Category Archives: Culture

Looking deeply into reality through the perspective of Georges Rouault

Do you know the work of Georges Rouault? Well you should. Franco Mormando writes
“Of Clowns And Christian Conscience: The art of Georges Rouault”
in the November 24th issue of America Magazine. The article follows.


Georges Rouault was 34 years old and barely recovered from a physical and nervous breakdown when he had a life-changing epiphany in 1905, which he described in a letter to his friend, édouard Schuré. While out walking one day, the artist happened to come across a “nomad caravan, parked by the roadside.” It was a circus, preparing for its next public performance. Rouault’s eye fell upon one of the figures: an “old clown sitting in a corner of his caravan in the process of mending his sparkling and gaudy costume.” It was then that Rouault had a piercing flash of insight, one that was to affect deeply his vision of life and art.


The artist was utterly struck by the jarring contrast between the clown’s external garb and
Clown Georges Rouault.jpg professional accoutrements–“brilliant scintillating objects, made to amuse”–and the wretchedness of his condition as an impoverished, vagabond laborer living on the fringes of society, enduring a “life of infinite sadness, if seen from slightly above.” From that contrast came another equally eye-opening realization: “I saw quite clearly that the ‘Clown’ was me, was us, nearly all of us…. This rich and glittering costume, it is given to us by life itself, we are all more or less clowns, we all wear a glittering costume….” (Rouault summed up this vision in several studies entitled “Sunt Lacrymae Rerum”–“There are tears [of grief] at the very heart of things.”)


From that moment on, the clown, as well as other circus figures and denizens of the disreputable periphery of society, haunted Rouault’s imagination and art, becoming one of his signature icons. An icon of what? Of the painful disconnection between appearances and reality, between who we are on the inside and who we pretend to be, or what society judges us to be, on the outside. Rouault confronts us on the one hand with clowns and prostitutes, whose real (if battered and buried) human dignity nonetheless still emits some light from within their souls, and on the other hand with the furthest extreme of the social spectrum: the rich, the well-born, the powerful, the “glitterati,” wearing the masks of their expensive clothes and polished manners, hiding cruel, narcissistic hearts full of dust and ashes. (See, for example, Rouault’s “The Accused” of 1907 and “Superman” of 1916). In his professional life Rouault knew this type well, for it was and is a familiar figure in the upper echelons of the art establishment. His own art dealer, the unsavory but hugely successful Ambroise Vollard, certainly seems to have been of that ilk.


To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rouault’s death, the McMullen Museum at Boston College has mounted a magnificent, comprehensive review of his prodigiously productive career, Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault, 1871-1958, on view until Dec. 7. This landmark exhibition features over 180 works from every period of the artist’s life, some never before seen in the United States. The exhibition was boldly conceived and curated by Stephen Schloesser, S.J., of the Boston College History Department, who also edited an ample and illuminating catalog that features interdisciplinary contributions from more than 20 scholars.


The key word is “masque,” meaning both “theatrical face cover” and “masked pageant” (think of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”). Not only in his clown paintings, but everywhere in his art, Rouault explores–and provokes his viewers into exploring–the private human reality behind the public mask in order to expose the soul. In that exposure, the high and mighty are reduced to the level of the risible, if not the pathetic (as in his 1927 aquatint, “As proud of her noble stature as if she were still alive”), while the lowly are made to shine in their inherent human dignity. Again, as the artist himself explained to Schuré: “I have the defect…of leaving no one his glittering costume, be he king or emperor. I want to see the soul of the man in front of me…and the greater he is, the more mankind glorifies him, the more I fear for his soul.” In Schloesser’s view, “Rouault felt compelled to unmask society’s well-respected and well-born, and to raise up society’s lowly and overlooked.” In other words, Rouault’s art comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It is an art that a Peter Maurin or a Dorothy Day would assuredly have cherished.


Crucifixion Georges Rouault.jpgWith his fertile imagination and years of productivity, Rouault treated many different themes beyond clowns and masks and employed a variety of media and styles. A revelation for me, and, I suspect, for many viewers, is the Rembrandt-inspired style of his earliest period, represented in the exhibition by two stirring canvases, “The Way to Calvary” and “Job.” But perhaps his most enduring stylistic trademark is the use of richly luminous colors gleaming forth from a heavy matrix of thick black lines, clearly the influence of his youthful apprenticeship with stained-glass makers. The exhibition includes one actual stained-glass window by Rouault, a crucifixion scene, and it is simply a gem in the literal sense of that word.


