Friar Alejandro Arias is a 22-year-old Conventual Franciscan who is in formation to be a Franciscan Brother. Originally from Colombia, Friar Alejandro began painting around the age of 12.
Ten years later, and despite no formal training, he presented one of his works to the Habsburg family.
“You don’t paint an icon: you write the story of God, which talks through the icon,” Friar Alejandro tells me from Silver Spring, Maryland. “In iconography, there’s a lot of discipline. It’s not just me sitting down and painting it, it’s me sitting down and praying with it. If I’m painting an image of the Blessed Mother, I have to pray to the Blessed Mother to help me paint the art.”
One of his favourite icons portrays St John the Baptist. For Friar Alejandro, this saint has special meaning to a Franciscan Brother. “I wanted for him to show the suffering and tiredness of him preaching for many years and preparing the way for the Lord,” he says. “He was preparing us for Jesus, and for me as a brother candidate I want to prepare people for Jesus, so he’s an inspiration.”
Painting plays an important role in Friar Alejandro’s continued discernment of his vocation. As he paints, he says, “I’m able to meditate on my day and think of what I’ve done wrong and what I’ve done right. So it’s also like an act of contrition through my art.”
Friar Alejandro also talked about several specific paintings, including one of St Charbel Makhlouf, a 19th-century Maronite monk from Lebanon. “He did a lot of penance – a man of penance, a man of prayer,” Friar Alejandro says. “One of the things that I like in the icon is him being tired and old, but also with a sense of peace that he has done what the Lord commanded him to do.”
Another painting, which depicts Dante, is in a Renaissance style. “When I was working on this, I was paying more attention to the technique, not to who he was or what he did. I just wanted to explore light and how the flash looked when it came to him. It was an experimental piece,” Friar Alejandro says.
As for the work presented to the Habsburgs, Friar Alejandro says a woman in the parish of St Mary Mother of God in Washington, DC, asked him to paint an icon of Blessed Karl of Austria, the last Emperor of Austria. Admittedly, he did not know much about Blessed Karl before being asked, but as he got to work he became “amazed” by the subject of the icon. “During my process of painting Blessed Karl, I prayed the Jesus Prayer along with it and the Jesus Prayer is just, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner’,” he says. “I got to learn more about him and I fell in love more with who he was and what he did for the people.”
Friar Alejandro presented the icon to a member of the Habsburg family after a Mass held in honour of the Blessed at St Mary Mother of God in October.
Friar Alejandro says that one day he would like to paint icons in the traditional way – using natural pigments, for example. He claims he is currently just an “amateur” icon painter, but eventually hopes to have enough money to procure the proper materials.
Aside from his strictly religious works, Friar Alejandro also paints what he calls his “secular art”. When he first started painting, he favoured cubism and surrealism, but eventually found there was a “loneliness” and lack of fulfilment for him in that style of art. Nevertheless, Friar Alejandro continues to experiment with secular art, especially pointillism. One image depicts what he describes as “a nude of an imperfect woman with neither muscles nor the ideal image of a woman”. The beauty “is that she is who she is”.
Friar Alejandro says that sketching this image took him “to look at the beauty of the woman” and not see her as an object, but “as an image of God”. “It captures sensuality in this drawing,” he continues, “but it also captures a holiness because God created the body and we have to view the body of a male and a female as the image of God.”
Friar Alejandro hopes to inspire people discerning vocations to religious life “to use their talents and use them well, because God gave us talents for something, not for ourselves, but for the world. And through art and beauty, we can help people to convert to God and turn their lives back to beauty.”
Jeff Cimmino is a media analyst at the Washington Free Beacon