“Madonnas of Color,” by Brother Mickey McGrath, O.S.F.S. Clear Faith Publishing (Marco Island, Florida, 2022). 123 pp., $20.00.
In his latest book, beloved Camden, N.J. artist, writer and storyteller Brother Mickey McGrath, O.S.F.S., shows us the meaning of contemplation, described by theologian Walter Burghardt as “a long, loving look at the real.”
When I ordered “Madonnas of Color,” I assumed that it would be a treatment of historic depictions of the Blessed Mother with darker skin, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (imprinted on St. Juan Diego’s miraculous tilma), Our Lady of Montserrat high above Barcelona, or Our Lady of Czestochowa, the “Black Madonna” of Poland.
While these and other real-world images of Mary are included, McGrath’s book overflows with colorful (literally and metaphorically) Madonnas from his own prayerful imagination.
The cover is as arresting as the title: a mahogany-skinned woman with dark brown eyes, full pink lips and a shiny gold halo. This is a far cry from the whimsical illustrations of quotes by St. Francis de Sales for which McGrath became known back in the ‘90s.
For those of us who have been following his work for decades, however, this book is the logical next step in the evolution of his thought, prayer and art that began with his discovery of Sister Thea Bowman in 1992.
In these pages, McGrath wrestles with the history and reality of racism and the shattering divisions in our country and our church, turning his contemplative eye on a panoply of beautiful and brutal realities — sometimes in the same city.
In Minneapolis, for example, he lingers at the monastery where Sisters of the Visitation hang a windsock from their front porch as a signal to neighborhood children to come inside for whatever they need.
While “Windsock Visitation” is perhaps one of McGrath’s best-known paintings, Minneapolis is also the setting for one of his more recent Stations of the Cross, as a Black Jesus falls for the first time and utters George Floyd’s haunting supplication, “I can’t breathe.”
Wherever he goes, McGrath gazes at each scene long enough to spot what really matters: the movement of the Holy Spirit, the presence of the crucified and/or risen Christ and, above all, the nurturing embrace of our Blessed Mother.
In Arecibo, Brazil, for example, he writes, “I saw with my own eyes — in vivid detail and living color — the flesh-and-blood presence of Christ and the hope, mercy and solace made real by his mother.”
Pulling out his ever-present sketchpad and pens, he captures the essence of whatever inspires him, taking it to prayer and only later fleshing it out in vibrant color.
Organized in six sections, the passages of this book are short and impressionistic. McGrath presents stunning images of Mary — African, Latina, Indigenous and Asian in appearance — under titles both familiar and surprising. Each illustration is accompanied by his rumination on the origin of both the title and the image.
McGrath’s wide-ranging intellect draws connections among moving passages from Scripture and theology, words of saints and servants of God across far-flung countries and centuries, and experiences of ordinary men and women today.
Though it can be devoured in a morning (as I confess I did), each tile in this gorgeous mosaic of a book is exquisite, worthy of its own prayerful contemplation. And that, in the end, is what McGrath’s work invites us to do: to contemplate the world around us with “eyes and sketchbook wide open.”
We may not keep a prayer journal or a sketch diary like he does, but each of us has the ability to gaze upon painful realities until they shimmer with the divine presence.
“God graces every moment with the color of hope,” McGrath writes. In the beautiful faces of these varied “Madonnas of Color,” so does Mickey McGrath.
Christine Eberle is author of “Finding God Abiding: Daily Meditations.” Learn more at www.christine-marie-eberle.com/.
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