As the Year of Mercy is now underway, I would suggest taking a moment to reflect on the official logo. While our own artistic sensibilities may vary, it’s always important to ask: God, how might You be speaking to me through this? Is there something here that I am not seeing or understanding?
Today, I am going to try to explain some of the particularities of the Year of Mercy logo, designed by the artist Fr. Marko Rupnik. I hope that they might aid you in going deeper into the meaning of God’s mercy in your life and accompany others in doing the same.
1. The Overall Style: Symbolic
The image evidently does not pretend to be a literal depiction of Jesus (the volume, angles and such are all stylized, rather than realistic). The style is profoundly symbolic, poetic, metaphorical… This is a conscious choice of the artist, Fr. Rupnik. Whenever you are trying to say something very deep and very beautiful, precise scientific language isn’t up to snuff. You need poetry. The same thing applies here: a more symbolic approach allows the artist to transmit realities that go way beyond what any realistic representation could ever hope to capture.
Its symbolic nature also implies a bit more work on our part. Its meaning is not necessarily so clear at a first glance (as so often occurs in our daily lives and in our relationship with God). Instead, it requires patience and bit of interior reflection. Understanding the author’s intention is key. Why were certain shapes, forms, and colors used? Let’s take a look.
2. The Almond Shape
The scene is depicted with a particular artistic device called a mandorla (“almond nut” in Italian). It is the oval shape formed by the overlap of two circles as they approach each other. It serves as something of a parenthesis within an icon. What is being set inside the parenthesis is an event which somehow transcends what most of us consider as normal. In this case, this abnormal event is Christ’s Incarnation. The almond shape, then, represents the union of two circles, that is the two natures of Christ: divine and human.
The almond tree is also the first plant to flower each year in Greece, sometimes as early as mid-January, and as such is a symbol of new life and fertility. Ancient Greek myths also link almonds, and the almond shape, with new life. Yet, preceding all these in time and succeeding them in importance is the story of Aaron’s rod, which blossomed forth not only flowers, but almonds (Numbers 17:8).
3. The Colors
Red represents blood, life and, above all, God.
Blue represents man, the only creature that knows how to look to the sky (heavens).
White has a variety of meanings. It is the color of the Holy Spirit because it reflects the life of the Trinity. In this case, Rupnik explains that Christ is white because it is Christ’s soul, the Spirit of Christ, that descends into hell, while his body is resting. The color white, then, represents the light that saves, the eternal life of the Son.
The clothing of Adam (the man carried by Jesus, further explained below): it was a green color (humanity) that has, however, been turned golden (divinity), representing the fact that Adam (and each one of us) is participating in a process of divinization, i.e., becoming like God through Jesus Christ.
4. Bands of Blue
The variously shaded bands of blue, increasingly darker as one moves inward, is also a recurring theme in these icons. It reflects what is called the Apophatic Way of reflecting on God. To put a complicated idea simply, this means that it is often easier to describe God – the Ineffable, the Infinite, Being, itself – by means of describing what He is NOT. God is so far beyond our limited ability to grasp, not that we don’t try, and not that we can’t know SOME things, but that, the deeper we go, we might do better by talking about what He is not, since what He IS, is so utterly awesome and ineffable. Like looking at the son, this mystery is to bright to be seen.
This is why the mandorla surrounding Christ usually shows concentric bands of shading which get darker toward the center, rather than lighter. We must pass through stages of what seem like increasing mystery and unknowing, in order to encounter Jesus Christ. As holiness increases, there is no way to depict its brightness, except by darkness. The black-like color is used then to represent that overpoweringly bright light of Jesus! The light of the world no longer has any meaning outside of Christ because He is the only true light. Where does his light shine? In the heart of humanity.
Though in one sense impenetrable, this light nevertheless calls us ever inward in reflection. In this particular image, the depth of the darker shade suggests the impenetrability of the love of the Father who forgives all. At the center of the darkest color, where Jesus’ feet are positioned, is the great mystery of the Incarnation – that, in the person of Jesus, humanity and divinity are joined: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14).
Conversely, the three concentric ovals, with colors progressively lighter as we move outward, suggest the movement of Christ who carries humanity out of the night of sin and death into the light of his love and forgiveness
5. The Man on Jesus’ Shoulders
The logo also shows Jesus carrying a man on his shoulders. Fr. Rupnik says that this is Jesus as the Good Shepherd, carrying Adam on his shoulders. When Jesus finds his lost sheep, “he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’” (Luke 15:5-6) Others have offered another parable as a means to reflect on the logo – the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was a certain man who is robbed, beaten, and left in a ditch. The first two travelers see the man and cross the road to avoid him. But the Samaritan stops to help the victim. Jesus asks the listener: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
6. The One, Unique Gaze
One of the most striking features of the image is the fact that Jesus and the man (over his shoulders) are sharing one eye (this has absolutely nothing to do with the “third eye” theory). Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ. Every person discovers in Christ, the new Adam, one’s own humanity and the future that lies ahead, contemplating, in his gaze, the love of the Father.
Fr. Rupnik explains that God gazes upon man in such a way that allows man to understand him; God communicates himself in such a way that man is then able to see. Only in the gaze of the Father can we truly understand and come to terms with who we are, with our identity: sons and daughters of God the Father!
Meanwhile, through Christ’s divine humanity, what man sees, God also sees and what man begins to see as God sees. Christ is never far! All that we see, all that we live, our joys and our sorrows… He is there, accompanying us, seeing with us. He reassures us that he knows what we are going through. Through this he also continues to invite us to greater conversion and to change how we see others: that we begin to look upon our neighbors with His same eyes of mercy.
This is worth some more thought. Christ sees with our eyes so that we might be able to see with His. He lives our life, feels with our senses, and sees with our eyes that each of us might discover in Christ the true calling of our own humanity. At the same time, we are called to say, with Saint Paul, “And I live, now not I; but Christ lives in me.” That is, we are called to look upon reality with the same gaze of Christ. In every situation of our lives we are called to discover, listen and fulfill the will of the Father, especially with those who are most needy.
The Closeness of Jesus and Adam
As a final thought, I found Fr. Rupnik’s explanation of the closeness of Adam’s face to Jesus’s quite interesting. When Christ expired on the cross, man grabbed this breath and we began to breathe once more. Thus, as Adam received the breath of life at the moment of creation, in our baptism, we now receive the new breath of life, that of the Spirit of Christ, with which we can begin to live a new life in Christ.
Questions for Personal Reflection:
What does God want to say in my life this Jubilee Year? How can I open myself up more to his mercy?
Do I see with the same gaze of Christ? What keeps me from looking upon others and myself with the mercy of Christ?
Sources used for this post: Video interview with Fr. Rupnik (in Italian), Reflections fromFriar Musings., The Mandorla in Icons, Within a Mandorla, The official description of the logo.