I think there is something special about a cover—about taking a song, a painting, or a movie and recreating it within the modern frame of mind. Aretha Franklin’s bold and unapologetic “Respect” is a perfect example, as she interprets the song as a Black woman in the 1960’s. As is Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” in which he narrates the song with hauntingly beautiful guitar riffs. In visual art, Andy Warhol recreates the portrait of Mao Zedong with a messy array of bright colors—an unusual depiction of the dictator. Finally, modern movies, headlined by the Cohen Brothers’ True Grit, give life to old characters and stories, recreating them for new audiences.
However, even the Beatles, the most covered band of all time, cannot compete with the millions of interpretations of Jesus Christ. Thousands of artists have painted Christ crucified or the Madonna and Child. Everyone from Van Gogh, Basquiat, or da Vinci have painted Jesus Christ, each in their own manner. It can be mind-numbing to try to flip through them all, viewing each painting, alien to the others, and, oftentimes, to us. There are always two questions to ask when discussing art: “What is this artist trying to say?” and “What do we think he or she is trying to say?”
These questions matter much more when investigating faith. In a special way, how artists of all disciplines—including sculptors, writers, or directors—interpret Jesus will affect us. Every Catholic, no doubt, thinks of Jesus through some piece of art or another, but Jesus is more than just a collection of paints, words, or images. Jesus is alive. It is tempting to trap Him in a Caravaggio, an El Greco, or even in the Passion of the Christ—to prevent Him from challenging us. Jesus as represented in art cannot call us out in our sins; He cannot tell us the hard truths we need to wrestle with. Even further, we should not trap Jesus in the Church or solely in the Mass. Yes, we are oftentimes challenged in specific ways during the Mass, especially when a priest gives a difficult homily. It can be easy, however, to selectively hear the priest, interpreting him and hearing only what we want to hear. We often want a sanitized Jesus, one that affirms us and makes us feel good. But while Jesus resides in the tabernacle and comes to meet us in every celebration of the Eucharist, He cannot be left there. Jesus wants to encounter us personally in order for us to help others encounter Him.
Jesus always challenged His disciples to worship, act, and believe in accordance with truth. Jesus was not “sanitized” or acting in the “proper way” when He overturned the tables of the money changers; He was not “sanitized” when He described the narrow way; and He surely was not clean and tidy when He died on the Cross. Jesus defied our expectations. He was filled with passion for God’s truth. While He is Beauty itself, Jesus often made His listeners look away as they were unable to embrace the unsavory truth that can be hard to swallow.
I enjoy going to Washington’s National Gallery of Art or New York’s MET, but next time I see Christ there, I will be reminded that He is not trapped in the golden walls of the frame. Jesus is alive, living in the Eucharist and in others. While it is beautiful to witness Jesus in the arts, we must remember that Christ lives in the audience, the museum goers. While the beauty of the art itself is mesmerizing, Christ is alive in flesh, both on the altar and in people who remind us that, while beautiful, Christ’s message is a challenge.
“Practice patience toward everyone and especially toward yourself. Never be disturbed because of your imperfections but always get up bravely after a fall.” -St. Francis de Sales
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Rome, Italy. To this day, the pilgrimage showers graces into my life. One day on the pilgrimage, we went to the Basilica of Sant’Agostino and prayed in front of a painting by Caravaggio called the Madonna di Loreto. In it, Caravaggio paints dirty, unkempt pilgrims kneeling in front of Our Lady and Jesus. Two years later, the image is still embedded in my mind.
The Rome pilgrimage seemed to be a small microcosm of my life. My struggles and weaknesses were the same struggles and weaknesses I encountered back at home and work, yet in Rome they had a different weight. My frustrations with my weaknesses were still there, but it wasn’t until I was looking up at that painting that I realized that the pilgrimage was a process.
My sin and weakness, my toil, my striving for sanctity—all of this was a process. The walking, the waiting, the impatience, the stumbling, the praying, the joy, the suffering—all was part of my pilgrimage and contributed to the end or goal: sanctity. I found myself praying for patience, and was informed by a fellow pilgrim that the root word of patience is “to suffer.” I found this definition fitting for the journey.
Today, we are all on a pilgrimage aimed toward Heaven. In my walk, I find myself quickly frustrated at my stumbles, my repeated sin (that for some reason I just cannot get over), my judgment, my lack of love, and the list could go on. This frustration with the pace of my walk on the pilgrimage to salvation is not helpful for the walk—it is inhibiting. My walk requires patience with others and with myself.
Looking at that painting by Caravaggio, I realized that we are the pilgrims—dirty from the journey, imperfect, on our knees asking Our Lady for the gift of her Son. He receives all of us as we are on this walk, and patience in the process will lend to an easier recovery after a stumble, a lighter load to carry. Let us grant ourselves patience throughout our pilgrimage to our end, Jesus Christ.
As St. Teresa of Calcutta reminds us, “We have only today. Let us begin.”