Fr. Larisey continues to take art as far as he can

  • February 23, 2011
Jesuit Fr. Peter LariseyTORONTO - Before he was ordained, the young Jesuit Peter Larisey learned to take no for an answer. Practice makes perfect.

Drawn to art since childhood, Larisey wanted to study art in a serious way. Starting about 1959, each year Larisey would ask Father Provincial of the English Canadian Jesuits if he might be allowed to study art. Each year he was told, “No.”

“One of the good things about Jesuit superiors is that they have terms,” explains the 81-year-old priest, who continues to teach at the Toronto School of Theology and Regis College.

In 1966 Larisey showed the new Father Provincial his scrapbook filled with his published writing about art and the successes of his groundbreaking art exhibitions at Regis College.

“He carried the scrapbook in his hands and said, ‘You take this as far as you can,’ ”  recalls Larisey.

He went as far as a PhD in art history from New York’s Columbia University, a career teaching about art and religion at universities, a book about the life of Canadian master and Group of Seven member Lawren Harris and curating exhibitions of some of Canada’s best artists.

On March 3, Regis College will present the inaugural Peter Larisey Lecture,  delivered by Swiss architect Mario Botta. Botta, who has built cathedrals, parish churches and even a synagogue, will also lead a seminar in sacred architecture on March 4. Both events are free and open to the public (pre-register at

Larisey describes everything he has done since “no” changed to “yes” as “trying to bridge the gap between the Church and modernism.”

He makes the connections by being true to his roots as a small-town boy from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. As a Maritimer, Larisey believes he’s inherited an instinct for seeing things whole.

“I’m an art historian, but I use it to try to grasp the whole, rather than as an isolating specialist,” he said.

Trying to see the big picture has pushed Larisey into ambitious projects. Since 2000 he’s been writing a history of modern art and religion called The Persistent Spirit: Religion and Modern Art. Few academic writers would want to say anything about such a vast period — roughly from the Industrial Revolution on — and such a difficult subject.

But Larisey has another career to draw on which feeds his thinking about art. He is a spiritual director in the tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He has learned to look at paintings by listening to people talk about their lives, and learned something about those stories by looking at paintings.

“There is a wholeness in a work of art,” he said. “When something is out of place or missing, you are aware of it. In dealing with spiritual direction or counselling — I like the French word, l’accompagnement spirituel — in dealing with this it’s paying attention to the wholeness and noticing where the irregularity is.”

Both art and spiritual direction require us to be a little more human, a little more open, or they just won’t work.

“Each painting is an individual phenomenon. But also, each individual is, each person. So it’s with great delicacy you approach it,” he said.

Larisey couldn’t be happier that a thoroughly modern architect is delivering the first lecture in his name.

“We chose Mario Botta because he is a modernist who bridges the gap between modernism and religion. He has bridged the gap there with his buildings. He has a wisdom.”

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