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Solving the Puzzle of Alfonso Ossorio and “The Angry Christ” Mural

Except for the architecture, I’m really not into churches. But, during last month’s visit to Negros Occidental, when we were told that we ought to see the church of the angry Christ, it sounded so subversive that my interest was immediately aroused. We drove to the church inside the Victorias Milling Company agro-industrial complex, there was a wedding and it was difficult to take photos of the mural sans people. I did manage to get a few shots though.

Solving the Puzzle of Alfonso Ossorio and “The Angry Christ” Mural

The first thing that caught my attention was the All-Seeing Eye. If you’re into iconography, you’d probably know that the Christian version of the All-Seeing Eye is called the Eye of Providence and it symbolizes the eye of God who watches over mankind.

But before Christianity adopted the symbol, it already existed in many religious cultures the oldest of which is the Egyptian Eye of Horus. And although the Eye of Providence had become a Christian symbol by adoption (copycat would be a more accurate term), it is not often found in art that decorates a church’s altar.

In fact, there is nothing in the mural behind the St. Joseph parish church altar that looked even vaguely similar to what we usually see adorning Catholic church altars.

Angry Christ?

Wasn’t Jesus supposed to have been a benevolent man? How was it possible that the conservative Catholic Church allowed it? Historically, when the Catholic Church commissioned art work, it dictated the terms and the results. So, I read up on Alfonso Ossorio, the artist who painted the mural in the early 1950s.

Born in the Philippines to affluent parents whose business was sugar, Alfonso Ossorio spent most of his life abroad and died in 1990. In 1968, art historian Forrest Selvig did an in-depth interview with Ossorio in New York. The following is from the transcript of the interview:

FORREST SELVIG: Was the style you used in the church more or less dictated?

ALFONSO OSSORIO: No, I was given a free hand as to the iconography. Of course it had to be a Christian subject.

FORREST SELVIG: And it had to be recognizable?

ALFONSO OSSORIO: It’s recognizable. It’s pretty fierce. Quite frankly, had one not been paying the piper one could not have called the tune that easily. In other words, it was one of my brothers who was in charge of the whole operation. If he hadn’t been behind me the committee of the local bishop or parish priest would very likely have said no. And they would have chosen some local neo-baroque architect rather than Anthony Raymond.

FORREST SELVIG: Don’t churches have to be approved by the bishop?

ALFONSO OSSORIO: I would say the rule of thumb is that unless you do something absolutely sacrilegious the patron who pays the piper calls the tune. I’ve never seen that to fail.

FORREST SELVIG: You mentioned a patron, and that your brother stood behind you.

ALFONSO OSSORIO: It was paid for by the family. The faithful were upset because they were used to, let’s say, full church art. All these missionary outposts like the Philippines are supplied with an enormous business directed from Rome. When the cathedral of Manila was rebuilt it was done completely by Italian craftsman…

And there in that last quoted response from Ossorio is the explanation. Ossorio’s family paid for the project, it was one of his brothers who was in charge and artistic expression won over religious conservatism. To be even more illustrative, the church was built inside the Victorias Milling Company property and Ossorio’s father was the founder of Victorias Milling Company. Money talks and that has always been true with the Catholic Church.

But what is it about Alfonso Ossorio as an artist that could have motivated him to create something so far from the norm? A hidden sarcasm toward the Catholic Church, perhaps?

Again, from the Selvig interview:

FORREST SELVIG: Maybe you will disagree with me, but it strikes me that you have a continuing interest in religious matters in your work.

ALFONSO OSSORIO: Well, one can say a continuing interest in problems which religion covers such as birth, death, sex – these particular aspects of humanity. And certainly religion is either revealed or human beings thought it up. The human being is the link between God and the material world…

An intelligent artist and a wise man, Ossorio was, who knew that God and religion were two different things. He was also gay.

“Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990) was extremely rich, handsome, cultured, a devout Christian, and gay. Born in the Philippines and heir to a sugar fortune, he endured an unhappy childhood loosing three of his eight brothers and having to move to England to attend boarding school.

“At the age of fourteen he moved to the US where he became a citizen in 1933. He then studied Fine Arts at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He traveled and studied art further in England and at the Rhode Island School of Design. Trying to reconcile his homosexuality with his religion during this period was troubling. In 1940, he married. Ossorio and his wife were living in Taos, New Mexico when he met Betty Parsons (1900–1982). As one of the most influential patrons of early Abstract Expressionists, Parsons gave Ossorio his first one-person show in 1941 at the Wakefield gallery, which she ran in a bookstore in New York City. That same year, Ossorio’s marriage dissolved.”

And, from the Harvard Art Museum Archives: “In 1948, Ossorio met Edward Dragon Young, a ballet dancer known as Ted Dragon, who would be Ossorio’s partner for over 50 years.” Dragon was the heir to Ossorio’s estate and he established the Ossorio Foundation after the death of the artist.

Alfonso Ossorio was openly gay by the time he painted “The Angry Christ” mural. In the Selvig interview, he called the mural the “Last Judgment” which in Catholicism means that after death the soul is judged to determine whether it goes to heaven, hell or purgatory.

The way I see it, the mural is a gay man’s attempt to reconcile his sexuality with his Catholic upbringing and “The Angry Christ” was how he perceived God looking down on him and his sexuality. In terms of technique, the mural pushed artistic boundaries (as did Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet, the two artists he admired most).

In terms of substance, the mural is an image of confusion, remorse, guilt and fear about how he would fare in his “Last Judgment.”

Knowing what I know now, I feel sorry that I didn’t spend more time studying the mural closely. I didn’t even go near it, truth be told. And I didn’t bother going around the church either. If I had, I might have noticed that many other pieces of art work there contravene the norm. In Travelblog.org, blogger Henry Libo-on, has a gallery of photos taken at the church. The gallery includes a sculpture of a brown-skinned Mary and the child Jesus, a very Filipino-looking saint holding a palm leaf and a brown-skinned Jesus in what appears to be the Stations of the Cross series.

That is something. In fact, that is a huge thing in a religious culture that has always depicted God, the angels and the saints as white-skinned with aquiline noses. But that is another story.

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I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. I do some shopping too. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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