Ansgar Holmberg, C.S.J., 86, didn’t paint her O Antiphon series to edify or instruct anyone. They were meant only for herself.
Ansgar (she likes to be called by her first name) has been with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 67 years, and although she has spent time teaching children and offering spiritual direction, she created these seven paintings over the course of three years as a personal way to contemplate Scripture.
“I had read what other people had said, but I decided to paint them for myself, for me to understand them better. That’s one of the ways I learn,” Ansgar said.
Now the seven paintings, done in brilliant gouache (a kind of opaque watercolor), are gathered in a small book, Praying the Advent Names of God, paired with poems composed by another sister in the community, Joan Mitchell, C.S.J.
The O Antiphons are a series of seven verses dating from the sixth century and prayed during vespers during the last week of Advent. Each antiphon is a name of Jesus taken from Scripture, and they are the basis for the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Ansgar’s images are saturated with color and inhabit a strange space between iconography and myth. Ansgar said she did not set out to express a theological idea with her works; she simply followed her intuition.
“I didn’t have any rules or laws or requests put upon me, but it was my own expression of where I was at that time as I worked with these,” she said. “I put my own spin on it, and it went a bit more cosmic.”
Wisdom, for instance, is frequently portrayed in Western art with symbols like a lamp, a book or a female form enthroned; but in Ansgar’s conception, Wisdom is a figure descending fluidly from the heavens, grasping the sun in one hand, breathing out waters and engraving the bed of a riverbank with the other hand. Wisdom, Ansgar said, is proceeding from the womb of God.
Image: “O Wisdom” from Praying the Advent Names of God by Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, and Joan Mitchell, CSJ, used with permission