Viva the Visual!
As I move around our schools, I am profoundly impacted by the rich visual landscapes and the quality of our students’ artistic expressions. From early learning centres to Year 12 art shows, I am drawn into one of the richest forms of faith expression in our Catholic tradition. Visual literacy has always been a key catechetical tool for Christians. Symbols, icons, statues, illustrated manuscripts and the Stations of the Cross have drawn people of faith into contemplation of Holy Mystery for centuries. One of the most complex sources in our Mary Ward tradition is the Painted Life of Mary Ward, a series of fifty paintings produced after Mary’s death to explore the development of Mary’s spirituality and vision. The painted images illustrate much about Mary’s personal and public prayer life and her journey toward God with Jesus as her faithful companion.
Loreto in Australia has boasted many Sisters dedicated to the pursuit and enjoyment of art and our schools have always prided themselves on excellent art faculties, often staffed by professional artists. In the 1930s Loreto Sisters Evangeline Kendall and Jude Lane were even sent to Paris to develop their artistic skills. Emeritus Professor Margaret Manion ibvm has specialized in Medieval and Renaissance art history with particular reference to manuscript illumination for almost half a century and has helped to train a generation of Australian scholars in the history of the hand-written book and its visual presentation.
This year, IBVM artists from around the world gathered in Canada to highlight the vocation of artists and celebrate the unique way in which contemporary artists can commentate on the pressing social needs of our time. Australian Loreto Sister, Susan Daily ibvm was so inspired by this gathering that she has teamed up with Rachel McLoughlin ibvm on her return to curate a weekly blog that explores the Sunday gospels through word and image. Susan recently returned to Merrepen Arts Centre in the Northern Territory to support indigenous artists with her silk painting expertise. Loreto Sister Patricia Ziebarth’s prints of the sea at Portland are so evocative. Jan Barlow ibvm has devoted much of her ‘retirement’ to the painting of icons and Anne Byrne ibvm recently held an exhibition of her paintings to raise funds for the St Vincent de Paul Society to support local people who find themselves homeless during the Melbourne winter.
Across 2019, some of our school communities have held staff pilgrimages around their campuses exploring the visual landscape of their school, with a special stop-over at Meliesa Judge’s extraordinarily powerful statue of Mary Ward ‘on the move’.
And so, our very own artists, from 3-year-olds to 18-year-olds, continue a long tradition of self-exploration, skill development and spiritual commentary through their beautiful and bold, happy and harrowing works of art. Adopting long reflective processes akin to discernment, our senior artists track the unfurling process of discovery in detailed journals that are often works of art in themselves. Many students explore justice topics and challenging cultural realities, as well as themes of human development and existential crisis.
At the opening of an art exhibition in mid-October, Pope Francis stressed that works of art are the expression of the spirit of the people, and encouraged us to always look to each culture, to the other, with an openness of spirit and benevolence. Through arts, the Pope said, initiatives can be carried out, and barriers and distances can be overcome.
Let us always value the visual and, in an insta-world, savour the sting and sweetness of our artists’ works as they invite us into new worlds, hearts and spiritual landscapes.
Author: Anne Muirhead
Director of Mission, Loreto Ministries Australia & South East Asia