St. Mary Church in Mokena has been getting quite the makeover in recent months, from the renovation of the worship space back in April, to the remodel of the narthex and chapel.
The infusion of religious art throughout the church is part of the change. It began with the new Stations of the Cross painted by artist Neil Carlin. Then, the parish installed a vintage, life-sized statue of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in the back of the church. A life-sized replica of the Pietà also now sits in the narthex.
More recently, the parish hung a large print of the Sermon on the Mount in the side chapel and restored the statues in the old church Adoration chapel. The woman behind these two artistic efforts is Clara Velásquez, a Colombian-born artist who currently works in Chicago’s western suburbs.
“Paintings are like portals to the spiritual world,” says Velásquez, who has focused on religious art for the past twenty years. “I want to bring light to the world through my paintings.”
Velásquez studied under famed Colombian painter Hector Lombana Piñeres, a twentieth-century artist whose works are displayed worldwide. Although her specialty is oil painting on canvas or linen canvas, Velásquez also paints statues.
“The main elements that I love to portray is the human figure and spiritual subjects,” she writes on her website. “I also love revealing God’s beautiful creation in portraits, landscapes and still life.”
The Sermon on the Mount
Her painting of the Sermon on the Mount, a print of which now hangs in the side chapel, is based on the same work by nineteenth-century artist Carl Bloch, whose work Velásquez admires. She originally painted the piece for a Colombian client, and her unique twist was to put him and his family and friends into the painting.
In total, there are 18 portraits of real-life people in the painting, in addition to the original subjects painted by Bloch. Velásquez also added a little dog to the painting, which she shared a special story about.
She said she had never understood the connection between humans and dogs. In her prayers, she asked God to help her understand this attachment. Soon after, Velásquez said she encountered a little dog who belonged to her client (the same client she was painting the Sermon on the Mount for). “I fell in love with this little dog and put it in the painting,” she recalls, viewing it as an answer to her prayer.
Velásquez added herself into the painting too. She is the blue-hooded woman identified on the right. She also enlarged the canvas to include an elevated view and the Sea of Galilee in the distance to better emphasize the “mount” aspect.
Art as a Worship Aid
Velásquez views art as a way to bring people closer to God. “Art is an incredible tool because, through creativity, you bring to the consciousness love, and love is everything,” she said. “Whatever you paint is like opening up a portal to heaven.”
She recently repainted the statues of the Pietà, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. Joseph in the old church Adoration Chapel to look more realistic and help worshippers better imagine these holy representations while praying.
Nor is she finished creating art for St. Mary. Father Dindo, whom she met through a mutual friend, has requested that she paint a new image of Divine Mercy as well as a mural for the back of the Adoration Chapel.
“I want to bring art into worshipping God,” said Velásquez of her mission. “I believe heaven is art.” If that is true, Velásquez is making St. Mary look a little more like heaven with every brush stroke.