A Roman Catholic graphic artist whose works are inspired by the Bible is giving spiritual inspiration to much of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, where his work is currently on exhibition.
"He is a prophet, No, that's too strong a word" laughed Rabbi Joshua Haberman. "But, I think he is an apostle of interreligious understanding," Haberman said of Ernst Degasperi, 50, whose visit from his home in Vienna, Austria, was sponsored by the fine arts committee of the congregation.
Much of Degasperi's work involves Biblical symbolism and much of it is drawn from the Old Testament, important to three major religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
"There are artists who do religious paintings." said Haberman, "but this is a religious man who expresses his deep feelings through the medium of art."
The inspiration for his work comes from places as disparate as Auschwitz and Lourdes, so that some of his works appear nightmarish, some delicate, lacy, pleasing.
The thousands of small, connected-but-never-crossing lines that mark his style show the influence of his tranining and 20-year career as an industrial artist.
In 1963, he was visiting the Austrian Alps, and was deeply impressed by the struggle of a pine seedling establishing itself in the ice, wind and cold 3,000 feet up.
"The wood pattern of this plant was a seismograph of its life, a victorious one, against nature. The lines in my art are like the ones in the needle plant," he said in a thick Australian accent. "The lines in my drawings are black and white, like the fight of man between good and evil."
"Black and white is the symbol of to be or not to be for God. There is no gray. People must choose God, or not," he said.
As a result of his inspiration, he worked for over two months, unable to think about anything but the drawings he found himself obsessed to create.
"I remember my little 6-year-old son lying on the table, looking at me while I did the drawing," he said. "The tears are pouring from my eyes. I don't feel joy in doing such a work. All my drawings are pain, are full of pain."
The first "cycle," as he calls these intense periods of drawing activity, produced 28 pens and ink drawings of scenes from the Book of Revelations. He says he didn't know what some of them were meant to depict until he looked in the Bible.
Between 1963 and 1975 he went through 13 more "cycles" producing 271 drawings in all. Some cycles were drawn in the Judean desert and the Sinai Peninsula, and many of them were done after reading biblical stories and visiting the places that would inspire him to create a modern-day conception of them.
"The bow and arrow of the Bible is shown in my drawings as the atom bomb. All weapons are an extension of the arm and the mind," he said.
At noontime Wednesday an observer of one of the paintings of a future holocaust involuntarily shudered. Degasperi said that this painting was supposed to frighten people. "It says, 'Don't keep on the way you're going.'"
The drawings of the thistle, his "symbol of survival, seem to strike many people as esthetically pleasing, and are his best-selling lithographs.
His appeal to the Jewish congregation seems to stem mainly from drawings of the prophets, Amos, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He often shows struggle and God's demands on prophets, both strong concepts in Judaism.
William Cardinal Baum, Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, a partron of the show along with the ambassador of Austria, Dr. Karl Herbert Schober, said Degasperi's work "emphasizes the spiritual bonds between Christians and Jews."
Some of his work, including a carved wet plaster mural on a wall outside Vienna, features many different steeples, spires, domes, crosses and other symbols of many denominations together.
Degasperi's major concern is the eveil that religious misunderstanding can bring. In a speech before the Predominantly Jewish audience at the opening of this exhibit, which will run until Oct. 31, he said:
"I am connected with the murderers of Auschwitz through the sacrament of baptism, but I am here as a witness that my religion and my church is love, as Judalsm is love, too."