Windows to the Holy: Icons in religion versus art

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Works created while Jason Dy, SJ, was on retreat in Indonesia and meditating upon Jesus’ resurrection. Left): "Fifth Apparition SE 303" cf. Luke 24:13-35, acrylic paint on cardboard, 2017. Photos courtesy of FR. JASON DY, S.J.

Editor’s note: Ren Aguila is a theologian and art writer based in Quezon City. He received his Master of Arts from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, USA.

In religion, an icon is an image that points beyond itself, and the same is true for art. Like channels, through them, they both signify something transcendent, inviting us beyond the visible, the tactile, and the audible to that which is beyond all sensing.

In Christian practice, particularly in the Byzantine traditions, the icon usually points to God or God’s grace working through people like the saints. In art, the term has evolved beyond religious referents to include popular figures and objects of cultural significance.

Jason Dy, SJ, a Jesuit priest, sits in the intersection between both worlds, being a visual artist and curator himself. “There has been a reclamation of the visual culture in Christianity… In contemporary times, various artistic expressions like music, architecture, dance, sculptures, and paintings, among others, are employed not just for decorative and didactic purposes but to provide an environment conducive for aesthetic experience, that is, the encounter of the beauty of the divine.” This was something he felt when he visited the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

But even small things can be transcendent.

What helped Dy during the pandemic was his daily exercise of collecting flowers or being inspired by nature to make the floral arrangements for daily online Masses broadcast by the Jesuits. “In a surprising way,” he says, “it somehow helps me integrate creativity, spirituality, and pastoral ministry albeit online.” They are daily creative works in themselves.

"Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time / 3 February 2021" (Arrange/Enliven Ongoing Series since 2020) Photo courtesy of JASON DY, SJ

Involved with exploring the nexus between art and faith since his days studying theology at the Loyola School of Theology, Dy started taking part in the Philippine chapter of the Asian Christian Art Association. He was also part of the TutoKarapatan (TutoK), an artist's collective that advocated for tackling socio-political issues in public when the human rights situation had deteriorated in the mid-2000s. His work with TutoK and the ACAA helped shape his particular calling within the Society of Jesus’s mission.

In Cebu, as parochial vicar of the Sacred Heart Parish in Cebu, he asked if he could convert a garage in the parish’s administrative building into an alternative art space to respond to what he saw as the lack of non-commercial art spaces in Cebu. Called the Alternative Contemporary Art Studio (ACAS), the garage was his office, he says, an airy space that became a studio for the production of his own art projects for the parish.

Dy described his first project at ACAS, entitled “Bottled Memory (In Loving Memory).” He says, “It was an artistic response to the annual Catholic commemoration of the dead. Instead of just writing the names of the departed, both parishioners and artists decorated bottles and [placed] memorabilia as artifacts of their relationship and memories of the persons who have passed away.”

(Left): "Fifth Apparition SE 303" cf. Luke 24:13-35, acrylic paint on cardboard, 2017. (Right) "First Apparition SE 299," acrylic paint on rug, 2017. Photos courtesy of FR. JASON DY, S.J.

The support of the parish for ACAS allowed Dy to host the art-making of collectives and individual artists, expose parishioners to contemporary art practices, and sharpen his own curation practice.

Dy continued: “The artists that we supported were coming from diverse backgrounds, like self-taught artists following modernist tendencies of abstract painter Msgr. Virgilio Yap, artists trained in the academic style of the dean Martino Avellana, artists from the Fine Arts Schools of the University of the Philippines and San Carlos University, and the street artists of Cebu like the Junks Collective, UBEC Crew, and KoloWn… What was personally significant for me was developing good relations with artists, championing local art, and being a kind of pastor to them. They would invite me to bless their homes, preside at funerals, celebrate their weddings, and listen to their struggles on art and spirituality.”

“OMO” by Nomar Miano at the Dy-curated Alternative Contemporary Art Studio (ACAS). Photo courtesy of JASON DY, SJ.

After more than five years in Cebu, Dy’s Jesuit superiors, supportive of his momentum in integrating faith and art, sent him to the Liverpool Hope University in the U.K. for graduate studies in fine arts and in history and curating. He has been a member of the Fine Arts faculty in Ateneo since his return.

On a day-to-day basis, Dy, who also serves as assistant chaplain at the Ateneo de Manila Loyola Schools and the Jesuit Volunteers of the Philippines, observes some routines: morning and evening prayers, mass, meals with the Jesuit community, siesta, art research, checking email/social media, preparing for classes, watering the plants, and feeding the fish in the tank.

