Jorge Cocco Santángelo: Portraying Christ in Art
Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santángelo has long been admired for combining cubism and sacred subjects in his paintings. But Latter-day Saints may not realize that Jorge, a convert who was baptized in 1962, introduced the Church to an entirely new style and forged the path for other artists to portray the sacred in different ways. His paintings, frequently displayed in the Church History Museum and known for their rich colors and angular shapes, are often of Bible scenes or the Savior Himself. On this week's episode, Jorge discusses the responsibility he feels while painting Jesus Christ and why he hopes the style of art he has created allows observers to reflect and draw closer to Him.
To paint Jesus Christ is to walk into sacred ground.
2:28- A Lifelong Calling
3:25- Finding the Gospel
5:35- Evolution of a Testimony and Opposition
7:30- First Painting After Baptism
8:46- Growth of the Church in Argentina
9:59- Seeking to Portray Christ
22:00- New Pieces and the Inspiration That Keeps Coming
27:44- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones Pearson 0:01
Two quick notes before we get into this week's episode. We will be taking a month long break from new episodes and we'll return on January the 11th. We hope that you have a joyous Christmas season and we look forward to being back with you again in January.
This week, we decided to try something we've never done before on this show, and that is have an episode that is translated from Spanish to English. I want to give a huge thank you to Amiel, the son of Jorge Cocco Santangelo for his translation, and for providing his own insights at a couple of points in the episode.
The idea for this episode came as an answer to a prayer. Here in Northern California, there is a creche exhibit each year at Christmas. And by the time this episode airs, Jorge Cocco Santangelo will have been presenting his art for four days with just one day remaining. He is debuting several brand new pieces of art but the one that caught my attention is a Madonna and Child piece portraying Mary and the baby Jesus. I felt that speaking with someone who has worked so diligently to create art that helps us come to know the Savior would be the perfect way to celebrate this holiday season. I hope you feel the same. Jorge Cocco Santangelo's art previously caught the attention of the Queen of England who selected the 86 year old Latter-day Saint convert from Argentina's art as part of Great Britain's 2021 Royal Mail Christmas stamp collection, the last Christmas set the Queen would approve prior to her death. The stamps show Joseph leading the donkey, Mary and the baby Jesus, shepherds, wise men and angels. These are the images that lead our hearts and minds to Christ every Christmas. And we are grateful to Jorge as well as so many other artists whose work helps turn our hearts to Christ and helps us imagine what it would have been like to be there at the time of Christ's birth.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Pearson, and I am so excited to have Jorge Cocco on the line with me today. Jorge, welcome.
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 2:26
Thank you very much. So Jorge, I am curious, you've said that you've known since you were born, what you needed to do with your life. How old were you? When you started to recognize your gift for art? I know your mom said you were born with a pencil in your hand. But how do you think you instinctively knew what to do with that gift that you had been given?
So in the first years of my my study in in elementary school, I started to realize that there was a difference between my friends and I, in what we could and couldn't do. I started copying from magazines, from comic magazines, all the superheroes of the time, Superman and Batman.
Morgan Jones Pearson 3:17
So I love that I love that you, you know, recognize that you had this gift and started using it. But initially, you weren't using it for religious art. So before we get to that, you came in contact with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1962. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came in contact with the Church and how you ended up joining the church?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 3:43
Meeting the church was a casual thing. I could almost say was a miraculous thing. The Church was not present in the city where we lived. My wife and I were married. And we were in a time of a lot of uncertainty and soul searching. This is a city predominantly Catholic, but none of the religions of the time fulfilled what what we were looking for. The Church was going to take many, many years to go from Buenos Aires where it was established to our hometown. But in the Republic of Uruguay, the Church had expanded a lot quickly. And my city in Argentina is on the other side of the Uruguay River, across the river from an important city in Uruguay. And so in a very unusual way, two missionaries from Uruguay asked for a special permit so they could go across the river and go see what was on the other side of the river. They were coming on a boat and they happened to sit next to one of my wife's cousins. They tried to approach him as missionaries of the Church, and he immediately rejected them. But then he said, but actually, I do have a cousin that is always asking questions about religion. So he gave the missionaries our contact information, and they came over, they came to our home. And that's how we began our journey in the Church. The conversations with the missionaries were very interesting. At the end of it all, we went to the riverbanks and got baptized.
Morgan Jones Pearson 5:34
So one thing that I wondered about this, as I was, you know, watching and reading stuff about your life, Jorge, it's interesting to me that this happened over 60 years ago. You are now 85 years old. And so I wondered, how has your testimony changed and evolved over the 60 years since you were baptized,
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 6:00
The spiritual impact is very evident. And it comes from the same source, even though the knowledge of the doctrine in those days was minimal, compared to what I know now after many years, but the strength of the Spirit is the same.
