My parents named me
for the daughter of Amram
and the Levite woman Yocheved:
prophetess with a timbrel
who cast her baby brother
on the mercies of the Nile.
Our name means Bitter Waters
like the salt-encrusted sea
into which the Jordan flows.
Or perhaps Sea of Myrrh—
that sticky precious resin
scenting the anointing oil
which Moshe once used
to consecrate the Mishkan,
the place where Presence dwelled.
My namesake had a well
which followed the Israelites
in all their wandering,*
a sweet spring in the desert
bringing clarity to the heart
of anyone who cupped their hands
and drank. Will I too
be a wellspring of Torah,
a source of living waters,
or will I stagnate here
in this backwater town
never hearing the voice of God?
* According to the Mishnah (Talmud, Taanit 9a), a well of fresh water miraculously followed Miriam, Moses’s sister, as she wandered with her people through the desert, providing a steady source of drink for all.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is a longtime blogger at The Velveteen Rabbi and a cofounder of Bayit, a collective of clergy, liturgists, artists, and educators that develops and distributes online Judaism resources. She holds dual ordination as a rabbi and mashpi’ah (spiritual director) and since 2011 has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Massachusetts. She has an MFA in writing and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is the author of six volumes of poetry, including 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011)and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018). Her work has appeared in Reform Judaism,The Wisdom Daily, The Forward, and anthologies such as The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry and The Women’s Seder Sourcebook. She has taught at Beyond Walls, a writing program for clergy of many faiths at the Kenyon Institute, and is currently serving as a visiting faculty at the Academy for Spiritual Formation.
It is time.
My body’s clock gongs
your salvation’s hour.
The water has left the pasture
and flowed toward the river’s mouth.
Follow or you will wither
in the desert that remains.
I will bleed for you
on this your first dark journey,
but in time, when life pushes you
headlong through black canyons,
the wounds will be your own.
May you learn early:
at the end light always shines.
It is here, child.
The time is come.
This poem was originally published in the Winter 1982/83 issue of Today’s Christian Woman and appears in the book Mary’s Journal: A Mother’s Storyby Evelyn Bence (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992). Used by permission of the author.(Thanks to Maureen E. Doallas, curator of the exhibition Mary, Mary, for introducing me to it!)
Evelyn Bence is a writer and an editor living in Arlington, Virginia. She is the author of Room at My Table; Prayers for Girlfriends and Sisters and Me; Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns; and the award-winning Mary’s Journal, a novel written in the voice of Jesus’s mother. She has served as religion editor at Doubleday, managing editor for Today’s Christian Woman, and senior editor at Prison Fellowship Ministries. Her personal essays, poems, and devotional reflections have appeared in various publications.
Born in 1911 in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Fred Jerome Carter spent the first few decades of his adulthood as a hardware merchant. In 1938 he married Eloise Davis, and in 1950 they adopted their first and only son, Ross.
In his late forties, Carter began to pursue art making, taking a beginner’s painting class, his only formal artistic training. But wood sculpting is the medium for which he became best known. Writer and documentary filmmaker Jack Wright classifies Carter’s art as “Appalachian art brut,”art brut (“raw art”) being a French term coined by modern artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art made outside the academic tradition.
In 1970 Carter was devastated when his son, having returned as a Marine from Vietnam, hanged himself. He and Eloise divorced shortly after, and Carter opened the Ross Carter Gallery, named in his son’s honor, where he started showing his own work. Below the gallery he established the Cumberland Museum to exhibit a large collection of pioneer tools and artifacts (having to do, for example, with farming, mining, spinning, and moonshining) that provided a window into Appalachian culture and history. It’s there that he met Vickie Hill, whom he later married. Vickie gave birth to Carter’s first biological child, Holly, in 1983, when Carter was seventy-two. Their daughter Mary was born two years later.
Carter created Behold My Miracle two years before Vickie’s first pregnancy, but he retroactively identified the figure with her. In a 1980 interview with Wright for Headwaters Television, he describes how the sculpture came about:
I was back, at Easter , in the mountains, and a fellow was sawing up firewood. Now this was part of a walnut log . . . cut down forty or fifty years ago. . . . There was a limb going up through here about ten feet long. I said, “Don’t cut that up for wood. . . . I see something in this that I want to make. . . . I see a pregnant woman.” . . . So I brought it home and began to look at it. . . . The wood began to talk to me and tell me what it is. . . .
So, I will probably call this Behold My Miracle. That’s what the mother is saying and I am trying to get her to say, in the position of her hand and the look on her face, that this is truly the great miracle. . . . As though she is saying, “Behold me, in my greatest moment of the miracle!”
LISTEN: “The Glory of Jah” by Sinead O’Connor and Ronald Tomlinson, on Theology (2007) – The acoustic version in the video below, which appears on disc 1 of the album, was recorded live at The Sugar Club in Dublin.
There is no Holy One like you You install kings and take them down Truly there is no one beside you You made all of creation with wisdom
Refrain: May the glory of Jah endure forever The boughs of the mighty are broken And the weak are clothed with strength
There is the sea, vast and wide With all its creatures beyond number There go the ships, they all look to you You lift up the poor into a place of honor [Refrain]
Jah makes poor or he makes rich The pillars of the earth belong to him And he has set his world upon them To raise us up from the dunghill [Refrain]
The eighth full-length album by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, Theology is a collection of mostly original spiritual songs in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s saturated with scripture. It contains:
The opening (and my favorite) “Something Beautiful,” which starts out in O’Connor’s own voice and ends with quotations of Jeremiah 6:14 and 2:32, where God expresses compassion and longing for his people
“Out of the Depths,” a lament for the ways in which organized religion binds God and makes him hard to access, bookended by verses from Psalm 130
O’Connor grew up Catholic and, until converting to Islam in 2018, identified as such, though she has always been unorthodox. Frustrated by the spiritual vapidness of the pop music industry in which she had found fame, in the early 2000s she studied theology at a college in Dublin, looking to connect more deeply with her religious heritage. Her favorite instructor, the Irish Dominican priest Wilfred Harrington, taught a course on the Prophets, reviving her interest in the biblical material that had so fascinated her as a youth. During this time, she was considering leaving her music career, but Fr. Harrington suggested that she set some scripture texts to music and see what happens. She took his advice, and the result is Theology, which she dedicated to Fr. Harrington. Listen to a ten-minute interview with O’Connor about the album, from the limited-edition Theology DVD released in 2008.