For Dy, three principles guide how he integrates faith and art. First, faith and art have specific aims, and they offer a glimpse of the human condition while simultaneously being in tension with each other. Second, he sees a common effort of art and faith to explore spiritual awareness in their respective ways. On the artistic side, he cites, for instance, the work of the Abstract Expressionists, in particular Mark Rothko and his contemporaries painting monochromatic art in the 1940s and ‘50s. In his words, “[these] artists mined the deeper recesses of the human psyche to express the ineffable world of disorder, disillusionment, and death.” (One time, as he was on retreat and engaged in reflection, Dy had with him some art materials and in the process of prayer, ended up making color field paintings using found cardboard and acrylic paint, which he hopes to exhibit at an appropriate time.)

Finally, Dy situates his ministry within the Jesuits’ broader apostolic ministry, expressed in one of their most prominent slogans, ad majorem Dei gloriam. The first verse of Psalm 115 has guided him: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to your Name give glory.” The motto’s initials, AMDG, with a cross in the center, appear in his work, a reminder of the goal and purpose of his art.

At its best, Dy says, art has a social dimension that promotes the common good and democratic discourse. He warns against the perils of self-centered art. “When the ego is the sole drive for art,” he warns, “it could lead to destructive behaviors like fraudulent market transactions, exploitation of the creative community, misappropriation of minority cultures, and marginalization of certain groups of people.” For this to be overcome, he says, art has to be critical and empathetic to be a blessing to humanity.

Dy’s vocations of priest and teacher allow him to conduct what he calls “on-going research in the arts in relation to society, nature, culture, and spirituality.” His creative work has deepened his work teaching, advising on theses, and facilitating others’ studies, and vice versa. As a priest, he adds, his creative practices come into contact with the social, political and economic situations of communities such as those in Batasan (Quezon City), Barangay Piis (Lucban, Quezon), and Barangay 655 (Intramuros, Manila). He says that some of his important art projects collaborate with these communities, allowing for the artistic reflection of their struggles and desires.

“Istasyon ng Krus ng Buhay” (2016) Altar of Repose, Kristong Hari Temporary Chapel, Quezon City. The space, used for the Maundy Thursday rite of the transfer of the Eucharistic bread for an evening vigil, becomes a space set apart through simple spread cloth and photos depicting the stages of life. Photo courtesy of JASON DY, SJ.

“Forty” is a 40-day durational and autobiographical documentation/performative art project (5 March-17 April 2014) at the Jesuit Presbytery, St. Francis Xavier's Church, Liverpool. Photo courtesy of JASON DY, SJ.

And while Dy aims to collaborate with others in his art practice, some of this work is self-reflective, in keeping with deeply personal aspects of Ignatian spirituality. For instance, the work “Forty” is a black sketchbook he made over the 40 days of Lent while studying in the U.K., hence the title of the installation. The entries depict a variety of creative meditations, including one featuring clay handprints. Pottery and ceramic work was a craft he took up in Liverpool, and in the image below, he meditates upon the image of God as a potter in Jeremiah 18:1-6.

Dy’s reflection of God as a potter in Jeremiah 18:1-6. Photo courtesy of JASON DY, SJ.

If there is a local work or works that have helped Dy to pray, he recalled a photography and video show entitled "NIL" (2018) curated by Erwin Romulo and Neil Daza at the Art Informal-Greenhills. “It featured raw crime scene photographs in the Philippines from 1987 to 2002 of apprehended suspects, tortured prisoners, and hostage victims. I could not even dare to look at the images of those who committed suicide for their images were too much to bear and I feared that their ghostly images would forever haunt me. No photos were allowed. I have only some fragmented memories of the experience. It was like a descent to hell. I felt disturbed, distressed, and depressed. I needed to cry out to God in desolation — why have you abandoned these people? There was a feeling of empathy for the victims and righteous anger for the inhuman perpetrators. This experience was a difficult prayer experience. But this allowed me to be aware that many people are undergoing unbearable crosses and unspoken suffering especially the poor people severely affected by the pandemic as well as the ongoing war against illegal drugs and assault to activists and farmers. I constantly pray for these people. They make real for me the Stations of the Cross.”

He adds, “I like to borrow from the phrase of the Jesuit Fr. Walter Burghardt who described contemplative prayer as ‘taking a long, loving look at the real.’ Art has a way to attune our eyes to the reality of the world, the inner stirrings of the soul, and to the invisible mystery of God… We need to see works of art in a new and engaging vision by ‘taking a long, loving look at the real,’ real, in the sense of seeking the truth, finding inner resonance, and allowing this truth to challenge and change us.”