The Frescoes of St. Thomas illustrates philosopher Thomas Aquinas’s seven virtues of faith, hope, charity, justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude.~ Philanthropy Magazine
Encountering the Art
My art History professor ended the class with, “you now know more about fresco than you will ever care to know.”
But not me, I have been thinking about frescoes for days. While watching the PBS special in class about Mark Balma’s groundbreaking fresco, a “1,900-square-foot masterpiece, entitled The Frescoes of St. Thomas,” I fought back tears. The story of its creation resonated deeply within me. Balma’s fresco is the second largest fresco in the U.S,” Painted in 1995 on the lobby ceiling and pillars of a new University of St. Thomas building in downtown Minneapolis, the design blends contemporary images with symbolism from classical mythology, modern life, and Christianity. 1
Everything about it caused me to pause and think about art and my life. Created by a master artist along with the college board, the artistic committee, his apprentices, and people impacted by art, it is a masterpiece that will outlive them all. The monumental size and the complexity of the process is mind boggling. As I watched the work come to life in the film, I wished for another experience like that.
The Stained Glass Window
I could not help remembering the stained glass window I am a part of. In the film, it became clear to me that the artist cannot be separated from the art. I am part of the stained glass window I helped create as much as the window is part of me. Like Balma, I worked with artists whose passion was to preserve art in its classic form. European trained, both Balma and R.B.Gibbs and son have a vision to not only preserve the art in its purity, but to do so in America.
Summa Theologia by Aquinas
Based on the text Summa Theologia by Aquinas, Balma searches for artistic expression of Aquinas’ ideas. Aquinas defines virtue as:
not a disposition to be but a disposition to do. Because virtue is a sort of fitness, one can compare it to health and beauty as Cicero did, fitness of soul to fitness of body. But this fitness of the soul is an ordering and disposing of its abilities to cooperate in external activity, in doing things. A thing’s strength is measured by the utmost of which it is capable; so, because all evil is falling short and a weakness, virtue must be, as Aristotle said, “a disposition rendering its possessor and his activity good.”~ Summa Theologia
The art representing the seven virtues is interpreted for us through the eyes of various people who encounter the work by virtue of daily contact with the frescoes. But the virtue of Hope is revealed to us by the artist himself as he deals with his inner struggle to grasp it. He tells us the morning he awoke to face the massive sheet of paper on which his design would take shape, all he could see was a large blank intimidating piece of paper, every artist’s nightmare.
How Do You Explain Hope?
How do you explain hope, what is it, how do you carry out a work of this proportion? I have been there facing a blank sheet of paper with a task less monumental but equally intimidating, to glorify the Lord Jesus in art and fill a 16 x 20 foot space. I had to ask, how do you glorify God? What does it really mean? I could not approach the window design without struggling with these questions and many more.
So what became the fruits of Mark Balma’s struggle, his vision of Hope? Hope is a Child.
The Meaning of the Fresco
Hope is played out against a deep blue sky, dark before the rays of sun bring the promise of a new day. The figures represent the cycle of life. A woman holds up her newborn child, who represents a new generation in whom we place our dreams. The young man in the prime of his life is bent over, laboring in the soil. Near him is a flourishing fruit tree in full bloom. His hope is knowing that he will reap what he sows. On another level, we must remember that our hope lies in respecting and caring for the earth.
The elderly woman completes the cycle, but she is not a static member of this scheme. She represents the universal grandmother who has laid the groundwork for us to sow our dreams. She carries compost in her wheelbarrow, showing that what dies does not end, but becomes the basic elements needed for new life. In the same light, the pinnacle of symbolic hope in the Christian tradition is the lamb. Amid darkness is the sun, or the Son of the world, who sacrifices himself as the pure lamb in order that we may have the essence of hope.~ University of St. Thomas
What Hope Is
In the film Balma’s, breakthrough comes with the birth of his first child. Seeing his son for the first time he says, “surely hope is a child, the promise of something of us living on beyond us.” Then he made a statement that confounded me as I faced the blank canvas of my life, which I have expressed in my recent work of art the diptych; Shame and Worship. I presented the diptych to my painting class today. Balma says hope is essential, “if you lose hope you lose the will to find your place in your community, you lose your will to participate in life.”
Interestingly enough Balma, is a portrait artist. This was brought out in the film, but not disclosed was that he has been the official portrait painter for recent presidents. Trained in Florence, Italy by a master painter, Mark’s work is exceptional and was intimidating to me as I eked out my own self portraits and asked questions like how do you make flesh tones? How do you model the features of a face? I want to know more.
Hope Is Living Without Fear
My self-portraits also find me in a time of life where I am faced with the monumental task of starting a new life, almost from scratch, to finally figure out who I am and finally allowing myself to be the person God intended me to be. To live without fear. Hope is living without fear. I find to live without fear, I must face my fears, ask many questions, tell the truth about myself, which I did today as I presented my self-portraits.
My instructor was anxious to know about Worship. “What was that all about? Is that you?’
Shame and Worship
Yes, I said, let me explain. “I have been through the two worst years of my life. The portrait on the left is entitled Shame, represents my past, the other is called Worship. It faces the opposite way towards my future. At the present time my life is completely changing. Many hurtful things have happened to me, represented by Shame, my outer self portrait. On the other hand the one entitled Worship, my inner self portrait is of me doing worship dance. The blank canvas in that portrait is my new life, one that God is creating within me.
At that point he took over and talked about the contrast and depth of emotions it portrayed, exactly what I wanted to say.
I told the class I was in therapy, and I had received an assignment from my counselor and then the next day this one. It was essentially the same. I explained that my counselor was using my art to help me.
He remarked, “well there is a lot going on there, but it works, a strong work of art.”
What was interesting was so many of the inner self portraits of my fellow classmates showed despair, sadness, and lostness. Mine was vibrant and full of life. A soft-spoken young woman behind me with tears in her eyes said that this is what she was trying to show in her work, her faith. So today I found not only a fellow believer but a room full of artists, who need to find the Hope that is a Child.
This article is a previously published piece and was written in 2006 while I was studying art at the University of Texas at Dallas.
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