‘Spreading the Gospel Through Beauty’

Artist Bernadette Carstensen’s paintings ‘aid people in their devotions.’

Painting saints gives meaning to the artistic vocation of Bernadette Carstensen.
Painting saints gives meaning to the artistic vocation of Bernadette Carstensen. (photo: Courtesy of Bernadette Carstensen)

While Bernadette Carstensen began painting as a child and planned to become an illustrator, she had no idea that an intriguing art contest would reroute her into becoming the contemporary sacred artist she is today. She has received major commissions and, recently, her painting St. Joseph, Terror of Demons garnered third place in 2021’s Catholic Art Institute Sacred Art Contest, which drew 300 submissions from countries around the world. Her Patron Saints of the Homeless also placed among the few finalists for the top three prizes.

Carstensen recently shared her story with the Register’s Joseph Pronechen.


When did you start painting, and how did you decide to concentrate on beautiful sacred art?

I began painting as a child. I had a little Prang watercolor set and loved to draw fairies and horses. Almost all of my time was spent drawing and coloring. Both of my parents, Larry and Winifred Carstensen, are artistically inclined and attended art school, so they were always very supportive.  Our house was full of all kinds of cool art supplies, paper and plenty of “junk drawers,” where little odds and ends were saved in case we needed them. I had my heart set on being a book illustrator and received my degree in illustration from the Columbus College of Art and Design in 2010, though, after freelancing for a few years, I came upon something that truly sparked my interest.

It was a contest called the Apocalypse Art Prize. I had to illustrate three key points in the Book of Revelation following the rules created by medieval illuminators. I really wanted to win, so I began to research and read the Bible, and along the way discovered that Catholicism is really the most precious thing in my life. After I didn’t win, but was extremely satisfied with the artwork anyway, it was obvious to me that I should continue making Catholic paintings.


How do you see your faith influencing and supporting your art?

I was raised a Catholic. Our parish is St. Patrick’s of Columbus Ohio, part of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, and so I grew up thinking all priests wore the white-and-black habit. I can’t say enough good about those kind priests who helped to form my faith and keep our church and liturgy beautiful.

All through college I attended Mass with my family at St. Pat’s because it was a couple blocks away from the art school. Although I was driven to complete school and work as an artist, I knew my true vocation was motherhood. I just wanted to get married and have a big Catholic family. My dream came true: My husband, Brendan, and I have four children (ages 7 to almost 1), and I still have time for art. I was blessed to meet a devout man who understands the absolute primacy of passing on the faith to our children, and he couldn't be more supportive of my work. The artwork I am doing now is the most fulfilling for me because, through it, I get to know more about the faith, and, also, it’s my way of spreading the Gospel through beauty.


Did any artists influence you?

From the beginning, I was very influenced by “golden age” illustrators — all of the classic fairy-tale pictures, done with ink lines and watercolor. Arthur Rackham was my absolute favorite, but also those that fell in the same category, such as Edmund Dulac and Cicely Mary Barker. I also admired more contemporary illustrators, like Brian Froud and Alan Lee. All throughout college, I worked on my ink and watercolor style, hoping to be the next Rackham.

But I ended up pursuing a more painterly style, after completing the Apocalypse Prize. This is when I began to really love Jan Van Eyck, and the Northern Renaissance look, and also the Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries. I would say the look I am going for is a combination of Pre-Raphaelite idealized-realism with the austerity and reverence of the Northern Renaissance.


How do you account for your wonderful sense of color?

It was something that was nurtured through a childhood saturated in color awareness. My dad worked as a color mixer in a print lab and still works with color matching and color design today, so it was, and is often, a topic of conversation. My mom is very opinionated about color, especially when it comes to flowers or fabric. We knew there were certain flowers that we could not put in a bouquet together. Color and design were just something we always talked about and really cared about.


Your sacred paintings have beautiful symbolic details. Please share why.

