Dony Mac Manus: Art Meets Theology of the Body

Interview With the Irish Artist and Sculptor

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By Robert F. Conkling

DUBLIN, Ireland, JULY 28, 2009 ( Dony Mac Manus calls himself a figurative — as opposed to abstract — artist. And the figures that most inform his artwork are those of the human body.

And the theology that most informs his art, is Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.

Mac Manus, 38, is the founder of the Irish Academy of Figurative Art in Dublin and the Dony Mac Manus Studios In Florence, Italy.

A native of Dublin, the aspiring artist studied at his hometown’s National College of Art and Design in Dublin. In 2000, he was awarded a Millennium Scholarship Trust from the Bank of Ireland to study at the New York Academy of Art, where, a year later, he earned a master’s degree in Fine Art.

But the event that most influenced the artist was John Paul II’s theology of the body at the suggestion of a priest-visitor who was impressed with a sculpture Mac Manus was working on of Christ crucified. He was sculpting the body of the living Christ, devoid of exterior skin, revealing all his muscles and bones.

To clarify his approach to his fascinated visitor, Mac Manus explained it this way: «I wanted to come to a deeper understanding of Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, through the language I knew best, which was form.»

Meeting up with Mac Manus at the recent Second International Symposium on the Theology of the Body, organized by the Irish organization Pure In Heart at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, ZENIT spoke with the artist about how theology of the body has influenced his art.

ZENIT: Has John Paul II’s theology of the body continued to inform your work?

Mac Manus: When I first was introduced to theology of the body, I started to understand what it meant to be a man, to be fully human, and how this identity is fundamental to how I relate with other men and women, and how I relate to God as a Christian. Since that introduction to theology of the body in 1999, it continues to inform my work.

In the words of John Paul II, «Christ reveals man to man.» I think, as an artist, I could not possibly ask for more. If an artist sees that his mission is to reveal man’s worth, dignity and destiny, as I believe it is, then this short revelation of John Paul II is all you need to put yourself on the right track.

If Christ reveals man to man, and he does this through his own body and our own bodies, then this explains why Christ has been the central figure of art for so long. It also explains why it is necessary to return Christ to that central place if we are to reclaim our own true culture and identity.

ZENIT: On your Web site (, you state that the human body is the most expressive tool to communicate the human condition. What do you mean by that?

Mac Manus: With this expression I mean to depict every aspect of being human. I see the human body as the ideal instrument to communicate this condition, as the body is designed to do just that.

I understand my own condition, and the condition of other humans, in and through my own body and theirs. As an artist, I strongly believe in the communication of what it means to be human. I realize it is my responsibility to finely tune my capacities to communicate this reality in my work, with maximum fluidity, so as to minimize the interference of artistic incompetence — be it anatomical, sculptural, drawing — in the communication of the message.

ZENIT: One of the key themes of John Paul II’s writing was that a person must never use or treat another as a mere means to an end. How do you, as an artist, whose favorite subject is the human body, guard that your models, whether a man or a woman, do not experience being used to further your art?

Mac Manus: This is a very interesting question and I am very glad you asked it because it forces me to think about it. I think it is purely a question of intentions, which is an overflow of an interior disposition. One can see another human person with purity of heart and not objectify the person. That positive intention is also communicated through our body language and is perceived by the other with great clarity. This is the manner I believe that both professional and personal relationships can be built.

ZENIT: Is art becoming, or has it already become, merely the superficial consumption of impressions? If so, how can those of us who are not fine artists, educate our own eyes and the eyes of others, especially youth, to look for art worthy of the human observers that we are?

Mac Manus: A lot of art has become very superficial and relativistic, leading to a lot of boring self-referential navel gazing. This results from a loss of a true focus on the only source of «the way, the truth and the light.» It has led to truly tedious artistic manifestations.

Put it this way, if I were to describe my exhibition either as «Dony Mac Manus: An Artistic Self-Exploration of a 38-year-old Guy From Dublin,» or as «A Contemporary Artistic Exploration of the Human Condition Through the Works of the Greatest Artists in History,» by Dony Mac Manus, most sane people, if they could choose, would choose the latter.

They would do this as it invites one to explore the vast richness of our collective cultural heritage, and in this way to learn what one can, and apply this to what is relevant to the present.

In other words, art is first and foremost a language. Language is born from thought. If we are to understand true art, we need to understand true thought. A healthy grasp of philosophy and theology can go a long way in penetrating the meaning of who we are.

With this understanding of the human condition we can aspire to reaffirm this vision of the human in cultural life, whether it be in the production or consumption of art.

ZENIT: What about art that is obscene? How can artists and non-artists recognize when a work, whether an original or a reproduction, is pornography?

Mac Manus: Obscene is what «cannot be presented to human view without any choice.» John Paul II used this concept to indicate that an image is obscene when it is an inappropriate image forced upon the viewer without any choice on the part of the viewer, as for example in a public street poster. In this example, the public is subject to the power of human sexuality thrust upon them for the monetary gain of others through advertising.

Pornovision (images) and pornography (written word) both take place when the limit of shame is overstepped and when the right to the privacy of the body, in its masculinity or femininity, is violated. This is contrary to the dignity of man in the intentional order (what the artist intends) of art and reproduction of words and images.

ZENIT: John Paul II wrote in «Laborem Exercens» (On Work), that all human work is a moment of revelation of the person, and is a natural way in which all persons can build him or herself up and to make a world worthy of himself. Do you see your work as an artist in this way? Specifically, what does your work tell the world about Dony Mac Manus?

Mac Manus: Yes, I do see my work this way. My work tells the world that Dony Mac Manus does not really care what people think about his art.  The only thing I care about is that I can articulate what I believe the world needs from the collective heritage we have. I want to sensitize myself to what is most beautiful and draw it out of this vast wealth and have it communicate with a contemporary audience so as to give hope through beauty.

As John Paul II reminded us when he quoted from «The Idiot» by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his Letter to Artists, 1999: «Beauty will save the world.» Today, I think we need that saving power more than ever.

ZENIT:  What are you trying to accomplish in your studio in Florence?

Mac Manus: I have established a workshop in the manner of the artists of the 15th century in the studio of Beato Angelico, San Marco, Firenze, so as
to create an environment in which great art can be conceived and great artists can formed. If I can establish a studio as good as Verrochio, maybe a modern-day genius like Leonardo can be nurtured.

Drawing and human anatomy are fundamental to figurative art. They are like words and grammar to a writer. Once you learn the rules well, only then can you break them properly in order to make art. Young artists are in great need of this basic right to communicate, which is denied to them by most established «art institutions.»

I form the artists on the job as it were. They learn in a real live commissioned project just as Michaelangelo did in the studio of Girlandio or Raphael in the studio of Perugiono.

ZENIT: If you knew ahead of time that you had only one last work of art to work on, what might that be?

Mac Manus: A life-sized crucifix made from Cedar of Lebanon.

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