Saúl Alija is one of the new faces in Spanish sacred art. Between exhibitions in Salamanca, murals for Zamora, commissions for Barcelona and altarpieces for baptismal chapels, he talks to us in Omnes about sacred art.
Saul, can you start by telling us about your history with painting and sacred art?
- The truth is that I have been training on my own, although I owe my beginnings to my family. My mother wanted to take me to a painting academy and she enrolled me in the nearest one. But she didn't know that the teacher was a priest.
The professor told us many times how he had painted murals in several churches when he lived in Rome and also many curiosities about his paintings, which surprised me a lot. And I also liked the gratitude he showed when he told us about it.
After that I did not paint again because I entered the Redemptoris Mater seminary in Castellón for about 8 years, where I received a lot in all senses. Until, during the summer, I decided to paint in some abandoned houses at the entrance of Zamora. After so much time, I saw that I still remembered the notions of painting that the priest had taught me.
The fact that I have not gone through any regulated study has helped me a lot in the freedom I have in the handling of colors, the different brushstrokes, the preparation of the scenes, using the methods that the classics used to execute a painting, etc.
A year ago I opened an Instagram account with some of my religious artwork and also other paintings without much pretension. I got a couple of messages asking me to do some commissioned works for Barcelona and Salamanca, even a councilman from my city wrote me to paint some murals in the streets of Zamora. It was that spontaneous.
My relationship with sacred art has been equally spontaneous. A priest of my diocese asked me to make a special altarpiece for a community that celebrates in the Mozarabic rite, in a small town in Zamora. I began to study the peninsular Christian art of the 11th century, in order to help them celebrate according to their tradition. I was also commissioned to paint a picture of St. Joseph for another small church, to celebrate the year initiated by Pope Francis.
I am currently working on an altarpiece for the baptismal chapel of a church in Salamanca, for a parish priest who wants to help young couples to see the importance of the sacrament of baptism and explain to them with the altarpiece what happens at the moment of the celebration.
This is, for me, the function of the altarpiece: the Kerygma made art, which at the moment of the celebration of baptism, crosses the history of salvation, and reconnects the assembly with the moment of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, sanctifying the waters, as the iconography shows us.
The way I have had for some time now to contact parishes and priests is through Instagram or the email that is there as well. If anyone wants to contact me to make any retablo, just write to me through Instagram (@saulalija) and from there, in common prayer, we see the needs of the project".
And from this experience with parish priests, what relationship do you think exists between the Church and art?
-I think it is a very profound relationship. Even today, there are theological concepts that we do not understand by simple reasoning alone, but we need to resort to images or catechesis that the Church has been representing for centuries on its altarpieces, on its walls, in its temples. In fact, it is curious to what extent aesthetic emotion is linked to the New Evangelization in our particular sentimentalist society.
A few months ago I made an exhibition in the cloister of the Pontifical University of Salamanca, in which I reflected on sacramental anthropology, or tried to make people reflect on the union between art as a visible symbol and the church as an invisible sacrament.
I was thinking of so many young people of my generation who are suffering the consequences of ideology and lack of freedom, and I wanted to create an aesthetic form that did not take into account the reference groups, but the common spirituality of the church, which would extend to everyone. And I think it worked, at least that's what my non-believing friends have told me."
But that exhibition in Salamanca was a religious art project, not directly for the Church. What is the most important part of painting art for the Church?
- "Prayer, which so often for me is the most difficult part. And I think it is more important than technique and execution. Because there are many paintings of religious art that are perfectly done, but fail to provoke anything. While there are many other paintings that may not be very good but they manage to convey the intention of the church.
And besides prayer, there is also sincerity in composing the scene. Painting moments of God that have felt real in your life is very noticeable. I think it is a very big responsibility, especially when the current references in the art world are so varied.
There are several dangers such as that of aesthetic spiritualism, or looking for a type of art in which you are comfortable and seek to give glory to yourself or pretend theologies, and distort the terms. It is very sad because it is happening to all of us: in the world, but also within the Church and within theology. No one should seek to be the referent of any progress, if he or she follows the biblical virtues, whose progressive referent is always God. Without Him there is no originality, no progress, no intuitions, at least it happens to me and there are days when God lets me be very low on inspiration".
And why is art itself a good way to transmit God?
- Because art is silent, it is not irritated by indifference and does not demand anything from the other, just as God does not demand anything from us. Art does not have the attitude of rejection that we Christians or priests so often show towards non-believers.
Christians can be socially demanded or undervalued and silenced, but a work of art cannot be silenced, or even taken out of context.
When a sacred painting shouts coherence, it shakes; it doesn't judge you, it doesn't look down on you. And if you neglect it can even speak to you of heaven. In the cells of every man's eyes there is an ontological memory that holds information of our ancient state, which is paradise, the heavenly realm.
My generation has multiplied more and more places to feel loved: more and more dating apps, more and more connection, more and more lorazepam, but more and more loneliness. With art, an aesthetic emotion is produced inside the person that deeply inoculates him and makes him remember that in the beginning lived in heaven; that his being is made to never die. And this person, sick of eternity, will begin to need higher and higher doses of beauty until God touches her."
In a world dominated by the Instagram selfie, how do you make room for sacred art?
-I believe that sacred art has a fundamental role in our world. I see my non-believing friends rest when they walk into a church with me and we see sacred art. How many times have they said to me, "No wonder the ancients believed when they saw this beauty"! Instagram would be filled with sacred art if we knew how to communicate the artistic and moral beauty of the Church to new generations.
Religious tourism in Spain is a great opportunity in our dioceses to send Christians to be trained in Art History and Catechetics to teach the deep wisdom of the temples. For me it is one of the challenges of the New Evangelization, before we let the experts do away with spirituality, as will happen with the only course of Gregorian chant that was done in Spain in the Valley of the Fallen.
The world is tired of art empty. Dn fact, I see that there is a cultural revival of the old avant-garde. They keep doing immersive exhibitions of the masters of the last century. People don't want to see Warhol's serigraphs in 4K because the paintings are enough for us, they want to see Sorolla, Van Gogh, etc., the closer the better.
The idolatry of the artist in our time, nowadays, is increasingly supported by quality and innovation. The time has passed when everything was considered art, even within abstract art. Incorporating the performance to the NFT, which today are technically validated with certificates.
In sacred art, during the last few years, I have also been able to experience greater quality and innovation, perhaps because of the state of continuous danger of extinction in which we find ourselves as artists. In our dioceses, efforts, for the most part, are aimed at conserving what we have.
The majority of newly built parishes are adorned with mass-produced, boring images, which work because they are the type of image that is expected, but the reality is that they do not produce any type of dialogue with the people of today.
The current problem of the abuse of social networks has a lot to do with the lack of identity, and the lack of identity is also a lack of expression and dialogue. If there is no common visual language, no aesthetics, there is no common expression, and this is something very important in the communion of the Church. Without a dialogue it is impossible to communicate beauty.
Today we young Christians want to dialogue and express ourselves with a real and human language, because we are aware of the suffering of sin in our lives and in the lives of our friends who do not believe. We do not want to speak only to ourselves. We feel called to be God's mission; therefore, the challenge of our century is to anthropological and it is also identity. Without a fresh and personal language, free of ".archeologisms"We will not be able to express our faith, nor will we be able to evangelize, nor will we be able to call those on the outside to consistency, but neither will we be able to call those of us who think we are on the inside to consistency with our own Christian life".