Rouault uses the same stained-glass-inspired style to perhaps its most memorable effect in
Veronica veil Rouault.jpg his many depictions of the “Holy Face,” the face of the suffering Jesus as traditionally seen in representations of the sudarium of St. Veronica, which, according to pious belief, shows the true likeness of Christ. The face of Christ is an almost obsessive visual leitmotif for Rouault, a potent symbol of the suffering of an innocent humanity oppressed by an unjust society.


Another disturbing existential question is raised by Rouault’s art, most literally in the title he gives to several of his works: “Are we not all slaves?” Here Rouault is speaking from bitter personal experience. In 1917, desperately poor and with a family to support, he was forced into what was essentially indentured servitude to that same infamous art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, or Fifi Voleur (Fifi the Thief) as Gauguin called him, a cunning businessman whose ambiguous personal life had much to hide, as Christopher Benfey has probingly written for the online magazine Slate.


Those who prefer art that presents only what Charles Baudelaire would call “la vie en beau” (the pretty side of life) or who shun the examination of conscience might not fully savor this exhibition, but Rouault’s style is so visually compelling that it will certainly arrest anyone’s attention and ultimately give delight on some level. For many viewers, I dare say, questions surrounding the moral life, social justice, sincerity and authenticity will likely dominate their response to this exhibition, as they dominated Rouault’s artistic imagination and as they dominate the conception of the exhibition itself.


Rouault is probably familiar to anyone who went through the parochial school system in the United States. My own introduction to “Rouault the Catholic artist” occurred many years ago at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. Yet Rouault himself (a true believer, albeit not of the orthodox kind) rejected the very notion of sacred art or the “Catholic artist.” “There is no sacred art,” he has been quoted as having said. “There is just art pure and simple.” Nonetheless, Rouault’s work not only has the power to please the eye and feed the mind, but to quicken our attention to the moral and spiritual dimension of human experience and to help move us to a higher plane of consciousness.




Explaining the Clash in the Holy Sepulchre

Edward Pentin writing for tries to contextualize the rather distasteful events among “Christians” at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre earlier in the month. I am still trying to wrap my mind around the complexities that exist in the Holy Land. Certainly, there are many and not easy to sort out. But the scandal of these “ecclesial acts” by betray the fragility of faith and lack of engagement in the spiritual life. For the life me I can’t help but think these monks have abandoned faith and salvation in Christ and yet persist in living as monks, at least on the superficial level.


Thumbnail image for fight.jpgArmenian and Greek Orthodox monks clashed violently in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday 9th November. Fighting erupted when Greek Orthodox monks blocked a procession of Armenian clergymen. The two Orthodox churches and the Custody of the Holy Land are resident in the Church under the terms of the ‘Status Quo’ agreement. Father Athanasius Macora (46, an US citizen) monitors the agreement on behalf of the Custody. He spoke with about the underlying reasons behind the clash, and what can be done to resolve long-standing tensions in the Church built over the place of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.


What are your reflections on the recent clashes in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?

The representatives of the Three Major Communities (the Custody of the Holy Land, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Armenian Patriarchate) have been meeting regularly about once a week or every ten days. In these meetings I negotiate on behalf of the Custody of the Holy Land all matters pertaining to the Status Quo, so I know exactly why it [the fight] happened. Now it’s not in my interest to say who was right and who was wrong. What set it off was that the Armenians have a Pontifical Procession and they objected to the presence of a Greek Sacristan inside the tomb during the procession. The Greeks claim to have the right to put a Greek Sacristan there.


Is this something that happens every year?

No it started one year ago. Since then, of course, there have been four such Armenian Pontifical Processions; there were problems with each one, but in this one, things kind of came to a head.


Why this one in particular?

The pressure had built up, because the problem was unresolved.  There was no
fight2.jpgcompromise by the two parties – whether the Greek sacristan should or shouldn’t be inside the Tomb. Here, what rules is the custom, what was happening before – in other words, what the practice was. Is there a Greek Sacristan inside or not? That is the question. So the Armenians blocked the tomb to prevent the Greeks from putting a guy inside, and the Greeks tried to put a guy inside and that’s when the fighting started.


What are the chances of this being resolved now, even after the fight?

We had a problem four years ago. We were attacked by the Greeks, quite a big attack. They also attacked the Police over something they had no right to do. After things settled down and there was another Greek procession in the near future, we presented our proofs in the presence of the Greeks to representatives of the Israeli government and police. The government has the obligation to enforce the prevailing Status Quo. We’re not necessarily asking the government to arbitrate. We’re asking the government to enforce. I provided sufficient proof: three video tapes from previous years showing how the Greek Procession was meant to take place, not through the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalen but by its side. The government then told the Greeks they had to do it in the proper way, and ever since then they have.  Now both the Armenians and Greeks will have to furnish evidence to the government. There should be a meeting with all of them in the same room.  It is not always easy however, to determine what is the prevailing status quo. You can demand that the government make a decision on it, to curtail the party that’s violating the Status Quo.


So that’s one way forward, you think?

What has to be understood is that for these communities every little thing is symbolic for them. So they don’t want to lose anything in the church. There’s a fear of compromise, everybody has maximal positions. I want to be fair here that this may not apply exactly to this situation, but both sides think they’re absolutely right.


Holy-Sepulchre icon.jpgThese kinds of tensions have been going on for years, as you say. But why is it such a difficult place for these different denominations to worship together in the Holy Sepulchre?

The problem is this: the Status Quo is an imperial decree that was imposed by the Ottoman Turks on the communities. It’s not a code and this means there’s no clarity on certain issues. It’s a long story, but basically France was attempting to regain Catholic predominance in certain places such as the Holy Sepulchre. France was attempting to pressure the Ottomans while the Russians were pressuring the Ottomans on behalf of the Greeks. The Ottomans couldn’t deal with the situation. If they took France’s position or Russia’s position, they were in big trouble. So what they did was, they simply declared the Status Quo: everybody stays in his place. It’s a very short decree, maybe three pages long. It doesn’t define things, it simply says everyone has to stay in his place. Now because there were a lot of areas that were vague, the communities would enter into conflict over who got to clean, or repair something. These things indicated rights. For instance, we often object if the Coptic Orthodox go on too long during their prayers. If one of the communities prays over its allotted time, we object to it because it causes us to lose time in our schedule.


But it is, as you know, such a counter-witness isn’t it?

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t like talking about it. There’s a good book out on the subject called Saving the Holy Sepulchre by Raymond Cohen. It’s a very good book and talks about very positive things, that basically since 1957 until 1997, the communities undertook extensive renovations and that more or less, let’s say, a strategic decision was taken on the part of the Greeks to work with the other communities. So the Three Major Communities did hammer out a lot of agreements, and a lot of things have been settled permanently. What happened on Sunday is really an anomaly. If you know the Status Quo well, and let’s say if I know it well, I’m going to insist where it’s my right to insist, and I’m not going to insist when I don’t have a right to insist. If one of the communities doesn’t know the way it works, then we’re going to have problems.


Do you foresee in the future that everyone will get along if perhaps there’s a Code that’s written up and people know where they stand?

I’m quoted in this book on the Holy Sepulchre as saying that my approach would be to codify everything. If you codify everything then you end disputes, everyone knows where they’re supposed to be. If they make a mistake then OK, it’s understood, it’s written down.


And what are the chances of that happening?

It’s not going to happen anytime soon. There was a chance of it happening a few years ago, but it depends on who the players are now.


HS2.jpgWith the Franciscans having this great reputation of peace-making, do you think there is way that you could be the real protagonists of bringing peace to the Holy Sepulchre?

I think that we can serve, we can help, but to make peace you need political will. You need to have the desire for peace. In the case of the Custody, we have a desire for it, but for the others, they have to see what is at stake. It’s better for us to finish with all these issues and be a proper witness rather than continue fighting over this – I mean one sacristan in or out of the Tomb is a relatively small issue if it only happens four times a year. It doesn’t change significantly one’s rights but because everything in the Church is so highly symbolic, every a tiny thing becomes a major issue.

As Franciscans we basically enjoy good relations with both sides. We hope to get back to work, we hope they can reconcile and move on, and we hope this doesn’t happen again because it’s very negative. It got a lot of press. It was extremely damaging what happened.


But you’re hopeful all sides can come together in the long run?

Yes, we have common projects going on. We’re actually working on things right now, so we are cooperating but this was something that was unfortunate.


(courtesy of

International Meeting of Prayer for Peace sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio

The Civilization of Peace: Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue


cipro2008.jpgThe meeting, which has been promoted by the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Church of Cyprus, takes place in Nicosia from 16 to 18 November.

The Cyprus date is a further leg of the pilgrimage undertaken by the Community of Sant’Egidio to carry forward the legacy of the historic World Day of Prayer for Peace convened in Assisi by Pope John Paul II on October 27, 1986.

Over these twenty-two years, invitations from the Community have led men and women from diverse cultures and religions onto the pathway of encounter, dialogue and prayer for peace. The pilgrimage has called on various locations around the world, spreading the “Spirit of Assisi”, creating ties of friendship and cooperation, testifying to a common will to create a culture of coexistence.

On opening the last meeting, held in Naples in October 2007, Pope Benedict 16th stated: “In respecting the differences between the various faiths, we are all called upon to work for peace and to make a concrete effort to further reconciliation between nations. This is the authentic “Spirit of Assisi”… religions can and must offer a precious resource for constructing a peaceful humanity, because they speak of peace being at the heart of humankind”.

The Cyprus Meeting constitutes part of this commitment.

The island, lying at the heart of the Mediterranean, touched on by the preaching of St Paul the Apostle, place of encounter between a variety of cultures and religions, will host several hundred figures from every part of the world: representatives of the worlds of religion, of culture and of politics. They will enliven around 20 “round tables”, open – as is the tradition at these encounters – to participation by the public.

The Closing Ceremony will take place on November 18 in the heart of the capital, Nicosia; it will feature the proclamation the Appeal for Peace.

As in previous years, this site will follow the event via a live video web-link.


The Program


Making sense of the election according to religious observance


couresty of Beliefnet

faith and attendance.jpg

2 Jesuit Priests Killed in Moscow

From the News Services…

Moscow – Two Jesuit priests died of knife wounds in Moscow, Russian news agencies said
IHS.jpgWednesday. Father Igor Kovalevsky, the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the priests bodies were found in their central Moscow apartment late Tuesday.

Kovalevsky called the incident a “brutal murder.”

Police at the scene said the two men had died of blows to the head and knife wounds. Authorities said the motive for the killing was unknown.

News agency Ria-Novosti named the victims as Russian national Otto Messmer, 46, and South American priest Victor Betancourt, 42.


From the General Curia of the Society of Jesus…

On Saturday 25 October, Father Victor Betancourt, an Ecuadorian Jesuit working in the St. Thomas Philosophical, Theological and Historical Institute in Moscow, was killed in his home. Two days later, after returning from a trip abroad, Father Otto Messmer, Superior of the Russian Region, was also killed in the same place. On Tuesday 28 October, alarmed by the fact that he hadn’t heard from the two men, a fellow Jesuit who lives in another community went to visit them at home. On finding the dead bodies, he immediately contacted the police.


The police investigations have yet to come to any firm conclusions about cause of these violent deaths.


Father Otto Messmer, son of a profoundly Catholic family of German origin and a Russian citizen, was born on 14 July 1961 in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. He entered into the Society of Jesus on 1 September 1982 in Vilnius and was ordained a priest on 29 May 1988 in Riga. He took his final vows in Novosibirsk on 7 October 2001 and was appointed Superior of the Independent Region of Russia of the Society of Jesus on 13 October 2002. Two of his brothers are Jesuits: Monsignor Nikolaus, Bishop of the Kyrgyzstani city of Bishkek, and Hieronymus, from the German Province.


Father Victor Betancourt was born on 7 July 1966 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He entered into the Society of Jesus on 14 September 1984 in Quito and was ordained a priest in the same city on 31 July 1997. He undertook his Jesuit training in Argentina, Ecuador, Germany and Italy. In 2004, he defended his doctoral thesis in Theology in the city of Rome. Since 2001, he had been responsible for those considering a vocation as Jesuits and at the time of his death he was a theology professor in the St. Thomas Philosophical, Theological and Historical Institute in Moscow

May their memory be eternal!

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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