Art / culture

“Joy is strength” is the message as Mother Teresa portrait unveiled at canonization

Portrait artist Chas Fagan discusses what went into official image in Rome

“Joy is strength” is the message as Mother Teresa portrait unveiled at canonization

Chas Fagan - WP

Chas Fagan has seen his portraits of American presidents taken all over the United States on tour. He’s seen Nancy Reagan unveil a larger-than-life sculpture of her late husband, Ronald Reagan, in the U.S. Capitol. But today, he’ll stand in St. Peter’s Square as millions of people around the world gaze upon an image that he painted—that of newly canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Fagan’s posthumous painting of Mother Teresa was chosen as the official portrait for her September 4 canonization. The painting was commissioned by the Knights of Columbus as a gift to the Missionaries of Charity, the order the saint founded.

“Everyone’s face shows their history,” Fagan said in an interview from Rome on Friday. “Mother Teresa’s is a face that has seen a lot of daylight and work, and that’s completely reflected in her actual likeness, but what contrasts with that harsher physical visage is the warmth of her eyes and expression, that inner glow. That’s what makes it such an appealing face.”

He said that while he was beginning work on the commission in his Charlotte, North Carolina, studio, he learned of a quotation of Mother Teresa’s: “Joy is strength.”

“That ended up being the driver for me, the hook, that guided the entire composition,” Fagan said. “It was just shared with me in my studio one day, and I decided that was it.”

The painting was used as the basis for the large tapestry unfurled from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis declares Mother Teresa a saint. Though the Yale-trained artist has gained quite a reputation as a portrait artist and a sculptor, this is the first time anything he has painted has been used as the official portrait for a canonization.

“It’s completely exciting. It’s definitely high on the scale, but I don’t think it will hit me until it actually happens,” he said.

Charles Fagan painting Mother Teresa
Charles Fagan painting Mother Teresa

At an unveiling at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., on Friday, Knights officials said the portrait will end up in one of the Missionaries of Charity houses in Rome.

The Knights awarded its first Gaudium et Spes award to Mother Teresa in 1992 and has supported the Missionaries of Charity over the years. It printed the official canonization Mass program and 1 million holy cards with the Fagan painting on the front and a quote from Mother Teresa on the back:

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. God still loves the world and sends you and me to be His love, His compassion to the poor.

“Throughout the process we shared with Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of the cause of canonization of Mother Teresa, that we were doing this and showed him in-process photographs of it, and then he concluded ‘This is the image I want to use for the official canonization,'” said Peter Sonski, spokesman for the museum. Visitors to the museum were impressed as well.

More to read: The Priest Who Made the Case for Mother Teresa’s Sainthood 

“It’s a beautiful likeness of Mother Teresa, and I see the  joy radiating from her and Jesus’ love,” commented Donna-Marie Cooper-O’Boyle, who has written of her 10-year correspondence with the saint in Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship. “I really do see that sparkle in her eyes and her smile. Her eyes are really well done. I know those eyes.”

“When I look at it I see her gaze, as if she’s looking upon us and smiling at us,” added Sister Magdalena, a Missionary of Charity from Vietnam who lives in Bridgeport, Conn. “It’s very real for me. It’s so beautiful.”

Sister Magdalena, who came to New York in 1996 to join the order and met Mother Teresa in the final year of her life, 1997, said she was impressed with the “humility and motherly love” of the “saint of the gutters.”

“I try to emulate her fidelity to the little ones,” she said. “She was very faithful to the little things, to accept the little things in our life.”

Cooper-O’Boyle explained that Mother Teresa was “the saint of little ways,” modeling herself after St. Therese of Lisieux.

“She teaches us that little things done wholeheartedly—she was very much into wholehearted surrender to God’s will instead of just mediocre or halfway, to really trust and believe and surrender our lives to our Lord,” Cooper-O’Boyle said. “So she said ‘Little things done with great love are huge in God’s eyes. Little things, when done lovingly, can really transform hearts, can change our own hearts and souls as well as the people we are serving.'”

Cooper-O’Boyle suspects that if Mother Teresa were still alive, she would “tell us to pick our eyes up off our devices and cell phones and stop trying to be in touch with the latest status update because we’re missing out on the present moments of our lives.”

Shawn Neal

John Burger

John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia. He formerly worked at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York in the Archdiocese of New York. He has also written for a wide variety of Catholic publications.