Venerating Mary in artwork

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On March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, Father Joseph Paul Albin, O.P., unveiled and blessed a new painting behind the baptismal font at the Church of the Incarnation. Commissioned specially for the University of Dallas’ church and created by the artist Henry Wingate, the painting depicts Mary, seated and reading, with the Christ Child standing beside her.

Although a statue portraying Mary already graces the patio of the church, the interior — apart from the reliquary chapel — had noticeably lacked a piece of Marian art. Fr. Albin said, “There had been quite a longing from a number of students and many community members for there to be an image of Mary in the church.”

A community-wide reverence for Mary, which may be observed in the churchgoers who chant Marian antiphons at the close of daily Masses, added impetus for acquiring a work of art. The generosity of an anonymous donor enabled the search to begin, and the recommendation of an alumnus eventually turned Albin’s attention to Henry Wingate, an artist based in Front Royal, Virginia.

Fr. Albin reported that the search was rather straightforward. “We looked at a few different artists, and after checking with my staff and a few other people in the community, we agreed that Henry would be the right choice for our church,” he said.

Wingate, whose portfolio includes a series of paintings of the life of John the Baptist which hang in the Catholic parish in Front Royal, pursued his love of painting after serving for six years as a naval aviator. He spent a portion of his artistic career painting in Florence and Rome.

Wingate explained the specific task that he was assigned for the Church, “Fr. Albin specified that he wanted a Madonna and Child image that depicted an ordinary activity for the two.” He  also worked with Albin in determining what size would best fill the space, eventually deciding on a canvas that is six feet tall and four feet three inches wide.

Wingate then set about finding the appropriate models and arranging the composition. He prefers to paint from life, rather than from a photograph. “The color is better when working with a live model, as is the three dimensionality,” he explained.

Wingate also pays close attention to the colors he chooses and to how they contribute to the overall beauty of the work. “I try to use colors that go well together and are lovely, such as the rose-colored dress Mary is wearing. It is made of silk which would not have been worn by Mary,” he said.

However, in Wingate’s eyes, the beauty of the work is paramount, over and above other considerations. “I think that beauty should trump historical accuracy, and many artists over the years have done the same,” he stated.

While the acquisition of this artwork is an important event for the Church of the Incarnation, Albin has plans to add yet more works to the church. “The great hope is actually to acquire two more images of Our Lady that would then be switched out seasonally,” he said.

The other two images would be of Our Lady of Sorrows – for Lent –  and Our Lady, Queen of Heaven –for Eastertide. Whichever painting is in-season would hang behind the baptismal font, while the reliquary chapel and the reconciliation room would house the others.

The painting is intended very specifically for the Church of the Incarnation. In fact, the landscape is Texan and includes a field of bluebonnets and a live oak tree, the species of tree that grows immediately outside the church.

In Albin’s mind, this local aspect is important for the message of the painting. “It reminds us that Mary and Christ are not abstract ideas, but they are with us here on this particular campus.”

Mary’s activity of reading is also central to the piece. Wingate recalled, “I tried different activities for the mother and child but ended up choosing reading, which I thought appropriate for a university chapel.”

Albin foresees that the depiction of Mary reading will be a constant source of comfort to students. “In a place of higher learning, to remember that Our Lady is someone who can be invoked in the pursuit of the intellect, pursuit of the good and the holy and the true . . . is a beautiful thing,” he said.

Albin believes that the depiction of Mary as a young mother will be particularly relevant for the women who have their children baptized in the Church of the Incarnation. “We have, you know, easily one hundred baptisms a year. For [mothers] to be able to look to that image of Our Lady and know that this image of our mother is something that [they] could see [themselves] in — [they] can see a friend, an intercessor, a guide — I just think it’s such a powerful thing,” he said.

Wingate succeeded beautifully in drawing out the relationship between Jesus and Mary. Noting that Christ leans on his mother in the painting, Albin reflects, “It’s a beautiful reminder that we too are allowed to lean on our mother.”

Students, faculty and community members will undoubtedly continue to reflect on the beauty and depth of the work, and this reflection is entirely part of Wingate’s intention. “I’m very happy to be part of the long lived tradition of doing paintings for the Church. My hope is that this image of Our Lady and the young Jesus will enhance the beauty of the chapel, and will help people ponder the close relationship between Mary and her Son,” he said.

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