosted by the friars of Heilig Kreuz (Holy Cross) priory in Cologne (Köln), itself home to some impressive contemporary art and architecture (Gerd Winner, Ingema Reuter)

The main part of the meeting was Dominicans presenting their art and their lived experience of being an artist in the Order. We had photography from fr Adam Rokosz (Austria), which reveals Christian depths in apparently ordinary everyday scenes, and multimedia painting, photography, light installations and film from Sr Marie Pavlina Kašparova (Czech Republic and England), whose work is aimed universally at the religious and the “disconnected” alike. The paintings of fr Felix Hernandez (Spain) unusually bridge the popular and the abstract, while the abstract paintings of fr Björn Engdahl (Sweden) have enabled his outreach to the growing spiritual but not religious sector of modern European society. Fr Zbigniew Krysiewicz (Poland and Belgium) paints the body, site of tension, yet incarnation of the sacred. We also heard from fr Dominic White (England), a composer, artists’ pastor and theologian of the arts who founded the multimedia dance work Cosmos, and by phone from Sr Marie Bouvet (France), a painter and sculptor of the Monastery of Dax.

We got out too, to see contemporary art in Cologne’s other churches: the “Kunst Station St. Peter" (Art Station” at St Peter’s), the Jesuit Church, the Columba Art Museum of the Archdiocese, the window by Gerhard Richter at Cologne Cathedral, and the “Maccabee windows” by Markus Lüppertz at the Dominican Church of St. Andreas (Andrew). We celebrated Mass together at St Andreas, at the tomb of our brother St Albert the Great.

These rich experiences raised for us the question of the relationship of the Church with contemporary art, and the especially delicate question of Catholic contemporary artists who tend to feel caught between a Church that frequently doesn’t “get” art, and an often hostile secular art world. Mostly strongly though, we saw how, in a secular(ist) society, art is able to open a conversation in which the Word may be spoken

As we continue our mutual fraternal support, we’re looking to open future gatherings to Lay Dominicans, and also to organise events for other Catholic contemporary artists. And we’re planning an art festival for the jubilee of 2021, the jubilee of St Dominic’s death and of the birth of several Provinces. 

Dominic White OP