Making Mercy

By Michelle Arnold Paine

Jesus is the face of the Father’s Mercy.
–Pope Francis

CIVA’s newest traveling exhibit, Faces of Mercy, finds its inspiration in Italy: in Orvieto, with the International Festival of Art and Faith; and also in Rome, with Pope Francis’ declaration of a Jubilee Year of Mercy, outlined in the Bull of Indiction titled Misericordiae Vultus (trans. Face of Mercy), to be observed from Advent 2015 through the Feast of Christ the King (November 20) 2016. Pope Francis explains that this Jubilee Year is to be an opportunity to reflect on what mercy looks like “in the flesh.”  

Founded in 2005, Orvieto’s annual Festival d’Arte e Fede was born out of the Catholic holy day Corpus Christi (in commemoration of the Incarnation of Christ), which finds its roots in thirteenth-century Orvieto. The Art and Faith Festival brings together a diverse array of arts and artists—lectures, exhibits (including one by CIVA member Catherine Prescott), films, and music—in celebration of the theme. When the Year of Mercy was announced by Pope Francis last year, the festival adopted mercy as its theme as well. A conversation with Alessandro Lardani, founder and Artistic Director of the festival, sparked a vision for an American art exhibit which would also depict the many “faces of mercy.”

Michelle Arnold Paine, Mary the Chalice
Michelle Arnold Paine, Mary the Chalice

The artists included in this exhibit demonstrate a strong emphasis on figuration, befitting the idea that mercy exists with a specific face—Jesus in both the individual who gives and the one who receives. The work explores themes of brokenness and redemption; brokenness necessitates mercy, which is expressed in the form as well as the content of the selected works. Through contemporary and scriptural narratives of mercy—or by collaborative dialogue in the process of making—these works are reminders that “it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual” (I Cor. 15:46).

Mercy is a fruit of love (or “charity”), and behaving mercifully toward one another gives testimony to the truth that each individual bears “the image of God.” Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 25 that whatever they did for one of “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The gifts listed in Matthew (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned) all show compassion for the body of Christ and have traditionally been known as the Corporal Works of Mercy. We are called to see Jesus in every person in need, and when we act in mercy, it is Jesus who receives these gifts, even as it is his love which empowers the giver.

Historically there are also Spiritual Works of Mercy, which manifest in compassion for the soul. These include instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, consoling the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead. This leads to a question: Can art function as a work of mercy? Can making be an act of mercy in itself?

Visual art can, and often does, provide a didactic function, i.e., instructing the ignorant. In that art points to transcendence and provides hope, art can also aid in consoling the afflicted or counseling the doubtful. When a piece of art—such as Sergio Gomez’s Bleeding Borders, in which he invites his viewers to experience the world through the eyes of migrants crossing the southern U.S. border—humanizes the “other,” it paves the way for the viewer to be changed and to extend mercy.

The Gospel narratives of Edward Knippers help visualize the joy resulting from Jesus’s miracles of mercy. Jesus prioritized care of the sick as one of the primary ways of incarnating his radical message of healing and hope. The compassion of God, as recounted throughout Scripture, inspires followers of Christ to action, caring for those in need.

Jason Leith, Angelo
Jason Leith, Angelo

Using discarded materials such as cast-off cardboard as the palette for his sensitive portraits of Los Angeles’s homeless population, Jason Leith weaves the theme of mercy into the very materials of his art. Redeeming what had been trash and turning it into fine art emphasizes the message of redemption: all God’s children, homeless and hungry included, are created beautiful and in God’s image. The love and compassion generated through the relationships nurtured by Leith while he was creating the art marks the works themselves as examples of mercy incarnate.

Bryn Gillette also incorporates found objects into his paintings which represent the destruction after the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Institutional re-building begins with physical re-building of stone after stone, a reminder that God works in the particularity of time and place.

The quiet still life paintings of Jean Wetta and Melissa Weinman endow meaning on the created world—created, as we’re told in Genesis, to be good, and yielded to us to be good stewards of it. Christ permeates even the mundane objects of our lives. Just as the physical world points to its Creator, art points to what is beyond ourselves, beyond explanation and reason.

Bruce Herman and Michelle Paine allude to Mary’s role as the Mother of Mercy (Piero della Francesca’s “Madonna della Misericordia” being the most famous example). Herman’s Second Adam communicates the efficacy of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross in reversing the consequences of Adam’s disobedience. The water jugs in Herman’s piece, reminiscent of those whose contents were changed into wine by Jesus, at the wedding in Cana, upon the request of his mother, remind us that the mercy of the Cross is eternally abundant and over-flowing. Jesus incarnates the mercy of God, and Mary, Jesus’s mother, is the Mother of Mercy.

Just as acts of mercy bring relief to those who suffer, so too works of art can bring relief to souls who suffer. Mercy can provide hope—hope for change, hope for repaired relationships, and hope for a restoration of culture. Every small act of mercy becomes a building block in the construction of Christ’s kingdom.

Creating is an act of love in which the artist exercises patience, discipline, and the pursuit of truth in participation with God’s creativity and love. As far as art has the capacity to move hearts, it serves as an act of mercy. Lord willing, this exhibit will inspire mercy in its viewers as it travels across the United States.  

Michelle Arnold Paine spent three years living and working in Italy for Gordon College’s study abroad program, where she steeped herself in the Renaissance masters, the rhythms of the liturgy, and the intimacy and beauty of daily Italian life. After her return from Italy she received at Post-Baccalaureate Certificate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and went on to earn an M.F.A. from the University of New Hampshire. She recently relocated from the Boston area to Ohio with her husband and two daughters.

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