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Michael Stevens with The Pentecost painting

Fully Alive at the Easel: A Conversation with Michael Stevens (Part II)

April 20, 2023


The following is the second half of the conversation between Tod Worner, the Managing Editor of the Evangelization & Culture journal of the Word on Fire Institute, and Word on Fire Art Director Michael Stevens to discuss his original painting, The Pentecost. This conversations first appeared in Evangelization & Culture, Issue XI, “The Four Last Things.”

You can read Part I of the conversation here.

Tod Worner: Could you tell me a little about the artists and artwork that served as influences on The Pentecost

Michael Stevens: There are so many artists who have influenced how I think about art, but three in particular come to mind as playing a unique role in this piece’s inspiration. As I mentioned before, the core composition of the painting—the figures and faces—is lifted directly from a work by the Spanish master and Dominican friar Juan Bautista Maíno. So in a way, it’s more than influenced by Maíno—the piece really belongs to him and would have been entirely impossible without his wonderful vision of Pentecost from 1614.

As I said, though, I wanted this piece to read as new again, so to propel the original Maíno into the present day, I relied on the work of two other artists to varying degrees. The nine fruits that appear around the figures (representing the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit described in Galatians) are based on the still life paintings of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), an influential early modernist master and the father of the Cubist movement. I grew up visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, which houses several lovely Cézanne still lifes, and I’ve always loved the way he paints fruit. Even in his most unassuming paintings, Cézanne’s brush strokes have this wonderfully faceted, geotic quality. As you look at a still life of his, you really sense that a fractured, Cubist sense of space and perspective is beginning to take hold. It’s right there, just beneath the surface of every mango and pear: abstraction.

The artist to whom this piece might be most indebted on a conceptual level, though, is the contemporary sculptor and painter Jeff Koons. To someone reading this who knows contemporary art, this might be surprising and even shocking—Koons is a notorious provocateur, and some of his pieces (particularly his earlier works) are highly problematic from a Catholic moral perspective. He’s seen by some as the new Warhol—a kind of poster boy for contemporary art whose influence, for better or worse, is everywhere. For some reason, despite all of the controversy around his work, there’s one cycle of paintings of his called the Gazing Ball series that has always captivated me. They’re a series of exact copies of old masters’ paintings (and I mean exact), with a single, metallic blue sphere placed an inch or so in front of the canvas to reflect the viewer like a mirror. Something about the perfection of the copies he made in that series, combined with the mirror ball that lenses everything in and out of proportion, completely fascinates me. It’s a nice meditation on how complex the process of looking at art really is. You’re looking at this perfect copy of, say, a Fra Angelico altarpiece, and you realize that—at least from your point of view, and in that moment—it really might as well be the original Angelico. Nothing about the physical object could be changed to make it appear more authentic to the senses. Compounding this effect is the way you’re seeing both yourself and the painting reflected in the two hemispheres of the metallic ball, with the back half reflecting the art and the front half reflecting you. What exactly is happening in the intervening gap? What is really going on when we look at art? Unconsciously on the part of Koons I would guess, these kinds of questions raised in the Gazing Ball series naturally lead into a discussion of the immateriality of the intellect and immortality of the soul. 

In the case of my piece, though, I’m definitely hoping the effect is a bit more visually direct and less dependent on abstract philosophical concepts. The painted reflections in The Pentecost are mainly there to create a sense of spatial depth, texture, and color that contrasts with the other surfaces (the figures and the lava). If someone sees the painting and is reminded of Koons’ Gazing Ball series, I’d be thrilled, but I realize it’s a pretty obscure reference. It’s more of an easter egg that’s been hidden in the piece than something meant to be its focal point.

