The "Ad Orientem" Project

Although I have promoted myself primarily as a musician (a classically trained lyric baritone, church organist, and classical pianist), my first real love was art. My mother was an artist, and I took after her in this regard. In 2008 when I could see my church music career about to implode, I again took up oil painting. I have enjoyed my return to this artform. The oils medium is most satisfying to me because the slow drying process works well with the way that I am hardwired. I enjoy working on my own projects at my own pace without someone looking over my shoulder and pressuring me to meet a deadline.
The project that I am about to describe has been an idea that I have been carrying with me for a few years. In recent weeks, I have been able to envision this project with greater clarity. I am titling my proposed work: Ad Orientem.

The term, “ad orientem” is Latin for “toward the east.” Before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it was required at the Roman Catholic Mass that the presiding priest or bishop, while standing at the altar, face away from the assembled people toward the back wall of the sanctuary. When changes to the Mass were introduced, the priest began to face the people. This reform was to allow those in the assembly to see the actions of the priest and facilitate the active participation of the laity. In recent years, more conservative Catholics, at the encouragement of some prelates, have actively worked toward the re-establishment of the “ad orientem” position for the priest. Many such Catholics prefer that the Vatican II liturgy of Pope Saint Paul VI be abandoned entirely in favor of the previous Pius V Missal. Devotees of the “ad orientem” posture believe that it promotes a stronger sense of “reverence” and mystery which the current practice of facing the assembly allegedly does not.

Catholic prelates, priests, and laity with a strong preference for pre-Vatican II forms tend to desire a return to the mindset and values popular in the era of the 1950s, when abortion was illegal, racial segregation was legal, homosexuals were viewed the same as pedophiles, and “good Catholic girls” had only two choices for their future: the convent or the kitchen. There continues to be the belief that the fifteen or so years following the Second World War was an ideal age that was destroyed in the 1960s by the onset of the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and civil rights movements, and Vatican II.
The “Make America Great Again” movement spearheaded by the political rise of Donald Trump galvanized many conservative Catholics in the United States alongside many right-wing Evangelicals. Their common causes of re-criminalizing abortion and outlawing same-sex marriage have been pitted against other issues deemed “liberal” such as climate change, gun safety reform, systemic racism, public assistance for the poor, compassion for brown-skinned migrants and refugees, and a wide range of civil rights issues. For Catholics who staunchly support extreme right-wing politics, the pre-Vatican II Latin language ad orientem mass has become the symbol of their nostalgic look back on a bygone age obscured by self-deluding idealized images.

The proposed work will be created on a 60” by 30” canvas. The picture will be divided into upper and lower regions.
Centered in the upper field will be a bishop clothed in the ornate vestments so loved by “traditionalist” Catholics. He is facing the altar “ad orientem” and is elevating the consecrated host. The host is not the pure (immaculate) white altar bread often seen in these poses, but rather an image of an eclipsed sun: a darkened disc clutched in the fingers of the bishop with a sliver of light and short rays encircling the black orb. A kneeling young male mass server is at the bishop’s feet, holding up the ornate chasuble. Below the steps that support the altar kneels a veiled lay woman to the left and an immaculately groomed lay man in a grey suit on the right. Both the man and woman have their backs to the viewer. Just behind the feet of the worshipping man and woman is the large bulbous posterior of a what could be a kneeling woman with her unseen head bowed to the floor. This entire scene is framed within a concrete gothic arch and the suggestion of concrete church walls. To the left of the structure are distant hills ablaze with a wildfire, belching dark smoke into the skies above. On the right is the scene of a devastating hurricane.

At the foot of the “church” is a sidewalk that divides the upper and lower portions of the picture. Lying on the sidewalk is a side view of the stripped Christ wearing his crown of thorns, his arms stretched out, freshly nailed to the cross.
Below the sidewalk bearing the crucified Christ is a row of fourteen white crosses—similar to those erected at sites of school mass shootings. Each cross is numbered by Roman numerals: I through XIV suggesting the fourteen “stations” of the “via crucis” or “way of the cross” devotion.

The lower half of the picture, below the sidewalk and row of white crosses is a field of great darkness out of which emerge several images: 1. Down the middle: several bodies of slayed children bleeding out after a shooting at school. 2. To the right, behind a cyclone fence, young brown skinned children sit on a floor, some wrapped in silver mylar covers. 3. Upper left: the head of a black man against the pavement with the knee of a law-enforcement officer upon his neck. 4. Middle left: Distraught, brown-skinned young father and mother holding a portrait of their slain daughter. 5. The severely bruised face of a young Asian man.

Artists create images to serve as mirrors reflecting to us the world in which we live. Much of our world is beautiful, but some of it is very ugly. Nothing is uglier than the senseless suffering of the “least brethren” who are often helpless children, the poor, and the stranger (see Matthew 25). A portion of the Catholic population in the United States prefers to look backward upon an age that never existed. They are mesmerized by fanciful representations of “beauty” that temporarily satisfy their longing for perfection and purity. But the “true presence” of Christ which they hope to see in the consecrated host as it briefly appears over the head of the priest, is obscured by their blindness to Christ suffering in the ugliness of the human condition. They are facing the wrong way!

Some people will consider my painting as blasphemy and will be angry at it. I do not expect it to change people’s minds. It will, however, be a pictorial record of a time when the search for “beauty” and perfection distracted from recognizing the suffering Christ taking place out of our chosen view.
The cost to initiate this project could cost about $500 (for the canvas and a larger, sturdier work easel and other supplies) but beyond this, I am in need of funds to supplement my income. My meager social security retirement benefit does not cover all my expenses. I am fine as far as rent, food, and medical expense are concerned, but other day-to-day expenses are not covered. The extra funding will make it possible for me to create this work over the next year. Please help me if you can.


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Joseph Murphy 
Redwood City, CA