Painting Inspires Religious Revival

By David Abel  |  The Miami Herald  |  8/20/1998

HAVANA -- A simple oil painting of a robed Jesus, his back squarely turned to observers, has become a symbol of religious revival for a growing band of admirers in Cuba.

More than 600 people have asked for reproductions of the work, The Back of Christ, according to Arsenio Marrero, a Havana audio technician who recently quit his job to devote more time to promoting the image and relaying what he sees as its message.

"The painting says, "Those of you behind me, follow me,'''' Marrero said. "As soon as I saw it, I knew God was showing me the way. I knew what I had to do.''

He and other devotees are lobbying Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, for permission to hang the painting in the San Pedro Church in Cotorro, one of the Cuban capital's working-class suburbs. The canvas now hangs in the Key Largo gallery of Cuban-born artist Thomas Fundora, who painted it in 1962.

The view of a faceless Jesus has sparked controversy ever since Fundora created it. Three men broke into his New York studio while the Spanish Pavilion displayed the painting at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. Unable to find the painting, they found the artist and crushed his hands, he said.

"They said they wanted to break my hands so that I could not paint another controversial painting,'' said Fundora, now 63, who said he was unable to paint for nine years. "Critics have made The Back of Christ so controversial, when really the idea is simple,'' he said. "It comes from the follower's perspective. Nobody who is following Christ sees him from the front.''

Fundora introduced the painting to Marrero in March, after the two met through family friend in Cuba. While the artist considers it an exaggeration to compare the painting to a miracle, he said Cubans are not the first to be so affected by the painting.

Bishop Karl Pruter of the Prince of Peace Cathedral in Highlandville, Mo., has included a reproduction of the portrait in his Masses for years and has spread its message to Roman Catholics from Miami to New York, Fundora said.

"We ask that you follow Him,'' Pruter writes on one of the hundreds of postcards of the painting now circulating in Havana. "As your leader he may glance back from time to time to urge you on, but take comfort in viewing His back, for it is He that you need to follow in this world unto the next.''

Behind the story of the painting is the personal history of Marrero, who is working to distribute the image in Cuba.

Though born into an anti-religious revolution that exiled priests and persecuted worshipers, Marrero had the conviction that one day he would do God's work. As a boy he told his family he would receive divine guidance sometime after he turned 33 years old.

All he had to do was wait for the message.

More than a year after the appointed birthday, and two months after Pope John Paul II swept through Cuba in January, the reinvigorated Catholic discovered the sign when he saw Fundora's painting.

While Marrero considers the painting a miracle, not everyone in Cuba has greeted reproductions of the painting with such euphoria.

"At first, it looked like Christ was turning his back on us ... like he was mad at us for not practicing for all these years,'' said Julia Sancho, 46, a housewife who received a photograph of the portrait from Marrero. "But now I understand it. And I think it's a good message. Something that will bring more followers.''

One of those followers is Ivan Albuerne, 26, a traveling musician, who said he met Marrero while looking for a way to become more involved in the church after the Pope's visit in January.

"If anything, this is an incentive to do something for God,'' Albuerne said. "It's a way to increase our faith and to know how to follow God.''

Copyright, The Miami Herald