When I first heard “The Glory of Jah,” I thought it was a condensation of Mary’s Magnificat, which she voiced upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth following their mutual unexpected pregnancies—Elizabeth with John the Baptist, and Mary with the Christ:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name; indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his child Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46–55)
But as I listened more closely and flipped through my Bible to match phrases, I realized that O’Connor’s song is actually a pastiche of Old Testament verses from 1 Samuel, Daniel, and the Psalms, the primary source text being Hannah’s song of thanksgiving:
My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies because I rejoice in your victory.
There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly; let not arrogance come from your mouth, for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low; he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.
He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked will perish in darkness, for not by might does one prevail. The LORD! His adversaries will be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed. (1 Sam. 2:1–10)
Hannah, an ancient Jew, prayed these words at the tabernacle at Shiloh upon dedicating her firstborn son, Samuel, to God’s service, as he was conceived after many hard years of infertility and anguished prayer. Mary’s song, which came some ten centuries later, picks up themes from Hannah’s, so it’s no wonder I originally misidentified O’Connor’s source. Mary would have known Hannah’s song from having heard it read in synagogue, and, as Mary’s son would also be set apart for divine service, perhaps she found a special kinship with this ancestral sister. Mary was also spiritually formed by the Psalms, another influence on her Magnificat composition; their words were deep in her bones, naturally coming out in effusions of praise.
Both Hannah and Mary praise God’s kindness, authority, and eternal plan, emphasizing his mercy toward the poor and the humble. Both songs are thematically linked to Psalm 113:5–8:
Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.
Now returning to O’Connor’s song: Line 2 has a corollary in Daniel 2:21, “he . . . deposes kings and sets up kings.” And the second verse seems inspired by Psalm 104:24–26, 31:
O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, great and wide; creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go the ships and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works . . .
When referring to God, O’Connor uses the Rastafari name for him, “Jah,” a shortened form of “Jehovah.” She had recorded her previous album, Throw Down Your Arms, in Jamaica, a collection of roots reggae song covers, and her spirituality was impacted by her encounters with the Rastafari there. “They use music to reassure people that God is actually with them and watches them, can be called upon,” she said.
So “The Glory of Jah” is a highly intertextual song, rooted in Hannah’s song but weaving in strands from other biblical books—and the result sounds an awful lot like something Mother Mary would sing!
Sister Irene Zimmerman, OSF, is a Franciscan nun living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Born in 1932 into a large Catholic family on a farm near Westphalia, Iowa, she knew from an early age that she wanted to enter the religious life. She joined the School Sisters of St. Francis in 1954 and spent her career in various ministry roles, including high school English and French teacher, secretary, house mother in a German boarding school for girls, and music minister, along the way developing a keen interest in writing poetry. Now in her retirement, she continues to write and to sing in church choirs. She has published five original poetry collections.
The Annunciation was a favorite subject of the Early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico [previously], and he painted it multiple times throughout his career. Once was for an altarpiece for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
In this version Mary sits on a draped chair under the portico of a domestic space, reading the scriptures, when suddenly this otherworldly being, dressed in rose and radiating, approaches. It’s the archangel Gabriel. His foot crosses the threshold of paradise into Mary’s space—the divine stepping into the human realm. Will you do it? he asks. Be mother to God?
Mary’s initial fear and perplexity eventually give way to glad acceptance. The artist compresses the episode—the arrival, the ask, the cogitation, the answer—into this singular freeze frame. When Mary says yes to God’s plan to become flesh of her flesh and so work out the salvation of the world, God releases his Spirit, who rides a stream of light from the heavens into her womb. At this miraculous moment, Jesus is conceived.
Gabriel crosses his hands over his chest in humble reverence, a gesture mirrored by Mary. Both are still before the profound mystery of the Incarnation.
Fra Angelico used ultramarine—the finest and most expensive of all pigments, made from lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone imported to Europe from the Middle East—to paint Mary’s mantle as well as the star-studded ceiling above her. Blue represents heaven, and here Mary is clothed with it and overshadowed by it.
The male figure in the carved roundel above the central column is, I’d say (based on the unambiguous Montecarlo Altarpiece), the prophet Isaiah, who wrote centuries before the event that “the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).
But Fra Angelico goes even further back than the Old Testament prophets. On the left side of the panel he shows our foreparents, Adam and Eve, being cast out of paradise, having broken God’s trust. They blush in shame—they wince, they cover their face. By including this catalyzing event from salvation history in his painting of the Annunciation, the artist is telling a larger narrative. In particular, he is drawing connections, mainly contrastive, between Adam and Eve and Christ and Mary.
In his epistles, the apostle Paul talks about Christ as the Second Adam, or the New/Last Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:22–23, 45), who came to restore what was lost with the first Adam. Whereas Adam disobeyed God and caused sin to enter the world, Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, thereby redeeming humanity. The early church fathers, starting with Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian in the second century, extended this corollary with another: Mary as the Second Eve. Whereas Eve rejected God’s will, Mary embraced it, and her obedient yes, like Eve’s disobedient no, had repercussions for all of humanity. As the arts lecturer John Skillen puts it, our undoing in the Expulsion is undone by the Annunciation.
We see on the left an angel driving humanity out of Eden, but on the right, another angel welcomes humanity back in. And in a glorious reversal of the order of first creation, where Eve was created from Adam, here the Second Adam is created from the Second Eve, knit together from her DNA.
In the first issue of her Medievalish newsletter from last December, Dr. Grace Hamman discusses Fra Angelico’s Prado Annunciation in terms of chronos (ordinary time measured in seconds and hours) and kairos (moments outside of time). “Fra Angelico recognizes something that is easy to forget: because God is outside of time, not bound by chronology like us creatures, this painting offers a ‘God’s-eye view’ of salvation history,” she writes, portraying a simultaneity of “falls” that the fourteenth-century contemplative writer Julian of Norwich expounds on:
When Adam fell, God’s Son fell; because of the true union which was made in heaven, God’s Son could not be separated from Adam, for by Adam I understand all mankind. Adam fell from life to death, into the valley of this wretched world, and after that into hell. God’s Son fell with Adam, into the valley of the womb of the maiden who was the fairest daughter of Adam, and that was to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully he brought him out of hell. (Revelations of Divine Love, chap. 51)
“There was never a moment,” Hamman continues, “even in the expulsion from Eden, that Emmanuel was not with us, if one is given the eyes of kairos.”
