- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

The Rev. Jerome Tupa was no ordinary pilgrim when he walked the devotional 1,700-year-old route from Milan to Rome. Along the way, he created some 300 works in oil, watercolor, pen, ink and pencil to convey the intensity of his religious experience during a 1999 sabbatical. Fortunately, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is showing 50 of these extraordinary works in an exhibit titled "The Road to Rome: A Modern Pilgrimage," through May 7.
The 61-year-old Benedictine monk and professor of French at St. John's Abbey/University in Collegeville, Minn., recorded his personal journey of the spirit in brilliantly colored, heaving buildings and delicately limned landscapes. He says he felt an intense energy and spirituality in the ancient shrines and holy sites whose "ungraspable though tangible spiritual presence" he endeavored to convey.
To accomplish this, Father Tupa almost surprisingly set his buildings in simulated motion. The cathedrals of Florence and Lucca seem to swing and sway, the onion domes of Padua's Santa Giustina church energetically stretch across the canvas, and the curved buildings surrounding Udine's "Palazzo Piazza" threaten to gobble up the central fountain.
The artist bends buildings and trees in works such as "Milan: San Ambrosia" and curves buildings around inner courtyards in "Rome: Teatro di Marcello." He uses fluid, moving patterns of color, shape and texture to depict these venerated places, making them physical expressions of the flux and tensions of the spiritual search.
Father Tupa began his "Road to Rome" journey in Milan, already a major Christian center in the early fourth century and the place where Emperor Constantine issued the pivotal 313 edict that granted Christianity the status of a "tolerated religion" within the Roman Empire. (St. Ambrose, the city's bishop at the time, determinedly pushed the cause with works on theology and ethics that greatly influenced the thought of the church.)
Father Tupa pictures the basilica in "San Ambrosia" as a bright pink-and-orange arched-and-tiled structure. A palm tree arches up at right to meet the stretching towers above. The building looks as though it could slide down and off the canvas.
The monk has always combined his religion with his art. In 1999, he showed "An Uncommon Mission," a series on Catholic religious centers in California, throughout that state. "Painting, like spirituality, is liberating," he firmly believes. "Both are expressions of one's distinct and deeper relationships with the world and with God."
His works are direct expressions of this, especially his painting of the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore (built in the 14th and 15th centuries in Florence, the legendary Tuscan city once ruled by the powerful Medici family). "In Florence, there's a tremendous, constant exposure to some of the noblest religious themes and values found in Western culture," Father Tupa writes.
Perhaps it was this inspiration that resulted in one of his most intense and successful images, "Florence: The Duomo." He decided to crowd this incomparably designed, world-famous church into a narrow vertical space. Again one sees the slipping and sliding of domes and structures as in "San Ambrosia," but Father Tupa effectively stabilizes the scene. He balances the composition by contrasting the "hot" buildings on either side of the Duomo with the "cool" green center of the street.
The main dome and two smaller ones ascend upward as if they're climbing up to God. A smaller niche at left holds the Virgin Mary. The red building that thrusts up at left curves into the dome of the cathedral with forceful intensity.
Father Tupa also traveled through Udine, once a major international trade center and part of the Venetian Republic after 1420. The architecture encompassing aspects of both Venetian and Middle Eastern styles apparently intrigued him when he painted its "Palazzo Piazza." He has written often that color represents "joy" for him, and the bright golds, rusts, reds and oranges here certainly represent that feeling.
One of the most brilliantly colored as well as dramatically structured canvases is "San Gimignano: The Towers." Again as in "San Ambrosia," the towers, built during the city's medieval glory days, lean into and threaten to grab each other near the work's center. A diagonally slashed red area indicates a shadow on a shimmering yellow wall.
"This is a city of towers, and some of the most beautiful and well-drawn frescoes I have ever seen. They recount the life of Jesus and the Last Judgement and are a feast for the eyes," he writes in the exhibit catalog.
This is an exceptional show of a kind of art rarely seen in Washington. Father Tupa clearly looks to painted interpretations of earlier visions of saints and adapts them into his own visual language. The Spanish visionary El Greco and the French artist Georges de la Tour come to mind. But his attempts to translate the spiritual searches and tensions evoked in the religious buildings of his pilgrimage are clearly his own.
Unfortunately, the paintings, though large, and the smaller watercolors seem lost in the gigantic exhibit galleries of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, built just one year ago as a one-of-a-kind museum for religious and cultural programs. The center's gallery spaces are unsuited to a show of this nature. Several large, continuous galleries would have shown the art to better advantage.

WHAT: "The Road to Rome: A Modern Pilgrimage"
WHERE: Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, 3900 Harewood Road NE
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 12 noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, closed Mondays, through May 7
TICKETS: Free, donations requested
PHONE: 202/635-5400

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