The Light of the Resurrection at the Peripheries of the World. Photo by Maria Ramos

Fr. Constantino Ruggeri Exhibit

"His work seems to express, not senseless figures, but the impenetrable depth of reality." A reflection on the 2015 New York Encounter exhibit, "The Light of the Resurrection on the Peripheries of the World."
Raphael Arza

To walk into the Our Sunday Visitor Exhibit Hall of the New York Encounter is to be immediately confronted with an Exhibit entitled The Light of the Resurrection in the Peripheries of the World. It was an exhibit that presented the art and work of a little known Franciscan friar, Fr. Costantino Ruggeri.

I was intrigued. What could Ruggeri’s work mean in relation to the theme of the Encounter itself, In Search of a Human Face? My question was similar to many of those with whom I spoke: What does the work of this Friar have to say to us about our identity?

Ruggeri’s attention was guided as a disciple of his father St. Francis and he tried to use his art as a means of expressing his encounter with Beauty, not in some abstract spiritual world, but in the concrete world of his experience. There is much more going on here than can be immediately perceived at first glance.

Ruggeri’s works have quotidian themes: people at work, a rose, or the night sky, and yet each of these is presented as though veiled, in an almost mysterious manner. The beauty is not evident immediately, nor is it always clear what subject he is trying to portray, yet one can perceive that his focus is not to draw our attention to his work of art, but to the world from which it comes.

Often, I found myself asking: “What did Ruggeri see when he looked at the night sky?” The earth was painted red with a touch of green as a top layer while a tree tilted precariously, helplessly suspended above the ground. I would hazard to that guess Ruggeri never came across many floating trees, so his piece evokes an unavoidable question in the viewer. His night sky is a provocation. His tremendous skill in art would have allowed him to convey everything with precision and clarity but he instead chose to portray his experience in a much more hidden way.

At first, engaging with the work of Ruggeri it is easy to see how we often limit the expression of our experiences within what is comprehensible to us. Yet, isn’t it true that there are many night skies that we see, and they just seem to pass us by without evoking much awe or wonder? Ruggeri seemed to see something novel in the night sky, recognizing that it is new each night and possesses something truly inexhaustible. It is beautiful to see a painting that portrays the night sky clearly, in a manner that is common to our experience, but for Ruggeri the experience of the night seems to be uncontainable, beyond the mere capacity of explicit expression.

New York Encounter attendees at the Ruggeri exhibit. Photo by Maria Ramos

I am the last person I know who would say that there was something beautiful in abstract art and yet I found myself in wonder before what Ruggeri was saying to me: “The Beauty in reality is not explicit. It is implicit. It is veiled.” Is this not our experience? When we see Beauty, it requires a response. Reality doesn’t impose its beauty upon me; rather it proposes beauty to me. Ruggeri’s work was this same attempt. As the curator explained, “Everything in response to experience. He would paint everything, throughout his whole life, and always responded to whatever he encountered in his experience.”

Ruggeri’s art eventually found a place alongside the architectural work of Luigi Leoni, who travelled to help present Ruggeri’s work at the NY Encounter. Leoni told us that his desire, like that of Ruggeri, was “to create a sacred space that could speak to the heart of man through the light of the stained glass [created by Ruggeri] and to construct a space of mystery which would foster prayer.” Although we might be skeptical about the building of churches in an abstract or contemporary style, it is important to see the deep desire of this humble Friar to uphold the mystery of the transcendent Beauty that he had encountered so deeply. Entering the monastery at the age of 13 he learned to see the Beauty of reality through young eyes, a youthful gaze that seems to have never left him. His architecture certainly raises questions, but they are questions that Ruggeri would surely welcome.

Ruggeri is one who looked at reality and discovered something both luminous and mysterious. His work expresses the presence of something “other” in the midst of what is common. Perhaps we ought to ask if the night sky is any less mysterious or veiled than Ruggeri’s work? Ruggeri saw something hidden in the heart of his experience, something that he refused to expose to the scorching light of day, as self-evident. His work seems to express, not senseless figures, but the impenetrable depth of reality. A light visible only to someone with an attentive heart, “a light that surrenders and entrusts itself only to love. The Artist is looking for that light, he hungers for it; he imagines it resplendent, radiating and dazzling, a light that is strength, movement and life.”