There’s something about Mary. The Mother of Jesus has had a profound impact on countless people over the last 2,000 years. Cathedrals were built in her name. Religious orders were created to honor her. Many have and continue to pray to her. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that two Xavier professors and one alumna found their lives dramatically impacted by her in their own way during recent pilgrimages.
But what is surprising is what they learned about her. It was different. Unknown—or at the very least, certainly not well known.
For each of the last four summers, Xavier has offered a pilgrimage to Spain and Rome to learn about Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Pilgrims tour the Loyola family castle, visit the city of Manresa where he lived in a cave for a year, see the apartment in Rome where he led the early Jesuit order. And though they went at different times and with different purposes, professors Sarah Melcher and Margo Heydt, and alumna and former adjunct art faculty member Holly Schapker were struck by a similar observation: Wherever they went,
there was Mary.
In sculptures, paintings, bas-reliefs and other artworks, Mary was everywhere. While Loyola’s experience at Manresa is best known for the Spiritual Exercises he wrote while living in a nearby cave, all three were struck by the overwhelming evidence that it was Loyola’s devotion to Mary that led him to take up the life of a religious man—vowing himself to poverty and chastity, and later founding the Jesuit order.
So moved by this revelation, all three returned and began expressing their experience in their own professional ways—Schapker through her art, the professors in the writing of a chapter in a book being published this year.
“I was really just curious about the Jesuits,” Heydt says. A longtime associate professor of social work, Heydt was scheduled to co-teach a new course on Religion, Ethics and Professional Practice and was looking to beef up her understanding of the Jesuit order and its influence on universities like Xavier.For Melcher, a tenured associate professor of theology and a linguist, Ignatius was already a familiar soul. “I just thought the trip would be a great way to find out more about Ignatius and the first Jesuits,” she says. “I love Ignatian spirituality and wanted to know more about it.”
From their first stop at the Loyola Family Castle where Ignatius was born, the pattern began to emerge. In the ceiling of the sanctuary where Ignatius was baptized after his birth in 1491 were faded frescoes of women saints. Beneath the marble floors were the vaulted graves of saints, some of whom were women. One room had handmade dioramas lining the walls. The image of Mary was everywhere.
“We kept saying to each other, ‘Wow look at all this stuff about Mary. I don’t remember reading about that in the books’, ” Melcher says.
Another room included 26 mini-carvings depicting the important moments in Ignatius’ life: gazing at a vision of Mary while recuperating from his wounds, caused when a cannonball landed on his legs; wanting to murder a Muslim traveler who questioned the Virgin birth, but choosing not to; surrendering his sword before the Black Madonna statue at Montserrat after an all-night vigil. When they ventured into the Monastery of St. Ignatius, they entered a room where he was hospitalized after being wounded in battle. In the room was a depiction of the ailing Ignatius, life-sized, gazing at Mary hovering above him. In the castle, another statue that struck them was of Ignatius holding, almost cradling, a doll-sized statue of Mary.
“I think it was a way to express his devotion to her, showing that he always carries Mary with him,” Melcher says. As they worked their way through the weeklong pilgrimage, every site from Spain to Rome brought examples of artwork portraying Mary’s importance to Ignatius. At Manresa, where Ignatius lived in a cave for nearly a year, were two bas relief sculptures of him writing the Spiritual Exercises while looking at a vision of Mary and child.
And throughout Spain, they noticed, Mary was a strong, powerful upright figure in contrast to the traditional Mary draped in layers of blue cloth with her demure, downcast eyes. The trip, says Heydt, was eye-opening. “What we uncovered, or discovered, was surprising,” she says. “From day one, the evidence kept building that Mary was the influence that got him interested in going to Rome, writing the Spiritual Exercises, laying his sword down in front of the Black Madonna. The story is that Mary played a role all the way through, and that’s not in the books.”
“In some ways he was ahead of his time,” says Melcher, “and in some ways he was a product of his time. He did seem to reach out more to women than other men of his age. The Inquisition questioned his relationship with women to whom he would give the Spiritual Exercises, and he was always exonerated.” Heydt and Melcher have since written a paper they presented at a conference. It is being included as a chapter in a book, “Jesuit and Feminist Education: Intersections in Teaching and Learning for the Twenty-First Century,” from Fordham University Press. “You can’t not be changed,” says Heydt. “It’s not just about him caring for women but his social justice and attention to social issues that really grabbed me. I have respect for how revolutionary that was.”
“I wasn’t even going to focus on Mary,” Schapker says. “My first painting was of Ignatius. I wanted to include Mary, but I didn’t have the foresight to know what was going to happen. I just did the next thing. “ Call it divine intervention. Seeking to create an exhibit around Ignatius, thinking it made sense for a venue like the Xavier University Art Gallery, Schapker decided to join the Ignatian pilgrimage to get a first-hand sense of the landscape and places that inspired Ignatius.
On her journey, she met William T. Oulvey, S.J., the USA Regional Secretary at the Jesuit General Curia in Rome, after hearing him give a talk. “He told me to pay attention to Ignatius’ relationship with Our Lady of the Way,” says Schapker. “He planted a seed in my mind.” In the end, Mary would be referenced in 18 of the 25 pieces she created for her Loyola exhibit, Adsum: Contemporary Paintings on Ignatian Spirituality. Some of the Marian references are subtle, others obvious. In “Ignatius Portrait,” for example, contemporary maps embedded in Ignatius’ garment represent his close relationship with Our Lady of the Way. The “Black Madonna of Montserrat,” on the other hand, represents the spot where the erstwhile warrior is believed to have laid his battle sword at the foot of the ancient statue.
“Every painting I did was preparation for the next painting,” Schapker says. “At the time, I was doing what I know, and that influenced my next decision and that influenced my next decision. I was more a listener than a planner.” The message she received was unexpected and powerful. “Not only was I surprised that he had this close relationship with Mary,” Schapker says, “but that I developed a close relationship with Mary through Ignatius as a result of the pilgrimage and doing the Spiritual Exercises.”
The combined experiences have changed Schapker’s life, personally and professionally. “I’ve gone from being the creator of my work to a co-creator with God,” she says. “This is a major difference in my creative process. I hope to be more open, to allow my paintings to speak to me rather than me pre-designing them in my mind.”
Schapker says she now views the world from a more spiritual perspective. “I am experiencing more moments in my studio that seem magical,” Schapker says. “My heart is guiding my hands without reason. I am experiencing timelessness as I am in the present and filled with love. This morning I was working on a seascape and painting highlights on the water. I felt as though I could continue working on the same piece with joy for about 10,000 years. Connecting Mary with Mother Earth helps me understand her power, tenderness and unconditional love. When I hike, I feel embraced as I am surrounded by her grace in the dirt, trees, wind and animals.”
By giving up his worldly wealth and title in the name of Christ, Ignatius became more connected to nature as a “pilgrim who mapped a path to God,” Schapker says in the summary of her painting of the hole-laden shoes. Schapker refers to her exhibit as simply “Adsum,” a Latin phrase meaning, “I am here.” Some Biblical scholars say Mary used it in response to the Angel Gabriel’s message that she had been chosen by God to bear his only son. Indeed, Schapker’s exhibit embodies Mary’s influence on Ignatius as much as it reveals the Blessed Mother’s impact on her as an artist in contemporary times. “I feel like I’ve been guided in my work,” she says.
See more of Schapker’s art at www.hollyschapker.com