A controversial painting of John F. Kennedy's dying moments is on display at the Cathedral of St. Paul. The unveiling of the painting corresponds with a week-long symposium the church has convened on the Kennedy assassination.
Mark Balma's "Pieta" shows a grief-stricken Jacqueline Kennedy cradling the mortally wounded President's head in her lap, just after their limo has arrived at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. It's a moment that changed history, but a moment Balma could only envision because it wasn't photographed.
Balma offered the five-by-seven-foot oil tempera painting to several museums, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Smithsonian. Both turned it down for being either too emotional or inappropriate. When he approached the St. Paul Cathedral, which already houses two of Balma's enormous frescoes, it became the inspiration for a week-long event examining the assassination.
Balma says the piece fits well in a church because it represents a moment imbued with spirituality. "I think in those tragic moments we are given certain graces to deal with that kind of tragedy, and I think that's what I tried to represent."
The cathedral took on the air of a state funeral as an honor guard presented the flag and a horn quintet played solemn music. When the painting was unveiled, the small audience walked up together to view it more closely. For some, the memories of where they were and what they were doing when they heard were triggered once again.
"I was at home and my husband was having lunch...." "I was in the First National Bank in St. Paul and then my boss told me what happened..."
Father Joseph Johnson is Rector of the Cathedral in St. Paul. Johnson says the assassination was an important moment in the nation's history and the history of the church, given Kennedy's status as the first Catholic elected president. He can understand how the piece might arouse conflicted emotions for some, but Johnson doesn't view it as controversial.
"No one is making a judgment about the President one way or another. The church certainly isn't canonizing him. At the same time, our nation has this as a part of its history and we can't hide from that."
Mark Balma plans to present "Pieta" to the Pope in Rome where it will become part of the Vatican Museum's collection. Father Johnson says the Vatican may send it to the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington.
It will be on display at the Cathedral of St. Paul through November 22, the 43rd anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death. The week-long symposium will feature presentations on the Kennedy years, history painting and the assassination, including remarks from former governor and JFK assassination buff Arne Carlson. [...snip] MN Public Radio's Speaking of Faith