This Sunday is Divine Mercy Sunday.
I have wanted to write the icon of the Divine Mercy for quite a while. It can be difficult to know how to write a “Catholic icon”, which depicts a devotion popular mainly in the Western tradition, or a saint who lived after the schism between East and West. Examples of “Catholic icons” might be an icon of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese of Avila, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or the Divine Mercy. The question is how to remain faithful to the ancient Christian canons, to those visual works which were preserved by the Eastern Orthodox Church, while incorporating saints and devotions that have no prototype or canon in that tradition.
In the Roman Catholic church, there is no official guidelines for visual arts. No one to touch base with about consistency with Church teachings. Visual arts are left to the subjective interpretation of the painter.
To write a Catholic image and have it be an icon rather than a painting, one needs to study and research. To move slowly and carefully and conservatively. Small changes can mean much, can mean things not intended, by the altering of a symbol that the artist might not even be fully aware of. The icon is a teacher as well as a beautiful devotional image. Changes and additions cannot be made lightly and still maintain the doctrinal aspects of the icon.
The Divine Mercy image came about this way: St. Faustina Kowalska of Poland experienced repeated visions of Jesus during her lifetime and wrote about them in her diary. In 1931, Jesus appeared to her as “King of Divine Mercy”. His right hand was raised in blessing, the left touched his garment near his breast. From beneath that garment, just slightly below his hand, came two large rays of light, one red, one white. Jesus told her: “Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature “Jesus, I trust in you.”
The Lord explained the image: “The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water that makes Souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood that is the life of Souls. These two rays issued forth from the very depths of my tender mercy when my agonized heart was opened by a lance on the cross.”
Sr. Faustina was not a painter, so her spiritual advisor helped her to find an artist named Eugene Kazimierowski, of Vilnius. He worked under her direction, completing the painting in 1934. Sr. Faustina was not all that happy with the picture, but did approve it–nothing that was painted could equal the beauty of Jesus as she saw him.
Jesus then reassured her, saying “Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush, lies the greatness of this image, but in my grace.” He also said “I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and then throughout the world.”
Many versions have since been painted. The most popular and widely reproduced one was painted in 1943 by Adolf Hyla.
As I work on sketches, based on the simple, nonrestrictive guidelines provided in St. Faustina’s diary, I wonder if this is a valuable thing to do. Should new versions continue to be made even though there is a recognizable image already? Should it be depicted in a Byzantine style, simply because that was the art form of the early Christian Church? Or does the original version, rapidly becoming familiar to us all, remain The Image of Divine Mercy? What do you think?