Dominican Father Marius Zerafa will present six lectures throughout May and June on sacred art. Photo by Michael Swan

Dominican boils down 700 years of European art history

  • May 20, 2012

TORONTO - There’s no time like the present, except of course the past. Dominican art historian Fr. Marius Zerafa knows the past and refuses to romanticize it.

“Human nature has remained very much as it was in the Old Testament,” he told The Catholic Register in an interview. The golden age of sacred art was never quite so golden as it’s generally portrayed. Even 450 years ago, cardinals and bishops at the Council of Trent worried over the degeneration, immorality and self-indulgence of contemporary art.

Zerafa is in Toronto until mid-June to present six public lectures for the Dominican Institute, including a free, four-part course in European art history from the Italian Proto-Renaissance of the 13th and 14th centuries through to expressionist, cubist and abstract movements of the 20th century.

A noted expert in Giotto, Fra’Angelico and Caravaggio, Zerafa knows where modern art comes from. He knows that by the time art history gets to impressionism there’s almost no relationship between the Church and the cutting edge of contemporary art. If after the Council of Trent the Church leaned on Caravaggio to preach a new Christian humanism, by the turn of the 20th century churches were flooded with ecclesiastical kitsch.

“(French Catholic philospher Jacques) Maritain makes the distinction between sacred art and ecclesiastical art. You know all the kitsch in the churches — that’s not sacred art,” said Zerafa.

Zerafa’s opinions about where we find the real sacred art in European history might surprise more than a few.

“Leonardo (da Vinci) is an artist who didn’t care much for religion,” said Zerafa. “The Last Supper is not the Last Supper.”

Da Vinci’s real concern was psychology. He used the dramatic situation of Jesus declaring to His disciples that one of them would betray Him to map out 12 different reactions.

Zerafa also dismisses Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose sculpture and painting practically litter the Vatican, with a wave.

He doesn’t like the baroque.

“The whole idea of baroque art was to impress the faithful, to impress people. It was used by kings, by Louis XIV. It was used by the Church. But it was pure theatre,” he said.


“He’s not a profound religious artist.”

On the other hand Michelangelo represents the artist completely dedicated to religion. Zerafa notes that near the end of his life Michelangelo declared that “the only important thing is to turn to Christ on the cross.”

While Michelangelo is a popular and perhaps predictable choice, Zerafa also praises 19th-century fauvist painter Georges Rouault, particularly his stark, uncompromising Miserere series. More than a century later Rouault’s work is still difficult to look at and deeply unpopular.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the 16th-century genius of the Counter-Reformation and convicted murderer, has defined Zerafa’s long career in more than the usual ways.

Zerafa studied Caravaggio with Mina Gregori in Florence. In the middle of the 20th century, Gregori was responsible for a worldwide scholarly re-evaluation of Caravaggio that placed the painter at the centre of modern art history. Zerafa also studied Caravaggio’s technique by reproducing his paintings, beginning with a layer of Venetian red, covered with a black glaze so that together they produced a rich brown surface. On top of that Zerafa added the areas of white paint that would help him later reproduce Caravaggio’s dramatic effects with light. Then Zerafa would paint directly, without the aid of preparatory sketches and drawings — exactly as Caravaggio did.

Having studied Caravaggio both as a painter and a historian, Zerafa eventually found himself in charge of the national museum in Malta that held one of the great Caravaggio canvasses — his St. Jerome. Which was promptly stolen and held ransom by mafiosi.

For two years Zerafa strung the art thieves along, pretending to negotiate with them as the thieves cut off bits of the precious canvass and mailed them to him.

The drama and politics of the painting’s recovery in an elaborate police takedown — with the Dominican priest and scholar above in a helicopter — is outlined in Zerafa’s book Caravaggio Diaries. The incident has become so famous that Zerafa now travels with a little cheat sheet of names and dates in his wallet so that whenever he is required to tell the story again he’s sure to be accurate.

Zerafa’s quick course in 700 years of European art history runs Wednesday nights from May 23 to June 13 at the University of St. Michael’s College in room 101 of the Faculty of Theology, 95 St. Joseph Street. To register for the free course, e-mail or call (647) 531-2050.

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