Minnesotan's JFK painting bound for Vatican

"Pieta" by Mark Balma
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Mark Balma's "Pieta" shows a grief-stricken Jacqueline Kennedy cradling the mortally wounded President's head in her lap, just after their limo has arrived at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. It's a moment that changed history, but a moment Balma could only envision because it wasn't photographed.

Balma offered the five-by-seven-foot oil tempera painting to several museums, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Smithsonian. Both turned it down for being either too emotional or inappropriate. When he approached the St. Paul Cathedral, which already houses two of Balma's enormous frescoes, it became the inspiration for a week-long event examining the assassination.

Balma says the piece fits well in a church because it represents a moment imbued with spirituality.

"I think in those tragic moments we are given certain graces to deal with that kind of tragedy, and I think that's what I tried to represent."

"Pieta" is unveiled at the Cathedral of St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

The cathedral took on the air of a state funeral as an honor guard presented the flag and a horn quintet played solemn music. When the painting was unveiled, the small audience walked up together to view it more closely. For some, the memories of where they were and what they were doing when they heard were triggered once again.

"I was at home and my husband was having lunch...."

"I was in the First National Bank in St. Paul and then my boss told me what happened..."

"I was a junior, oh my goodness, at a catholic school....."

For Virginia Costello of St. Paul, the painting helped her identify even more with Jackie Kennedy as a wife.

"My husband looked a lot like President Kennedy," she says. "They were both Irish and the same color hair and everything and, it just really affects me."

Susan Burns of Minneapolis read about "Pieta" in the newspaper and came over to St. Paul to see it. Pieta is also the name of the famous Michelangelo sculpture of Mother Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus in her arms after he was taken down from the cross. As she described her reaction to the image of the First Lady, in her familiar pink outfit, spending her final moments with her dying husband, its symbolism became clear, and Burns was overcome.

"I mean obviously it's the Pieta and she reminds us of Our Lady, and just how mothers sacrifice a lot and wives, and that the Blessed Virgin is with all of us."

Father Joseph Johnson is Rector of the Cathedral in St. Paul. Johnson says the assassination was an important moment in the nation's history and the history of the church, given Kennedy's status as the first Catholic elected president. He can understand how the piece might arouse conflicted emotions for some, but Johnson doesn't view it as controversial.

"No one is making a judgment about the President one way or another. The church certainly isn't canonizing him. At the same time, our nation has this as a part of its history and we can't hide from that."

Mark Balma speaks to a TV cameraman at the Cathedral of St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Mark Balma plans to present "Pieta" to the Pope in Rome where it will become part of the Vatican Museum's collection. Father Johnson says the Vatican may send it to the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington.

It will be on display at the Cathedral of St. Paul through November 22, the 43rd anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death. The week-long symposium will feature presentations on the Kennedy years, history painting and the assassination, including remarks from former governor and JFK assassination buff Arne Carlson.