The art essay

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha by Jan Henryk de Rosen (1891–1982)

On April 17, 1680, a young Mohawk-Algonquin woman breathed her last in a mission village on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River in what is now Québec. Shortly thereafter the Jesuit missionary Pierre Cholonec witnessed the smallpox that had scarred her face in life miraculously disappear: the first of many wonders testifying to the singular holiness of the first and only Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha.

In this 1943 mural by Jan Henryk de Rosen, the Lily of the Mohawks takes center stage. Among a remarkable selection of American saints and missionaries, de Rosen singles out Kateri, her arms extended in prayer, as one of the earliest and most precious fruits of sanctity produced by the evangelization of the North American continent.

  A glorious scene

 De Rosen’s mural is not set upon the lofty walls of a church but in the lobby of the offices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (then called the National Catholic Welfare Council). The close vantage point draws the viewer intimately into the contemplation of a celestial drama, an allegorical representation of the evangelization of the New World—fittingly, a work that is carried on by the hierarchy in whose headquarters it is located.

 The choice of figures shows great prescience: when de Rosen started the work in 1942, only one of the group had been beatified; now all but one are canonized saints. Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized in 2012, Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1975. Martin de Porres, in the rear, had been beatified a century prior, but was canonized only in 1962. Leading the group—as if in liturgical procession— are two missionary priests in full vesture. To the right stands Junípero Serra, raised to the altars in 2015. The figure to the left is the only one whose cause for canonization has not yet been introduced: the intrepid Jesuit explorer Jacques Marquette. He appears to present this flower of holiness to the world on behalf of the Society of Jesus.

 The poses of these saints are in some way reminiscent of the hagiographic paintings of the Old World, but with the faces and features of the New. Kateri, her arms raised in the paleo-Christian gesture of prayer, evokes the female orans of the catacombs. The two clergymen flank the saint, as in the mosaics that adorn so many Roman apses. To the right of the sacred enclave stands a resolute Columbus, processional crucifix in hand, much like the portraits of secular donors of the Renaissance. He offers the implements of exploration to a seated figure of Christ, who, surrounded by archangels, rests just out of our view to the left.

 The bishop kneeling below, his miter resting upon a cushion as he prays quietly before the heavenly company, is John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States. De Rosen’s attention to detail is remarkable, as the fine damask pattern of his cope depicts the same heraldic lions used as a device by the Carroll family.

 Hosts of angels soaring, carrying incense, suggest evangelization and sanctification, while adding luminosity to the more somber shades below. Only Kateri shares in the same lily-white purity of color of the angels above.

 The shape and setting of the mural evoke a sense of mysterious revelation. While maintaining a familiar iconographic setting—saints and angels set against a star-spangled firmament and standing upon clouds of gold—the scene is infused with almost chaotic activity, bustling and overflowing with exuberant movement.

 An old world painter for new world saints

 Jan de Rosen, the scion of a historically Jewish Polish noble family, was an artist of the classical tradition. His career in ecclesiastical art spanned decades and continents. Detained in the United States in 1939 at the outbreak of global conflict, de Rosen began a career as a painter and mosaicist that lasted until his death in Virginia in 1982. His most famous commission is the imposing mosaic of Christ in Majesty that dominates the apse of the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.

 There, as in this mural, de Rosen’s style is characterized by a lively synthesis between the East and the West, the modern and the ancient. In some respects he is indebted to the art of the Beuronese School, a highly stylized, geometric, and hieratic movement that flourished in German Benedictine monasteries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which fought to reclaim an Eastern iconographic sensibility for a Western context.

 While the art world in the 1940s was producing work that intentionally avoided form or figure, de Rosen was part of a reactionary movement in sacred art that attempted a continuation of the tradition of representational art. Painters like de Rosen believed that the artist was beholden to respect certain parameters, especially when depicting sacred subjects. The work of the artist, as they defined it, is not so much to invent a new image as to uncover the perfect Image that exists already in the mind of God.

 Our group of five saints stands together as an icon of the holiness of God’s kingdom. Regardless of space or time, all find a home in the heavenly Jerusalem, as the multitude of nations are united under the common banner of Christ. I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue (Rv 7:9).

 De Rosen’s American saints are representative of the greatest possible variety of nations and tongues—an eloquent statement on the destiny of the American nation, coming from a man who had immigrated to the country only a few years prior. If a French explorer, Anglo-American widow, Peruvian lay brother, Spanish missionary, and Mohawk maiden can be claimed by the same nation as its own native sons and daughters, why not a Polish painter? If these all can merit a place in the Kingdom of God, can we not as well? 

 

 Father Alek Schrenk

Priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Penn.

 

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Jan Henryk de Rosen (1891–1982), Lobby of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington D.C., USA.