And the Annunciation is only the main panel. Along the predella (base) are depicted the Marriage of the Virgin, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Dormition (the “falling asleep,” or death, of Mary).
LISTEN: “Cum erubuerint infelices” (While Downcast Parents Blushed) by Hildegard of Bingen, ca. 1175 | Performed by La Reverdie on Sponsa Regis: La victoire de la Vierge dans l’œuvre d’Hildegard, 2003
Cum erubuerint infelices
in progenie sua,
procedentes in peregrinatione casus,
tunc tu clamas clara voce,
hoc modo homines elevans
de isto malicioso
While downcast parents blushed,
ashamed to see their offspring
wand’ring off into the fallen exile’s pilgrimage,
you cried aloud with crystal voice,
to lift up humankind
from that malicious
Trans. Nathaniel M. Campbell [source]
The Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary theologian, poet, composer, singer, artist, gardener, and physician. She wrote on scientific and medical subjects in addition to theology, which she conveyed not only through prose but also through poetry, music, dramas, and illuminations. She was quite the medieval polymath!
I first learned about Hildegard in a Western music history survey course in college, in a unit centered on her Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues). I couldn’t believe I had never heard about this amazing sister in the faith before. In 2012 she was formally canonized by the Roman Catholic Church—a long time coming!—and Pope Benedict XVI even named her a “doctor of the church,” a title given to saints who have made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine.
The corpus of surviving musical compositions by Hildegard is larger than that of any other medieval composer. More than half of these are antiphons, short free verses sung before and after each set of psalms during monastic prayer.
“Cum erubuerint” is one such antiphon. Hildegard would have sung it with her sisters at her monastery on the Rupertsberg and later the abbey at Eibingen as part of the Divine Office.
The song addresses the Virgin Mary, whose yes to Gabriel set into motion the Incarnation and thus humanity’s deliverance from spiritual exile.
As are many of Hildegard’s compositions, “Cum erubuerint” is highly melismatic—that is, it features long melodic phrases sung to one syllable. For example, I counted thirteen notes on the first syllable, “Cum”! The highest pitch occurs on clara (“clear”), referring to the definitive quality of Mary’s consent, bright and luminous, to this new thing that God is doing. An agent of God’s grace, Mary speaks a word that cuts through the mists of confusion through which we’ve been wandering, lost, uplifting us from the fall (casu), whose depths are underscored by that word’s being pitched the lowest. In her fiat, Mary is essentially saying, “Let there be light.”
Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations) is the title Hildegard gave to her collection of musical compositions, which are preserved in two manuscripts:
Dendermonde (D), Belgium, Sint-Pieters-en-Paulusabdij, Cod. 9 (ca. 1175). This one is considered by scholars to be the more authoritative. It was prepared under Hildegard’s supervision as a gift for the monks of Villers and contains fifty-seven songs.
Riesenkodex (R), Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2 (ca. 1180–85). This revised and enlarged edition, which includes seventy-five songs, was produced at the Rupertsberg scriptorium not long after Hildegard’s death.
Hildegard’s creations, compared with a contemporary hymn by Abelard or a sequence by Adam of St. Victor, will sound either primitive or unnervingly avant-garde. In a sense they are both. As a Benedictine, she was acquainted with a large repertoire of chant, but she lacked formal training and made no attempt to imitate the mainstream poetic and musical achievements of her day. Various scholars have hypothesized that she was influenced by German folksong, yet her compositions lack the two essential traits of a popular tune: it must be easy to remember and easy to sing. The difficult music of the Symphonia is sui generis. In [Sr. Maria Immaculata] Ritscher’s words, it is ‘gregorianizing but not Gregorian’ and impossible to classify in terms of any known contemporary movement. (27–28)
And regarding Hildegard’s lyrical texts:
Until the advent of modern vers libre, scholars were reluctant even to dignify Hildegard’s songs with the title of poetry. In style they are much closer to Kunstprosa, a highly wrought figurative language that resembles poetry in its density and musicality, yet with no semblance of meter or regular form. (32–33)
The above performance of “Cum erubuerint” is by La Reverdie, a medieval and Renaissance vocal ensemble that started in 1986 with two pairs of sisters from Italy.
But in addition, here are a few instrumental versions I particularly like:
The song also appears, under the title “From This Wicked Fall,” on the Billboard-topping Vision: The Music of Hildegard Von Bingen (1994), a classical-electronic crossover album of seventeen of Hildegard’s works arranged by Richard Souther. In Souther’s version, nonlexical vocables (sung by soprano Emily Van Evera and mezzo-soprano Sister Germaine Fritz, OSB) replace the Latin text.
Many Catholics and Orthodox decry that Protestants really only ever talk about Mary during Christmas. While she does get some extra attention here on the blog in December, I also try to talk about her throughout the year, from the feasts of the Annunciation (March 25) and the Visitation (May 31) to her witness during Holy Week and Pentecost and her being such an important figure in Jesus’s life and exemplary for our own. Here’s a new Marian roundup, plus at the bottom a Christmas gift idea involving a product I helped create. 🙂
>> “Wondrous” by Paul Simpson Duke, Seeing the Sacred: In 2019, the Rev. Drs. Paul and Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastors of First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ran an Annunciation art series on their blog, meditating on one artwork on the subject per day for twenty-five days. I commend the whole series, but I was particularly compelled by Day 13, which centers on a terracotta sculpture made by the late Kenyan artist Rosemary Namuli Karuga when she was a student at Makerere College Art School in Uganda. Paul Duke considers especially the mixture of sorrow and awe expressed in the figure’s face.
>> “Pregnant with God” by Victoria Emily Jones, ArtWay: For the first Sunday of Advent, I wrote about the painting Blue Madonna by Scottish Catholic artist Michael Felix Gilfedder, which shows the Christ child developing inside Mary’s womb. Pregnancy has always been an image I’ve carried with me during Advent, as it embodies the expectancy characteristic of the season—the growth of new life, a hidden fullness, about to come forth.
PODCAST EPISODES: Both of the following come from For the Life of the World, the podcast of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Released back-to-back last December.
