“Just look at it!”: Immanent Trinity Decoration (1924)

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Immanent Trinity Decoration, 1924, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
The Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues, Wernersville, Pennsylvania

This painting, along with his Nativity, is among Carl Schmitt’s largest religious paintings, and his most glorious.  It was done during Schmitt’s “tapestry” period, yet, like The Sower, moves beyond that ethos both in terms of artistic accomplishment and religious content.  

The work caught the eye of Mrs. Nicholas Brady, wife of one of the most prominent and wealthy Catholics in America, who purchased it for the novititate house she was building for the Jesuit order in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Brady had already bought a smaller crucifixion Schmitt had done while in Chartres (see image below), and gave both to grace the new house, where they remain to this day. 

Contemporary reviewers of the painting appreciated its glorious color but were were puzzled by its title; as one critic wondered, “why ‘Trinity’ when apparently it represents only the Second Person?”  They also noted how odd it was to depict Christ’s crucifixion without the cross.  In this article Schmitt’s son Carl, Jr. ponders  the deeper content of the work, exploring both its title and its portrait of Christ. 

IMMANENT TRINITY DECORATION - detail of man's head

This is a most perplexing painting. As I’ve said on other occasions, whenever I offered an  explanation of one of my father’s paintings, he would always say, “Don’t make silly theories, just look at it.”

He meant, “If you are in any way attracted by it, look again, gaze at it, think about it, contemplate it. And then maybe you’ll see something more in it—and perhaps you’ll even begin to enjoy it.”

At a first look, we certainly are perplexed.  The main figure seems to be Christ crucified—but certainly not in a guise we are familiar with.  His arms are outstretched as if on a cross and he seems to be dying; but the cross itself is not there.  Wounded he is, but not in his feet, and though he has a halo, there’s no crown of thorns; it is also a bit startling to see his hair almost blond. And though we can see there a Mary, John, the Magdalene, and two angels, the setting itself hardly suggests that “place of the skull” we know as Calvary.

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Crucifixion, 1927, oil on canvas, 18 x 15 in.
The first of Schmitt’s works purchased by Mrs. Nicholas Brady, it is one of the few oil paintings he completed during his stay in Chartres with his family.

But the title at least supplies us with a clue: this is the immanent Christ.  This is, to be sure, most unusual, yet we can find its basis in the Gospel itself.  We have seen portrayals of Christ drawn from a multitude of Gospel scenes—all those Nativities and Madonnas and countless other depictions of the Savior’s life through his passion and death to his resurrection, ascension, and glory.  None of these can be said to portray an immanent  Christ.

Schmitt saw Christ in all of those ways, but the basis for his depiction of an immanent Christ can also be found in the Gospel. Christ, for Schmitt, was “true God and true man,” and this he continues to be, now and forever, the absolutely perfect union of the divine and the human.  In Biblical language the word adam means “man,” and for Schmitt, as he often pointed out, it was no  accident that Christ’s favorite name for himself was “the Son of Man.”

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Adam and Eve, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 38½ x 33¼ in.

Furthermore, who has not been moved by that passage in the Gospel when Christ refers to a moment in the last judgment when those he welcomes into his kingdom ask, “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or see thee thirsty and give thee to drink?” And the Lord will answer, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”  And Christ gives a like response to those who were condemned.

In effect, Christ is potentially immanent in every man.  Pope John Paul II more than once said that Christ “has united Himself in some way with every man.”  Here is man not just in the universality of a word we use to assert a truth, but in the reality of the Word, which we likewise find asserted in the Gospel.  And likewise who has not heard that we are called to be “other Christs”?  Who has not been challenged by the effort to “see Christ” in others?

Schmitt has written that “The aim of art is to bear witness of the truth.”  He devoted his life as an artist to seeing reality as truly and deeply as he could in order to put it into his work, which he always thought of as simply a gift.  This is perhaps why he asked us simply to look at his paintings, in the hope that we might “in some way” be attracted enough to look again and see more deeply.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2013.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—What causes all the joy

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Brown Nativity, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in.

“What causes all the joy, even irresponsibly, to flood one’s soul, and mind, and veins and heart so that there seems to be no sorrow or pain?  What causes all the joy to disappear, sometimes for long arid periods, sometimes for a moment—why the almost complete despair?  I suppose only in these circumstances can we reach the greatest gift—HOPE.”  (1938)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Grateful as a beggar

“My philosophy may be summed up thus:
“First, to receive from God gratefully everything possible that I can get.
“Second, to give back to God through my neighbor everything which I can give.
“To give gifts to my neighbor I must use art, because a gift must be made—
hence I must be an artist.
“The world of doing, the wage, is outside my world of beggars and gifts,
because I believe that God gives me my energy.  I cannot earn it.
I can only be grateful as a beggar and share as a beggar would.”
(1933)

Gum arabic print for a magazine article on Thanksgiving, 1930s.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Desire and the gift

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Woman and Guardian Angel, oil on canvas on board, 1925, 30 x 25 in.
A recent gift to the Foundation from the grandniece of John Kenneth Byard, one of Carl Schmitt’s early patrons.

“We can only get a gift from God by drawing it to us through desire.  We cannot get it at any time, but only at that precise moment when our soul is consumed with desire for that particular gift.  Thus only is suffering to be understood.  The deeper the suffering, the emptier the soul, the higher the gift.

“The ultimate gift, Hope, can only be wanted when we despair sufficiently.  Today we do not yet despair sufficiently—it is a half-way affair, clinging to an old faith like a fairy-tale.  Only when we are honest enough to acknowledge our very patent loss of faith, can we recover it again through Hope and Love.  Faith, you must know, has died though lack of love.  We must go manfully on to desperation.”  (1939)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The greatest gift

“What causes all the joy, even irresponsibly, to flood ones soul, and mind, and veins and heart so that there seems to be no sorrow or pain?  What causes all the joy to disappear, sometimes for long arid periods, sometimes for a moment—why the almost complete despair?  I suppose only in these circumstances can we reach the greatest gift—HOPE.”  (1938)

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Noli me tangere (Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection), woodblock print, 1920, 8¾ x 5 in.