Jean Charlot


Drama: Sophocles

In giving metric voice[2] to the deep currents of his time, Sophocles unconsciously revealed what dim longings shook the pagan soul that were to be soothed in full only after the Incarnation.[3]  

The gray monochrome of this panel was chosen in part to suggest marble, the material that preserved for us the dramatist’s likeness; and in part to express visually this pregnant incompleteness especially felt in the highest of pagan achievements. 


Drama: Genesius 

Having memorized as an actor the lines from classical dramas, Genesius was aware of the worth of pagan culture.  He could renounce it only for a still better fare.  Is it far-fetched to say that Genesius, spilling a martyr’s blood on the pagan stage, hallowed it, bringing Sophocles et al. into the Church as St. Thomas was to do later with Aristotle?[4] 

Painted in gold and centered, the actor’s mask expresses the substance of Roman culture.  The Saint is pushed into the margin, as were Christians in catacombs.[5] 


Dance: Hopi Snake Dance 

Ancient American Indian culture contradicts the often heard assertion that America lacks a past.  Not meant as a divertissement, Hopi dance is a form of propitiation and worship.  Maybe barbaric in its paraphernalia, this snake dance remains meditative in content.  The snakes are seen as go-betweens that will, when released, herald at large man’s peaceful intentions.  To tame the aggressive or indifferent forces around him, the Indian favors measured rhythm over machinery.


Dance: Theresa of Avila with Tambourine

Saint Theresa of Spain, proud of her small ankle,[6] was no sad type of religious.[7]  In founding her convents, distrusting sadness, she saw to it that superiors did not forget to store, besides more conventional objects, tambourines to help nuns make merry at recreation time. 

The only portrait from life of Theresa was little to her taste.  She said to its[8] author: “May God forgive you, brother, as I cannot.”  Based on this same portrait, this fresco version attempts to make amends for the abashed cleric. 


Poetry: Hilda of Whitby

An abbess like Hilda was a good executive, with many[9] bodies and souls under her pastoral care.  A poet herself, is it chance that she kept Caedmon, the poet, as her swineherd?  While a lesser mind would have perhaps chosen him as the librarian, wise Hilda knew that there is more in common between poetry and life, be it animal life, than between poetry and books. 

In her hand, the slain bird she brought back to life, according to legend.[10]  On her crosier, the snail whose shell exists fossilized in the stone quarried in that region: perhaps for us rather a symbol of the silent[11] meditative self that should never be lost in the hubbub of active life. 


Poetry: Chaucer 

Good Chaucer, with his eyes cast downwards as if looking, says he, for a lost pin.  Nearly closed, his eyes still saw more and more keenly than many wide open ones.  Somewhat disquieting in the pious ensemble is the beard not unlike that of a pagan faun.  Yet the poet holds tight to his rosary, with its beads threaded like planets strung on their orbits in a medieval almanac, and it is perhaps a clue as to where he learned so much about the ways[12] of celestial bodies of which he could so sagely discourse.[13] 


Vocal Music: Gregory the Great 

Thanks be to Gregory whose timeless rulings shoo out of church the self-esteem of would-be operatic tenors, as Our Lord expelled wrathfully the merchants.  Please Gregory that on some future day some equally zealous pontiff free his church from mercantile visual art, as cacophonic as any would-be tremolo.[14] 

In ambush[15] behind his tiara, the oldster gives voice as a model and as a command.  The Holy Dove conducts[16] the performance with His wing beat, at a rhythm that the gloved, bejeweled hand spreads[17] to the whole Church. 


Vocal Music: Negro Spirituals 

Brought to America for their bodies to perform[18] menial tasks, negroes asserted their soul[19] through music.  Folk art can at times be more powerful than any signed art.  The anonymity of folk art guarantees the selfless impulse that gives it birth, underlies its urgency.[20]  After all, cathedrals too are anonymous and the selfless work of many.[21]

The purple hue of the panel, deep[22] as fresco will allow, is the counterpart of the painted Gregory, all in pale yellows and whites. 


Needlework: Paul 

Paul, sail-mender and tent-maker, would have been surprised at the concept that needlework is a genteel activity reserved for young maidens.  Between hair-raising escapes, floggings, shipwrecks, and a ministry as strenuous, Paul stopped long enough to thread through[23] the bone needle a thread thick as a small rope, to squat tailor-wise, and sew the stiff canvas with fingers both nimble and tough.  At the very moment, perhaps his mind had soared to Heaven[24] in an ecstasis that failed however to disturb the steady rhythm of the busy hand.[25]  


Ceramics: Adam

As Adam took shape out of the primeval clay, his outline against the sky began to differ in kind from that of hills and cliffs.  When the breath of life entered Adam, from a pot he became a potter; a creator of sorts, he too would turn pots and carve statues.  Even if not endowed with a life of their own, the pots and statues he made still partook of his God-given life.[26] 

The panel presents little else than man in the making.[27]  For what was the world in terms of colors and lines before man looked at it? 


Painting: Guadalupe 

The Indian Juan Diego talked to Our Lady, who left her image imprinted on his palm-woven cloak.  Juan Diego was a frightened and inarticulate man[28] when face to face with the bishop.  So Our Lady ‘spoke’ for him to the ecclesiastic.  The image she painted has the same simplicity, sweetness, and conviction as the words she spoke to shepherds in other places[29] on other occasions.[30] 

Fine art artists would do well[31] to imitate Juan Diego in his sense of inadequacy as messenger between the beyond and the now, for inspiration cannot find a place to alight[32] on a man already full of self. 


