The Faces of Mercy is a ninety-minute work of art documenting the ‘narrative’ of Mercy, following the story of the individual soul and of mankind as a whole – its fall, purgation and redemption – through art, poetry and music.
The combined work of world-class Australian artists Princess Niké Arrighi Borghese, a painter; Kevin Brophy, poet; and George Palmer, a composer; The Faces of Mercy was and is, in its enduring life on film, an Australian answer to the closing of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The work was first performed on 23 October in Sydney at the crypt at St Mary’s Cathedral and again on 17 November at Domus Australia in Rome.
The project was initiated by former Australian Ambassador to the Holy See John McCarthy QC KCSG.
“Years of Jubilee have, over the centuries, inspired sacred works in various forms,” John said. “I became determined to witness a reflection of the great notion of God’s mercy in the work of exceptionally accomplished and talented Australians.”
The fruit of over a year’s worth of planning, including commissioning and connecting the artists, John spoke of first seeing the final product:
“I was delighted, this was what I had hoped and envisaged would come about,” he said.
“I was in the crypt at St Mary’s, the scene was set with the opening music and the choir singing. It transported me very quickly into an atmosphere in which we were looking at what Mercy means in our world.”
Although not an artist himself, John, who was Australia’s Ambassador to the Holy See between 2011-2016, is interested in promoting the Church in her role as “greatest patron of the arts.”
“There is a famous statement of Pope Emeritus Benedict who said that the ‘most convincing demonstration of the truth are the saints and the beauty that the faith has generated’.”
“[The arts] are still something that should be at the beating heart of Christian activity and of Christian construction in our own world,” he said.
Art gives concrete expression to universal themes. It is, in this way, as much transcendent as it is time-bound, and art needs to speak to each age using its own language.
For this reason, John felt it was important for The Faces of Mercy to have modern voices.
“This was not aimed to be nostalgia. This was contemporary art, contemporary poetry and contemporary painting. What needed to be expressed is the ideas and the vision about mercy now,” he said.
Each of the artists approached the topic from different worlds–geographically and socially. Princess Nike, former actress and Sydney-sider, now resides in a castel just outside Rome; Nick Brophy lives in a remote Indigenous community in the Kimberley while George Palmer, former judge of the NSW Supreme Court, works from his studio in Sydney. Yet each of them came to represent mercy – in shape, thought and sound – as a narrative journey. The artists were also conscious that the Jubilee Year of Mercy called to mind two types of mercy, human and Divine.
In his interview with Rachel Kohn on the ABC Radio National’s The Spirit of Things, George Palmer spoke of how he approached mercy from the perspective of a judge:
“[Mercy] isn’t seen in the law at all, nor should it be. That might sound like a very strange thing to say, but what (one) has to do is to apply the law. The law proscribes what discretion a judge has in certain circumstances. A judge cannot take matters upon him or herself … But the Mercy of God, that is different.”
The human side of mercy, rendered in Latin as misericordia, which literally means “suffering heart”, is seen in elements such as Nike’s portrayal of Mother Theresa holding a child in the stream of misery, in Kevin’s poem From the Book of Examples about the refugee crisis, and Greg’s use of soprano Amelia Farrugia, a single voice against the backdrop of humanity (the choir).
The Divine element is relayed by the transcendent experience that comes with great art, the feeling that the one can almost contact the inexpressible. Although no art, however great, could fully explicate Divine Mercy.
While partially inspiration, the three elements of The Faces of Mercy were woven into a single experience by the efforts and talent of producer Michael Campbell, with the help of Professor Clare Johnson.
Although Pope Francis was not present at the exhibition on the 17 November, the three artists met with him the morning before. They offered him the Presentation book, Kevin’s poetry, a DVD and a small version of Nike’s painting.
Disappointed that he could not see the original painting, the Pope asked Nike if he could see it; the process of arranging a viewing is now underway. This will be the second time an Australian artist has had their art viewed by Pope Francis. The first was Chinese-born artist Jiawei Shen, known for his portrait of Princess Mary of Denmark, who presented him with a portrait.
The Faces of Mercy is available on DVD and will be distributed across Catholic education institutions and religious houses for meditation.
“This isn’t something that at the end of next week is quietly folded into various boxes and put in the archives of St Mary’s Cathedral or the archives of ACU,” John said.
He hopes the success of the project will encourage a Culture of Mercy beyond the Jubilee Year.
“I believe that in his Apostolic Letter (Misericordia et misera), the Holy Father has called for the continuance of Mercy after the conclusion of the Holy Year. He talks about the building of a Culture of Mercy, he talks about the social aspects of Mercy, but I also think he had particular reference to the arts. To bring an understanding of encounter.”