By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Father Jonathan Harmon, SJ, is choosing the path less traveled. On track to complete a Master of Fine Arts at the New York Academy of Art in May, he hopes to use his considerable talents as a working artist. This ministry is certainly atypical in the recent Jesuit world, most frequently associated with education, spiritual ministries or social justice issues. But Fr. Harmon is part of a long tradition of Jesuits in the visual arts, one that began with St. Ignatius Loyola himself.
A ministry of the arts is not the only thing that sets Fr. Harmon’s work apart. While his themes are often traditional, the art is created using a thoroughly modern medium; most of it is created on an iPad.
Prior to entering the Society of Jesus in 2008, Fr. Harmon earned a degree in graphic arts, but design simply doesn’t speak to his expressive aesthetic.
“I am far more interested in the illustrative side of design using these tools to create art, rather than just to lay out newspapers and magazines,” he said. “Funnily enough, I kind of gave all of that up when I entered, because I didn’t think priests and Jesuits did that.”
It was during his ministry experience at Jesuit College Preparatory of Dallas that he “got the bug” to try digital art. The students all had iPads and Fr. Harmon sought ways to use them in his art classes. He quickly adopted the device as his primary artistic tool.
“Back when I first began working in digital art, there was a mindset that the computer was generating the art,” Fr. Harmon said, clearly relieved that the genre has gained wider recognition. “It’s really far more closely related to traditional applications. That’s part of the reason I decided to study oil painting, because I recognize that I needed to have that foundation of how to move paint, how to combine paint, so that I could understand what’s going on digitally.”
The New York Academy is a figurative art school, leaning more toward classical training, traditional art practice and realistic images than the abstracts that have been popular over the past century.
“We learn a traditional approach so that we can engage in a contemporary art world,” Fr. Harmon says. “I think that’s a lot of what the church is trying to do in a lot of ways: Make sure our tradition lines up with the things that people want.”
It could be said that this has always been true, for the Church and for the Society of Jesus: Art is an evocative way to communicate, evangelize and teach.
“Early Jesuit art, first in Rome and Europe, then also in the missions, was part and parcel of their missionary activity,” said Fr. Greg Waldrop, SJ, professor of art history at Loyola University New Orleans, whose doctoral work included study of Jesuit art in the late 16th century. He emphasizes that the arts have been an important part of Jesuit life from the beginning.
“I think it’s important to note that Ignatius was someone who – like most people of his time – responded to images,” Fr. Waldrop said. “Jesuit spirituality engages deeply with our emotions and experiences and their impact on our prayer. Images can help to conjure feelings to aid that process.”
During his lifetime, St. Ignatius Loyola even called on his right-hand man, Jeronimo Nadal, SJ, to commission a set of religious images, specifically scenes from the Gospels that would correspond to contemplation themes that appear in the Spiritual Exercises.
“Since Ignatian contemplation is all about putting yourself in the scene, then Ignatius obviously appreciated how visual images could enrich that type of meditation,” Fr. Waldrop said.
Early Jesuit art also served to illustrate heroic virtues. In the Jesuit novitiates or the Catholic seminaries where Jesuits served as rectors, there were often images of martyrs “to get them used to the idea that they, too, might find themselves in a situation in the foreign missions or even in Protestant Europe where they could face death,” Fr. Waldrop said.
The late Jesuit historian Fr. John O’Malley, SJ, who published a thick volume, The Jesuits and the Arts, believed that within 150 years of its founding, the Society of Jesus had become one of the most prolific patrons and producers of the visual arts in the world. (Ways of Proceeding: The Art of Three Contemporary Jesuits, ImageJournal.com)
This support for the visual arts was eminently practical.
“Many of these Early Modern images were intended to instruct or persuade people, but also to encourage devotion,” Fr. Waldrop said. Images were used to tell Gospel stories, often to an illiterate or semi-literate audience, or to communicate across language barriers.
“One of the great things about a lot of religious imagery throughout the years is that it was often an attempt to bring art into people’s homes for personal devotions, so they didn’t have to go to the museum or to the cathedral or basilica,” Fr. Harmon said.
Digital prints, like those Fr. Harmon creates, are relatively inexpensive, making art more accessible – which makes it possible to communicate with new audiences, much like the early Jesuits did when they used early printed tracts or their crucifixes as teaching aids.
“It’s been very much on my mind recently,” Fr. Harmon said. “How can I create art that doesn’t just speak to the people who already believe the same thing that I believe? How can I use art to facilitate more of a dialogue between people?”
One important audience for Fr. Harmon are teens and young adults, especially those with no religious affiliation. “Young people certainly have always been a target audience for me, especially because so many young people these days are searching for beauty.”
Father Harmon finds inspiration in nature, his own devotions, his life experiences. When his mother died, for instance, he began painting a variety of images of Mary using his mother’s photo as reference. “It was a great, prayerful, spiritual experience to be able to kind of join our Heavenly Mother with my earthly mother,” he said.
As one of the contemporary Jesuit artists in a long tradition, Fr. Harmon is also inspired by the Jesuit artists who came before him. These include the renowned artist/architect Br. Andrea Pozzo, best remembered for his remarkable trompe l’oeil frescoes, and Br. Giuseppe Castiglione, who served as an artist in the Chinese imperial court, as well as more recent Jesuit artists like Br. Burt Rivet, who founded the art department at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas.
Surprisingly, two of his biggest inspirations are not visual artists.
“Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor are where I really go to for that kind of artistic flavor, inspiration … excitement,” he said. “All of their works are deeply, deeply Catholic, but you don’t have to be a Catholic to enjoy them, to be inspired by them, to be moved by them. So that’s really what I aspire to. Ultimately, I want to be a working artist with a mission-oriented practice.”
This puts Jonathan Harmon right in line with the history of Jesuit artists whose work has served a practical purpose, said Fr. Waldrop: evangelization – bringing souls to God.