The Artist as Theology Student

When Br. Emmaus O’Herlihy began thinking about theological studies, his abbot’s guidance to him was simple: “Follow wherever painting leads you.”

With that advice in mind, Br. Emmaus, a Benedictine monk of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland, began to search for a school that would allow him to use his skills as an artist as part of his work, recognizing art’s ability to help reveal what it means to be a fully formed human made in the image and likeness of Christ.

He found that home at the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College, a place he describes as “open to ideas of how to do theology,” including allowing him to submit a painting as part of his Master of Theological Studies degree’s thesis arguing in favour of sacred art as visual theology.

With his degree work now nearing completion, Br. Emmaus will be offering a talk this Thursday entitled, “The Post-Modern Gaze: Painting the Prodigal Son, Merciful Father in the Holy Year of Mercy. ” Rather than relying on a conceptual framework that duplicates Christian iconographic elements from the past, he will suggest that his painting offers an example of how religious art today can retrieve the sacred in new ways and engage the imagination and intelligence of a viewer in a theological perspective.

Br Emmaus will identify how the atypical use of compositional elements and his figurative style in painting relate to the importance Pope Francis identifies as the Church’s need to be “bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word.”

Studying theology “has been of enormous influence in helping me to make sense of why I find the affective power of religious images vital to understanding my religious faith” he says. “When my Abbot said that I should follow wherever painting leads, he was expressing an ancient, but more often over-simplified wisdom that the Holy Spirit engages humankind through the creative and cognitive faculties together. He was convinced that only a college that values theology as constructive and favours an awareness of the importance of historical context when studying courses like Trinity and Sacraments could make sense of my need to explore theology. This is exactly what I found at St. Mike’s.”

Many will already be familiar with the monk’s art. Several  of his pieces, including Apostola Apostolorum (a diptych of Mary Magdalene (Patroness of the Dominican Order) celebrating the Dominicans’ 800th anniversary) and The Kiss of Judas, have graced the Faculty’s corridors. The Catholic Register did a feature on his triptych Christ the King, a commission for the new chapel at King’s University College at Western University in London, ON.

Br. Emmaus currently holds the position of artist in residence with the Dominican Institute of Toronto.  He will also be presenting a talk on art and theology at the Dominican conference in Rome this coming January.

Br. Emmaus’s talk, “The Postmodern Gaze: Painting the Prodigal Son, Merciful Father in the Holy Year of Mercy: takes place Thursday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. in the Cardinal Flahiff Basilian Centre, 95 St. Joseph St.  It will be followed by a reception. Admission is free. For more information, please contact inquiry.usmctheology@utoronto.ca