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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:

California's 21 missions have long fascinated scholars and tourists alike. Their role in California history and their striking similarities and colorful contrasts have inspired artists and historians throughout the ages.
Father Jerome Tupa is not the first to paint these missions, and he won't be the last. But his vision is unique. Through his eyes - those of both an artist and a Benedictine monk - we can see the missions as spiritual icons left standing from the 18th- and 19th-century efforts of Franciscan missionaries to spread Catholicism to the New World. An Uncommon Mission presents for the first time the results of Father Tupa's physical and spiritual pilgrimage these historic and religious sites.
In the 61 vibrant works from this stunningly talented priest, in Ruscin's 21 beautiful black-and-white photographs, and in Holly Witchey's considered text, California's past is brought back to life.

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:

When Father Jerome Tupa embarked on his Italian pilgrimage in the summer of 1999, he did so as a painter and a monk. With the heart of a priest and the hand of an artist, he experienced the essence of one of the world's most spiritual regions. Beginning in Milan and ending in Rome, Father Tupa retraced the steps of the pilgrims, drawing and painting the sacred imagery he encountered along the way. The outcome was a stunning collection of works in oil, watercolor, pen, ink, and pencil, many of which are included here in The Road to Rome. Although the pilgrimage is steeped in religious tradition and history, the art of Father Tupa is boldly original and undeniably modern. Painted in colors that explode with intensity, the architecture depicted by Father Tupa bends and reaches across the canvas with life and vitality. From the sunflowers of Urbania to the domes of Padua, Father Tupa paints Italy as you may have felt but have never seen before. How startling and ever more interesting does this journey become when you consider how limited spiritual art has been during the past century. Rothko's chapel and Matisse's chapel are highlights, with little company until now. Tupa's opulent oil paintings and lyrical watercolors and sketches are accompanied by Francisco Schulte's deeply informed text exploring the history and significance of each stop along the pilgrimage. A personal context is added through the inclusion of entries from Father Tupa's own travel journal. Whether he is sharing the story of how he met the pope or describing the experience of painting Rome's ancient Forum, he becomes a superb guide allowing readers to relive the pilgrimage as if they too were traveling through the Italian landscape. Every chapter is gracefully introduced with a prayer, written by the artist in praise of each location along The Road to Rome. Join Father Tupa and take a profound journey of the spirit as witnessed through the eyes of a very wise man and gifted artist. Sponsored by Marshall Field's, an exhibition of Father Tupa's Road to Rome paintings and watercolors will open at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. in October 2002.

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