Basilica Music Inspires New Portrait Of The Virgin Mary: Tianna Williams

15 November 2022

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

On November 15, the Schola Cantorum of Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s Basilica is releasing their second album of sacred music, entitled Into Light. For the full story click here.

Artist Tianna Williams

Roderick Bryce,  the director of music at St. Joseph’s Basilica,  collaborated with Saskatchewan Catholic artist Tianna Williams to design the album cover for Into Light. Through the process of designing album artwork, Williams not only created an album cover; she was also inspired to paint a new portrait of the Virgin Mary. We had the pleasure of speaking with Williams about her artistic process and how the music of the Schola Cantorum contributed to the creation of her new painting of Our Lady, which is also entitled “Into Light:”

How would you describe how the Schola’s music inspired your new painting of Our Lady?

This painting has an interesting—and rather unique—origin story. 

Roderick had reached out to me about designing a CD cover for the Schola Cantorum’s new album, “Into Light”. We have worked together for many years now for Advent promotions. This time, I decided to try something a little different to spark inspiration for the design.

My brother had recently introduced me to an AI software that generates images from different prompts, and I was curious to see what it would produce using the keywords “into light”, “Advent”, “cinematic lighting”, etc. It gave me bizarrely beautiful images of candles and glowing pathways and sparkling lights. I ended up modifying one of those pictures for the CD cover.

I played around with the generator a little more, including the term “Virgin Mary” in the prompts. It returned an image of a woman with a glowing halo and abstract swaths of fabric. Something about it was so intriguing to me, although still strange and inhuman as is often the case with AI-generated images. I decided that I wanted to try painting it in my own style, should I find myself with a few hours to spare.

The opportunity came on Thanksgiving weekend. The painting came together with ease and was a delightful way to spend a quiet afternoon. I enjoyed the loose and colourful strokes of the fabric, intentionally leaving it somewhat abstract, hinting at the tiny child that might be swaddled in its folds. However, I paid special attention to her face, which I wanted to appear young and innocent, yet strong. All told, it took me just three days (plus a few touch-up sessions) to complete this piece—a bit faster than the many months it usually takes for my larger and more detailed paintings.

The end result is a painting vaguely iconographic in style. The colours and theme are complementary to the CD design which precipitated its inspiration. The final touch was to use one of the album songs in the time-lapse video: Dixit Maria, the lyrics of which are Mary’s fiat:

“Mary said to the Angel: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Why is the painting of Our Lady called “Into Light” and what aspect of Our Lady is being emphasized in this painting?

It made sense to give the painting the same name as the album, since both are a form of art which attempts to speak to the mystery of the Incarnation, and in particular Our Lady’s role in bringing light into a dark world. The text in the sleeve of the CD sums it up well, I think:

“As Advent nears its climax, our thoughts turn to the Incarnation, especially the vital role played by the humble ‘yes’ given to the archangel Gabriel by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary’s fiat is at the crux of our faith—allowing the divine to assume human flesh and marking the final chapter in God’s redemptive plan. Naturally, many Advent texts turn their attention to Our Blessed Lady…”

To me, it is the quality of light in the painting that is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the piece, and is what originally stirred my heart. Most of the light seems to come from the halo, which is by far the brightest element of the painting. It shines from behind her like the moon—a heavenly body that is beautiful not for the light it produces, but for the light it reflects. We love and honour Mary for her “yes” to God, who wanted to pour out, through her, the full force of his mercy and grace into our broken humanity. She is lovely because of Christ’s light shining so purely in her.

What is one way through which your vocation as an artist can glorify our Lord?

I believe that any time we use our gifts for the good, true, and beautiful, we give glory to God in some small way. Artists have a unique opportunity to do this by participating in God’s own creative nature. To me, this means allowing the Holy Spirit to inspire and shape every piece, so that I paint not only for my own enjoyment but so that God can speak his beauty into the world in a new way. We each have a special role to play, with our particular talents, experiences, intuitions, and even flaws. May we, like Mary, quiet our hearts to listen, so that we can then offer back to God our humble “yes”.

Watch the time-lapse of William’s latest painting, accompanied by a track from the Schola Cantorum’s latest album, Into Light: