The Malta Independent 25 June 2024, Tuesday
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The spiritual journey behind religious art

Sunday, 25 March 2018, 12:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

As you walk into Nathanael Theuma's working space, dozens of familiar religious faces look back at you - canvases of different shapes and sizes, all embellished in gold and rich colours. You immediately feel that the room you are in is a somehow holy space, and this makes sense on learning that most of Theuma's work has involved painting sacred art for churches and monasteries. As we walked through the house, there are similar paintings conveying various styles every few steps of the way, and among them lie seemingly life-size paintings of the human anatomy and other subject matters.


The paintings on display in his studio were just a few days away from being moved to an exhibition space in Rabat, where they will now be exhibited during Holy Week for Theuma's upcoming exhibition entitled Sic Dilexit, a Latin phrase describing the love of man by God as 'so loved'. This will be the renowned iconographer's second exhibition in Malta and it works around the theme of love.

Theuma began making icons more than 30 years ago and he believes that he was probably one of the first in Malta to do so. His works move away from the traditional and oriental style of religious icons, which are usually linked to the typical Byzantine icons that we all think of when we hear the words 'religious icon'. He explained that he had studied the attributes of the traditional icon and then developed it, resulting in a religious icon which, although taking off from the classical icon, is more contemporary, varied, and slightly modern and includes his own interpretation.

"There was a development in technique from my side," he said, listing the use of oil colour and materials used as examples. "I use a lot of oil colours and I like painting on wood, many times directly onto the wood too" he said. Moreover, he sometimes uses a material which is similar to sand which provides characteristics of a mural painting, a style with which Theuma feels comfortable, given his experience in the field.

He has so far dedicated his career to deepening his work and producing sacred art, painting churches and monasteries in various places in Italy and Jerusalem, including an 11-metre-high mural in Verona. He describes living in Italy for 20 years as a means of enriching his practice. However, he believes that, in order for sacred art to develop, one's spiritual journey must run parallel with it.

"I think my discourse with sacred art developed not only with age but also with my spiritual journey," he said. Asked whether creating this art is a form of spiritual practice for him, Theuma nodded, saying: "it has to be. "I believe that in order for an icon or a picture to have a sacred dimension, it needs to have a spiritual journey experienced by the person creating it. I could be working on a piece of work with a religious theme, but it stops there, and the theme is religious, just as it could be mythological," he said. "But for the work to be sacred art, it must transmit spirituality. This also comes about from the classical icon, as they are often worked up in monasteries, as they require a spiritual journey on the part of the person working on it."

In fact, his inspiration for an icon very often comes about while he is in church. "Something from what I am hearing will touch me," he said, "and then I translate this into a picture. I will be reflecting what I heard." He explained that some of the biblical stories reflected in his exhibition are somewhat unusual in the art scene, such as Jesus with the Good Samaritan, and the raising of Lazarus. "I would be thinking about them and wanting to introduce them in colour," he said. 

Although Theuma speaks so passionately about his sacred artworks, his interest does not stop there. He is planning to hold another exhibition later on in the year focussing on works related to Maltese folklore and other cultural festivities "in which religion may be present but, if so, in an indirect manner." He says that he also loves artwork that is linked to the study of the human body.

The works at Theuma's Holy Week exhibition will depict different scenes from the life of Jesus that depict love, alongside theological explanations of each work. The exhibition will be organised in a journey of sorts, painted on canvas and on wood. I want my message to be let us not stop at Holy Week, because it was practically throughout all his life that Christ loved - and not only during that period," he said.

Sic Dilexit will be held throughout Holy Week, from today, Palm Sunday, to Easter Sunday, at Casino Notabile in Rabat. It will be open from 10 am to 2 pm, and from 6 pm to 9 pm, and all day on Good Friday. 


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