The world’s most impressive Christian modern art exhibit, Arte + Fe, or Art + Faith, is roaring to a climax after a hot month in Madrid, Spain.

Catholic sponsored Art + Faith occurs as part of World Youth Day, or WYD, festivities, begun by Pope John Paul II in 1986. This is being billed as the first show of its kind in modern European history. Kind of staggering, when you consider that Europe was the center of Christian culture for centuries, and their museums stand as proof of that.

WYD sponsors 300 cultural activities this year with Art + Faith as one of three major art exhibits. The others are “Encounters: Religious Paintings from the 14th to the 18th Century” at Thyssen Museum, and “The Word Made Image: Paintings of Christ” in the Prado Museum.

“Christ in Stained Glass,” by Kevin Davidson

All types of artistic and cultural activities are presented: film, music, dance, visual art, urban space design, theater, cultural tours of Spain, displays of church social programs, biographies of saints and missionaries and audiovisual productions. Basically everything but ice dancing (and perhaps I should check on that, too).

Of course the big draw for thousands of young people is Benedict XVI, who spoke to crowds on several occasions, stressing that “the offer of the gospel to the world is still alive.”

Benedict has always been supportive of the arts and their relationship to faith. His emphasis this year was on evangelism and faith, with a gracious gesture to invite many Protestant and Orthodox artists.

In this highly competitive event, I am happy to say Americans fared extremely well. The USA, Japan, Netherlands, Liberia and the Philippines represented most continents. I counted about 10 from the U.S. out of 37 world-wide artists. The criteria for selection were not only artistic excellence but also evidence of sincere personal faith through art or statements. This is a welcome departure from a few years back when the Vatican was checking out the Venice Biennale for new talent and the main qualification was being “world famous.”

Maria Tarruella, curator for Art + Faith, selected many of the U.S. artists, which were for the most part presented by White Stone Gallery: Makoto Fujimura, Sandra Bowden, Carol Bomer, Wayne Berger, Julie Quinn, Eugene Perry, John and Elli Milan and Ruth Naomi Floyd.

Tarruella stressed that although “modern thought thrives on general distrust,” this exhibit aims to restore and bring hope.

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaker, a Protestant, was thrilled to act as a consultant for Art + Faith. She found a great number of virtually unknown Christian artists in Europe and elsewhere and thinks there are many more as yet to be discovered.

Julie Quinn

Painter Julie Quinn from Grand Rapids, Mich., submitted “Trinity,” based on Psalm 63: “My body longs for you, in a dry and weary land.” Quinn acknowledges this Psalm as the foundation of her creative life “as a Spirit filled artist.” Her paintings are abstract, with harmonizing colors, delicate and ethereal. A continual theme of personal, changing calligraphy appears in most of them, representing her prayers as they are “engaging with Him.”

Eugene Perry walked a long road to this high point in his life. He found faith as a young man in Liberia and became a welder and sculptor in the U.S. His addition to the exhibit is from his series “Protective Love.”

A larger, arcing piece of metal overshadows a smaller one, somewhat like wings, “as when a man protects a woman or God is protecting his children,” Perry describes it. He is becoming quite successful in the Philadelphia area where he sculpts with recycled metals.

“City of God/City of Man,” by Carol Bomer

Carol Bomer’s “City of God / City of Man” is titled for the book written by St. Augustine at the time when Christians were the scapegoats of Rome. He compared earthly cities with heavenly, and Bomer creates a visual version.

Bomer embedded images of New York City, Sarajevo and the Tower of Babel with Bible quotations in Arabic.

Bomer carefully and thoughtfully writes about her pieces almost as an apologist herself.

Bomer works in Ashville, N.C., where she works in painting, mixed media and encaustics.

“Agnus Dei,” by William Zijltra over “Agnus Dei,” by Zurbarán

The Art + Faith exhibit is notable for few representative or realistic works, with the exception of something like William Zijltra’s version of “Agnus Dei.” In this staged tableau, Zijltra recreates a bound lamb remarkably like the painting by Zubaran, which is contrasted. This time the lamb is placed on a pile of newspapers about the Holocaust, modernizing and replacing modern atrocities for old, but the need for atoning sacrifice remains.

Zijltra’s theme picks up the challenge by the organizers to display attributes of Christ with metaphors he used, such as the Good Shepherd, Light of the World, the Way, Truth, and the Life, and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). The end result is hoped to be the beginning of a “visual theology” of modern art.

Another slightly more realistic exception is the beautiful stain glass effects in Kevin Davidson’s painting, “Christ in Stained Glass.” The body of Christ is evident from an aerial view in a lightly cubist form, as if in luminous glass.

More avant-garde types of work such as installations, temporary pieces and contemplative, performance or concept-based creations appear in Madrid as they do in secular art venues elsewhere.

Three brightly painted Coke bottles by Alejandro Mañas bear the names “Saint Teresa, John of the Cross and Sebastian.” It is merely the designation that makes them art. Think, “the transcendence of the ordinary.” This is a prop to stir up thoughts, such as man engaging in a daily relationship with God.

As Mañas explains, the bottles are similar on the outside “but how we clothe the exterior depends on how we live on the inside,” a nice thought, but it doesn’t quite work for me.

A more interesting installation/painting by Sevillian Adriana Torres de Silva allows patrons to interact with it. Her work “The Tears of Mary Magdalene” includes hair, a painting and water. The visitor is allowed to lift a wad of hair, view the covered painted beneath and inhale perfumed water. This is a multi-sensory, symbolic enactment of the story of Mary Magdalene.

Pope Benedict asked that artists consider bringing more faith into the world through art of all types and using it as a “bridge to faith.” Curiously he is also quoted as saying art was “lacking” in today’s world. He must mean art from a Judeo-Christian worldview, because secular art isn’t missing a beat.

The Catholic Church put enormous energy, planning and finances into an event of this magnitude. This kind of commitment bodes well for Christian artists who have been marginalized at home and in the market for some time.

Between now and the next World Youth Day (four years) perhaps the “world famous artists” they had sought could actually be Christians. It could happen; ask Michelangelo.

By the way, the Art + Faith exhibition ends on Aug. 26 in Spain but will still be possible to see at the National Museum of Catholic Art in Washington, D.C., where it will travel after closing in Madrid.

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