I will admit that when I was first contacted for this commission, it didn't immediately jog inspiration. I wasn't overly familiar with Saint Francis Xavier and he hadn't been on my radar as far as paintings I was planning on doing in the near future. But God had other ideas—within the space of a few weeks, his name came up unexpectedly several times, affirming that this was a painting I was supposed to do. His feast day passed, for one, and at the end of prayers one normal Rosary Group meeting, a friend asked for his intercession—not anyone else, just Francis, even though we almost never do the intercession of the saints. I can take a hint!
As I researched into his life a little more, I became captivated by his passion and enthusiasm. I borrowed the novel Set all Afire by Louis de Wohl and I officially fell in love with this incredible saint.
There are almost no paintings of Francis Xavier to be found on the web, and so I had to rely on my imagination and some helpful advice from someone who grew up in the region he once ministered to:
As someone who is Asian who has grown up in the region where he had once lived and travelled through, we should never forget that he belongs to us. He after St. Thomas the Apostle, is our Apostle. Often times than not, he is depicted as a foreigner to our lands, the outsider, or shown in the context where there always seems to be a disjoint between us and him. He saw us as equals, he learned our language, wore our clothing and took the effort to learn about our traditions and through it revealed our inherent goodness made in the image of God. In someway He lived and died as an Asian. I'd love to see artwork which depicts him united with the Asian identity he adopted and not to see our cultures as opposites.
Although I ultimately chose to depict him wearing the standard black cassock of his order, this one comment stuck in my heart. The person who commissioned the painting requested that he be holding a child, so I attempted to find a posture/symbolism that would capture both his love for the Asian people and the thing that brings together people of every age, colour, and social status: Jesus.
For reference, I photographed my husband holding our daughter—for what could express the love of a spiritual father for his spiritual children better than an actual father with his child? He is gently offering the crucifix to her, and she is reaching out to grasp it in curiosity and wonder. Their hands meet and touch—male and female, Caucasian and Asian, young and old, priest and layperson finding common salvation in the wood of the cross.
And so I compiled my photoshop reference, altering the colour of their clothes and my daughter's skin and facial features for ethnic and historical authenticity. I swapped out my husband's head for a stock photo of a bearded man gazing intently at the viewer. I added an ocean scene, complete with a ship, into the background. Considering how much time this man spent travelling by sea, it made sense to include that aspect of his story. I strategically positioned the glow of the sun behind his head—a subtle play on the traditional halo.
His eyes would be of particular importance to me. The stock photo dude didn't quite have the expression I was hoping for, so when I started painting I adjusted the tilt of his eyebrows and the shape of his eyes to contain some of the tireless intensity with which he proclaimed the gospel. It was harder than I thought! In the end, I find his eyes to have a certain complexity: intense, yes, but also distant, as though he's looking into eternity. They have both a hint of joy and an undertone of sorrow. Considering all that he did, all the ways that he suffered, this depiction might be reminiscent of later in his life, after he's seen thousands of new Christians baptized and confirmed and married and buried. I imagine he would have been tired—yet hopeful of soon seeing them all in heaven. But this could also be a glimpse of early on in his mission, with a rich new landscape laid out before him, ripe for harvest. What trials lay in wait? What hard work and sacrifice would be required of him?
This image held lots of new challenges for me—from painting two different skin tones (my old formulas had to be re-evaluated!) to the leafy background, from the wood of the cross to the complex clouds (oh my word the clouds were frustrating). There was lots of experimenting and learning! With each new painting, I find myself capable of striving for greater detail and accuracy and I happily invested many, many hours in making this painting exactly how I envisioned.
At this same time, God was leading me into a wilderness of my own—a conversation with a protestant friend had me questioning many of the assumptions we have as Christians about heaven, hell, and salvation. I spent countless hours in prayer and deep thought, asking God to reveal the truth about his heart to me. The fruit of that journey can be read in my post, What does it mean to be saved?
In the end, I surrender the message and impact of this painting to God to do with as he will. If anything, it was an incredible honour to paint this fascinating saint and my life will forever be impacted by the opportunity to know him better. I hope yours will be too.
Below is the time-lapse video of the painting process. My talented brother composed the music specifically for this painting! I think you'll agree with me that it is absolutely phenomenal—I still can't get over how well he captured the spirit and excitement of Francis' life.