>> “Mary Theotokos: Her Bright Sorrow, Her Suffering Faith, and Her Compassion” with Frederica Mathewes-Green:Frederica Mathewes-Green is an American author and speaker, chiefly on topics related to Eastern Orthodox belief and practice. Here she discusses the Orthodox reverence for Mary; the scriptural account of her life; Mary as the mother of us all; the Protevangelium of James, which provides legendary material about Mary’s upbringing and betrothal; the ancient prayer “Sub tuum praesidium” (“Under Your Compassion”) from 250 CE, the earliest known appearance of the title “Theotokos”; and Mary’s role as intercessor. The latter point is something that Protestants like me are wary of—praying through saints who have passed on is not something I practice—but the way Mathewes-Green explains it is, just as we would ask fellow believers on earth to pray for us, why shouldn’t we also ask our friends in heaven to do the same, if we truly believe that they are alive and that we are in communion with them (as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed)?
Besides explicating several Marian doctrines, Mathewes-Green also speaks of Mary as an ordinary human being with an extraordinary call. With tenderness, she considers Mary’s experiences and emotions at different life stages: first as a perplexed young woman who is taken aback by Gabriel’s announcement but ultimately responds with humility and magnanimity, then as a parent who raises a child and later witnesses his violent death.
>> “A Womb More Spacious Than Stars: How Mary’s Beauty and Presence Upends the Patriarchy and Stabilizes Christian Spirituality” with Matthew J. Milliner: Matthew Milliner, an art history professor at Wheaton College and the author of Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon, is a Protestant who wants to see other Protestants embrace a more robust doctrine of Mary as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” and develop a keener sense of her ecclesial presence. In this hour-long conversation he discusses Mary as person and as symbol; the need for “hermeneutical adventurousness anchored in the revelation of God in Christ”; how icons work, and particularly how Marian icons are spiritually formative; how to read a Nativity icon; the feminist objection to Mary; how Mary upends the ancient pagan goddess culture; and how we all must be Marian if we are to be orthodox Christians.
VIDEO: “Magnificat” by SALT Project: This short film features a reading of the Magnificat in Spanish, its words fleshed out in contemporary images. For the same video but in English, see here.
ARTICLE: “The Political Is Personal: Mary as a Parent and Prophet of Righteousness” by Erin Dufault-Hunter, Fuller Magazine: What does the New Testament mean by “righteousness” (dikē)? Is it personal piety, or social justice? This article by Christian ethics professor Erin Dufault-Hunter examines how Mary upholds both connotations of the word. “Perhaps more than anyone else, Mary displays for us how saying yes to the kingdom, and its unlikely king, necessarily involves the personal but also reorients our social and political allegiances,” Dufault-Hunter writes. “Intimacy with God necessarily entails a political orientation, bringing or solidifying a way of seeing power and position.” Debunking the claim that Jesus’s coming was not political, Dufault-Hunter considers Mary’s Magnificat as well as other elements of the Christmas story—like the title “Son of God,” the word “gospel,” and the angels’ potentially treasonous news to the shepherds—showing how the good news of Christ is both personal and political.
The Daily Prayer Project is running a special Christmas gift offer that, for $50, includes a physical and digital copy of our hot-off-the-press Christmas–Epiphany prayer periodical (covering December 25 through February 21) and two hand-thrown, dishwasher-safe mugs with a raised medallion of our labyrinth-inspired logo and glazes that map onto our morning and evening prayer colors. Packages ship early next week, so get your order in soon! There are also yearly subscription options, individual or communal, on the website.
In addition to working as a copyeditor and proofreader for the DPP, I also curate the art for the Gallery section, which is expanded in this edition to eight pieces—in this case, Nativities from around the world, each accompanied by a short reflection. The cover image is Morning Star by the Japanese Christian artist Hiroshi Tabata (1929–2014).
1.“Remembering that it happened once”by Wendell Berry: For the last forty-plus years, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry has been writing what he calls “Sabbath poems,” which emerge from his spiritual practice of walking outdoors on Sundays without any to-do’s. “I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays,” he says, “and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration.” This Sabbath poem from 1986 explores how the sacred permeates the mundane and how Christ is, in a sense, always being born. For an SATB choral setting by Doug Brandt, see here.
2.“BC:AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe: Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929–2009), CBE, FRSL, was an English poet who is well loved by both critics and the general public. She was also a practicing Quaker. Each year she wrote a new Christmas poem to send to friends, of which “BC:AD” is the best known. It considers Jesus’s birth as the pivotal point in history, dividing time into epochs, into “before” and “after.” At this nativity, kairos invaded chronos—and we’re still singing about it millennia later.
3.“Making the House Ready for the Lord”by Mary Oliver: For many of us who succumb to cultural pressures, December is a time of rushing around, making sure the house is decorated like a magazine, the Christmas cards sent out, the cookies baked to perfection, the gifts individually selected and bought and wrapped. But in all this flurry of activity, are we missing “the better part” (Luke 10:42)? The speaker of this poem, Martha-like, is busy making preparations for Jesus, who’s coming to visit, but as she’s cleaning, outdoor critters keep popping in. At first she bemoans their presence—they’re not on the guest list!—but eventually she comes to accept, even welcome, them, surrendering her fussy desire for orderliness to a charitable embrace of whatever is. And on another level, this poem is about how all of creation longs for Christ (Rom. 8:19–22); the animals, too, want to see him, want to join the party.
5.“Second Advent”by Anya Krugovoy Silver: Memorializing a friend (Ishiuan Hargrove) who died of metastatic brain tumors, “Second Advent” unsettlingly combines stark hospital-room and anatomical language with language that is soft, gentle, lyrical. Recounting one of Ishiuan’s several neurosurgeries, the poet remarks how her head was nimbed by surgical lights and then swaddled in gauze. The title refers to Ishiuan’s waking up on the second Sunday of Advent, but also to the hope of Christ’s second coming, when pain, disease, and sorrow will be done away with. Anya Silver was herself a cancer patient, an experience she wrote much about in her four volumes of poetry, before dying of breast cancer in 2018.
6.“The Nativity”by Henry Vaughan: “Peace!” rang the angels’ song the night of Christ’s birth—and yet what irony, that he who came to bring peace was himself no beneficiary of it in this life, being born among animals in a borrowed stable, then made a refugee, then later disbelieved, betrayed, mocked, tortured, and crucified. The darkness that bred such unwelcome of the Son of God still persists—violence, ignorance. Referencing the Genesis 1 creation narrative as well as the journey of the magi, the poem ends with an invocation for God’s light to manifest once again, leading us to Christ.
