One Artist Answers Call to Spread Divine Mercy
"Who will paint You as beautiful as You are?"
— Saint Faustina to Jesus, Diary of St. Faustina (313)
By Tommy Canning
I was born to John and Mary Canning on Christmas day in 1969, the youngest of five sons. I grew up in Scotland, south of the city of Glasgow. I was just four years old when my father died of a heart attack, which was a tremendous loss to me and my brothers and mother.
Living in a very industrialized area with heavy pollution, I was regularly laid low by terrible fits of bronchitis. At times it got frightening for my family as they tried to care for their little boy who, on many occasions, appeared to be dying. But with time, I grew out of that. Moving to a different area in the country helped my health.
All told, as a young boy, my life was a happy one, full of activity in a house with five boys. We were raised Catholic and were influenced by the example and goodness and fidelity of our parents. Only with the benefit of hindsight do I appreciate how fortunate we were with the kind of formation and upbringing we had, even with only one parent for a large part of that time.
As I moved into my teenage years I wanted to develop my artistic talents and have a career in art. I was immersed in the world of comic books, fantasy, and science fiction. This, I decided, was the area I wished to pursue.
However, things ended up much differently than what I had expected. At a crucial time in my development at school, my family's business underwent a difficult period, and eventually we had to close it down. All of a sudden survival itself became the main priority. I never did complete my education as I had wished. I applied for, and received, a government grant to help me establish myself as a freelance illustrator so that I could begin to earn money.
I managed to achieve some success, even before I had reached the age of 19. At the same time, I began to reflect a lot more about the kind of person I was. I began to ask myself the big questions of life.
I realized that I was falling far short of what is expected of me as a Catholic. I had never lapsed from attending church, but church was not the center of my life. When I was 19, I visited Rome with my family — a trip that changed my outlook and had a profound impact on me as a Catholic and as an artist. I was simply blown away. I suddenly had the desire to delve deeper into the Faith. I also had a desire to emulate the beauty and craft that was depicted in the art and architecture of the churches in Rome.
Soon after the trip, I became acquainted with the message and devotion to the Divine Mercy, as revealed to St. Faustina in the 1930s. It was through a simple leaflet. What I read affected me profoundly. I was so touched by the depths of Christ's mercy and forgiveness — not just for the whole world, but also for me, personally.
Being an artist, I was also intrigued by Jesus' request of Sr. Faustina in 1931 to have an image of Him painted according to the way He had appeared to her. She saw Jesus clothed in a white garment with His right hand raised in blessing. His left hand was touching His garment in the area of the Heart, from where two large rays came forth, one red and the other pale. She gazed intently at the Lord in silence, her soul filled with awe, but also with great joy.
Jesus said to her: "Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish" (Diary of St. Faustina, 47).
For me, this became like a call to use my artistic gifts that God gave me to help make known this message of Divine Mercy.
Some time later, I painted my first serious religious work of art, and it was the painting of Jesus appearing to St. Faustina in the apparition of Feb. 22, 1931. I did not realize it then, but it was to be my first of many paintings and drawings relating to Divine Mercy. My paintings and illustrations over the past 10 years have included a number of subjects relating to the mystical visions of St. Faustina.
It has been a very humbling experience for me to see the reaction and effect these paintings have had on people. I've watched in wonder as some people have even wept when viewing some of the artwork. It is a great mystery how God can move and work in souls through a created work of art.
As one priest said to me, "With a single painting or drawing, you can speak a more eloquent sermon than hundreds of homilies put together." And yet, as an artist, I recognize that I can never do justice to Christ by painting or drawing Him. In my efforts to paint Him in all His beauty and love, I always feel a bit inadequate or unworthy.
The words of St. Faustina to Jesus are always before me: "Who will paint You as beautiful as you are?" (Diary, 313). But because He is so merciful, He can use even someone as lowly as me to reach the hearts of souls. His reply to St. Faustina was: "Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace."
This serves as a reminder to me that He is the one who inspires. No artist can paint Him as beautiful as He truly is, but we do the best to help souls imagine the possibilities of His likeness. As Michelangelo described, every true work of art is "a shadow of the divine perfection." And obviously Christ Himself has placed great weight on images, otherwise He would not have come to a poorly educated and humble nun in Poland to ask her to have an image of His Divine Mercy painted and venerated throughout the world.
So I take my efforts seriously. Through my art, I hope to help bring the rays of His mercy to a hurting world.
In some respects my own feeling of unworthiness and lack of artistic qualification of any professional status maybe is just as pleasing in the eyes of Our Lord. Sister Faustina had very little education and no place of importance within her religious community. And yet she was chosen for this task to make known the message of Divine Mercy. No small thing.
He sees our hearts and chooses the weakest and least important in the eyes of the world to do the most extraordinary of things. Please pray for great artists and pray for me, that we may continue to open these windows into His Divine Mercy.
Learn more about Tommy Canning by visiting his website at art-of-divinemercy.co.uk.