A single gesture of Mary in the sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Joe O’Connell is for me emblematic of Joe’s art. Mary presents her child to the world by holding him away from her body, but the presentational gesture is never completed. She holds her thumb and fingers against the side of Jesus’ cheek and neck in an unconscious touch where it rests or even caresses. It does not grasp onto Jesus, it would not support him or hold him back. But it touches, makes physical contact in the most gentle manner. This simple gesture is, borrowing the title of a book by Arthur C. Danto, “the transfiguration of the commonplace.” * The need to express the power of religious experience, like the parables of the Gospels, is best accomplished in the ordinary. Mary touches the cheek with the side of her thumb. The meaning of the work of art is accomplished through the perfectly selected detail. A common, even unconscious gesture makes visible and real the entire significance of her relationship to him who is to become meaning itself. I think it was Joe’s gift to us, to make visible the invisible.
*Danto, Arthur C. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Reprinted with the permission of the Liturgical Press, the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, from Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O'Connell. Editor, Colman O'Connell. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, c1999. CSB, SJU and SJP Libraries Oversize N 6537.O265 D58 1999.