(National Catholic Reporter) Missionaries taught theology in Imagery

My article “Missionaries taught theology in Imagery,” a review of the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit “Doctrine and Devotion: Art of the Religious Orders in the Spanish Andes,” appears in National Catholic Reporter. Here’s the lede:

The Holy Family with Mercedarian Symbols

“The Holy Family with Mercedarian Symbols” by the Workshop of Bernardo Rodriguez in the late 18th–early 19th century/AIC

The bearded and robed reclining figure of St. Peter Nolasco cannot be sleeping soundly or dreaming sweetly. A tree has sprouted from his left side, and no fewer than 36 friars stand on leaf platforms formed by 11 branches emanating from the trunk. Above the tree, the Virgin of Mercy perches atop the coat of arms of the Mercedarian Order, which the 13th-century saint founded to negotiate with Muslims and pirates in North Africa, Spain and the Mediterranean for the release of Christian captives.

Modeled on prior artistic devices, such as the Tree of Jesse and the Tree of Life, which also mapped out families or dynasties on trees, this mid-18th century “Genealogical Tree of the Mercedarian Order” by an unknown painter depicts some of the friars — no doubt a who’s who of Mercedarian VIPs — with attributes that would have made them recognizable at the time. The entire framework of this tree and its predecessors evokes the mysterious Deuteronomy passage (20:19) declaring that “man is a tree of the field.”

The Mercedarian tree in particular is so theologically fertile and visually arresting that Rebecca Long, associate curator of medieval to modern European painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, built an exhibit around it. This and 12 other paintings make up the exhibition “Doctrine and Devotion: Art of the Religious Orders in the Spanish Andes” (through June 25, 2017), which charts the ways Dominicans, Franciscans, Mercedarians, and Jesuits developed unique iconographies between the 17th and 19th centuries while trying to sway indigenous hearts and minds to Christ.

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