The Art of Tommy Canning  

by Jef Murray

 

Tommy Canning's 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 of life."

"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

St. Faustina 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.

"She saw 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 great joy."

"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 Mercy" DVD).

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 imagery.

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 ( www.JefMurray.com ).

 
 
 
Web site by Allan Canning. Email  Allan  with questions or comments about this web site.
All content and artwork Copyright © 2010 Tommy Canning/Art of Divine Mercy
Last modified: November 23, 2011