Morgan Jones Pearson 6:20
That's super cool. I think recognizing the Spirit, whether we understand everything, I always say that about my grandparents, both of my grandmas are converts to the Church. And I've always felt like, you know, they didn't understand everything, but they felt the Spirit. And that's what matters.
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 6:39
We had our first sacrament meetings in the missionaries apartment. We had no clue how the church was organized.
Morgan Jones Pearson 6:49
Wow, that's amazing. And so touching on that, you and your wife, were the first members of the Church in your city in Argentina, did you feel, because I imagine other people that weren't familiar with the Church, or maybe were familiar with the Church had some feelings about your decision to be baptized? Did you face any opposition at that time?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 7:11
Yes, of course, I was very naive. And I went running to tell about these new things that I had found to my friends and family. And I got a huge disappointment, and we were cast out basically from the city's society.
Morgan Jones Pearson 7:30
At the point of your baptism, Jorge, you had mostly painted landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. How was this practice different for you than what you paint most commonly now?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 7:46
I didn't have formal artistic training. But about that time, I was already doing a lot of research on my own, in regards to art and in different art styles. I had done already Impressionism and I was doing some abstract work. But the first thing I painted after being baptized was a portrait of Jesus Christ, so that we could hang it in our very humble department building where the where we met as a church. And the second painting that I did was a portrait of Joseph Smith. And then I painted a larger piece of the visit of Jesus Christ and to the Americas for a chapel in the middle in the city of Salado in Uruguay.
Morgan Jones Pearson 8:44
Wow. What was it like, because the church has grown a ton in South America and in Argentina, what has it been like for your dad to watch the church grow over the years there?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 9:00
So it was very tough for many years. But I've seen a lot of growth in the last few years. We moved to when Buenos Aires after we were baptized, and there I was able to participate more actively in leadership positions.
Morgan Jones Pearson 9:18
Well, I think it's so neat anytime we have the chance to interview somebody that is a pioneer, which is what you are Jorge, you're a pioneer in Argentina and in the area that you grew up in. And I think it's just neat anytime we have the chance to talk to somebody who took that leap of faith.
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 9:40
I was able to participate in the transformation from the first mission into the first stake in Argentina. I was called as one of the first bishops in the country.
Morgan Jones Pearson 9:56
Wow So so neat. So going back to you said the very first painting that you painted was a painting of Jesus Christ. You called painting Jesus Christ the highest degree of commitment and said that it is the heaviest burden for an artist. I wondered, what is your approach like Jorge, when you sit down to paint a painting of the Savior?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 10:22
So you can paint any worldly painting be it a landscape, a master painting, or still life, and you can apply all the resources and the laws of art, you can transmit all the harmony and all the possible beauty. But to paint Jesus Christ is to walk into sacred ground. And to be able to do that you have to transport yourself into a spiritual realm, in which you have to be yourself in in a spiritual state of mind. Because you're not painting a human being, you're painting a God, and you need a concept and that never arrives.
Morgan Jones Pearson 11:14
So well said. So I noticed in one of the articles that I read about you, you said that you couldn't portray Jesus Christ correctly, if you did not have a testimony of Him. You just mentioned like you are not painting a person, you're painting a God, why have you felt that your testimony you mentioned also like coming into it, you have to approach it as yourself. So why is it important for you to prepare spiritually for these paintings and make sure that you're in the right spirit to be able to paint them?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 11:51
Because otherwise, I will be painting something historic. So Jesus Christ taught things that will that are able to be told, but the content is spiritual. And the challenge is to make a painting that you can see, but the content of it needs to be spiritual. And if you don't have a testimony by this period, you cannot paint something of that nature, the spiritual nature.
Morgan Jones Pearson 12:30
So, Jorge, you approach these art pieces a bit different than most Latter Day Saint artists. So you call this approach sacrocubism. Amiel, maybe before we even have your dad comment on this, you can explain to us what sacrocubism is.
Amiel Cocco 12:53
Sure, so I basically coined the word because cubism, it's an art movement that is associated with Picasso and Braque, it was called like that, because they use a lot of cubes and geometric shapes. But cubism had to do with objectification of people. And so there was a room there for using the same approach, same artistic language, but with a different end, which was to make things spiritual. So the opposite, that's why it was used. And so that's why we call it sacro, which means sacred in Latin. So that's why there was a room there to to make a distinction and to call it a little bit different sacrocubism.
