Art and liturgy have been closely intertwined since the early years of the Church’s birth. Even if, at certain moments, art history turns to “profane” subjects such as gender, landscape or portraiture, we should not believe that the relationship between the Church and art does not exist. Because the second is necessary for the first, especially in its liturgical dimension. The Church could not live without certain objects that men created with great love and care, aware that their work was for God and to bring men closer to God through contemplation and prayer. This is part of the history that the Terra Sancta Museum will tell in its future Historical Section which will be in the Saint Saviour Monastery.
The Franciscans of the Holy Land are still very much aware of the importance of art. The mission of the Brothers of St. Francis to preserve the Holy Places is accomplished above all by continuing to animate these places and bring them to life through the liturgy. The need for artworks and objects that serve this purpose has not ceased. With the help of volunteers or by the expert hands of the friars themselves, new wooden choirs, tabernacles, antependiums, and lecterns have been created. Today, walking up the stairs leading from the Cultural Heritage Office to the Custody’s restoration workshop, we find Brother Jorge Barba Barba working intently on two large altarpieces representing St. Francis and St. Clare. We interrupted his work for a few minutes to let him tell us his story.
How did you arrive in the Holy Land?
I was in Mexico studying philosophy on the path to becoming a priest. The province of Mexico where I come from, called “Saints Francis and James,” receives annual scholarships from the Custody of the Holy Land to send young students to study in Jerusalem. My superior decided to send me to the Holy Land after I spent a year in Italy learning Italian, the official language of the Franciscans. When I arrived in 2014, I remembered the great desire I once had to visit Jerusalem before entering the seminary. I had given up on this desire to follow my calling, but the Lord fulfilled my dream, allowing me to return to His land.
Where did your artistic talent come from and how did you begin to put it at the service of the liturgy?
One day while I was studying at Saint Saviour, the friars of the Custody needed to paint an image of the Lamb. One of the brothers knew I could do it, so I timidly completed my first work, responding to the call of the brothers. The Lamb was a success. To thank me, the Custody sent me to Florence in 2017 for a two-month course to improve my skills. This experience was very fruitful because it gave me a technique. It taught me to know the colors, to mix them in harmony. The artistic gift comes from God, but the technique is for us to learn. In Florence, these were days of pure grace, when I discovered that spirituality, emotion, and feelings can all be expressed through art. Usually, we think that friars and priests should renounce all this, but that is not true! Art is one of the ways we can talk about all this, about ourselves.
Tell us about the two altarpieces you are working on.
For the Poor Clare Sisters in Nazareth, I already made an Annunciation in their chapel last year. This year, I was called back to complete my work and add two paintings representing St. Francis and St. Clare. I have also made many other works after my course in Florence in the San Giuseppe Hospital and the Saint Saviour Monastery in Jerusalem.
Can you describe the process of creating such works?
It’s a long process. For these altarpieces, first I applied rabbit skin glue to preserve the wood, then I added the canvas that I prepared with a chalk coating. I had to repeat the action because you must create a surface that allows you to paint evenly but also allows you to glimpse the texture of the canvas. After the plastering, I proceeded to the preparatory drawing, using red color as a base. Red helps bring out the gold I’m going to apply on it. In fact, the whole background, as well as Clare’s tabernacle, will be in gold leaf, but I will only put it down at the end because it is very delicate, and the gold loses its shine easily. I then painted the attributes of the saints with layers of plaster, to highlight them as seen in the altarpieces of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, and now I am painting the figures with oil paint glazes.
Who are your favorite artists?
I am a big fan of Botticelli because his paintings are aesthetically beautiful and also succeed in transmitting the painter’s inner self. My other favorite artist is Caravaggio. His works are marvelous. Botticelli and Caravaggio are very different from each other, but at the same time they complement each other. The techniques they used are different: Botticelli worked with pigments mixed with organic binders such as egg white, while Caravaggio worked with oil paint, giving his paintings more freedom. Caravaggio made light out of darkness, while Botticelli is pure light, because with his technique he was forced to work on the light first since it would have been impossible to correct any mistakes, the tempera not allowing it. On the other hand, with oil paint, Caravaggio could make light emerge from darkness. I like this very much because the process is beautiful, even in a theological sense: despite the shadows of our lives, I know that light can always emerge stronger and more beautiful than ever.
Source: Terra Sancta Museum website