Earlier this summer, I came across the website of a young Catholic artist who specialized in modern icons. Using salvaged wood, she painted saints as they might appear today, wearing t-shirts and jeans, eyeglasses and ponytails. The Virgin of Guadalupe even sported a pair of Chuck Taylors (and quite fashionably so, I might add).
In the portraits, gazes looked more often than not into the beholder’s eyes rather than the skies. Each image included a short biography; the artist’s own spoke of a deep faith and a real affection for her heavenly subjects, whom she modeled after earthly friends and acquaintances.
The most striking feature of her work, though, was her very intentional effort to depict the saints in a range of skin tones — Black, Latino, Indigenous and mixed race, as well as white.
Fascinated, I reached out to her for an interview, received permission to reprint a few of her images and published an article. Thanks to social media, the piece was shared broadly, receiving a number of likes.
A few folks, however, were less than pleased. One appeared to be a satanist from whom I wouldn’t have expected a thumbs up anyway; another made a cryptic comment I couldn’t at all decipher. But several detractors flatly accused the artist of rewriting history in the name of current identity politics.
The Blessed Mother wasn’t Latino, they said in effect, and there was no reason to recast St. Augustine as Black (which he may indeed have been, although we don’t know for certain). Besides, one horrified reader snapped, we already have saints of all races; why “invent” more?
My first reaction was one of indignation. Here was a young woman using her God-given talents to kindle devotion to the saints, while encouraging us to see ourselves in them, and to see them in others. Clearly, these weren’t meant to be photographic images; that wasn’t the goal. Couldn’t the naysayers see that?
While no one loves a vintage holy card more than I do (about five or six fall out of any given book in my house), do we really think that while on earth the saints (usually painted as white) were posing with halos and lilies on Tuscan hills? I would argue they were more likely to be busy serving the needy, or steeped in quiet prayer, or both.
Besides, what about the marvelous way in which Japanese Christians, banned from practicing their faith for more than two centuries, disguised a faintly smiling Virgin Mary as Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy? Persecution forced Nazareth to look a little different in Nagasaki.
Of course, we are creatures of time and space and history, and our surroundings have a profound impact on us — as does the divinely created color of our skin, and how we and others perceive it. At our peril do we disregard that recognition: days after the death of George Floyd, one young man told me, “if you don’t see my race, then you don’t see me.”
The saints show us how to live out our relationship with Christ and with others in flesh, creation, culture, community. While on earth, these holy women and men knew what it was like to hunger, to fear, to struggle — and above all, to love, to serve and to hold fast to the Lord.
But they also point us to another reality, one spoken of by John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2).
Beholding the Trinity, our vision is perfected: “In your light we see light” (Psalm 36:10).
In those rays, saints are found in every skin tone, and with body and soul eternally redeemed by Christ, we can at last celebrate our differences in an unbreakable unity.
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