A native of North Dakota, Jerome Tupa became a Benedictine monk at Saint John's Abbey in 1963. In the 1970s, while studying for his doctorate in French at the Sorbonne in Paris, Tupa fell under the spell of the great artists whose work he saw in museums there and decided to paint. Art, he says, helped him to balance "the ordered life of the monastery and the need to express myself."
His early paintings were abstract; but unlike most abstract art of the 20th-century, they were inspired by spiritual subjects. One series of paintings from 1991 was titled Pilgrimages, which he calls "a more internal pilgrimage than what I came to do later. They all had something to do with an abstract description of God." Soon, he was exhibiting his art at galleries in France and later in the United States.
The "physical" pilgrimages began for Tupa in 1997 when he set out to visit, and paint, the 21 missions in California. That project became the book An Uncommon Mission, published in 1999, featuring 21 oil paintings and 39 watercolors. The California missions, he says, "took me out of the more abstract style and closer to the idea of true pilgrimage."
When he returned to Minnesota, Tupa began to think about larger pilgrimages.
In the summer of 1999, he journeyed from Milan to Rome, painting and sketching the shrines and cathedrals along the way. He has now made the third of the three great pilgrimages, with his trip to Jerusalem and the Middle East in the summer of 2007. In each case, Tupa made the pilgrimage by car, stopping in dozens of cities along the way to draw and paint.
With Painting the Pilgrimage, Tupa tells an age-old story, but in a distinctly modern language. The Camino de Compostela, or the Way to Compostela, has been a pilgrim route since the ninth century. According to legend, after Saint James was beheaded in 44 A.D., his remains were taken to Galicia in Northwestern Spain. A church was built over the burial site and later replaced with the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, which was completed in 1122. The word Santiago is a contraction of Saint Iago, which was early Spanish for Saint James. About 100,000 people now make the pilgrimage to the city of Compostela each year.
Painting the Pilgrimage beckons the viewer into a world of color and motion, which bridges religious tradition and modernity. Whereas the watercolors have a sparse, lyrical feel, the paintings are more daring, with architecture that bends and twists fantastically and colors that seem to explode on the canvas.
Most of the paintings were based on the dozens of sketches Tupa made in his travels; but often he worked from several sketches at once, incorporating different perspectives and even different places in the same scene. "It was a challenge to get a consistent color scheme and a consistency of light and brush strokes so that it looks fresh."
There is a greater sense of freedom in these new works, Tupa says, than in his past painting. "People talk about painting beyond the lines. That's a really tough thing to do, but that's what I try for. I guess my older paintings were more within the lines, therefore much more restrictive. In the new ones, there's a greater freedom in the shapes and movement. Perhaps that's reflecting my own freedom as I move forward.
"As my journey goes on, I feel more comfortable with my life, with where I am. Maybe I'm more resolved with who I am, where I am in my search. I've been very, very lucky."