Morgan Jones Pearson 13:50
Okay, that makes sense. Okay, so, Jorge, you've said that you use colors and forms that convey a spiritual message because a color and a shape can produce an impact that is superior to the visual and can teach our spirits similar to what we find in music. How would you say that this unique art style is able to communicate even more sometimes than the classical style that we usually see in church art?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 14:21
I am capable of painting a person just the way the eye sees it. And when that happens, the focus of the work the person observing the art is called to notice the artist's technique. And so they comment, you know, if it is a good painting, then they would say, Oh, how wonderful it looks like a real person. It looks like the person is alive. It looks like we can touch that person. But that is not the the objective of art according to my philosophy. You can reach that point with technique but to me art needs to take the person out of the material and physical reality of the everyday life and to elevate to the transcendent events, to things that you can find behind or beyond that painted scene. So I try to avoid it as much as possible, any reference to the, to the actual looks of the person and the landscape. So that the form and color may produce a new feeling. a new sensation, because we're not trying to imitate to replicate the physical reality. When we see a person that speaks by the Spirit, it doesn't matter the way they're dressed. It doesn't matter what they look like. The important thing is that their Spirit touched our spirit. And when a form and a color touches our spirit, then art made its magic.
Morgan Jones Pearson 16:18
I love that so much. So Jorge, when you first started painting, these religious works of art, was it immediately this style of painting, or is that something that came with time?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 16:31
Art has many, many ways of being expressed. I was painting surrealism, metaphysical abstraction, and that will require certain eye training by the observer. But most of the Church membership, in general, they needed a language that they could understand that will be to their reach, and to get used to this new way of, of communicating through art. So he says, that the Church itself was closed to any other artistic style, that was not realistic
Morgan Jones Pearson 17:21
Realism. Right. Okay, that makes sense.
Amiel Cocco 17:25
I have to add that up to today, you know, it's very much so, but little by little we're opening a door and Jorge has been that type of, of pioneer as well because, you know, up until he came around, you would not see anything that wasn't very realistic in nature.
Morgan Jones Pearson 17:56
Right, right. Absolutely. Well, I think, I think that, you know, sometimes it's nice to have a painting that looks like the way that you imagine Christ, but other times, I think it's nice to have a painting where you get to imagine, like what His face looks like, because we've all read the scriptures, we all have an idea in our minds. And sometimes if it's super realistic looking. It's like, oh, that's not how I imagined him.
Amiel Cocco 18:27
So Morgan, I'm going to interject here.
Morgan Jones Pearson 18:29
Yes, please. Anytime you want to interject Amiel, you're welcome.
Amiel Cocco 18:33
There was an article recently published by the Salt Lake Tribune. It was in reference to a Book of Mormon catalog that is available now online. And we learned, you know, hundreds of paintings, images to have in the catalog. And so that article came, came out in the Salt Lake Tribune and the curator was saying that there is a risk of having paintings that look so realistic, because number one, we were not there. We don't know how it happened, or what they looked like, right? We don't have the authority to say how you know how it was. But number two, is that when we paint so realistically that people do look at it and say that's what happened, and that's how it was. And that's the danger because who knows. Maybe it wasn't, but the curator was saying there's a risk to paint so realistically, because it engraved in the minds of the people what Jesus was supposed to look like or how things were, and that could be very erratic.
Morgan Jones Pearson 20:02
Right? Well, and it makes sense to like that would be the reason that we would need a lot of different people to share their idea of Christ, you know, whether it be realistic or not, we need different representations because we don't know what He looked like.
Amiel Cocco 20:20
You know, Morgan, you know, this an honest and candid comment. But, you know, we see in the publications, and in the last years, we see the effort to open up. But for decades, you would only see the same depictions of Christ and Book of Mormon scenes, over and over and over and over again, so much that you come to think that that's the reality.
Morgan Jones Pearson 20:51
That is what He looks like, right.
Amiel Cocco 20:53
Yes. And, and, and, you know, we are thankful for for new leadership in the Church Museum, and in the Museum of BYU, and you know, other places that are opening up to say, Well, you're right, I mean, this is an artist's opinion. And that's fine, you know, it's perfectly fine. And they're beautiful, what they painted before and what's been used, I mean, is wonderful. But you are correct in saying that we need many voices, many, many different voices so that we don't get stuck in one style and in one characteristic of anything that happened,
Morgan Jones Pearson 21:42
Right. When I think that's the beauty of the Book of Mormon catalog that you were talking about. And we'll make sure to link that so that people can can visit that because I think it's such a cool website. I also just want to acknowledge how much I think Jorge your art is resonating with people, and how much it's touched so many people within the Church, I know that having a favorite painting is like picking a favorite child. So I'll just say, at this moment, while we're talking, do you have a favorite painting that you've done?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 22:18
He's says this last one. I don't know if you saw it Morgan. It's called the Christus. And it's a painting that was in our background.