Being trained as an illustrator, I enjoy adding little details and symbols to make a painting more narrative. For example, in the large image of St. Joseph, Terror of Demons, commissioned by Father Donald Calloway for his book Consecration to St. Joseph, I was able to characterize the 26 saints and blesseds around him with some symbolic objects. Blessed William Chaminade is holding a small statue of Our Lady of the Pillar to represent his exile to Spain, where he received a message from Mary at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Pillar. Blessed Pope Pius IX is holding two yellow roses to represent Our Lady of Lourdes and his proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. St. Joseph himself is posed as Father Calloway directed, expressing strength and protection, about the age of 35, and Jesus about the age of 5. Joseph merits the title “Terror of Demons” because he perfectly allows God to act through him, shown by the way he is holding Jesus, who wields the lily of purity, which pierces the devil and terrifies him. After I completed the larger version, I painted the image of Joseph without any surrounding figures only for my own enjoyment.


How did your painting of Dominican saints (Fra Angelico among them) come about?

The Dominican saints painting was created in anticipation of the 800th jubilee. My mom put the idea in my head, and after I had a nice sketch worked out, I took it to Father Cassian Derbes at St. Pat’s and asked if the Province of St. Joseph would like to commission the piece. The jubilee was a very big deal at my parish. They celebrated the Mass for the whole province, the papal nuncio was there, and my painting was on display in the Ohio Statehouse.

It was a difficult task to choose which Dominicans to include. I read every single biography in “St. Dominic’s Family” and settled on many of the greats and some who are more obscure. I borrowed a full habit from the Dominican Fathers and recruited a bunch of friends to do a photo shoot. While I was in process, I happened to meet my husband on a Catholic dating site, and so the painting reminds me of a very happy time.


What about your recent Patron Saints of the Homeless, commissioned by the Benedict XVI Institute in the Archdiocese of San Francisco?

It was Maggie Gallagher’s [the institute’s executive director] idea to create an image to go with Archbishop [Salvatore] Cordileone’s Nov. 6 requiem Mass for homeless people. The Mass is a beautiful work of mercy, and I was honored to have a part in it.

Maggie and the archbishop decided on the saints for this one. Interestingly, Maximilian Kolbe is a patron of addicts because of his death by lethal injection. Also pictured is St. Benedict Labré, the patron saint of homeless people, and St. Francis presenting Our Lady with the National Shrine of St. Francis, which is located in San Francisco. The banner (in Latin) above Our Mother of Sorrows reads, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy,” because I wanted the piece to show how the suffering of each figure became their glory in heaven. I wanted Mary to be holding out her sorrowful heart for veneration, rather than having it positioned over her chest. I also wanted her to be holding Baby Jesus because she had sorrow even when he was an infant, though I tried to give her a peaceful look because they are in heaven.

The tapestry in the background held up by angels is an idea I took from Madonna of the Fountain by Van Eyck. The tapestry is like the canopy over the monstrance in a procession, or a way to sanctify the natural space. The angels are red and white for Divine Mercy, and the fountain represents baptism. The flowers are delphiniums, dandelions, passion flower, lily of the valley, and they all represent sorrow, in the Christian sense.


Do people regularly model for your paintings?

I always use models for my artwork, most often my husband, Brendan, my children or myself. Whenever I have a composition drawn out, the next step is taking photos of people in costume. I have a Dominican habit that has been used countless times, a nun’s habit, a bishop’s mitre that I constructed, and one very versatile piece of brown velveteen that has made an appearance in almost all of my work. Finding the right faces is the most enjoyable part of the whole process. I have been known to surprise friends with a request for on-the-spot portrait shots.


What are you working on next?

Currently, I am working on another painting for the Benedict XVI Institute. It will picture all American saints: St. Junípero Serra, Blessed Father Michael McGivney, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, St. Damian of Molokai, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Frances Cabrini, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. René Goupil and an anonymous Huron Indian martyr included to represent the many Christian Hurons who were martyred with the Jesuit missionaries.  It will be finished this spring and will be used in a book of biographies on each figure.


What are your hopes in regards your sacred art?

When I begin to have more time for work, I hope to do more book illustration, pieces with more movement and action. The kids are very young, so I do not paint very much, though my daughters are showing great interest in drawing. I’m already planning their apprenticeships and envisioning a family studio.

More than anything, I hope that my images will be shared far and wide and will aid people in their devotions.