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Why Don't You Ever See Saints Smile in Religious Art?

Elizabeth Pardi - published on 06/15/16

True joy doesn't always wear a happy face

For several wandering years of my life, my ringtone was Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young. I’ll never forget the look on my fervent Catholic mother’s face one day, when a call came in. “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” trampled the peaceful quiet, mocking the holy images adorning the walls of our house. I quickly silenced the phone and scoffed at the humble sadness that spread across my mother’s gentle countenance.

At the time, those lyrics were an adequate reflection of what kept me from practicing the faith. I lived my life under the impression that people who strive for sainthood are met with only pain and suffering while those who are more lax about the habitual presence of sin in their lives are able to truly enjoy themselves. Needless to say, I preferred the company of the latter.

This notion was further ingrained in my mind on the rare occasion that I did attend church and was surrounded by statues of saints bearing expressions that reminded me of the “before” picture in a Prozac ad. They appeared tired, hopeless, and somber at best. The faithful, I believed, were downright depressed, while I was in search of happiness.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit eventually swooped in to crack open my misguided mind and reveal God’s deep yearning for my authentic joy even and perhaps especially now in this world. I drew hope from the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila in which she pleaded, “From somber, serious, sullen saints, save us, O Lord.”

Similarly, Pope Francis shed light on the joyful nature of Christian living with his insistence that, “No one has ever heard of a sad saint or a saint with a funeral face. Unheard of! It would be a contradiction.”

Once I truly came to believe that, as St. Augustine put it, “God is the happiest of beings who made us to share in his own happiness,” my curiosity about the dejected expressions on the faces of religious images was piqued. Why were artists portraying these men and women of God in such a downcast light? Shouldn’t representations of saints illustrate the joyfulness of Christ these holy individuals held in their hearts and graced the world with?

My answer came when I spent some time studying a painting of the Holy Family in the cry room at our church. In it, Jesus, at about five years old, is affectionately reclined against St. Joseph’s chest, both of them wearing warm, content smiles as Mary, with a playful grin of her own, tickles her son’s bare feet. Now that’s the joy most religious artwork should portray, I thought to myself. Then it hit me what most religious artwork depicts saints in the midst of: prayer.

While this particular image captured the glee of a happy family during a playful encounter, the more common action being carried out by the subjects of religious artwork is the uniting of their minds and hearts to God. Such a union, as we know, generally surpasses anything that evokes physical expressions of emotion, such as a laugh or smile.

Of course prayer can still be, and often is, a joy-filled experience, as graces and pure, unconditional love are poured upon us. Nevertheless, it is internal and deep, transcending the physiological reactions of the body that communicate happiness.

One particularly insightful priest I know described the typical facial expressions within religious artwork as “conveying stoic seriousness” in order to indicate inner peace as opposed to exterior passions.

A similar explanation is contained in an article explaining the solemn expressions of saints in religious icons: “True joy is something that comes from God and is therefore eternal. Fleeting pleasures are, by definition, temporary and do not bring true happiness. The smile is a reflection of fleeting happiness, because it too is temporary.”

This is by no means an indication that smiling is insignificant. In fact, Mother Teresa was a major advocate of the power of a smile, saying that such a gesture is the beginning of love. We are, after all, bodily creatures, endowed with the ability to express ourselves through facial and other such physical signals.

However, I’ve come to realize that we are challenged to look beyond facial expressions when we witness renditions of saints and religious figures who are not outwardly basking in boundless joy. We are invited to ponder the deepest levels of intellect and emotion to which these men and women opened themselves, the result of which ultimately generates a peace that surpasses a simple smile.

They’re not sad. They’re not hopeless. They’re lost – lost in the inexplicable, immortal love of their maker.

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