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Painting the Pilgrimage: From Paris to Compostela
Pilgrimage as Metaphor: The Art of Jerome Tupa
January 29 - May 18, 2008
In the spring of 2001, Jerome Tupa set out on a pilgrimage from Paris, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, a 1,200-mile artistic and spiritual journey which ended at the Basilica of Saint James, said to be the final resting place of the Apostle James. (right: Jerome Tupa, Estaing (no date), oil on canvas)
Artist, priest, monk, seeker, Tupa has, over the past decade, undertaken the three great Christian pilgrimages -- to Rome, to Compostela, to Jerusalem -- and returned to chronicle his travels in colorful, large-scale paintings that are both playful and spiritual. The exhibition Painting the Pilgrimage: From Paris to Compostela, currently at the Naples Museum of Art, traces his 2001 pilgrimage, capturing on canvas some of the sacred sites along The Way of Saint James.
Tupa's recent art explores the concept of pilgrimage as a metaphor for our journeys through life. In doing so, it encourages us to look more closely at those journeys, to seek deeper meaning in our day-to-day existence, to ask larger questions.
"For me, there's no better metaphor for our lives than journey," Tupa says. "We all have a starting point and an ending point. What comes in between is uniquely our own -- which begs the question, 'Why are we here? What is it about?' Those are questions I try to answer in my art."
Tupa is sitting in his studio at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, on a brisk spring afternoon. Propped against the walls are several dozen oil paintings and watercolors, depicting scenes on the road to Compostela. The watercolors were done in France and Spain, during stops on Tupa's journey; the oils were painted here in the studio over a period of several years. The paintings are vibrant, whimsical and immediately appealing; their tilted towers, melting roofs and circular patterns convey a sense of motion that draws the viewer in. But beneath these fanciful surfaces is a deeper concern, which has been at the core of Jerome Tupa's art ever since he became a painter in the 1970s: evoking the spiritual in a new way. (left: Jerome Tupa, Le Puy en Valey: Pilgrim's Gate from Mary's Mount (no date), oil on canvas)
"Most of my painting has been searching for an expression of 'What is spirituality?'" he says. "It's one of those real basic questions that probably every seeker has, whether you're a Buddhist, Muslim or whatever. But in our tradition, I search for a place where God is more tangible or visible and try to express that experience in a new way."
A native of North Dakota, Tupa became a Benedictine monk at Saint John's Abbey in 1963, and was ordained a priest here in 1982 (the abbey is adjacent to the university). In the 1970s, while studying for his doctorate in French at the Sorbonne in Paris, Tupa fell under the spell of the great artists whose work he saw in museums there and decided to paint. Art, he says, helped him to balance "the ordered life of the monastery and the need to express myself."
His early paintings were abstract; but unlike most abstract art of the 20th-century, they were inspired by spiritual subjects. One series of paintings from 1991 was titled Pilgrimages, which he calls "a more internal pilgrimage than what I came to do later. They all had something to do with an abstract description of God." Soon, he was exhibiting his art at galleries in France and later in the United States.
The "physical" pilgrimages began for Tupa in 1997 when he set out to visit, and paint, the 21 missions in California. That project became the book An Uncommon Mission, published in 1999, featuring 21 oil paintings and 39 watercolors. The California missions, he says, "took me out of the more abstract style and closer to the idea of true pilgrimage."
When he returned to Minnesota, Tupa began to think about larger pilgrimages.
In the summer of 1999, he journeyed from Milan to Rome, painting and sketching the shrines and cathedrals along the way. He has now made the third of the three great pilgrimages, with his trip to Jerusalem and the Middle East in the summer of 2007. In each case, Tupa made the pilgrimage by car, stopping in dozens of cities along the way to draw and paint. (right: Jerome Tupa, Puente la Reina (no date), oil on canvas)
With Painting the Pilgrimage, Tupa tells an age-old story, but in a distinctly modern language. The Camino de Compostela, or the Way to Compostela, has been a pilgrim route since the ninth century. According to legend, after Saint James was beheaded in 44 A.D., his remains were taken to Galicia in Northwestern Spain. A church was built over the burial site and later replaced with the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, which was completed in 1122. The word Sanitago is a contraction of Saint Iago, which was early Spanish for Saint James. About 100,000 people now make the pilgrimage to the city of Compostela each year.
Painting the Pilgrimage beckons the viewer into a world of color and motion, which bridges religious tradition and modernity. Whereas the watercolors have a sparse, lyrical feel, the paintings are more daring, with architecture that bends and twists fantastically and colors that seem to explode on the canvas.
Most of the paintings were based on the dozens of sketches Tupa made in his travels; but often he worked from several sketches at once, incorporating different perspectives and even different places in the same scene. "It was a challenge to get a consistent color scheme and a consistency of light and brush strokes so that it looks fresh."
There is a greater sense of freedom in these new works, Tupa says, than in his past painting. "People talk about painting beyond the lines. That's a really tough thing to do, but that's what I try for. I guess my older paintings were more within the lines, therefore much more restrictive. In the new ones, there's a greater freedom in the shapes and movement. Perhaps that's reflecting my own freedom as I move forward.
"As my journey goes on, I feel more comfortable with my life, with where I am. Maybe I'm more resolved with who I am, where I am in my search. I've been very, very lucky."
Editor's note: Readers may also enjoy:
and these books:
An Uncommon Mission: Father Jerome Tupa Paints The California Missions, by Holly Witchey and Father Jerome Tupa. Publisher: Welcome Books (May 1, 2000). Book description from Amazon.com:
The Road To Rome, A Modern Pilgrimage, by Jerome Tupa and Francisco Shulte Welcome Books; 1st edition (September 1, 2002). Book description from Amazon.com:
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