It’s now an extraordinary scene on the high altar of St. Timothy’s Catholic Community whenever priests, eucharistic ministers and altar servers gather there. It’s as if they were joined by an amazing cluster of history’s greatest saints.
Across the apse, or back recessed space, is a mural of 30 saints, possible future saints and historic religious people. Their height falls even with the altar celebrants to create the illusion of a larger gathering.
The lineup of life-size, realistic figures are part of a dramatic 30-by-30-foot mural, “Salvation’s Family,” by veteran artist Steve Voita. It’s as if the major household names in the Catholic Church suddenly showed up, along with Jesus and angels above them, and Mary and Joseph flanking the mural on the side walls. They include Mother Teresa, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Maria Goretti and Father Eusebio Kino on horseback, along with three apostles, saints Paul, Peter and Timothy. On either side of the tabernacle are two of the 20th century’s best-loved papal giants, popes John XXIII and John Paul II.
For Voita, 51, this may well be the seminal work of his career. He has devoted about 14 months to it and has as many as four months more to sharpen facial features, add scriptures and clouds above the assemblage and meet his own exactitude for the eye-catching work.
“Most people think I’m done, but I want to refine it a little bit,” said the Phoenix artist, who credits St. Timothy’s pastor, the Rev. Jack Spaulding, for conceiving the work and inventorying the pantheon of spiritual giants for the scene. When its sanctuary was constructed in the late 1970s, two sets of giant sculpted angels covered the wall behind the altar. They were moved to the side walls in a delicate process to make way for the mural.
Voita first painted Mary and Joseph to provide an archetype of what he would be creating, then went to work on a new drywall surface, going right to left with his lineup of giants of the faith, starting with St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest from Poland killed by the Nazis in 1941 after Kolbe volunteered himself to die in his prison camp in the place of a married man with young children. It was part of Nazi protocol to execute 10 prisoners for every prisoner who had escaped. “They tried to starve him to death, but they had to kill him with a needle of carbolic acid,” Voita said.
The artist freely talks at length about each person and his or her mark on Christendom — St. Katherine Drexel, “who worked with the Indians and African-Americans,” or “on the far left is Father Michael McGivney, founder of Knights of Columbus.” Three children represent the youth who reported being visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1917 near Fatima, Portugal.
“I have given Mother Teresa a little bit of height,” Voita said. “When all the people are coming to Mass, they are all standing here as eucharistic ministers, so it looks like a crowd up here, and they fit right in.”
Using acrylic paints, Voila moved through the process with his wife, Linda, a skilled portrait artist, helping him paint faces and continually advising all parts of the mural, which features lines of light rays throughout.
“The lines converge on Christ,” he said. “... I did it as a way to bring you to the center of the work of art.”
The work centers on the Book of Revelation and the second coming of Christ to Earth, and he called it a “very mentally straining process” because he studied the life of each person in the mural to gain a deep sense of how they lived “and how dedicated they were to doing what was right.” He said it constantly challenged him. “I want to be as good as I can be and to do what I said I would do,” the artist said. Doing the right thing, he said, isn’t always popular in today’s culture.
“I drew it all in charcoal first,” said Voita, who began his art when he was 5 and was formally trained in art at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Canada (which Linda also attended), and later Phoenix College. His previous religious art includes a restful desert scene at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Phoenix and a painting of the enunciation at St. Gabriel the Archangel in Cave Creek. His first commission was a portrait of famed California missions founder Junipero Serra, for the Serra Center of Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, Calif.
Those regularly attending Mass at the large Mesa parish have been able to watch the progress of the mural.
“It’s been such a fun project, some(thing) that could unfold in front of everyone’s eyes,” said Vickie Jennett, the parish’s communications director. She has been among staff whose office windows look out onto the sanctuary and have watched the progress of the work. “It has been a huge educational tool for the entire parish because as people came here for other activities, they would watch the painter do a work-inprogress,” she said. “He always has had some kind of nifty little story about the saints that he was painting.”
Saying he most admires the work of classic painters Michelangelo, El Greco and Caravaggio, Voita said, “I am more of a working-class painter because I approach it that way,” he said. “I don’t really hang out with the art crowd, and they don’t hang out with me necessarily.” Doing religious art is a bit of a lonely adventure, he said, because culturally speaking, “It is not cool to do Christian art” and “is not contemporary enough.”
In his painting, he said he seeks to balance “the structure of Christianity and the spirit of it,” preserving tradition, but “being open to new things.”
“The trick is to have the reverence but also have a new expression of what God and Christ means to the artist or to a particular project.”