Source: Thalia Redivina: The Pass-Times and Diversions of a Countrey-Muse (London: Robert Pawlet, 1678). Public Domain.
7. [little tree] by E. E. Cummings: One of E. E. Cummings’s earliest published poems (it came out in the January 1920 issue of The Dial), “little tree” was intended to appear as one of five “chansons innocentes” in Cummings’s first book of verse, Tulips and Chimneys, but his editor, Thomas Seltzer, cut it (along with sixty-five others!). In it a young child consoles a recently felled evergreen tree—enlisted for the holiday festivities—with promises of glory and love. Though it runs the danger of being read as twee, Cummings remained fond of the poem and even had it printed and sent it as his family Christmas card in 1960, two years before he died.
8. “Messiah (Christmas Portions)”by Mark Doty: The speaker of this poem is unexpectedly transported by a local community choir performance of Handel’s Messiah. He marvels at how these ordinary, flawed neighbors of his can produce such beauty with their collective voices. The last line is probably a reference to the accompagnato and air sung by the bass toward the end of the oratorio, taken from 1 Corinthians 15:51–54—about how we will all be changed in a moment at the last trump, and the corruptible will put on incorruption.
9. “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen: The anonymous scribes and illuminators of the Book of Kells spent countless hours copying and beautifying God’s word amid Viking raids. In this ekphrastic poem, Jean Janzen reflects on the Gospel-book’s five whimsically painted folios of Luke’s genealogy of Christ, commenting on the continual inbreaking of God into our world and the “wild safety” of God’s love.
10.“Confession”by Leila Chatti: The Tunisian American poet Leila Chatti was raised by a Muslim father and a Roman Catholic mother, and both religious traditions have shaped her faith and her writing. Islam and Christianity hold many sacred figures in common, including Mary (Maryam), whose conception and delivery of Jesus (Isa) are narrated in the Quran 19:16–34. Chatti confesses to being more compelled by the Islamic characterization of Mary as grunting and sweating in the pangs of labor (in contrast to Catholic teaching, which says her birthing experience was effortless, her contractions painless, though the Bible itself doesn’t specify). Chatti finds comfort in picturing Mary not as someone exempt from the effects of the fall and set apart on a pedestal of supreme virtue, but as one who suffered the same physical and emotional toll as other childbearing women—and who probably did have the occasional selfish thought, which, in moments of intensity and vulnerability, she deigned to vocalize!
11. “Two Carols”by Evelyn Underhill: An English Anglo-Catholic writer and mystic, Evelyn Underhill meditates in this double poem on how Christ set foot on the long, hard road we travel to be a balm for our wounds and those of the earth. The epigraph to part 1 is from the Latin Vulgate of Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth.” What follows are several Catholic titles for Mary: rose without thorn, queen, generatrix. The epigraph to part 2 is a quotation of Romans 8:22: “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” The refrain, Dominus tecum!, translates to “The Lord is with you!,” words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary and, by virtue of the Incarnation, to all humanity. The other Latin phrases translate to “He who is in the heavens,” “A King is born,” and “Let the kingdom come!” Adveniat regnum!
Source: Immanence: A Book of Verses (London: J. M. Dent, 1912). Public Domain.
12. “The Christmas Babe”by Fr. John Banister Tabb: Written by a Catholic priest from Virginia, this simple quatrain marvels at the paradox of God’s simultaneous largeness and smallness.
Source: Poems (London: John Lane, 1894). Public Domain.
13.“Snowflakes” by Jennifer Grotz: When the world is viewed through a sacramental lens, we recognize God in commonplace wonders like falling snow, and such things can be a sort of wordless prayer that we offer back to God through our enjoyment of them.
14. [The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman]by Emily Dickinson: In these two compact stanzas, Dickinson reflects on how kind Jesus was (an understatement!) to have made the far journey to Bethlehem, “a rugged billion Miles” from heaven, especially in the cold month of December, all “for little Fellowmen.” She refers to him as “docile”—obedient, submissive—harking to Philippians 2, to his bowing to the eternal will of the Father, submitting to human limitations, suffering, and death for the life of the world.
15.[Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest](Holy Sonnet No. 15) by John Donne: A self-address to the soul, this poem by the English poet-priest John Donne, first published in 1633, two years after this death, celebrates the Triune God’s salvific workings: we’re adopted by the Father, redeemed by the Son, indwelt and regenerated by the Spirit. The closing couplet, referencing the imago Dei, packs a wallop: “’Twas much, that man was made like God before, / But, that God should be made like man, much more.”
Source: Poems (London: M.F. [Miles Fletcher], 1633). Public Domain.
16. “The Little Towns of Bethlehem”by John Terpstra: All over Canada, Christ is being reborn this Christmas, in the sense that the Story has taken root, is retold, and continues to have impact. The speaker imagines the Christ child “wrapped in cast-off flannel” in a boxcar stopped on the tracks in Esther, Alberta, or feeding at his mother’s breast in a broken-down car on the shoulder of a road in Englehart, Ontario—actual sights that one might encounter today. Localizing the Story can help us to see it afresh, and to see the sacred humanity of families experiencing homelessness or other hardships.
17. “Song of the Shepherds” by Richard Bauckham: Richard Bauckham, FRSE, FBA, is best known as a biblical scholar—he’s one of today’s tops, in fact—but he also writes poetry! (I featured one of his poems last year.) In this poem, the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides recall an ancient tale about the stars singing at the creation of the universe, which they thought merely a poetic embellishment, until they experienced something of the like for themselves: “a song of solar glory” eclipsing the lesser lights and exorcising the dark, creating the world anew. Unforgettable.
18. “Those Magi”by Kathleen O’Toole: What exactly were the magi seeking? What compelled them to leave their treasure behind in that cattle shed? Whence their strength to defy Herod? Besides musing on these questions, the poem also contains a passing metaphor that I found striking and new: cow breath as incense.
19. “Carol of the Brown King”by Langston Hughes: Tradition names one of the wise men who visited the Christ child “Balthazar” and says he’s from Africa. Langston Hughes, a preeminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance, exults that there was “one dark like me—part of His Nativity.” This poem is included in Hughes’s musical play Black Nativity and is one of six Nativity poems by Hughes that make up a children’s book illustrated by Ashley Bryan.
