The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, recently concluded an exhibition titled Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet.1 Although the association is perhaps idiosyncratic, the title brings to mind for me the statement in the opening pages of Aristotle’s Politics, in which he reflects famously that the person who does not need to be part of a state is either a god or a beast. The paintings in the exhibition from the early post-World War II period seem to annul the familiar social context of the human person and are largely in the stylistic neighborhood of abstract expressionism. Perhaps a deep weariness with the position of the human person enmeshed in society and the state was to be expected after an extended period of state-directed violence, and in rebellion against oppressive social and political contexts a search would be undertaken at the far reaches of the human spirit for a renewed understanding of the mystery of our nature. Jackson Pollock explored a path even more free of figural representation than had been attempted in the disruptions of artistic tradition preceding him, and Jean Dubuffet explicitly called for a new style of art he called “Art Brut” that aspired to as complete a renunciation of culturally conditioned sensibilities [End Page 5] as could be accomplished. In their midst, the Catholic artist Alfonso Ossorio extended the use of Christian iconography while understanding much sooner than most the spiritual dimension to be found in the work of his two friends and artistic colleagues.
Art historian and critic B. H. Friedman offers a concise identification of artist Alfonso Ossorio (1916–90): “The Manila-born son of a Spanish sugar processor and a Filipino-Spanish-Chinese mother, the Eurasian product of Benedictine training and Oriental refinement.”2 Friedman elsewhere speculates that Ossorio was probably a lapsed Catholic who was closer to what Friedman calls “existential pantheism” in his religious vision and understanding.3 But Ossorio’s younger brother Frederic, speaking at the interment of Ossorio on June 5, 1991, called Alfonso a “prophetic paradox—in that he was both, even from a Roman Catholic perspective, canonically correct, yet wholly-holy ecumenical.”4
Ossorio tells us that his earliest memories of art included the decoration of the Spanish colonial churches in Manila when he was a young boy, together with the art reproductions in popular magazines.5 He was educated at St. Richard’s, a Roman Catholic school in England, and then at a Benedictine school, Portsmouth Priory (now Portsmouth Abbey School) near Newport, Rhode Island, before completing his undergraduate education at Harvard, where he graduated in 1938 after completing a thesis titled “On Spiritual Influences on the Visual Representation of Christ.” Although the term “theological aesthetics” probably would not have been used at that time, Ossorio’s account of his thesis as an exploration of the relationship between religious attitudes and artistic images would place his thought in that territory.
Ossorio’s best known work is probably the mural he painted in 1950 in the chapel of St. Joseph the Worker in Victorias on the island of Negros Occidental in the Philippines. He enjoyed the freedom of having the family wealth derived from his father’s sugar mill providing patronage for the work, and he painted a large and imposing mural depicting Christ seated with his arms open wide, each [End Page 6] arm supported by a hand of God the Father, Christ’s face stern in judgment. He described the work in these terms: “It’s a continual last judgment with the sacrifice of the mass that is the continual reincarnation of God coming into this world. And it worked out beautifully because the services take place usually very early because of the heat and the church had been oriented so that the sun would come in and strike the celebrant as he stood at the altar with this enormous figure behind him.”6 Belgian-born liturgical artist Ade Bethune provided mosaics for the church, and in an article in Liturgical Arts she describes Ossorio’s work in terms that emphasize its theological force: “[Christ] sits in triumph over sin and death. . . . He...