Call it coincidence or serendipity – or maybe even the work of a higher power – but the timing of the latest artwork by Albuquerque priest and iconographer Father Bill McNichols couldn’t have been better.
Called “Viriditas: Finding God in All Things,” this 5- by 10-foot polyptych, a grouping of six icons and images, was commissioned last year by Loyola University in Chicago. The frame that holds it all together was carved by master woodworker Roberto Lavadie of Taos.
The Latin word viriditas literally means “greenness,” and in the work McNichols attempts to show the presence of God in all of creation. It was unveiled at the Jesuit university this month, just over a week before the pope began his visit to the United States.
McNichols completed the environmentally themed work in May – the same month Pope Francis released his encyclical “Laudato Si,” which has dominated the discussion of climate and man’s stewardship of the Earth this year.
But it just so happens that while “Viriditas” is “filled with a theology of what we now call greening, or being careful, loving and wise stewards of God’s holy creation,” McNichols says his paintings were inspired by an amazing but little-known woman who died in 1179 and whose writings and concerns about the environment were similar to the ones expressed in 2015 in the pope’s encyclical.
“When they commissioned me in Loyola, we didn’t even know he was going to write an encyclical,” McNichols says.
That woman, who McNichols says was a Renaissance woman hundreds of years before the Renaissance, is St. Hildegard von Bingen.
Hildegard lived in Germany from 1098 to 1179. She was a Benedictine abbess, the author of nine books and more than 400 letters, the composer of 77 songs and what is arguably the first opera, and a philosopher and Christian mystic who in 2012 was declared a doctor of the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI.
Hildegard is also considered the founder of scientific natural history in Germany and during her life was concerned about how humans were treating the world.
“I don’t know what Earth pollution was occurring in the 1150s,” McNichols said, but it does seems to me that this would be in the middle of what used to be called the Dark Ages, a time not exactly known for sanitary living practices (Hildegard is said to have recommended boiling water to prevent infections.)
And Hildegard is depicted in one of McNichols’ icons within the polyptych.
The uppermost image is of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit surrounded by a swirl of stars and planets during the big bang.
“In Genesis, it says the Holy Spirit was hovering over the void and there was nothing and then God said, ‘Let there be light.’ I pictured what the big bang theory, when everything came to be – that’s how science describes it – how can you picture that in Christian art?”
The next three paintings feature green leaves, colorful rocks and the Earth surrounded by a green atmosphere and green flames to again symbolize the Holy Spirit “creating and re-creating the greening of Earth.”
“With this I was trying to say that everything is holy; trees are holy, leaves are holy, dirt and rocks are holy, because they are all part of creation,” he said.
Or, as Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si, “Soil, water, mountains – everything is a stroke of God.”
At the bottom, one painting shows St. Francis, the patron of the ecology, and another shows saints Hildegard and Ignatius, whose “mysticism flowers with finding God in all things.” With them is the Christ child, who is putting life back into the dead tree branches of the cross.
“Hildegard once said that running away from God is like being a dead tree – you don’t have any life in you,” McNichols said.
McNichols obviously has no problem with the mix of religion and environmentalism.
“God tells us to take care of the Earth,” he said. “I don’t think that’s political.”
He said that although the pope is “getting a lot of flack” for his comments on climate change, “He’s doing it for us and our children. He’s 78 years old; he won’t even be around” for what climate scientists say will be the results of human activities on the planet.
“I felt really wonderful about him doing Laudato Si,” he said. “If you took out all the references to God and religion, it is still a magnificent document that could be read by anyone.”
McNichols has been a Catholic priest for 36 years, 23 of them in New Mexico.
He says his official job now is to be an iconographer. His website, fatherbill.org, features color representations of dozens of icons he has created since he learned to paint them in 1990.
His other job is to assist with sacramental ministry in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which he does at St. Joseph on the Rio Grande on Albuquerque’s West Mesa.
McNichols said he hopes “Viriditas” will introduce people to Hildegard: “When I gave my talk about the piece at Loyola, I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but there’s this saint, Hildegard, who said all this 800 years ago.’ ”
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