Sunday, December 21, 2008

Korean Jesus, black Madonna and Navajo Joseph


I pass a Korean Presbyterian Church on my commute each morning. From the highway, I can't quite see the religious iconography on the church's stained-glass windows, but sometimes I wonder if the figures rendered in those deep gold, reds and greens look like the parishioners of the church. Do the pictures of Jesus in that church show him as a Korean man? If the idea sounds odd, it shouldn't. Is a Jesus with Asian features any stranger than the blond, blue-eyed surfer dude of mainstream Western religious portrayals? Is a Korean-featured Jesus any stranger than the one seen in black churches that resembles a West African-descended man?
The race of Jesus has been a subject of debate since at least the 19th century. The physical appearance of Jesus of Nazareth was debated by theologians from early on in the history of Christianity, though with no explicit emphasis on race.

Different societies have depicted Jesus and most other biblical figures as their own
ethnicity in their art; for example he is primarily white in the West, and black in Sub Saharan Africa. The current dominant opinion among historians and scientists is that he most likely had olive skin, resembling modern-day persons of Middle Eastern descent. Read more...
I think most religious iconography is less about accurately portraying historical figures and more about seeing ourselves in Biblical legends, being able to relate to the figures that are important to our culture. The Bible speaks of God making humankind in his image. In demonstrating their love of God, Christians often remake the Son in their own image. For better or worse, seeing figures that resemble us (whoever "us" is) makes it easier to relate. I find the subject fascinating. That's why I was immediately captivated by the blog Jesus in Love, when reader Satsuma sent me a link to it last week. The site, the brainchild of Kittredge Cherry, is hosting a cyber exhibition of alternative religious iconography.
Nine artists combine Christmas imagery with a progressive vision of gay, lesbian, bi and trans (GLBT) rights, racial and gender justice, and a world without war, poverty or environmental destruction.

“Many people feel left out of the traditional Christmas scenes, but AltXmasArt breaks the stereotypes and shows Christ for ALL of us -- gay and straight, male and
female, black and white, rich and poor.”
In the exhibition, religious figures become the marginalized, or the marginalized become religious figures. Of the image--"Black Madonna-Mitochondrial Eve--above, Cherry writes:
The Madonna and Eve become one powerful, dark-skinned matriarch in “Black
Madonna - Mitochondrial Eve” by David Hewson. The Madonna appears without the Christ child. Instead she holds a collection of colorful eggs representing the races of the world. The gesture embodies themes of both Christmas and Easter, because Mary Magdalene is traditionally shown holding a red egg as a symbol of resurrection.

Black Madonnas were fairly common in Europe during the Middle Ages. Hewson traces the motif back even further. “Another metaphor of the Black Madonna has its connection with the earth,” he explains. “Today the definition of black has a negative
connotation. However, prior to 2,000 years ago when worship of the feminine was a common practice, black soil was a source of nourishment, of life itself.” The small marble bust of Venus next to her pales in comparison to Hewson’s hefty Black Madonna.

The painting also grows out of Hewson’s personal experience. “I had an African American nanny who raised me, and she had a huge impact in my life,” he said. The model for his Black Madonna was a friend who grew up with him. Read more...
I was also struck by this image that speaks of fatherhood and Christian efforts to erase Native American spitiruality:

Respect for fatherhood and for Native Americans combine in “Joseph and the Christ Child” by Father John Giuliani. Religious Christmas images usually focus on the Madonna and child, often leaving Joseph out entirely. This icon does great service by affirming men as loving father figures, gentle enough to nurture a baby.

Giulani’s icon also reverses the terrible history of Christian missionaries forcing their religion upon Native Americans with violence and cruelty. Instead of turning Native Americans into Christians, Giuliani turns Christian subjects into Native Americans.

Joseph gives up his traditional Middle Eastern robes and dons a typical Navajo chief blanket, beaded necklace and headband. The baby Jesus is naked. Both have skin, hair and features that appear Native American. All they kept is their halos. Nobody would even recognize them as Joseph and the Christ child without the icon’s title -- and maybe that’s the point. All people are created in God’s image. Can you see the face of Christ in an ordinary Navajo man and his baby? Read more...
The Vision Statement for Jesus in Love proclaims: "Jesus in Love serves gay, lesbian, bi and trans (glbt) people who have spiritual interests, and our allies. We promote queer spirituality and the arts, with an emphasis on books and images. We believe that God loves all people, including sexual minorities. We believe that the creative process is sacred. We hope that the new visions, especially the gay Jesus, will free people to experience the divine in new ways and lead to a more just world."
Stop by this provocative exhibition and let me know what you think. Is your vision of key figures in your religion--whatever that religion may be--informed by who you are? In other words, do you remake your religion icons in your image?


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