Morgan Jones Pearson 22:27
It is stunning. I was gonna ask you about that. So I'm glad you're bringing it up.
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 22:32
So this the last big painting, and it's inspired by Thorvaldsen's statue of the Christus that is in Denmark and that we have used in the Church in visitor centers and you know, all over the world. So it's inspired in that in that sculpture.
Morgan Jones Pearson 22:57
And is it just because it's the last one because it's sometimes that's true of me with podcasts? Sometimes my favorite one is just because it's the most recent, or is there a reason that it's Jorge's favorite right now?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 23:11
Yeah, he says he's very hard to compare paintings.
Morgan Jones Pearson 23:16
And so I guess, like removing the comparison, what is it that makes this painting the Christus special to him?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 23:26
So the physical features of the Christ, they're almost as a call, it's almost like He's calling us.
Morgan Jones Pearson 23:37
I love that. So you've said Jorge, that painting is a spiritual practice for you and that you wake up with more ideas than you could paint and I think that's evidenced by how many paintings you have pumped out consistently. But how does this inspiration usually come?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 23:59
I don't know how it comes. But I know it comes. So it is an exercise of trying to visualize this inspiration. It is like remembering something that you've seen in the past and then put it on a piece of paper. And then I make rational corrections based on what I know in art
Morgan Jones Pearson 24:32
That makes complete sense to me. I think so many of us you know, President Nelson has had his focus on Hear Him and it's been interesting to try to figure out for me like how do I receive the inspiration that I receive and I love how he said like, I don't know how I how it comes but I know that it comes. Jorge's newest painting is titled Madonna and Child. Jorge, could you tell me a bit about your process of painting this piece, and perhaps some of the parts that you love most about it.
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 25:11
So he says the Church has opened up a little bit, and now is more being accepted to paint Mary, Virgin Mary. And so I'm very happy that I can I can paint her and to be something that is accepted. And the dramatic experience that this young woman went through has not been explored in much, much depth, there is very little writings about it, that she had a God in her belly and to take care of and then raise that child. And so I work with very converging forms and triangles, shapes, because she must have had an internal conflict as a human being. And as a mother of a God, a unique phenomenon in the whole history of humankind. So it was love, responsibility, all of that, to put all of that into a painting is a challenge.
Morgan Jones Pearson 26:23
For sure, well, and I was thinking as you were talking just now, that it probably you know, you talked about how weighty it is, and how much it weighs heavy on you to paint the Savior. I was thinking probably some similar feelings about painting the mother of Jesus Christ. So this episode, Jorge will be our last episode that will air before Christmas this year. So what does it mean to you to be able to debut this piece that captures such an important part of the Christmas story at Christmas time?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 27:00
So it is a great honor for me, I'm just very thankful that I have the opportunity to be an influence to other people out there through art. It is great to to bring this image back to the purpose, the real purpose of what we're celebrating during Christmas, which is the birth of Christ and not just a vacation or a festivity.
Morgan Jones Pearson 27:32
Absolutely Well, I for one, am very excited to come and meet the two of you in person. So that's it. I'm looking forward to and so excited to see this piece in person. In conclusion, the last question that we always ask on this podcast is, what does it mean to you to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ and Amiel, I just want to say, thank you so much for translating. And if you have anything that you want to add about what it means to you to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ, that would be awesome, too.
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 28:03
Okay, thank you. Thank you so much. It's my pleasure to be able to participate. Thank you so much for having us. Everything else would not make sense if you're not all in. Everything is is temporal. So the gospel gives you an answer for things now and for things for eternity.
Morgan Jones Pearson 28:33
Absolutely. I completely agree. Amiel, did you have anything that you wanted to add?
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 28:40
No, I think, you know, we want to leave it, leave Maestro Cocco with the last word.
Morgan Jones Pearson 28:48
Okay. Okay, perfect. Well, thank you both so so much. It's been a privilege to talk to you. And like I said, I look forward to meeting you. And I hope that you have a very Merry Christmas.
Amiel Cocco 29:02
Likewise, and it's a pleasure. Thank you for having us.
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 29:06
Morgan Jones Pearson 29:10
of course, Feliz Navidad.
Jorge Cocco Santangelo 29:13
Muchas gracias. Igualmente.
Morgan Jones Pearson 29:19
Huge thanks to Jorge Cocco for joining us on today's episode. You can find Jorge's art on DeseretBook.com. You can also learn more about Jorge, his art, and the Palo Alto creche exhibit by visiting ldsliving.com/allin and clicking on Jorge's episode. Each week, we have links to everything that's been discussed on the episode and we hope you take advantage of that resource. We are so grateful for the time that you've spent with us in 2022. It has truly been a year to remember and we look forward to making more memories with you in 2023. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!
Transcribed by https://otter.ai