20. “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993”by Jane Kenyon: I couldn’t find the particular church mosaic program that Kenyon is writing about, but here’s my interpretation. Set inside a Serbian Orthodox church during the Bosnian War, this poem imagines a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator hovering in the dome, lamenting the violence that goes on beneath. Under the gaze of the I AM is another mosaic, portraying Jesus’s birth, but also, in a way, Mary’s, as she herself is being reborn in Christ, her mind increasingly shaped in accordance to his. Nativity icons often show Mary framed by a red blanket that she’s reclining on at the mouth of a cave, which Kenyon reads as embryonic.
21. “Breath” by Luci Shaw: This poem reflects on the contraction of the infinite God who breathed the universe into existence into a finite human being needing oxygen, who, as is foreshadowed at his birth, will finally ex-pire (“breathe out” his last) on a cross before entering his “next dark cave,” a prelude to resurrection.
22.“Mary’s Vision”from medieval Ireland: Mary foresees the future suffering of her infant son and dialogues with him about it in this poem translated from Middle Irish by Eleanor Hull (the same woman who, through her translation and versification, gave us the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”!).
Source: The Poem-Book of the Gael (London: Chatto & Windus, 1912). Public Domain.
23.“Joseph at the Nativity”by Tania Runyan: Staring at the “shriveled pod” that Mary just birthed, Joseph grapples with his complicated feelings—doubt, embarrassment, jealousy, helplessness, confusion, pride—and with figuring out what role he should play in the life of this child going forward.
24.“Waiting in Line After Christmas”by Sharron Singleton: (Scroll down to fourth poem) Rather than exchanges of refunded money for unwanted items, Singleton ponders what a mutually life-giving exchange of intangibles might look like.
25. “Burning the Old Year”by Naomi Shihab Nye: Through the act of forgetting, we must destroy the worthless trivialities of the year, and we must let that which is solid, that which matters—the “stones”—be revealed and remain.
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.
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!
Last month when I was driving home to Maryland from Connecticut, I decided to stop for an hour or two at the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey. I wanted to see a monumental Nativity painting in their collection by Joseph Stella. It didn’t end up being on display, but I did find many other compelling works. Chief among them was the acrollage painting Christ of the Christians by Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) artist Rodríguez Calero, a variation on the Crucifixion that portrays the violence of the cross in the abstract.
Made with acrylic paint, rice paper, imaged paper, colored glazes, and gold leaf, the work is heavily layered. Its focal point is the direct gaze of a young Black man, his head framed by a shaded gray box and haloed in gold. His face is cut off just above the mouth. The Word is muted.
This figure fragment is at the top terminal of a rough-edged cruciform that is rendered in a harsh tar-black embedded with deep splotches of red. Body merges with cross—blood, wood, and flesh.
The whole background is covered in pinks and reds. The color pools and splatters and permeates, representing the pouring out of life.
Standing upright alongside the cross are three stenciled palm branches, alluding to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem just five days earlier. Palm branches were a symbol of triumph in ancient Judaism, hence their being waved to greet the Christ, the “Anointed One,” at the city gate. (Jesus’s followers anticipated a political victory over Rome, little knowing that God had other plans.) In Christian iconography palm branches are associated with martyrdom; in portraits and heavenscapes they are held by saints who met an early end because of their spiritual convictions, just like their Lord.
Their presence in this scene can be read on the one hand as an indictment of human fickleness (lauding Jesus as savior one day, crucifying him the next) and on the other as an assertion of triumph through the unlikely means of death on a cross.
The work can also be read through the lens of Black suffering and liberation. The late Christian theologian James Cone writes about such themes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a landmark book published in 2013, anticipating the Black Lives Matter movement. Cone explains how powerful a symbol the cross has historically been to Black American communities who face racial terror, violence, and oppression. They see in the Crucifixion, in addition to its spiritual implications, a demonstration of God’s solidarity with the oppressed, and hope on the other side. “I’m with you in your suffering,” says the God who hangs on a tree at the behest of a mob, “and death will not have the final word.”
Cone describes the thousands of lynchings of Black men, women, and children in the US as “recrucifixions”—the killing of sons and daughters of God. Two decades earlier, Jamaican American artist Renee Cox made the same connection in her photographic collage It Shall Be Named, just one in a line of artistic works to do so, going as far back as the Harlem Renaissance. Calero’s Christ of the Christians contributes to this tradition.
The gaze of the Christ in her piece is arresting. It confronts. It asserts the sacred humanity of its wearer, despite attempts to blot it out.
However, the artist tells me that for her, Christ of the Christians is about sacrifice, not violence, racial or otherwise. The man in the painting is the “people’s Messiah,” she says, “the anointed Savior to humankind who was sent to save all from the pain, darkness, and injustices that we see on a regular basis.” The cross is “willful humility, the culmination of prophecy, and the fulfillment of promises,” and the crown is heavenly reward. The trinity of branches represents hope.
One of the features that most struck me about this piece is its raised and varied textures, a hallmark all across the artist’s larger body of work. Calero coined the term “acrollage” to describe her mixed-media technique in which she uses an acrylic emulsifier to transfer collaged images (from found elements or her own photographs) onto painted canvas, adding further embellishments with gold leaf, stenciled patterns, and rice paper. This technique of layering materials, producing veils, suggests a theme of hiddenness and revelation.
Rodríguez Calero, or RoCa for short, was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1959 and moved to Brooklyn when she was a year old. She returned to Puerto Rico after high school to study at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, under master artist Lorenzo Homar, who specialized in printmaking. Then she returned to New York for additional training in painting and collage under artist Leo Manso. She currently resides in New York and New Jersey.
Calero’s work merges Catholic iconography and hip-hop culture, drawing her personal community into the visual lexicon of the sacred. Raised Catholic, she was influenced from an early age by religious imagery at church and school. She brings this influence to bear in her artistic work while also integrating and reflecting the multiracial, multiethnic, urban environment she grew up in. “My inspiration really comes from just being in the neighborhood . . . the people walking the streets,” she says.
Alejandro Anreus, art historian and curator of the major 2015 exhibition Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter-Day Santos at El Museo del Barrio in New York, describes the Nuyorican art aesthetic that was just getting off the ground while Calero studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1976 to 1982:
Starting before 1970—crystalizing possibly with the foundation of the Taller Boricua in New York City—and emerging and developing throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, a specific aesthetic that can be defined as Nuyorican came into being. The aesthetic of New York Puerto Rican art was a diverse fusion of abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction, surrealism and social realism, as well as assemblage and constructions incorporating cultural and ethnic icons. The ethnic and cultural icons reflected several thematic preoccupations, which included Taino and Afro-Hispano imagery, depictions of barrio life, a popular, even populist Catholicism, and the belief that everyone, particularly the poor and marginalized of the neighborhoods, has dignity and inner worth regardless of social status. [exhibition catalog, p. 23]
The Christian doctrine of the imago Dei—that all human beings bear God’s image—is a central theme in Calero’s work. In His Image even adopts this theological language from the book of Genesis in its title, reminding us that God created each and every person with intrinsic and objective value, a reflection of his own divine self.
