Anthony Falbo’s sense of humor is one of the qualities that endears me to his art. He frequently paints religious subjects but not with the stilted piety of much of today’s (what passes as) Christian art—instead, he approaches his subjects with a spirit of play.
In his painting It Is Finished, Falbo employs a pun in the title: “it is finished” refers to one of the Seven Last Words of Christ but is also an affirmation that yes, despite appearances, this artwork is complete as is.
I showed this image as part of a presentation before a small group of friends on the Crucifixion in contemporary art, and when they saw the title—before I even said anything—a few chuckled out loud. (It was the only one of the images that invited such a reaction.)
But what I love about Falbo is that his humor is not gimmicky; his paintings may elicit a smile or a laugh, but they do far more than that—they actually provide substance to sink into. Let’s look at this one, for example.
Its most striking feature is the contrast of minimalist charcoal sketches with richly hued oil paints. The boxed outline around the Crucifixion and the concentration of color there create the impression of a picture within a picture. But the scene cannot be contained; it spills out, the cross-tree taking root outside the frame, the blood pooling there too. Here is where the mourners—traditionally John and the Three Marys—stand, one of them reaching up into the picture. Angels fly about in the margins; one gestures toward the dying Christ as if to tell the viewer, “This is for you.”
The color helps center our attention on Christ’s face and punctuates other details—namely, the three nails, and the blood at the base of the tree. Christ’s figure is painted in some places but line drawn in others, evoking a sense of fading. Are we witnessing life giving way to death, or death giving way to life? Is the picture losing color or gaining it? Surely both.
This transition or state of exchange is further emphasized by the meeting of two color fields in the background: purple and blue. In addition to royalty, purple is traditionally associated with sorrow and penitence, it being the liturgical color for Lent, a time of interior preparation for Easter. Blue, on the other hand, traditionally represents heaven and/or truth. So here we have heavenly love dipping down to kiss sinful humanity. Or revelation leading to repentance. Or perhaps royalty and heaven both being given to those who come to the foot of the cross.
Falbo cleverly uses trompe l’oeil effects to allude to other elements of the Crucifixion narrative. The peeling back of a paint layer references the tearing of the temple veil, a symbolic grant of access for all to God through the eternal mediating priesthood of Christ. Across from that an apparent puncture in the picture references the piercing of Christ’s side by a Roman soldier to confirm his death, which unleashed a discharge of water and blood—the symbolic birthing fluids of the church. (Some traditional Crucifixion paintings show Ecclesia, a personification of the church, jumping out of the wound in Christ’s side.)
Falbo also draws on the traditional Tree of Life motif, which pictures the cross as a still-living tree, that of Genesis 3:22 and Revelation 22:2. Falbo’s rendition, though, shows hands dangling from the branches, grasping apples, reminding us of the Fall which Christ’s death redeems.
If you like It Is Finished and want to help support a Christian artist, consider buying a reproduction of the painting at www.falboart.com. As you do that and continue to gaze on the painting, here’s an apropos song for your listening enjoyment.