The Art of Tommy Canning
by Jef Murray
religious paintings are not for the faint of heart. And although many of
his images can be lyrical and charming, the overarching impression one
has when viewing his greatest works is of raw energy. Yet, this energy
serves a purpose. Canning's work can be unsettling, but when that is the
case, it is for the sake of connecting the viewer with the deepest of
Catholic truths and with St. Faustina's message of Divine Mercy. And it
does this in an almost visceral fashion.
Born to John and Mary Canning on Christmas day in 1969, the youngest of
five sons, Canning grew up in Scotland, south of the city of Glasgow. He
was just four years old when his father died of a heart attack. He went
on to suffer through difficult childhood illnesses, but was well formed
in the faith and benefited from the loving support of his mother and
brothers. Because he loved science fiction, fantasy, and comic books, in
his teen years, he decided he wanted to pursue art and illustration as a
career. But before he could get far in his formal training, his family's
business failed and he had to jump headlong into trying to make a living
as a freelance illustrator.
"I managed to achieve some success, even before I had reached the age of
19," says Canning. "At the same time, I began to reflect a lot more
about the kind of person I was. I began to ask myself the big questions
"I realized that I was falling far short of what is expected of me as a
Catholic. I had never lapsed from attending church, but church was not
the center of my life. When I was 19, I visited Rome with my family - a
trip that changed my outlook and had a profound impact on me as a
Catholic and as an artist. I was simply blown away. I suddenly had the
desire to delve deeper into the Faith.
I also had a desire to
emulate the beauty and craft that was depicted in the art and
architecture of the churches in Rome."
It was also about this time that Canning
became acquainted with the message of and devotion to the Divine Mercy,
as revealed to
in the 1930s. Born Helena Kowalska in Poland, this young girl entered
the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy when she was almost
twenty, as a result of a vision she had of the suffering Lord. The
year following this vision, she received her religious habit and was given the name
Sister Maria Faustina. She went on to declare the desire that all the
world should know about Jesus' loving mercy.
"Being an artist, I was also intrigued by Jesus' request of Sr. Faustina
in 1931 to have an image of Him painted according to the way He had
appeared to her," says Canning.
Jesus clothed in a white garment with His right hand raised in blessing.
His left hand was touching His garment in the area of the Heart, from
where two large rays came forth, one red and the other pale. She gazed
intently at the Lord in silence, her soul filled with awe, but also with
"Jesus said to her: ‘Paint an image according to the pattern you see,
with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You. I promise that the soul that
will venerate this image will not perish' (Diary of St. Faustina, 47)."
"For me, this became like a call to use my artistic gifts that God gave
me to help make known this message of Divine Mercy."
The Divine Mercy image is one of the paintings one encounters on
visiting Canning's website (art-of-divinemercy.co.uk). It is one of the
more tame images, but it fixes a pattern for Canning's subsequent work.
He creates intensely realistic scenes...sometimes almost to the point of
surrealism. And he uses light, lightning, the power of waves, and the
movement of planets to create an almost Promethean view of Christ as
fire-giver, as judge. But elsewhere, Canning shows us the Christ of the
Passion...Christ as victim and as profound carrier of all sin.
When first encountering Canning's paintings, one may initially be
reminded of Renaissance paintings of the Passion, the Crucifixion, and
even of mythological events. Many of these have haunted the Western
subconscious for centuries. Who cannot help being deeply affected, for
instance, by Rubens' painting of Prometheus, with the eagle tearing at
the flesh of the bound god? Yet it is just such a mix of visceral horror
and pathos that can at times grip one when viewing Canning's Passion
paintings. In this, he may also remind the viewer of the cinematic
achievements of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" (the soundtrack of
which magnificently compliments Canning's images on his "Art of Divine
Again, these images can be tough to take. But Canning does not linger on
Christ's sufferings without reason. Within some of his most graphic
works (e.g., "The Perfect Sacrifice," a painting created to mark the
Year of the Eucharist) there are also images of hope, of joy, of the
deepest meaning of Christ's offering of himself. The painting depicts
St. John and Our Lady in the foreground, gazing at the bloodied nailed
feet of Christ. But, beyond them both, in the background, we see Christ
at the Last Supper with his Apostles, instituting the Eucharist. And
around the whole, there is light in the form of a Jewish Menorah in the
upper left, with Trinitarian candles in the bottom left and right
corners. In the centre of all is a chalice with a glowing Host above
it...brighter than any other object in the whole image. Seemingly
handwritten texts in Greek adorn the top and bottom of the painting.
Canning explains. "The Gospel narratives from Luke's Gospel at the top,
from Chapter 22:19 recall Christ's words of institution with the
Apostles at the Last Supper. At the bottom of the image the words recall
the disciples' encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus,
Lk(24:31). Particularly the moment when Jesus breaks bread and their
eyes are opened."
Some other paintings that take the viewer on very different journeys are
Canning's "Before the Day of Justice" (relating to Divine Mercy), "Be Not
Afraid" (a powerful commemorative painting of John Paul IIs 25th
anniversary as Pope.), and "Creatio Ex Nihilo" (an 8ft by 5ft painting
of the creation of the Universe and the Fall of Adam and Eve, that is
installed in a retreat house in Spain).
The latter work is viewable online, but can be seen in greater detail on
Canning's DVD. The image is enormous, and encompasses, in one place, the
first of God's three great acts of mercy (Creation, the Incarnation, and
Sanctification/Divinisation, according to Canning). In "Creatio Ex Nihilo", a luminous Father and Son with Holy Spirit between them are centred on the canvas amid exploding stars and planets. On their right
are Adam and Eve in the garden before the Fall, and on their left, the
couple reappear banished from the Garden. Viewing this painting in
person must be an awe-inspiring event, rather like the first unveiling
of Dali's "Christ of Saint John of the Cross," when allegedly many
attendees dropped to their knees in prayer. Canning's work, especially
when viewed in DVD form by audiences at conferences worldwide, has
apparently had a similar effect.
"Creatio" exemplifies that aspect of Canning's work which may be its
most important, and that is its unusual ability to connect classical
images with contemporary ones. One rarely encounters a creation scene
that shows planets and stars in the convulsions that 21st century human
beings understand to have been a part of the creation of our universe.
Yet here, Canning develops an image that can satisfy those who most
cherish traditional images of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as
those who prefer the crisper, cleaner look of a motion picture or a
video game. A bridge has been created between the old and the new.
And with this, Gospel
truths become more real, more immediate, and infinitely less saccharine
in form than most of us are used to seeing in contemporary Christian
In this respect, what Canning seems to have done is to make contemporary
Catholic imagery relevant. He has taken the truths of our faith and made
them almost palpable. And in so doing, he has taken to heart Pope John
Paul II's 1999 letter to artists. In that magnificent plea to the
creative community, John Paul asserted that "it is up to you, men and
women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth
of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed...."
Tommy Canning has done this. He continues to struggle with the
difficulties of being a starving artist in an age that believes that
faith is irrelevant. But because of his vision and perseverance, we are
all blessed and strengthened. Because of his efforts, many souls that
might never have looked twice at religious art before may find
themselves believing once again in a God of
power and might.
Copyright 2007 Jef Murray,
Saint Austin Review.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of StAR
Magazine and was written by Artist-in-Residence
Jef Murray (