The piece shows a Black man dressed in a coat and beanie looking pensive and forlorn, his eyes downcast. Rectilinear pieces of teal-blue handmade paper form a cross behind him, and the outline of a manhole cover labeled “PUBLIC SERVICE” is superimposed over his face, doubling as a halo. In Christian art the halo signifies the light of Christ shining around and through a person, and Calero often adopts that device to underscore the sacred humanity of her subjects.
But the cross-hatching of this round form across the man’s face gives the impression of prison bars. Is he headed to prison, or is that destination merely what others, those with shallow or skewed vision, see when they look at him? Maybe he feels imprisoned by his circumstances. Or perhaps he is experiencing some kind of mental captivity. Whatever the nature of the confinement, those bars need to be broken. God wants every human being to be free and flourishing.
The youth in El Hijo de Dios also shines forth God’s image. He looks straight out at the viewer from under his red Karl Kani sweatshirt hood, with a softness and a self-awareness that evoke empathy. A gilded pattern of crosses in diamonds cuts across the middle third of the acrollage, and a dot-rimmed semicircle, a halo fragment, seems to embrace the boy. The delicacy of this intervention over the thick, heavy folds of the cotton sportswear creates an intriguing mix.
To the boy’s right is a collaged face of a male in profile that looks like it could have been taken out of a Picasso painting. He could be an extension of the primary figure, his face set on a path. Or he could be someone who is at cross-purposes with him, as they are oriented at a ninety-degree angle from each other.
Translated “The Son of God,” the title of this acrollage could refer to Jesus Christ, who bears this title in a special sense, as the only begotten of God the Father. The man does seem to embody the vulnerability and determination that characterize Christ in his passion. Alternatively, it could refer to a child of God more generally, as the Spanish hijo is not necessarily male-specific. The particular and the universal are both at play here. We are all God’s children (Acts 17:28–29), equally and eternally beloved.
God’s love reaches especially into places of darkness, even though we don’t always feel it. In Cruz de Loisaida, our eyes are drawn to a monochrome found image of a hand injecting heroin into an arm. This fragment forms part of an abstracted cross, that archetypal symbol of deep suffering. The title, which translates to “Cross of Loisaida,” references a Lower East Side neighborhood with a strong Puerto Rican heritage. The piece laments the pain and anguish of drug addiction and, the artist says, the burdens forced on the Puerto Rican community by the government (“we are the sacrificial lambs”). Red pigment spills forth from the arm, evoking blood.
Another acrollage that alludes to Christ’s passion is Crowned with Thorns, which is dominated by a large orange halo filled with linear and organic designs and cut out narrowly to reveal the face of a Black man. This headpiece is not obviously a crown of suffering; instead, it seems to convey an unironic air of royalty. It contains palm branches and irradiating gold lines that branch out like the veins of a leaf. And it smolders like fire. Could this be I AM speaking from the burning bush? The lush floral patterns, the Voice abloom?
By virtue of its historical associations, the title connects the man to Christ. With his hands he touches his Sacred Heart.
One piece that appropriates unmistakable imagery of Christ is The Chosen: it contains a fragment of a Dutch Renaissance painting in the National Gallery of Christ crowned with thorns. Calero has cropped a detail of the gnarly crown piercing (a Caucasian) Christ’s forehead and collaged it with the face of a Latino man and the locs of a third (presumably a Black man). Her multiracial Jesus is nimbed twice over and emerges as if from a behind gold curtain, his brown eyes holding our gaze. He is surrounded by black-ink prints of flowers and crosses and flanked, as in Christ of the Christians, by golden palm branches. Droplets of red paint are splattered about his face and torso, one resting prominently on his upper right cheek like a tear.
Like Jesus, the Virgin Mary, his mother, is a major religious figure in Puerto Rican culture, and Calero references her in several of her artworks. Ángel y Maria depicts the moment of Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son (Luke 1:26–38).
It’s a stunning image, bringing new life to a subject that has been painted hundreds of thousands of times over the course of history, starting with the ancient Roman catacombs. In Calero’s take, Mary is portrayed as a beautiful young woman of African descent who sits in profile, contemplating the gravity of what has just been asked of her. She holds a bouquet of flowers to her chest—perhaps she was in the midst of picking or arranging them when Gabriel arrived.
Gabriel stands in formality, cognizant of the weight of his message, patiently awaiting a response. His body is rendered in a wash of colors that blend into one another, producing an ethereal look.
Mary’s lips are parted, speaking her yes.
“The theme is love,” Calero told me. “The flowers are a representation of the blessing already inside.”
In the gospel story, this supernatural encounter results in a miraculous pregnancy, pictured in Calero’s La Madonna Negra (The Black Madonna). The image is of the Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Parturition) type—that is, the pregnant Mary. We don’t often see Mary’s bare belly in all its pregnant glory, but here we are given a glimpse and reminded of the bodiliness of the Incarnation. We can even see the linea nigra extending across her bellybutton!
Calero’s Afro-Latina Madonna has two sets of arms. With one, she cradles her third-trimester baby bump and clenches the veil near her face, and the other she extends outward in a gesture of giving, offering the fruit of her womb for the life of the world (notice the printed impression of a fetus in her upper left hand). I love how these multiple gestures capture the conflicting instincts she must have felt—on the one hand, to keep the child to herself, to protect him from harm, and on the other, knowing her ministry is to support his, to share him with everyone. I see both Mary’s fear and her surrender in this image; her very human “What if I’m not ready for this?” and her “Welcome; come, receive.”
There’s also a hybridity in Virgen María, which shows a woman whose face is an amalgam of “every woman,” says the artist. Strong and confident, this Mary takes up space. Streaks of red paint cut across her torso like cords—but she spreads her arms, breaking what binds her. The bottom half of the canvas consists of blues and reds, Mary’s traditional colors, while the top half is gold, signifying the light of God.
