At this time of Easter, I also want to remember the work of the Canadian Ukrainian artist William Kurelek and his major Easter project which he named “the Passion of Christ according to Saint Matthew”. The work consists of 160 paintings depicting the story of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew starting at Chapter 26 to the end of the Gospel Chapter 29 verse 20.
William Kurelek 1927- 1977
William Kurelek was born in 1927 near the small town of Whitford, AB, 75 miles NE of Edmonton. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants.
He was a very high strung and imaginable boy, who loved the prairies and loved to draw. His father however wanted him to be a professional (like a lawyer) and looked down upon his love for drawing as a weak, sissy occupation. When William was seven years old the family moved to Stonewall,MB , He became a loner and was plagued by self-doubts and anguish. As he left home and studied at Toronto Art College and University of Manitoba he became tormented with thoughts of self-doubt and suicide.
He traveled to England to study painting but when his depression got worse he suffered a mental breakdown and was taken up in Maudsley Hospital where he spent 4 years and received 14 shock-treatments. It was at this low time in his life that he painted a canvas entitled: “Help me Please Help me Please Help me – Please Help”. This help came in the person of his occupational therapist, Margaret Smith who was able to help him overcome his depressions and although he had previously rejected Christianity, now began through the witness of his landlady to re-examine the Christian faith. He converted to Roman Catholicism and was married to Jean.
Out of thankful to God for his deliverance from mental anguish and the dark night of atheism, he decided in 1956 to paint the scenes of Christ’s ministry in the Gospel especially the Gospel of Matthew. It was his intention that these illustration be used by missionaries as teaching tools. He started by making about 600 sketches and in 1959 traveled to Israel to get a feel for the country and its people. In 1960 on New Year’s day he started his St. Matthew Passion paintings. Beginning with Matthew 26:17 he painted a picture for every verse ending with the last verse in Chapter 28:20.
By working in the Av. Isaacs gallery in Toronto, at night as a picture-framer, he was able to complete one painting a week. The whole series of 160 paintings took three years to do. Sometimes money was scarce that is why some of the pictures were painted on wood or other available mediums. They were eventually bought for $ 30,000.00 by a Ukrainian art dealer and his wife, Olha and Mykola Kolandkiwsky and placed in their gallery in Niagara Falls,ON.
Wm Kurelek painted many other pictures and was a social activist in that his paintings always contain a statement about the world around him. He considered his artistic abilities to be a gift from God which must be used to bring a Biblical message.
In 1977 Wm Kurelek succumbed to cancer and passed away at the age of 50. A young man yet. His dream to paint other Scripture scenes left for someone else to finish.
William Kurelek was a deeply religious man even as he was seen by many as a disturbed soul, but I believe, one who knew personally the depths of despair and the meaning of God’s grace in his life. He was deeply concerned with the moral and spiritual well-being issues of our communities. These thoughts he reflected in a number of his paintings: For example see below: Christ on the steps of the old Toronto City Hall pleading with the passersby:
Picture from Toronto Toronto by William Kurelek (that’s Jesus on the steps of Old City Hall) see website – http://torontodreamsproject.blogspot.com/2014/04/an-apocalypse-in-beaches-william.html see also NOTE on torontodreamproject.blogspot : When the CN Tower was being built, Kurelek even asked if he could pay to have a metal plaque installed on the spire: “O Supreme Builder of the Universe, help us not to make the mistake of the first tower which you confounded.” The offer was declined.
JS March 31, 2021
The St. Matthew collection was published in a book in 1975 and according to the Niagara Falls gallery website information is currently ‘out of print’.
Here are some pictures of the collection: