Moving art

Dec. 4-10, 2003
Moving art
By Kristen Fox / SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Late artist Linda Benton’s paintings find a home at Le Moyne College

A gifted artist and lay missionary, Linda Benton’s work caught the attention of Pope John Paul II. His holiness was so pleased by her painting of the Tohatchi Cross, a crucifix painted in the Navajo tradition, that he requested it be put on display in the Vatican. Thousands of replicas of this famous cross are worn and displayed all over the world.

With the recent donation of a separate set of paintings to Le Moyne College, the late Benton’s legacy will now be a bit closer to home. Her triptych commemorating the brutal murders of six Jesuit priests of the University of Central America (UCA), their housekeeper and her young daughter on Nov. 16, 1989, was donated to Campus Ministry following Benton’s death in December of 2002. The paintings were displayed at a Mass on Nov. 16, which marked the 14th anniversary of the assassination of the martyrs. The Mass, held at the Panasci Family Chapel, was celebrated by Father Charles Beirne, SJ, president of Le Moyne. Benton’s sister, Irene Benton, a Syracuse resident, also attended the Mass.

The martyrs that Benton captured in her triptych were people who paid the ultimate price so that the ideals they cherished would not die. In her paintings, their spirits live on. Father William Dolan, SJ, campus minister and history professor at Le Moyne, said that the untitled paintings will be used by the college as an icon and aid to prayer during the college’s annual observance of the Jesuit martyrs. “These are heroic men and women who died for their faith,” said Father Dolan. “The triptych is a holy object which will offer an opportunity for reflection and meditation in remembrance of the martyrs and the victims of the Salvadoran Civil War.”

The paintings have another special significance to Le Moyne. Shortly after the assassinations, Father Beirne was asked by the Jesuit Superior General, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach to go to El Salvador to replace assassinated chief academic officer Father Ignacio Martin-Baro, SJ. Benton was 42-years-old at the time of the horrific murders. David Pasinski, senior chaplain at Hospice of CNY, said that Benton, his close friend, was always fascinated and moved by the Jesuits. “At the time of these murders, Linda was very affected and took time away from work to create this striking triptych,” said Pasinski. The paintings took Benton two months to complete and were finished on Jan. 23, 1990.

Two panels depict the slain priests and women in the house and garden of the residence at UCA. The third panel portrays an image of the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was shot and killed while celebrating a public Mass near his home in 1980. They are done in oil. The haunting triptych startlingly contrasts with Benton’s other paintings, many which reflect her Native American heritage and Catholic imagery and symbolism. Though the triptych is graphic, it is visually and spiritually moving. “It’s very disturbing, just as the murder of innocent people is disturbing. But it is also a moving holy object of remembrance,” remarked Father Dolan. Pasinski said the paintings also “serve as an indictment not just of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, but the American complicity.” Many in the Salvadoran military had trained at the infamous “School of the Americas” in Fort Benning, Ga. Prior to being donated to Le Moyne, the paintings were used by Hospice of CNY and also displayed for a brief time at the Alibrandi Center at Syracuse University. Before her death, Benton asked Pasinski to find a permanent home for the triptych. Knowing of her deep admiration for the Jesuits, he recommended to Benton that they be given to Le Moyne. “Linda was delighted to know that they would be given to Le Moyne College,” said Pasinski. “She thought they would be something that the college would like to have.”

Father Dolan and Oscar Mayorga, campus minister, prepared the triptych for display. Each painting was individually framed and mounted on pinewood by Gerald Masterpaul, college carpenter. They will be displayed annually during the remembrance of the assassination, said Father Dolan. Benton’s life included service as a lay missionary at various Native American reservations before her return to Syracuse in 1999. She passed away on Dec. 29, 2002, at Francis House, but not before gifting the world with her evocative images.

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