“Mary, for me, has always been pictured as passive, and dressed in blue,” Calero told me. “Think about God in heaven, searching the world for the perfect woman to bear his Son. Now, in that state of mind, I thought Mary was chosen for her beauty, strength, compassion, intellect, and sexiness, and must represent all women, hence my Virgen María.”
Just as Calero often composites people of different races and ethnicities, she also occasionally mixes genders, as in Divine Prophet.
This prophet’s face is made up of three collaged elements. A male with long hair and closely cropped facial hair forms the base, but the two eyes, underlined in blue shadow, are clearly a woman’s. And a mystical third eye is patched onto the forehead.
In Eastern spirituality, the third eye, also called the inner eye, provides perception beyond ordinary sight. The prophet, for example, sees visions of a reality that is presently invisible but that will one day be made manifest. The third eye symbolizes a state of enlightenment.
The prophet in this piece could be Jesus, or an Old Testament seer, or a prophet from another faith tradition. If the former, it’s interesting to consider how male and female are both contained in the Godhead, per Genesis 1:27. Although the second person of the Trinity incarnated as a male, there’s a long tradition of ascribing feminine attributes to Christ, from Clement to Ephrem to Anselm to Marguerite d’Oingt to Julian of Norwich. Christ is our Mother, they say, who labors to bring us to birth and feeds us at his breast. Moreover, the biblical book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman, and that woman is associated with Christ.
Centuries of European religious art and its mass-produced derivatives have harnessed the popular imagination to a narrow view of what the sacred looks like. Because of this conditioning through images, most people all over the world, not just in the West, conceive of Jesus, Mary, and the saints—those due honor—as white. Calero challenges that conception, not erasing whites but broadening the tent of sacred imagery to encompass people of color as well.
Most of her “saints” are not historical. They’re ordinary folks from New York’s barrios, or from other US cities—and from today. With their strong frontal poses, direct gazes, and haloes, they reflect the dignified, divine image–bearing status of those whom traditional Christian iconography has tended to exclude.
“Her saints—santos—are latter day and among us, her martyrs are our contemporaries,” says Alejandro Anreus. “They all live and struggle in an urban world filled with tension, even violence, as well as humor, yet open to epiphanies, where miracles can happen.” And, he continues, “her representations of Jesus Christ become all of us, as if reflecting the variety of humanity redeemed by Christ.”
(Regarding Anreus’s crucial last point: I articulated some of my thoughts on the matter a few years ago in this Instagram post.)
Black and brown bodies are beautiful and good, bearing the imprint of God their Creator. Rodríguez Calero helps us see and celebrate that. Bringing her cultural heritage to the fore, she cuts and combines, mixes and matches, contemplates, plays, and intuits, constructing affirming figure-based images of flesh and spirit that, while borrowing Christian visual tropes, are not tethered to Christianity but rather can live and move beyond an orthodox framework.
UKRAINIAN MADONNAS: Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and even still continues to aggress, artists have taken up their art to address the war—several drawing on iconography of the Madonna and Child, particularly the Maria lactans (breastfeeding Mary) type. Two Ukrainian artists were inspired by different news photos of young mothers protecting their infants from the shelling in Kyiv in March—one of whom was photographed in a hospital being treated for wounds she sustained from fallen glass while shielding her daughter with her body, and the other hiding from the blasts in a subway station.
These images show the vulnerability of Christ, who is with us in our suffering, and indict those who cause such suffering.
In his response to the war in Ukraine, Serbian artist Michael Galovic, who lives in Australia, also uses Christian iconography: the Theotokos Kyriotissa (Mother of God enthroned with Christ); Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Kyiv, fighting a dragon (Rev. 12:7–8) in an ethereal rendering of a scene from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a fifteenth-century French book of hours; and a hellmouth from the twelfth-century Winchester Psalter. These three medieval images are superimposed on Picasso’s masterwork Guernica, named after the Spanish town bombed by Nazis in 1937 and representative of the horrors of war.
Whereas Frirean’s and Solomennykova’s paintings are more intimate, Galovic takes a more cosmic approach, showing wails of lament from abstracted forms intercut with epic battles between good and evil—but at the calm center, Christ is on the throne, holding the scroll of his good word. History is going somewhere. Hate will be damned. Love will triumph.
>> “Galoba (The Prayer),” performed by Trio Mandili: A sung performance of a poem written in 1858 by the Georgian poet and statesman Ilia Chavchavadze (1837–1907). An English translation follows.
Our Father, who art in heaven, With tenderness I stand before thee on my knees. I ask for neither wealth nor glory; I won’t debase my holy prayer with such matters. I desire instead for my soul to be enlightened by heaven, My heart to be radiant with thy love. Even if my enemies pierce me in the heart, I beg thee: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!” Even if my enemies pierce me in the heart, I beg thee: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!” [source, adapt.]
>> “Peace All Over the World” by Robert Bradley: Written and performed by Detroit musician Robert Bradley, this song originally appeared on the film Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Music (2005). To celebrate their twentieth anniversary, Playing for Change [previously] has remastered it and added new footage from Ukraine.
>> “Du som gick före oss” (You Who Went Before Us) |Words by Olov Hartman, 1968 | Music by Sven-Erik Bäck, 1959 | Performed by VOCES8, 2022: The melody uses all twelve semitones of the octave! I’ve provided a literal English translation of the Swedish below with the help of Google Translate; for a looser but more poetic translation by Fred Kaan, from 1976, see here. Note: The video identifies the song parenthetically as Psalm 74, not because it’s a setting of Psalm 74 from the Bible, but because it is no. 74 in Den svenska Psalmboken, the official hymnal of the Church of Sweden.
Du som gick före oss
längst in i ångesten,
hjälp oss att finna dig,
Herre, i mörkret.
Du som bar all vår skuld
in i förlåtelsen,
du är vårt hjärtas fred,
Jesus, för evigt.
Du som med livets bröd
går genom tid och rum,
giv oss för varje dag,
Kristus, det brödet.
Du som går före oss
ut i en trasig värld,
sänd oss med fred och bröd,
Herre, i världen.
You who went before us
in the depths of anxiety,
help us to find you,
Lord, in the dark.
You who bore all our guilt
you are the peace of our hearts,
You who are the living bread
offered abundantly through all the earth,
give us each day,
dear Christ, that bread.
You who go before us
out into a broken world,
send us out likewise, Lord,
with peace and bread.