The Tree of Life, Mark Conway
The only time I recall getting direct advice from Joe—despite the fact that I often stopped by to angle for his opinion, his guidance—came some time after my first son was born. I was telling Joe a story about how badly some parental strategy had backfired, when he stopped me, put his hand on my arm. “Remember,” he said, beginning to smile. “Whatever you do—it’s wrong.”
I take great pleasure in passing this advice on to new parents. I’ve come to think of it as the O’Connell Doctrine of Original Sin—there’s been an awful mistake, and the least we can do is laugh.
Joe’s last major work in wood, The Tree of Life, is filled with this irony. The heavenly hosts play music—most likely jazz—here in the earthly kingdom, but we hear it only rarely. The Prodigal Son sets off on his willful adventure only to discover the world is not as he imagined it. In the scene that dominates the panel on the right, the son submits to being saved by his family. He’s welcomed back home by a crushing embrace, a hug which brings him to his knees. His arms are out-thrust in a gesture showing both gratitude and second thoughts.
Joe’s comic vision, though, did not mean that Joe simply overlooked the darker aspects of humankind. The prevailing attitude of The Tree of Life is gently humorous, but it does contain the whole of life. Horrors occur that can’t be explained away by misunderstanding or by simple human frailty.
At the upper reaches of the tree, a child sits alone, starving. Above this child, an infant is held in its mother’s arms surrounded by a group of onlookers. There’s an air of sorrow; it’s clear the baby will die. The two large figures that dominate this panel are cast down on the ground, one nursing the other in a final agony. At the top of this panel, next to the pair of hands holding prison bars, two prosperous burghers chat. They look off into the distance, in a good mood after enjoying a big dinner.
The top of the tree presents Christ’s passion. But even at the Last Supper, the human comedy sneaks in. The apostles are gathered around Christ, except for the figure of Judas in the corner. He stares out at us with a look of practiced innocence, straightening his tie. As you notice Judas’s big ears, you come to see that it’s a portrait of the artist, the artist when he was younger and still had his beard.
Joe completed this work after returning from a long-awaited trip to Italy. One of the things he noticed in his careful inspection of the Baptistery in Pisa is how the artists included figures in relief, too low for most people to see. These figures were usually of animals, placed there so that the children would find them as they were playing, while the grown-ups admired the work of art.
Joe worked this motif into The Tree of Life. Ideally, as people gaze at the tableau carried away by grand themes, they will hear the children giggling. They walk over to see what the kids are laughing at and they’re shown a row of pigs’ backsides, one of the repeating patterns, the laughter that frames the darker branches of Joe’s Tree of Life.
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.