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Reviving Saints with Artificial Intelligence: Unveiling the Power of AI

A portrayal of St. Teresa of Avila engaged in mystical prayer was crafted by Father Timothy Sandquist in May 2023, utilizing the Midjourney platform alongside various other images to create a series illustrating the life of St. Theresa of Avila. “She holds a special place among my favorite saints,” he expressed.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds the potential for significant technological advancements across various domains but also introduces unprecedented challenges. The emergence of AI may lead to the obsolescence of entire professions. Moreover, AI-driven plagiarism has become a concerning issue, with instances of subtle manipulation of real people’s images for malicious intent.

However, amidst the potential drawbacks of AI, envisioning its utilization for uplifting artistic and even religious purposes raises intriguing possibilities. Julian Ahlquist and Father Timothy Sandquist embarked on a collaborative endeavor to generate vibrant images of Catholic saints through AI technology.

Ahlquist, an educator in philosophy and debate at Chesterton Academy in Hopkins, and Father Sandquist, serving as parochial vicar of Holy Family in St. Louis Park and chaplain at Chesterton Academy, have produced thousands of AI-generated saint images over the past year. These images, accessible under the moniker “Generation of the sAInts” on Reddit and Instagram, aim to offer a fresh perspective on venerable figures. Father Sandquist mentioned that they typically share these images on the saints’ feast days.

Their creative process involves leveraging the Midjourney platform, which operates based on textual prompts. While basic prompts like “a painting of St. Therese” are viable, they prefer detailed prompts encompassing artistic elements such as genre, style, lighting, and mood, coupled with instructions refining characteristics like age and complexion. By incorporating image prompts—existing saint images attached to the text input—the AI draws “inspiration” to craft new visual representations.

Father Sandquist expressed his gratification in sharing the beauty and inspiration he finds in the saints through this art form. He recounted an instance during a school retreat where he used an AI-generated image to elucidate the theme of love central to their faith, citing the example of Peter’s fervent swim towards Jesus in John 21.

Ahlquist and Father Sandquist aim to address the scarcity of contemporary religious art by infusing modern artistic styles into depictions of Catholic saints. They underscore that the AI-generated images, despite drawing from existing sources, undergo a transformative process resulting in unique artworks distinct from their predecessors.

While the reception to their AI-generated saint images has been predominantly positive, critics have raised concerns regarding the authenticity and sacredness of these creations. Ahlquist and Father Sandquist defend the artistic merit of AI-generated images, emphasizing the human input and creative refinement integral to the production process.

The discussion extends to the appropriateness of displaying AI-produced saint images in religious settings. Father Sandquist leans towards caution, highlighting the diminished sacredness and human connection in digitally-produced art. Ahlquist acknowledges the necessity for a sacred quality in art intended for sacred spaces, suggesting a nuanced approach guided by pastoral discernment.

As they continue their AI saints project, Ahlquist and Father Sandquist perceive AI as a neutral tool that can be wielded for both positive and negative purposes. They advocate for responsible and ethical utilization of AI in creating religious art to counterbalance potential misuse by less morally-guided individuals.