If Thy Right Eye Scandalize Thee: What Should Be Done With Father Rupnik’s Art?

COMMENTARY: Perhaps we can better understand what is at stake by comparing Father Rupnik’s career to that of Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik is shown at the 'Aletti' workshop in Rome in 2007. The scandal surrounding his alleged sexual abuse of women, as well as the handling of his case by the Jesuit order, has spurred a debate over what to do with his art, which is known across the world.
Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik is shown at the 'Aletti' workshop in Rome in 2007. The scandal surrounding his alleged sexual abuse of women, as well as the handling of his case by the Jesuit order, has spurred a debate over what to do with his art, which is known across the world. (photo: Abaca Press / Sipa USA via AP)

In light of the emerging scandal surrounding Jesuit artist Father Marko Rupnik, Catholics are asking what should be done with his sacred art. 

Some are calling for it to be removed — even destroyed — out of respect for his alleged victims or as a way to censure Father Rupnik himself. Others object that such an approach seems to align with the contemporary “cancel culture” and would logically extend to stripping churches of all art, since after all every artist is also a sinner. Others again claim that art must be judged on its own standards: If Father Rupnik’s art is of value, it should remain, regardless of his personal sins. Still others point to the economic and social costs of removing the artworks: Father Rupnik’s workshop has accounted for projects for more than 200 liturgical spaces around the world, including Lourdes, Fatima and the Vatican. Indeed, it would be hard to find a Catholic who has not seen Father Rupnik’s logo for the Year of Mercy or a reproduction of one of his works on the cover of a missalette, inside the Compendium of the Catechism, or in the Roman Missal. His art is everywhere.

Perhaps we can better understand what is at stake by comparing Father Rupnik’s career to that of an artist who might be considered a 17th-century analogue: Gianlorenzo Bernini. Bernini, like Father Rupnik, did not merely benefit from the patronage of popes and cardinals; rather, both men became the quasi-official image-makers of the Church in their days. 

Bernini’s art epitomizes the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII much as Father Rupnik’s art epitomizes the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. Both popes took a special interest in art, commissioning works to incarnate and diffuse their ideas. Bernini’s art has become the icon of the Counter-Reformation, and it seems that Father Rupnik’s art is better poised than anyone else’s to become the icon of the post-conciliar era.

Like Father Rupnik today, Bernini too was embroiled in scandal after he attempted to kill his brother for taking up with his own mistress and had her face marred with a razorblade. Urban VIII intervened to see Bernini safely married to a Roman beauty, the affair died down, and Bernini wound up becoming an exemplary Catholic. No one suggested Bernini’s baldacchino over the papal altar at St. Peter’s had to come down, and he remained the world’s most-sought-after artist.

Certainly, one may be a great sacred artist and a great sinner; indeed, great sinners not infrequently have great insight into the ugliness of sin and the beauty of God. One thinks of Charles Peguy’s formulation, “the sinner is at the very heart of Christianity ... no one else understands Christianity so well as the sinner. No one, except the saint.” The Church has always admitted the masterpieces of notorious sinners like Fra Filippo Lippi, Raphael and Caravaggio alongside those of saints like Fra Angelico.

But the comparison between Father Rupnik’s alleged sins and those of Bernini, Caravaggio and the rest only goes so far. What is alleged of Father Rupnik are not simple crimes of passion, nor even the habitual breaking of one or more commandments, but something far more sinister. We are dealing with the allegation that Father Rupnik is an apostate priest who, over the course of a long career at the heart of the official structures of the Church, has leveraged his authority as a priest, a theologian and a sacred artist to make himself the prophet of a false Gospel in which sin is virtue and virtue sin. According to the allegations, Father Rupnik not merely habitually convinced others to sin with him, but convinced them that the real sin was not to sin with him and thereby partake in his carnal pseudo-mysticism. 

If these allegations are true, is it possible that Father Rupnik’s art does not in some way preach this false Gospel? Art is, after all, a form of rhetoric, and artists express themselves first and foremost through their art. As John Paul II reminds us in his “Letter to Artists” — written as Father Rupnik was completing the Pope’s private Redemptoris Mater Chapel — “in shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it” (2). This will be all the more the case with an artist like Father Rupnik, who has enjoyed significant creative freedom. 

Father Rupnik was not a Medieval craftsman meticulously executing the instructions of the cathedral chapter, nor was he a scrupulous disciple of a codified iconographic tradition. As then-Papal Master of Ceremonies Piero Marini remarked upon the dedication of the Redemptoris Mater Chapel, Father Rupnik’s art, though rooted in Eastern iconography, has “a decisive touch of modernity which adds originality and vigor.”

A preliminary consideration of Father Rupnik’s work raises some red flags. The recurring motif of a shared eye (as in the Year of Mercy logo) might be seen to elide the distinction of persons in the Godhead or the distinction between Creator and created. Then there are the looming, completely dark pupils that characterize his works. In a seeming departure from the iconographic tradition — and a stark rupture with the Western tradition — Father Rupnik’s eyes lack any depiction of reflected light penetrating them. This gives rise to obvious possible symbolic meanings that, even if unintended, tend to distract and alarm the viewer. Christianity is, after all, the religion of the incarnation of the Light of the World, in whom his disciples “beheld the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14). 

But the eyes of Father Rupnik’s Christs and saints are deprived of all light, almost as if they depict not the Light of the World, but the Darkness of the World, in whom we behold only darkness. One thinks of Our Lord’s saying, “But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!” (Matthew 6:23).

These concerns are not of themselves sufficient to condemn Father Rupnik’s work for heterodoxy, of course. It will be the task of iconographers, theologians and art historians to identify exactly what Father Rupnik’s artwork expresses. Nonetheless, if the allegations are true, it would be surprising if the artwork did not preach a false Gospel. In such cases, the course of action is clear: “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema,” as St. Paul teaches (Galatians 1:8). Thus, just as Father Rupnik should be forbidden from preaching and teaching, his artworks should be removed from all 200 sacred spaces they currently adorn. Until they are removed, they will continue to preach wordlessly. 

Both Trent and Vatican II call for the removal from churches of artwork that may lead souls astray. Vatican II is particularly clear: 

“Let bishops carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 124). 

Removing Father Rupnik’s art may well be an instance of fidelity to Our Lord’s instruction, “If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee” (Matthew 5:29).

Andrew Thompson-Briggs is a writer and Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs is an oil painter. Together they run Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs Sacred Art and the Catholic Artists Directory. They live in St. Louis with their four small children.