Painting: Veronica 

Martha-like, Veronica wished to do[33] one practical thing for our Lord in wiping off His Face the sweat of the Passion.  Born of action,[34] this deed was rewarded[35] in meditation out of time every time we look at Veronica’s kerchief. 

Painters would[36] do well to pray to Veronica that their pictures be modeled after the canvas she devotedly holds: in their motif that should be selflessness; in their picture itself that, regardless of its subject-matter, should be a likeness of God, implied or explicit.[37] 


Instrumental Music: Jubal 

“Jubal was the inventor of Music, that is, of harmonies, so that pastoral labor might be turned into delight,” says Historia Ecclesiastica, paraphrasing Genesis.[38]  Jubal’s brother was Tubalcain, a brawny smith and a noisy one, it seems.  A biblical prefigure of Martha and Mary, the active man and the contemplative one completed each other.  Legend has it that Jubal worked out his theory of harmonies on the basis of the smithy’s din at his anvil. 

Artists should not be proud of being what they are.  The whole world of noise and action is needed to procure for the artist enough silence to work in and to be filtered and redeemed in his art. 


Instrumental Music: Buffalo and Flute Player 


The child guiding the herd of giant water buffaloes by the sound of his reed flute is a Far-Eastern motif symbolizing the power of imponderables over even the grossest of bodies. 


An Oriental illustration of the power of music is the child[39] flute player leading the herd of giant water buffaloes.  The Oriental counterpart of the Western shepherds, favorites of Our Lady, we scarce know what thoughts or what graces may be bestowed on these faraway counterparts of [the shepherds of Bethlehem]. 

We do know that music, most imponderable of the arts, is also the most powerfully moving.  We know that art, if it be true art, is a channel not only of beauty, but of grace, one step removed from a sacramental. 


[1] The four-page typescript, designated “Rough” and dated February 6, 1956, in the Jean Charlot Collection is a draft of the final version, which was sent to Sister Madaleva, president of Saint Mary’s College, and partially published in The Charlot Frescoes: Moreau Hall, Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, 1956.  Whenever possible, I have followed the published version, posted on the web site of the Jean Charlot Foundation, and reconstructed the remainder from the rough draft.  I have noted variants for both final and draft.  Edited by John Charlot. 

[2] Replaces: genius. 

[3] Replaces: by the coming of Christ. 

[4] Draft: had done with Aristotle. 

[5] Replaces:

Painted in gold, the actor’s mask signifies the substance of the Roman order.  Genesius, in dissonant and somewhat barbaric colors, expresses personal conflict as well as that larger one by which Christianity, unable to integrate make its own classical beauty, started a new art, crude but meaningful, in the frescoes of the catacombs. 


[6] Replaces: foot. 

[7] Replaces: mystic, nun. 

[8] Cut: abashed. 

[9] Replaces: taking care of. 

[10] Replaces: that tradition legend, if not history, has her resuscitating. 

[11] Replaces: slow. 

[12] Replaces: and it is perhaps while saying these beads that he learned so much about the habits. 

[13] Replaces: of which he so wisely discoursed. 

[14] Replaces:

Thanks be to Gregory who even today shoos out of church the tremoloed self-esteem of operatic singers, as Our Lord expelled wrathfully the merchants.  Please Gregory that some day some other pontiff free his church from mercantile church art, as cacophonic as any would-be tenor. 


[15] Replaces: hiding behind. 

[16] Replaces: Spirit infuses. 

[17] Replaces: in turn communicates. 

[18] Replaces: as slaves to do. 

[19] Replaces: right to a soul. 

[20] Replaces: Its very anonymity guarantees the purity of the impulse that gave this art birth and underlines its urgency. 

[21] Omit:

In the panel, a group of singers signifies was chosen represented instead of a single figure to signify the plurality and the anonymity that mark the American spiritual as a counterpart sort of musical cathedral. 


[22] Replaces: as dark. 

[23] Replaces: manage. 

[24] Replaces: was in a seventh heaven. 

[25] Replaces: fingers. 

[26] Original:

God is a potter and Adam is his pot.  As he took shape out of the primeval clay, his outline against the sky began to differ in kind from that of hills and cliffs.  God modeled him into a form fit for man, looking upwards, and when He blew the breath of life into Adam-pot, man was on his own was ready to be a small creator, turning pots and statues that, even if not endowed with a life of their own, partook of his God-given life.


[27] Published version: …man in the making, before God breathed a soul into him.  

[28] Replaces: Juan Diego was but a common laborer, and a frightened and inarticulate one at that when face to face. 

[29] Replaces: the world over. 

[30] Cut: Would she have wrought such a miracle. 

[31] Replaces: could. 

[32] Cut: easily. 

[33] Replaces: did for Our Lord. 

[34] Replaces: of urgency. 

[35] Replaces: moment was lifted/was recreated for us. 

[36] Original: should. 

[37] Published: All pictures should…be a likeness of God either explicit or implied. 

[38] Published: Genesis tells us that Jubal was the inventor of music. 

[39] Replaces: small buffalo-herd.