Divine Inspiration | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Divine Inspiration 

The lives of the saints: "Blood and guts and raw passion."

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Growing up in Hammond, Indiana, David Lee Csicsko was "smitten" by the trappings of the Catholic church. He used to marvel at a WPA-era mural exalting the industrious welders and carpenters of his family's working-class parish. The mass was still said in Latin, and his grade school was permeated with the smell of incense. Every boy secretly hoped to become a priest, missionary, or doctor; Csicsko wished to one day find a cure for leprosy.

The school held a parade every year on All Saints' Day. Kids dressed up as holy martyrs, sometimes simulating stigmata as part of their costumes. "The nuns were saying, 'Oh, this is so wonderful! Look, children, next year for Halloween you should be a saint,'" recalls Csicsko, whose parents discouraged him from participating. "I was taking it in with huge, wide eyes, just thinking this was spectacular."

As an adult, Csicsko researched the lives of the saints, and found their stories intriguing because they're supposed to be based on actual lives. "It was blood and guts and raw passion," he says. "It really connected with me." He later discovered some of the stories inspired fairy tales and nursery rhymes like "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," and "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Others resembled mythology, like the story of Winifred, a Welsh woman whose head was cut off by a disgruntled suitor. Two years after her murder, Winifred came back to life when her uncle restored her head to her body; a spring formed on the site of the miracle, and pilgrims sought out the spring for its healing properties. Csicsko says, "If you look past the violence and the sadness and how brutal it is, there's this weird lyrical beauty."

Four years ago, Csicsko--who's done illustrations for newspapers and magazines, cultural institutions like the Lyric Opera, and the cover of 1993's White House Christmas program--started a series of black-and-white prints based on the lives of the saints called "Saints in the Garden." So far he's done 38 pictures (he plans to stop at 40, the number of days in Lent). The project led to a job for a special magazine, which was inserted in the Sunday Chicago Tribune, commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Archdiocese of Chicago. His cover illustration of Michael the Archangel--a figure he imagined as a kind of protector of the city--became the signature artwork for the celebration and was emblazoned on buttons, T-shirts, and colorful banners on Michigan Avenue. A few of the banners still hang near Holy Name Cathedral at State and Chicago.

When DePaul approached Csicsko about exhibiting his saints, he was a little worried about how the Catholic school would react to his take on sainthood, but the show's currently in the first-floor gallery of the university's Lincoln Park library at 2350 N. Kenmore. Csicsko depicts the saints as real people with real problems, struggling with sexuality, doubt, and vice. "Saints are always gazing up toward heaven. That's pretty and poetic, but I guess I wanted to show [them] a little tougher."

Csicsko traces the concept of sainthood back to the earliest days of Christianity when some followers demonstrated their faith through suffering like Jesus Christ. "The martyrs helped advance the growth of the church because people heard about strong individuals who were willing to die for their faith," he says. But Csicsko found many saints were deeply troubled. He singles out Saint Francis of Assisi, who Csicsko says mastered his lust with self-inflicted pain. Some saints who felt their sexual urges betrayed their faith advocated running naked through the woods, bloodying their bodies against tree branches. "I kept being really surprised how mentally messed up a lot of them were," Csicsko says. "They just made a big confusion of their lives thinking that through self-mutilation and torture they were getting closer to God."

Csicsko, who now describes himself as a lapsed Catholic, sees saints as a way for the church to stay active in people's lives. Saints have been assigned to protect just about every vocation and to ward off every ailment, from fear of wasps (Friard) to the postal service (start praying to Gabriel). Csicsko's saints embody everyday conflicts and obsessions, and are pictured in erotic poses when appropriate. A full-lipped Saint Augustine, the fourth-century theologian who struggled with self-indulgence, shows off his body beautiful, looking like he's been hitting the gym. Saint Benedict--who established the monastic code (and, Csicsko adds, the idea of guilt) after battling his own lasciviousness--is broad-shouldered and bare-chested. Saint Valentine's Day is represented by a muscular man and a naked woman.

Although saints fought their sexual impulses, Csicsko says, they seemed to satisfy their desires in other ways. He once read about a woman who went into spiritual ecstasy while housecleaning. "I kept finding these people who had denied themselves any human sexual experience would have these divine moments of spiritual ecstasy that came so close to a sexual experience," he says. "I thought that was really, really interesting when the church has this position that sexuality is only to be used to have children."

For the current exhibit Csicsko decided to leave out his portrait of Judas, the apostle who didn't make the cut. But the rest of the works have been on display for three months, and DePaul plans to purchase a dozen of them. Father Kevin Spiess, the archdiocese's vicar of administration, calls Csicsko's portrayal of the saints "bold and shocking. It's meant to jolt. It comes out of a deep yearning of the artist to say these people are contemporary. They have much to say about the struggles that we are facing."

Far from realistic portraits, the works are in a geometric style that Csicsko borrows from cubism and German expressionism. A collector of outsider art, Csicsko says he decided to start packing his images with more information after visiting self-taught Georgia artist Howard Finster a few years ago. Flat figures have expressive, irregularly shaped, multiplaned faces. Their eyes become windows to their souls. Augustine rolls his eyes in opposite directions, looking at the devils dancing on each of his shoulders. Joan of Arc has the doleful, starry gaze of a visionary, but she also shows a touch of doubt. Saint Spiridon, an advocate of reading, stares softly with eyes blinded by torturers.

Csicsko says he was drawn to saints who wrestled with conflict and confusion in pursuing their faith. The devil looms large in his works. "I'm really fascinated by these really good, totally goody-two-shoes people who are tempted by the devil," he says. A devil visits Saint Juliana posing as her guardian angel and tries to convince her to worship pagan gods. "She sees through his disguise and says no to the devil but dies anyway because she's a martyr. I just thought that was fascinating, the idea of this devil coming into her cell disguised as her guardian angel. What would he wear?" In other pictures the devil smiles hungrily, whispering into the ears of saints.

Csicsko regularly injects a bit of whimsy. The devil tempting Juliana is dressed in a tutu. Since the church can always name new saints, Csicsko came up with one he says he could have used: Saint Dyslexia, a smiling fellow who wears a halo of jumbled letters.

Csicsko doesn't go to church often these days, but he still thinks about faith. "The really odd thing is it's hard to pin down and explain. Everybody's faith is completely valid and different, but I guess I believe in--and it's going to sound corny--I just believe in being good."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Peter Barreras; reproductions of cards: "St. Valentines Day", "St. Augustine", "St. Dyslexia".

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