Francis Alÿs series of small paintings entitled The Prophet (begun 1999) partake in the venerable, and specific, tradition of Catholic devotional painting. Intimate in scale, like Mexican retablos (Alÿs has lived in Mexico for almost twenty years), a number of these works feature subjects that are overtly religious, such as one figure blessing a second, which kneels before it. In other works the motifs are more ambiguous. One can see in the drawings and studies that inform the finished paintings a traditional sense of working through composition and line. But, the thoughtful and purposeful redrawing of his chosen imagery transcends aesthetic ends, functioning doubly as a reprocessing of these images. With this processing, the artist seems to be exploring the ways in which images achieve iconic status, how the particularities of circumstance fade away and the figures begin to stand for something larger than themselves, from the skeletons to the suited everyman t the prisoner at Abu Ghraib. Alÿs is processing icons of religion and nationality and culture of our times with a process of painting and representation associated with icons of times past.
This group of preparatory drawings and finished painting depict a skeleton, a traditional and obvious symbol of mortality in Catholic culture, figuring prominently in religious imagery from Alÿs adopted Mexico. Non-specific in its religious intent, this image shares with more readably devotional traditional retablos an intense, quiet, almost sacred air created by its allusive content but also by the dense opacity of its coolly colored surfaces. Alÿs has said that these works are "little windows" onto a more spiritual plane, one that the artist may or may not believe exists. For him, it is the very possibility of its existence that is important.