Marko Rupnik: Modern Iconographer or Denier of the Incarnation?

by Anthony Visco, appearing in Volume 45

Mosaics by Father Marko Rupnik at the Rosary Basilica in Lourdes, France. Credit:

Much has been said recently about the moral failings of ex-Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik. But what of the failures of his art? 

His large-scale mosaics, made for over two hundred Catholic centers worldwide, including the Vatican's Redemptoris Mater Chapel, the basilica at Lourdes, and the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington D.C., remain in place and as such they are a reminder of both spiritual and corporeal disasters. But it should not have taken his scandalous behavior to see how problematic his art was. 

Well before the alleged scandals became public, author Chris Moore made it clear that Rupnik’s works were not only ugly, but his repeated practice of painting a shared eye between God and man, a noticeable and prominent feature of his art, is theologically misleading. When used in Catholic art, this practice has always been reserved for representations of the three persons of the Trinity, where all three heads share the same eyes. But it has never been extended to another human.  

Trifacial Trinity, Cuzco School, c. 1750-1770. Credit: Domain

Consider, for example, the “logo” designed by Rupnik for the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016. The problem is not merely that the logo is ugly, it’s that the theology it represents is misbegotten. When the logo was unveiled, Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, head of what was then-called the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, declared that the shared eye of Christ and Adam represented the idea that “Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ.” Such an implication is likely why no orthodox iconographer has ever depicted such a merging. Rupnik takes what is sublime and distorts it, following contemporary culture while ignoring the artistic traditions of the Church.

Saints Cyril and Methodius by Father Marko Rupnik, an example of his “shared eye” feature. Credit: Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Some believe Rupnik’s works help bridge the artistic divide between East and West. Although icons are primarily associated with the Orthodox Church, the demand for icons has grown steadily outside the Orthodox fold. Orthodox icons attempt to represent a material world that is transfigured, radiant with divine light, a reality seen not only with bodily eyes but also with the “eye of the heart.” In his representations, Rupnik fails to incorporate the basic tenets of Orthodox and Roman iconography. So, how does Rupnik’s work make any attempt to bring East and West together when it lacks the basic characteristics of each? Faux similarities will not bridge the divide between East and West. 

Indeed, Rupnik’s work has more in common with secular art than with traditional icons — with, for example, the large-eyed children done by artist Margaret Keane that were popular in the 1960s.  Yet even her large-eyed children did not have the vacant black holes that Rupnik’s eyes do, but showed expression and even tears.

In modern times, the Church has followed the secular world instead of leading it. And this has happened precisely when the art world has exhausted itself. In Modernist art, non-representational flat shapes typically replace representations of the body. It was precisely earlier attempts to represent the Incarnation that had triggered the study among artists of anatomy, perspective, and the representation of light in art, all brought about for the purpose of depicting Christ in bodily form.

Sadly, however, the modernist denial of the corporeal in Catholic art and architecture has brought about a new form of iconoclasm in the Church, requiring that representations of Christ and the saints be banished. Worse, this denial of the corporeal in sacred art and architecture has likely contributed to the diminishment of faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. When art no longer appeals to the senses, there is a greater possibility of losing the sacramental value of sacred art, and of losing reverence for the Sacraments themselves. 

Catholics have witnessed a decline in devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament at the same time as more corporeal sacred art was removed from churches only to be replaced with flat silhouettes and meaningless shapes and colors. 

All three Abrahamic religions have had their periods of iconoclasm, yet in Christianity, Saint John of Damascus restored the image to its proper place in sacred art in the eighth century. Both Judaism and Islam have a sound reason for forbidding images: they understand that trivializing images can lead to disbelief. It is the doctrine of the Incarnation that validates imagery in the Christian tradition. But the Incarnation, in addition to inspiring modes of artistic representation, also serves to discipline them. If art and architecture are not grounded in the corporeal nature of the Incarnation, they degrade into non-representational whimsy and artistic fetishism. 

In a church, there should be harmony between the art and the architecture. When the one fails to reflect the other, the sacramental value of both is lost. One can hardly imagine the kind of architecture it would take to be in harmony with the artistic works of Marko Rupnik. If the work does not express the good, the beautiful, and the true, how can it reflect the author of truth, goodness, and beauty? 

As church communities discuss what to do with Rupnik’s work, I hope that those who commissioned them will reflect on the fact that major commissions at Lourdes, the Vatican, and many others, could have been international competitions. Instead, these great Catholic churches supported Rupnik and his art rather than others more worthy. Considering that his large works are housed in over two hundred churches around the world, one can only wonder and lament over the artists whose work was left behind or failed to be considered.  If, as Pope Francis has insisted, “clericalism” is a problem, then we must ask whether Father Rupnik would have ever gotten the amount of work he received if he had been simply Mr. Mark Rupnik and not a Jesuit priest. It is more likely that, as a layman, he would never have received so many commissions for such important places within the Catholic Church. It was not that the vineyards were ripe and the workers few, but rather that the workers were ready, but they were locked out of the vineyards. 

As Catholics, we are given the great responsibility to make liturgical works which reveal, illumine, and transform. A church should not be seen as a museum for modern art or a fashion show. Our calling as Catholics is to maintain and pass on to future generations the artistic and architectural expressions of the true, the good, and the beautiful that constitute the Church’s incredibly rich heritage of sacred art and architecture. What other culture but those inspired by the Catholic faith can claim such an expansive vocabulary of form, moving from the empty fullness in Cistercian abbeys to the sensuous Bavarian Rococo? Both forms speak of the same sacred mysteries, though in different ways.

The Catholic Church has never been tied to a particular style of art or architecture, but it has always been devoted to the God of truth, goodness, and beauty, the Word that became flesh, who dwelt among us, and died out of his great love for us. As we imitate the master architect, we have an endless vocabulary of forms to work with inspired by the sacred mysteries and the eternal forms found in the mind of God. The beauty of our faith and the beauty of our artistic works combine and become one in the sacred liturgy.     

Rupnik has been expelled from the Jesuits, but his works remain on display. Perhaps Rupnik’s work remains so devoid of beauty because his life was so devoid of truth and goodness. Decisions about what to do with those works should take into consideration both his moral failures as a priest and his aesthetic and theological failures as a Christian artist. The moral failures were enough to get him expelled from the Jesuits; the aesthetic failures should be enough to get his art expelled from the churches they neither beautify nor ennoble.