Contrasting images of the Scottish martyr

POST BY GClapson

John Ogilvie: Burns and Howson paintings
Two contrasting paintings of St John Ogilvie SJ

Two modern paintings of St John Ogilvie SJ show the Jesuit saint at different stages in his life and exhibit contrasting aspects of his personality. As we mark the 400th anniversary of his martyrdom in 1615, Ged Clapson looks at the messages the artists sought to portray in their works.

Commissioned in 1998 by St Aloysius College Glasgow for its new Junior School building (which is dedicated to St John Ogilvie), the painting by Gerard M Burns (far left) is very different from the more usual images of his martyrdom.  It shows John as a young boy surrounded by the soft pastures of the Drum above the Banffshire town of Keith where he was born in 1579. 

The characteristic blackface sheep tell us we are in the highlands.  John is shown in modern dress and could be any of the pupils at St Aloysius College Junior School.  He looks off into the distance, wondering what the future will hold – and in his arms he holds the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus which will be the rule of life, written by St Ignatius Loyola, which he will take to heart and make his own as a Jesuit, called to serve Christ “under the banner of the cross” (detail below)Burns Ogilvie detail

Behind the young Ogilvie stands an angel, her face neutral, leaving John to discern his own path, but gently indicating with her right hand that he will need to leave this place and find his own calling.  Behind them stands a Birch tree, native of the Scottish highlands, and a traditional symbol of renewal and taking root in difficult soil which reflects Ogilvie’s mission to his native land, begun in 1613 and which led to his martyrdom the following year.

Born in Glasgow in 1961, Burns graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1983 with a degree in Fine Art. Drawing and Painting have been his passion since childhood. He shared this enthusiasm throughout his teaching career, later leaving a successful post as principal of art at St Aloysius College, Glasgow to pursue his painting full time. Since 1999, this commitment has resulted in his current standing as one of Scotland’s most respected artists. He belongs to the new realist school of Scottish painting using pin-sharp images which have an almost photographic quality and placing them in compositions which are bold and challenging, drawing the viewer into the narrative before them.  What does God call you to do or to be? And how will you respond to that call?   Read more about Gerard M Burns >>


By contrast, Peter Howson’s painting of St John Ogilvie (above right) charts the process of the artist’s own tumultuous journey. It now hangs in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow. The artist has stated that he regards the finished painting as “something of a miracle”; during the two year period that it took to complete the finished work, Peter suffered a complete physical breakdown and a prolonged period of depression. He has since likened the experience to being in a war zone and at times felt he would be unable to find the strength to complete the work.

Peter Howson - Ogilvie crowd

This portrayal of John Ogilvie therefore represents the challenges faced by the artist – professionally, personally and spiritually – in trying to achieve the finished painting. When Peter began his series of proprietary sketches he had only two or three drawings on which to base his representation of Ogilvie, but with the help of books and documents on the saint - as well as moments of spiritual insight and inspiration - he was able to realise his vision. His aim, he says, was to represent John Ogilvie the ‘man’ – whom he believed to have been witty and humorous. And, in purely humanistic terms, he set about achieving a face for the saint.

The original commission was set to depict Scotland’s largest ever crowd scene (left): Peter struggled for nine months with this representation before destroying the entire work. However, he is thrilled with the final painting. This perhaps suggests that in order to achieve the serenity and calm that the final painting undoubtedly evokes; Peter’s struggle was necessary in creating the tranquillity of the image and within himself, giving a sense of finality to his journey, akin to the journey endured by John Ogilvie himself. Read more about Peter Howson >>