Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Woodcut by Carlos Hermosilla Alvarez
Chilean, 1905 - 1991
Juan XXIII, 1978
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joel H Rosenthal
Collection of the Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University

   Marquette’s Haggerty Art Museum holds a beautiful and intricate woodcut portrait of Pope John XIII by Chilean Carlos Hermosilla Alvarez. (1905 -1991)  The woodcut was displayed at the Haggerty in an exhibition titled, “Que es hispanico?” (What is Hispanic?), from September to December this last year.  

   As described in the Haggerty brochure by Scott Dale, the artist is a “Chilean poet, humanitarian, beloved art professor, realist, print maker, and graphic artist.” The bold portrait expresses fortitude and hope emerging from tragedy yet human potential.  The background of the portrait shows the crosses of Calvary, the suffering face of the crucified Jesus, Vatican’s St. Peter’s and Pope Benedict XV.  The title of John XIII’s encyclical Peace on Earth appears in Spanish – Paz en la Tierra.  The ‘z’ in Paz is reversed – it must be that typos in wood cuts are irreversible.  Carlos Hermosilla Alvarez experienced what he expresses in art. Scott Dale reports that Hermosilla Alvarez suffered physically from various serious ailments.  The artist, like the poet Pablo Neruda, also had to endure the violent, U.S. sponsored regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

   We can relate to the artist’s message today.  The crosses in the background and the suffering face of Jesus mirror the suffering of undocumented children and families torn apart by a broken immigration system. Alvarez experienced the injustices and suffering perpetrated on the Chilean people after the September 11 golpe del estado in 1973 by Augusto Pinochet.

   The forgotten Pope Benedict XV appears in the background. Scott Dale in the Haggerty brochure says John XXIII referred to Benedict XV as “the most sympathetic of the popes he had met.” Their common bond is understandable.  John XIII as a chaplain and hospital orderly experienced the horrors of World War I.  Benedict XV did what he could do to alleviate the suffering and offered a peace proposal that was rejected by the warring nations.  Even French Dominican A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. preached against the peace proposal,[1] but after the war U.S. president Wilson used it as a model for his fourteen point path to peace.[2]  

   John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, written just before he died, (Peace on Earth, 1963) continues his struggle for peace by setting a strong theme for Vatican II. The woodcut has the Spanish title in the background of the portrait – Paz en la Tierra. In Pacem in Terris, John sees the way to peace through justice.  He elaborates on previous papal encyclicals by stating that workers have the right and duty to form unions.  Also the public has the duty to support unions. (1:44)  This is certainly in opposition to the Pinochet regime.

    St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican as a background for the woodcut is a reminder of the Vatican II Council.  John XXIII in his opening speech emphasized mercy rather than condemnation. This too is the theme for the present pope.  Francis has called for a holy year of mercy.    

   Documents of Vatican II attempted to break down barriers so all could cooperate and work for peace.  It offered reconciliation with atheists, Protestants, and non-Christians.  Dictator of Spain, Franco, favored by Pius XII, received a cold shoulder from John XXIII and the Council. The Vatican’s cooperation with the injustice of fascism was ended. John XXIII on his death bed said:

The secret of my ministry is in the crucifix….Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they mean that Christ died for all, for all.  No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness.” [3]

   John XXIII and Vatican Council II attempted to change the identity of the Roman Catholic Church from self-absorbing righteous piousness to ecumenism in search of justice and peace.

[1] Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P. and Paul Philbert, O.P., Scanning the Signs of the Times, ATF Ltd. Hindmarsh. SA 5007, 2013, p.3.

[2] Greg Tobin, The Good Pope, HarperOne, 2012, p. 45.

[3] Thomas Cahill, Pope John XXIII, Penguin, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 2002.

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