You might ask, do all these cross-references to other artists have a deeper significance? In part, I wanted to push back on the popular assumption that for art to be worthwhile it must be absolutely original and the product of sheer self-invention. Christianity teaches us that our lives are not our own to invent, and I think that has major implications for art. It really de-emphasizes the ego of the individual artist and places them in service of the Body of Christ in general. Furthermore, the sheer splendor and richness of our shared inheritance of Catholic art invites precisely this kind of creative cross-referencing. For me, it would be almost unthinkable not to draw from the wisdom of generations of past artists. I’m incredibly proud of the treasures that have been passed down to us, and sometimes I think the best thing to do is leave well enough alone and simply showcase what’s in the treasure chest.

Christianity teaches us that our lives are not our own to invent, and I think that has major implications for art.

Another theme on my mind when working on this painting was how the tradition of sacred art within the Church has always interfaced with the broader tradition of art without. The early Christians of Rome painted their catacombs in the typical Roman fresco style of the time, a style that was developed by pagan artists for pagan purposes. Later, not far from those very catacombs, Michelangelo would convey the epic biblical narratives of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a style inspired by pre-Christian, polytheistic antiquity. In The Pentecost, I wanted to similarly absorb not only sacred influences that interested me but also secular influences. Part of what makes Catholic art across the ages so varied and beautiful is the way it’s been able to adopt and elevate unlikely aspects of its surrounding culture—even when that surrounding culture is largely ambivalent or even hostile to the Gospel. Some of The Pentecost’s raw materials have been mined from the secular world, but they’ve been reforged to serve a new purpose. That process of transformation and commission is exactly what the story of Pentecost is all about. 

TW: This painting has aspects that are simultaneously complex and confounding, transcendent and sublime. Could you walk us through a few parts of The Pentecost and describe the richness of their symbolism? 

MS: What I would guess the viewer of The Pentecost will notice first is the molten lava that flows down from the dove at the top of the composition and covers the Apostles. This is a re-visualization of the separate tongues of fire described in Acts, and it recalls the waters of baptism. Lava has the properties of both fire and flowing water, and this is meant to reference the “baptism with fire” referred to by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

The way the lava flows downward from above and covers the bodies of the Apostles is a reference to Joel 2:28, in which God proclaims that in the last days he will “pour out [his] spirit on all flesh.” The lava (and the smoke that billows above it) in The Pentecost also ties into the cataclysmic imagery of blood, fire, and smoky mist found in the passage. St. Peter reflects upon this in the Book of Acts. 

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

ACTS 2: 17-21

Although the magma submerges many of the figures almost completely, their expressions are serene and their bodies are unharmed. This references the bush that was “blazing, yet it was not consumed” from Exodus 3:1–4, another key moment in the story of God’s self-revelation when his presence was accompanied by a mysterious fire:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

Magma also struck me as a fitting image for Pentecost because of its terraforming properties. Unlike fire, which disappears in time, magma solidifies to become solid rock and permanently builds up the landscape. In this way, the volcanic nature of magma as a physical substance relates to the ecclesial aspect of Pentecost. As lava forms new ground upon which to stand, so the outpouring of the Holy Spirit provided a sure foundation for Christ’s Church—a foundation that continued to grow and expand under the feet of the newly baptized.

Another key detail is the water that pours over the head of St. Luke from a pitcher. The pitcher is—like each of the nine fruits in the composition—a fragment pulled directly from a Cézanne still life. The water that flows down diagonally falls directly on St. Luke’s brow, and it represents the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as he writes the book of Acts. The water is strangely metallic and amorphous, which is meant to create an atmosphere of otherworldliness. When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, it must have been awe-inspiring, and I’m hoping the shimmering, sparkling surfaces in the painting communicate that sense of wonder and mystery. 

TW: Paintings such as these seem less common nowadays. They are found hanging in museums around the world, but not actively created on most twenty-first-century easels. Is The Pentecost an anachronism? Or is it the beginning of a new movement of sacred art with a light touch of the modern? How can modern art enhance faith and ennoble the mind? 

What is really going on when we look at art?

MS: It’s true that detailed, representational painting isn’t really in vogue at the moment, especially in the upper echelons of contemporary art. In fact, painting in general isn’t nearly as dominant a medium as it once was. In school, I really worried about that. I was always interested in form and craftsmanship and it seemed like my peers and teachers were generally more interested in political and identity-based approaches to art. But when I left school and got some distance from art at an institutional level, I realized that whatever the current state of affairs might be, the “art world” shouldn’t exert an undue pressure on the decisions I make as an artist and designer. When I think about my artistic heroes, some of them worked in a style that was viewed positively by the critics of their day (Fra Angelico and John Singer Sargent, for example), whereas others worked more as outsiders and in a more anomalous style (Tintoretto, Monet, Morandi). I allowed myself to take the latter approach with The Pentecost. It’s not so much that I set out to make a piece that looks conspicuously “Baroque” or “purist,” it’s just where my interests—and the influences we talked about earlier—happen to lead as I explored the biblical themes of Pentecost.

Is it part of a larger movement in sacred art? I certainly hope that the future of Catholic art involves an emphasis on the aesthetics of the new without the assumption that the old must be in any way done away with or degraded. If my painting helps to start conversations along those lines among Catholic artists, it would be a dream come true. At the same time, I don’t necessarily think that artistic movements can be predicted or engineered ahead of time. The best developments in art seem to arise organically—they are sparks that catch flame due to a particular convergence of ideas and people at a particular time. It does seem like there’s a growing longing for ancient, time-tested beauty among Catholics these days, particularly young Catholics, and—at the same time—a growing desire for the Church to really step into the digital space in a way that uses modern tools and technology to create new forms of beauty there. If I had to guess, I’d say a future movement of Catholic art would need to somehow incorporate both of those elements—the old and the new—and do so in a way that is both culturally informed and unwaveringly committed to the teaching of Christ. 

TW: Michael, in painting this work, how have you been impacted spiritually?

MS: Working on this piece has really helped me to appreciate that being an artist (and in my case, a graphic designer as well) is much more than a career—it’s a true spiritual vocation. One of the most crucial moments when creating this piece was listening to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists in audiobook form. I’m embarrassed to say it, but it was my first time taking in the letter in its entirety! I will never forget it: I was working on the very bottom portion of the painting near the feet of the apostles, and I had the audio playing through my studio’s speaker system. From the very first line, the rousing words of JPII’s commission stopped me mid-brushstroke: “None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands.”

As his words continued, I found I could not keep working—the blur of tears was obscuring my view of the painting. But it was the final line of the letter that completely devastated me. It seemed uncannily appropriate given the subject of The Pentecost, but beyond that, it resounded in my mind as if addressed directly to me: “May your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”

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Again, I’ll never forget that experience of working on The Pentecost and taking in the words of JPII like that. It really awakened me to a deeper sense of what I’m called to offer the Church as an artist. Through the words of his letter, I was reassured that this urge to create images and share my inner life through art was valued by the Church. She depends on willing artists to carry her mission of beauty forward—she needs us. 

TW: I understand that a documentary on the creation and meaning of The Pentecost is in the making. How soon can we expect it to be released and how might one see it? 

MS: Yes! It’s definitely added another layer to the creation of this painting! As I’ve worked on the piece, I’ve had the chance to collaborate with a whole team of film personnel to capture the work at its various stages of completion. It’s been a complicated undertaking to film everything, but I’m thrilled that people will be able to get such an in-depth view into the process of making The Pentecost

TW: One last question, Michael. Now that you have completed this work, do you have more in your wheelhouse? Or will you forever consider The Pentecost your magnum opus?

MS: I certainly hope to create more paintings like this one. Because the piece was so large and detailed, it meant progress was very slow-moving, and it took the better part of a year to finish. So Tod, if you can convince the Word on Fire team to clear my schedule for that long, I’ll talk to you a year from now and we’ll have another Baroque-style painting to chat about (laughs). In all seriousness, though, I would consider it a huge blessing to have the opportunity to create more work just like The Pentecost. I feel fully alive when I’m at the easel, and I truly cannot imagine a better or more fulfilling way to serve the Church.

The stunning, full-length documentary film is now available to view in its entirety.