Exhibit: The Sacred Art of Cornelius Sullivan

Exhibit: The Sacred Art of Cornelius Sullivan

An exhibit of works by artist Cornelius Sullivan is up in Ave Maria University’s Canizaro Library for one more week. The exhibit, “Sacred Art and the Theology of the Body: Cornelius Sullivan Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings,” opened on April 15 and runs through May 15, 2015. It is free and open to the public.

Mr. Cornelius Edmund Sullivan earned his B.F.A. from Rhode Island School of Design in 1991, and completed his M.F.A. from the University of Miami in 1996. He has taught and lectured around the world, including at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, the University of Miami School of Architecture, the Danforth Museum, Florida International University, and frequently in Rome.

Most recently, Sullivan co-taught a course at Ave Maria University with Dr. Michael Waldstein, “The Theology of the Body in Renaissance Art: Michelangelo, Titian, and Caravaggio” (THEO 595), which sought to “stimulate awareness of the non-verbal theology of the great Renaissance artists” (cited from the course description). Jesus came to earth in the flesh, Sullivan pointed out. He did not arrive “with a list of moral principles” but with an offer of love. One of the arguments of the Theology of the Body is that concupiscence is due to a loss of vision stemming from a lack of love; man has forgotten how to see himself, and others, in relation to God. The answer to concupiscence is not in the memorization of moral principles, but in the restoration of man’s proper vision.

“Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb,” oil, 30 x 40", 2014. 

Appropriately then, the course co-taught by Sullivan and Waldstein aimed at helping the students see the art they studied. The professors told the students: “Just look. Learn how to look.” By slowly stripping away the characters and ancillary elements, Sullivan explained, the class would arrive at the “essence of the painting.” He recounted the story of how, during one class, they spent three hours stripping away the elements of Caravaggio’s painting “The Calling of Saint Matthew” until only the figures of Matthew and Christ remained. As the class continued to look, Waldstein exclaimed: “It’s love at first sight.” They had arrived at the essence of the painting and a deeper understanding of Christ’s call.

Of the twenty-four works on display in the Canizaro library, perhaps Sullivan’s “Loaves and Fishes” (c. 1984) stands out the most—not just because of its large size. The figure of Jesus, his face obscured in shadows, his back and miracle-working hand bathed in light, reaches over a table filled with colorful fish exploding outwards toward the viewer. Various characters, crowded and yet isolated, are seen coming and going. “I want it to be like you’re there, you’re in the crowd, while this cosmic event is taking place,” Sullivan commented. He achieves a similar effect in his “Descent from the Cross,” and more mysteriously so in his “The Annunciation” (neither of which is currently on display).

“Loaves and Fishes,” oil, 5 x 8′, c. 1984.

Perhaps something a viewer of “Loaves and Fishes” can take away is the everydayness of the working of grace and the open invitation to come and eat.

Sullivan is a figurative artist—his works are representations of the real, most often of the human figure. Yet he considers himself a modern artist, balancing figure and form, representation and medium. “I want the object itself to have a presence,” he said, “so I push it until it does.” In his work, there is a clear sense of the medium, be it the thick drips of paint on the canvas, or the rough edges of the marble reminding the viewer of the stone’s original form. But these elements, he insisted, are not a break from his teachers or guides—artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio. “Renaissance artists were modern artists,” Sullivan said. The rough cheeks of Sullivan’s sculpture “Cararra Madonna and Child” (2014) and the face trapped in, or emerging from, the marble of his “Angel” (2012) are not so far removed from some of Michelangelo’s sculptures (see, for instance, Michelangelo’s “Awakening Slave” or “Atlas”).

“Angel,” marble, 2012.

Far from being non-finito or unfinished, Sullivan said, these works by Michelangelo were intentionally left as they were. He explained from his own experience carving the “Cararra Madonna and Child” how the marble was soft, so that when he sanded it down, he would lose a significant amount of dimension and contour. With his “Pieta,” he left the base of the marble to retain the sense of the original block and to convey how the figures were found within. Michelangelo carved in a similar way, peeling back the marble and “discovering” his forms in the stone. Sullivan understands his art as continuous with the past and part of a long tradition.

“Pieta,” marble, 22″ high, 1981.

Modernists break from the past when they dispense with representation. The break stems from a Cartesian dualism, Sullivan said, and the meaning of the art becomes entirely subjective.

Frustrated with his experience at art school in the 1960s, Sullivan turned to the Masters for guidance. Rather than reinvent painting every time he started on a blank canvas, he began imitating artists of the past. He’s had a long journey, full of trial and error. Things that Caravaggio would have learned when he was fourteen, Sullivan quipped, he himself was just coming to realize now. Sullivan’s works are part of an ongoing process, a dialogue between the artist and his creation. For instance, he painted one work on display, “Grace and the Fourteenth Century Fresco” in 2007. Seven years later, in 2014, he decided to update the colors of the fresco. It was “risky,” he said. “I could’ve ruined it, but you have to go for it.” Fortunately, his daring paid off. The bolder colors shifted the fresco from background to foreground. The piece is an exquisite representation of the unity of human suffering and the paradox of Christ’s death being both within and without time. Sullivan’s works, because they are very much alive in the creative process, have a palpable vigor that animates the walls of the Canizaro library exhibit.

“Grace and the 14th Century Fresco,” oil, 30 x 40″, 2007, revised 2014.

The exhibit “Sacred Art and the Theology of the Body” is an invitation to move one step closer towards a fuller vision of man in his relation to others and to God. The beauty of the human form in art has the power to move man to a deeper understanding of the divine.

In the oft-quoted, off-the-cuff remarks of Pope Benedict XVI to priests in Brixen, he said:

“For me, art and the saints are the greatest apologia for our faith… All the great works of art…they are all luminous signs of God and therefore truly an appearing, an epiphany of God. And in Christianity it is precisely a matter of this epiphany: that the hidden God became Epiphany—he appears and shines… Christian art is a rational art… but it is the artistic expression of a greatly expanded reason, in which heart and reason encounter each other. This is the point. I believe that in a certain way this is proof of the truth of Christianity: heart and reason encounter one another, beauty and truth converge, and the more that we ourselves succeed in living in the beauty of truth, the more that faith will be able to return to being creative in our time too, and to express itself in a convincing form of art.”