Oji-Cree Nativity painting

Jackson Beardy (1944–1984) was an Anishinaabe artist born on the Garden Hill Reserve in Manitoba. He belonged to the Woodland school of art [previously], adopting its distinctive style of Indigenous expression characterized by thick black outlines and vivid, compartmentalized color. His paintings draw on Ojibwe and Cree oral traditions and often express cosmological and spiritual concepts.

Nativity by Jackson Beardy
Jackson Beardy (Oji-Cree, 1944–1984), The Nativity, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 121.1 × 172.1 cm. Collection of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. © Concacan Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Beardy is one of twenty Canadian artists commissioned by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1975 to convey the Christian message using whatever idiom they wished. Beardy chose to portray the Virgin Mary pregnant with the Word, the sun’s fire pouring into her and yet she is not consumed. He provided the following artist’s statement:

It is my personal belief that a messenger from the Great Spirit came to earth in the form of His image after Him through a virgin birth in unrecorded history. Through this man, knowledge was passed on to man from the Great Spirit. Many of the teachings of this man have been kept by word of mouth through the ages by the elders of all tribes.

We see the virgin mother-to-be holding on to an embryo connected to the sun symbol (the Great Spirit) [center] who has deemed it necessary to send his messenger to his people. The mother is also connected to Mother Earth, who is nursing her [see the breast shape below]. She too is connected by a lifeline to the sun symbol. Around her are all the orders of creatures who come to see the messenger. He is born to explain their existence, [to restore] harmony between humanity and the elements, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

On the other side of the sun symbol we see an elder in prayer, ritually offering a bowl filled with sacred things. You can see the sun symbol is resting on his hunched frame, bearing him down with doubts, fear, depression, and all the ills of his time, his back to the very miracle he is praying for. It will take time for all to fully comprehend this phenomenon which has come to pass.

The four semicircles represent the elements of the air: snow, rain, tornadoes, heat. The moon [the blue circle] is painted above the elder. We regard the moon as our Grandmother who keeps vigil over all creatures during the night.

Though titled The Nativity, the painting is actually a prebirth scene, as Jesus is still in utero. Beardy shows the Christ child taking root in Mary’s womb (having been conceived by the power of the Great Spirit) and growing to full term as people and animals alike long for his arrival. They groan, they watch, they wrestle and seek. Creator Sets Free—as the First Nations Version of the New Testament translates the name Jesus—is almost here.

(Note: There’s a flipped version of this image floating around online. I confirmed with the CCCB that the file posted here, which I licensed directly from them, represents the correct orientation.)

Leaning into that Advent yearning, here is a performance of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in Ojibwe—“Ondaas, Ondaas, Emaanooyen”—performed by E Halverson:

Now, I have a crowdsourcing request: I am searching for Advent or Christmas songs originally written in Indigenous Canadian or Native American languages, preferably by an Indigenous person. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments below, or in an email. Thanks!

Easter Sunday: Alleluia!

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

—Matthew 28:1–8

LOOK: Ovide Bighetty (Cree, 1969–2014), Hallelujah, Christ Has Risen, 2002. Acrylic on canvas. From the Kisemanito Pakitinasuwin (The Creator’s Sacrifice) cycle, commissioned by the Indian Metis Christian Fellowship.

Bighetty, Ovide_Hallelujah, Christ Has Risen

Ovide Joseph Bighetty was a Cree (Missinippi-Ethiniwak) self-taught artist originally from Pukatawagan First Nation on the Missinippi River in northwestern Manitoba. He was influenced by the Woodland art style of Norval Morrisseau.

In 2002 the Indian Metis Christian Fellowship (now called the Indigenous Christian Fellowship, or ICF) commissioned Bighetty to create a series of paintings on Christ’s death and resurrection. According to their website, “among North American indigenous peoples, there is the story that, before Europeans arrived on Turtle Island, elders had visions about white people coming from the east with a story from the Creator.” One elder even had a vision of “the Creator’s sacrifice” that corresponds to elements of the biblical passion narratives and Easter story.

Bighetty fulfilled the commission in consultation with Pukatawagan elders, making sure he was properly honoring his people’s heritage.

Hallelujah, Christ Has Risen is the sixteenth painting in a sequence of seventeen. The ICF website offers the following description based on Matthew 28:2–4: “Early on the third day, there was a violent earthquake. A spirit sent by the Creator came down from heaven, rolled the stone away and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothes white as snow. The warriors were so afraid that they trembled and became like dead men.” It looks to me like the angel is playing a flute with one hand, and with the other he gestures toward the sky, indicating Jesus’s impending ascension.

You can view all seventeen paintings at https://icfregina.ca/the-creators-sacrifice. The final one depicts Jesus’s resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb.

LISTEN: “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1739 | Music from the Lyra Davidica, 1708 | Arranged and performed by pianist Craig Curry on A Jazz-Inspired Easter, 2012

Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say,* Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Foll’wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Hail the Lord of earth and heav’n, Alleluia!
Praise to thee by both be giv’n, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, thy pow’r to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!

* Alternatively, “Earth and heav’n in chorus say,” as in the United Methodist Hymnal.

This is, for me and many others, the Easter hymn par excellence. (Charles Wesley was a brilliant hymn writer.) I never tire of it year after year. It’s glorious.

Happy Easter, friends. Christ is risen!

Be sure to stick around for the next fifty days as I continue to celebrate Easter here at Art & Theology.