Emmaus O’Herlihy with his painting John the Baptizer. Michael Swan

Monk’s art challenges concept of ‘neighbour’

  • February 20, 2020

When Emmaus O’Herlihy prays the Magnificat every evening, he’s thinking about how young and powerless Mary was when she discovered she was pregnant and carrying the Saviour of the world.

O’Herlihy’s huge oil-on-canvas painting of Mary called Red Magnificat pictures Mary as both Indigenous and almost young enough to be called a child. The painting is in Toronto’s Regis College for the month of February as part of an exhibition called Neighbourhood Earth that explores what it means to be neighbours to each other and to our environment.

That a girl this young and this poor could make such a powerful claim on God’s promises to Abraham — promises that upset the way we live our lives — is essential to genuine Christianity, O’Herlihy said.

Red Magnificat reflects Christ’s challenge to historical patterns of exclusion, cultural prejudice and power,” the Irish Benedictine monk and PhD candidate in theology at St. Michael’s College wrote in his artist’s statement for the Neighbourhood Earth show.

“Instead of an idealized Marian image, the facial features of this young girl suggest Indigenous ethnic origin, in order to re-contextualize Mary’s prayerful declaration of God’s preference for those counted among the most marginalized in our society,” O’Herlihy wrote.

Though neither of the two O’Herlihy canvasses on display at the Regis College show were conceived with the Neighbourhood Earth theme in mind, both Red Magnificat and his portrait of a young John the Baptizer seem to fit in quite well, he told The Catholic Register.

If the angry face of John the Baptist makes people passing by uncomfortable, they’re on their way to getting it, O’Herlihy said. People should ask themselves whether the young man in the painting is a stranger and intruder, or whether it’s them.

“The Baptizer’s direct gaze is meant to present a forceful challenge,” O’Herlihy said.

O’Herlihy is one of nine artists with work in the Neighbourhood Earth show that’s been in the Jesuit graduate school of theology since Feb. 2. 

Other artists in the show include Ojibway Indigenous artist Blake Debassige from the Mchigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island; Aparna Rangnekar, originally from Mumbai, India; American ex-patriot David Holt; Syrian artist, musician and computer scientist Hayyan Helal; Taiwanese-Canadian Linda Chen; British immigrant Heather Gentleman; and Regis College professor of comparative spirituality and philosophy of religion Michael Stoeber.

Neighbourhood Earth wraps up Feb. 29. Admission is free.

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